I’m distracting myself from the current COVID mess and the associated anxiety it’s causing me by writing another review of a recently completed K-drama.
Hotel Del Luna kept coming up in my Netflix recommendations, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended it that I decided to start watching. One thing that continues to impress me about K-dramas is the way they’re able to mix genres almost seamlessly, and this one somehow manages to have a bit of everything. The main story arc revolves around a girl named Jang Man Wol who, I think (with my very poor knowledge of Korean history) was born during the North-South states/later Three Kingdoms period when China’s influence on the country was a lot stronger. In the opening scenes, we see her leading a horse and cart bearing a coffin-like box through the wilderness, fending off bandits that dare to attack her. She says she’s looking for the “Guest House of the Moon”—an inn for ghosts before they pass on to the afterlife—and it’s hinted that she’s done some things in her past that she’s not proud of. She meets an old woman called Mago who isn’t quite who she seems, and when Mago points her in the direction of the guest house, she finds herself bound to an ancient tree and in the role of the new proprieter of the Guest House of the Moon.
Fast forward almost 1300 years. The Guest House of the Moon is now called Hotel Del Luna, and it can’t be seen by ordinary mortals. A little boy named Goo Chan Seong lives with his father, a single dad who’s down on his luck and who strives to make ends meet by engaging in shady activities. It’s Chan Seong’s birthday and his dad wants to get him something nice. But Chan Seong, knowing his father’s situation, just tells him to get him flowers because he likes flowers. “You can even pick flowers for free,” he says. The father bears that in mind. But later that evening, he tries to steal something and ends up on the run, and then somehow ends up at Hotel Del Luna, where he decides to hide out until the coast is clear. While exploring the amazing hotel (which has its own private beach plus a fancy rooftop bar with a spectacular view of Seoul), he stumbles into the garden, finds Man Wol’s tree and plucks some of its flowers. In a Beauty and the Beast-type occurrence, Man Wol appears at that moment and says she will have to kill him. Falling to his knees, the father begs her to spare his life because of his son, Chan Seong. Man Wol agrees—on the condition that he give her Chan Seong. But not now; later, when he’s older. Faced with little choice, the father agrees, and Man Wol, wanting to make sure her investment turns out well, transfers money into the father’s bank account to pay for Chan Seong’s needs.
Fast forward another 20 years. Chan Seong, who has been studying and living in America, returns to Korea with a degree in hospitality and an MBA from Harvard. He was warned by his father to stay out of Korea for 20 years, and now that that period is over, he’s back and keen to work for one of Seoul’s most prestigious hotel chains. But on his birthday, as with previous birthdays, he receives flowers from Man Wol—this time, with a card congratulating him on his employment with Hotel Del Luna. Chan Seong isn’t happy about this as he’s already obtained a job elsewhere. But Man Wol shows up to persuade him. When he continues to refuse her, she gives him the gift of being able to see ghosts—a gift which, unlike flowers, he is unable to give back. And then over time, Chan Seong finds himself starting to care very much for the prickly Man Wol.
Unlike most of the K-dramas I’ve watched in the past, this one operates more like procedural drama: there’s the overarching series arc (Man Wol’s story: gradually we learn more and more about what happened to her); there are smaller stories contained within each episode that involve various ghosts—some of whom become guests at the hotel; and there are slightly longer storylines that span multiple episodes that involve secondary members of the cast—like the three primary employees of Hotel Del Luna, a teenage girl named Yu Na (who has her own complicated story), and Chan Seong’s housemates and college friends. The series contains elements of mystery/crime, horror (because, you know, dead people. Also, I think The Ring is referenced at one point), fairy tale, fantasy and, of course, romance.
Ji Eun Lee (also known, in the K-pop industry, as IU) is fantastic as Man Wol, bringing out the various nuances of her character—particularly in the flash back scenes where she’s playing a much younger and more vulnerable version of Man Wol. I’m not sure if the spiky, difficult female lead is a trope in K-dramas (I haven’t watched enough of them), but aspects of her character reminded me very strongly of Go Moon Young in It’s Okay Not to be Okay. (Her wardrobe is also just as fantastic.) In contrast, Yeo Jin Gu is super sweet as the soft-hearted Goo Chan Seong, and I will never tire of watching leading men being nice to their leading ladies, even when said leading lady is being a total bitch. I also liked that Chan Seong’s character is not afraid to be vulnerable (from my limited viewing, it seems more normal for the male characters Asian dramas to cry on screen; I can’t recall that many scenes in western dramas where that happens)—and he even embraces situations that have the potential to hurt him simply because it’s the right thing to do. Together, they are arguably among the best-looking couples on screen.
The minor characters were also delightful. Their role was often to provide comic relief, but I liked that each of them had very weighty character arcs that caused them grapple with the big themes of the drama. (I just wish the bartender’s—Kim Seon Bi—had been foreshadowed and drawn out a little better; it pretty much gets crammed in at the end and it didn’t make as much sense as some of the others.) Indeed, one of the things I really liked about Hotel Del Luna was watching characters having to confront the anger, resentment and grudges they’d been holding onto for so long (for centuries, for some) and learning to let them go—and then in letting go, finding peace. That’s not a topic I’ve seen tackled very often on television.
All of this was made all the more poignant because of the shadow of death, which stretches long over the entire series. The worldview of Hotel Del Luna is one of reincarnation—to something better if you have lived a worthy life, or something worse if you have not—and reincarnation is something of a plot point involving some of the secondary characters. But even though reincarnation is this world’s reality and death is not really the end, the characters still struggle with the awfulness and finality of death, and have trouble letting go of life, even if they have not truly lived in hundreds of years. There were points where I empathised so strongly with them, I found myself in tears.
Even though the ending hints at a second series (and there’s a definite link to It’s Okay Not to be Okay that I won’t spoil), nothing has been confirmed. If there was a second season, it would be interesting to see the writers take the stories in new directions. But so much terrain has been covered in this one, it’s hard for me to see where they would go with it. Still, I think I’d still watch it—if only for the lead actor.
The thing with K-dramas is you have to count the cost before you start: episodes are usually around 60 minutes long, but can also extend to 70 or even (as in the case of the finale of Crash Landing on You) 84 minutes. A 10 or even a 12-episode K-drama is pretty manageable—if there aren’t too many sentimental flashback montages; a 16-episode K-drama can really drag.
The King’s Affection is a whopping TWENTY episodes. Which had me worried. But I am pleased to report that, apart from a few overly sentimental flashback montages set to verrrrry slow K-pop ballads by Lyn and Baek Z Young (ballads being my least favourite musical genre in K-pop), The King’s Affection does not disappoint.
The story is set during the Joseon era: boy/girl twins are born into the royal family, and because it’s considered shameful for a king to have shared a womb with a girl, the royal order is given for the girl to be executed, with Jung Seok-jo, Royal Chief Investigator and right-hand man of the twins’ scheming grandfather on standby, ready to do the deed.
But somehow the twins’ mother saves the girl (Dam-i) and sends her far far away. Then the royal college of midwives is slaughtered to cover up the fact that twins were born at all.
12 years later, Dam-i comes to the capital to serve as a maid in the palace. Because she looks just like the Crown Prince (her brother), she is brought to his attention. The Crown Prince’s beloved tutor has been arrested for treason, and desperate to find out what has happened to him, the prince makes Dam-i swap clothes with him so he can sneak out of the palace and investigate.
Around this time, Dam-i also meets Jung Ji-woon, son of Jung Seok-jo, the Royal Chief Investigator. After she saves Ji-woon from drowning in a pond in the palace grounds, the two become close and start spending time together, and a shy romance begins to blossom between them.
Unfortunately Jung Seok-jo gets wind of the news that the girl twin did not die that night 12 years ago and starts to suspect Dam-i. During one of the instances when the Crown Prince swaps clothes with her, Jung Seok-jo pursues who he thinks is Dam-i and ends up killing the wrong twin. (Trigger warning for those who can’t watch violence against kids: there are a couple of instances of this in the first episode.)
Because of the fact that everyone who had a part in sparing Dam-i’s life when she was a baby would be executed if the truth were ever to come out, Dam-i is forced to step into her brother’s shoes and live her brother’s life as a man, even though she is a woman—and even though she still has feelings for Jung Ji-woon, who ends up coming back into her life years later.
I liked Park Eun-bin (who plays Dam-i) a lot: she does an amazing job in that role, bringing out all the nuances of what it would have been like to be a woman in that era pretending to be a man—and a prince at that. Sometimes I get annoyed with the girls-cross-dressing-as-men trope in Asian dramas, because not all girls can pull it off. (See, for example, Handsome Siblings, where the twin who calls himself “the smartest man in the world” utterly fails to recognise that Tie Xinlan is obviously a woman.) Ni Ni in Rise of the Phoenixes is the most successful, in my humble opinion. Park Eun-bin is still a little too pretty to pass (or maybe the make-up artist gives her a little too much lipstick). But she does well in both her body language and her speech, and I like that the role gives her a lot of freedom not afforded to the other female characters, even as her character is still something of a prisoner. Also, she does a good job of balancing the dramatic moments with the more comedic ones.
I also really liked Rowoon (Jung Ji-woon): he’s given far more to do here than in Extraordinary You, where he functions more as eye candy. (That was a 16-episode K-drama which I also enjoyed, but which really suffered under the weight of far too many sentimental flashback montages, and also could have done with some trimming to make it 12 episodes, not 16.) Also, Rowoon is adorably funny.
I know nothing about attitudes to homosexuality in the Joseon era, but in the world of this K-drama, it seems to have been frowned upon in broader society. So it seemed a little weird to me that Jung Ji-woon experiences little to no conflict within himself about his feelings for the Crown Prince/Dam-i. Indeed, there were elements of the story that made me wonder if the scriptwriters were playing with BL (Boy Love) tropes.
But if they were, that was overshadowed by the main plot concerning Dam-i, the throne, palace politics and her identity as a woman. I liked that, aside from the sentimental flashback montages, the scripts sustained the dramatic tension right up until the very end, making it hard to see how everything could ever come out right in the end. There isn’t a lot of room for the minor characters to have arcs, but the ones who did had some very satisfying ones. (I really liked Kim Ga-on’s, who becomes Dam-i’s body guard.)
You might think that almost 1,400 minutes on one K-drama is not worth it, and I can understand where you’re coming from. But this one I do highly recommend.
(NB: I tried to post a quick review to Instagram a couple of weeks ago, but it exceeded the character limit, so I will post it here.)
Oh man, I seem to be reading all the sad and painful middle grade comics at the moment!
A recent read: The Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee: 12-year-old Lora Xi is right on that cusp between childhood and adulthood. She still loves to play pretend and make up stories, but she feels like her friends are moving on without her—getting older and turning their attention to more “adult” concerns, like makeup and boys, memes and politics. Lora doesn’t feel ready, so when her close friend Bobby remains out of contact for a while, around the time of Halloween, Lora amuses herself by having a séance tea party and trying to communicate with ghosts.
But then an actual ghost turns up—a ghost named Alexa who is just as lonely as Lora. The two pledge to be BFFs forever, with Alexa showing herself to be a true best friend in helping Lora through some of the parts about growing up that scare her most.
The thing is, helping Lora has stirred up things for Alexa. She can’t remember her past, but over time, it all starts coming back to her …
This book started off a little shakily with a bunch of silent pages: they’re beautiful (and indeed the whole book is in an art style that I quite love—all colour and little to no outlines), but I find it difficult when it’s not always clear who the characters are, what their main relationships are and what’s going on. For a good chunk of the beginning, I thought Lora was a lot older than she is—that she was a high school or possibly a college student.
Once the story hits its stride, however, it’s a poignant depiction of adolescence and the grief tweens can feel over not fitting in, growing up, changing and losing the person they once were. There are some wonderful scenes in the story that I loved—for example, Lora connecting with some older girls and discovering that some of her weird interests align with theirs, or Bobby engaging in some self-reflection on how he’d treated Lora. I liked the ending—particularly what one character says about adulthood—and the final scene seemed like a very fitting conclusion to Lora’s arc.
One thing that surprised me, especially given that Yee is from Kuala Lumpur and now lives in Melbourne, is that the story seems very American: Lora is in junior high (I think) and her school holds a prom. Having read a number of middle grade books recently with that sort of setting, it made me wonder if that’s what the market is demanding. It also made me wonder if non-American middle grade books will fare in that market just as well. The concerns are a little different as, say, the Australian education system is only divided into primary school, high school and university, as opposed to elementary, middle and high school. But hopefully there’s an audience for that sort of thing …?
I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks and part of me feels like I still can’t. It’s not that I don’t have any material; I have stacks of material. It’s that I don’t know what to do with it. I think it might also be part cowardice as well. And fear, which goes with that cowardice: I feel like if I commit these thoughts to publication, they’ll become more real, and that scares me because I’m not entirely sure that this is what I actually think.
But I feel like it’s time I addressed what I am calling the “culture pile”—that is, the big mess of culture stuff in my life that continues to affect me on a day-to-day basis—stuff that, most of the time, I resist examining too closely because I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know how I feel about it. The thing is, I need to: at the last meeting of my writing group, we workshopped part of my novel and the main bit of feedback I received is that they wanted more of what my protagonist was thinking and feeling about the things that were happening to him/around him. It made me realise that I hadn’t put much of that in because it would mean confronting what I felt/thought about similar things that happened to me. What did I think about those things? How did I feel about them? How did I deal with the experience of being made to feel like I don’t belong—that I’m always on the fringe? And as I thought about these things, I realised my answer is, “I just don’t know.” And maybe, “I don’t want to know.”
To find the answer means digging into the culture pile and I am so not keen to do that. I’m not keen because it’s going to be uncomfortable and difficult and even mildly stressful. There’s a reason why I normally leave it alone. Nevertheless, I think I need to—for the sake of my novel. Perhaps even for the sake of myself.
So strap in. This is going to be another long one, because I am incapable of writing short posts—particularly posts about this sort of thing. And spoiler warning: it’s not going to end well.
Where are you from?
Like most people of colour, this question has dogged me my whole life and it’s annoying because the real answer is complicated. Usually the person who’s asking is usually looking for something in particular, so they ignore the parts of my answer that aren’t relevant to them. They want to know my ethnic/racial heritage, not my cultural heritage, whereas to me, my ethnic/racial heritage is the least interesting part.
In recent years, however, I’ve come to take an almost perverse delight in confounding strangers with what I’ve come to tentatively embrace as my triple cultural heritage. It’s almost a form of revenge: I want them to feel the uncomfortableness I feel, so I no longer make it easy for them. Also, I don’t see why I should. On paper, my name sounds Western: my first name is Scandinavian in origin and my last name is German. If you met me in person, the first thing you’d notice is that I look Asian—black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. But my external appearance isn’t enough of one kind of Asianness to make it obvious what sort of Asian I am: I’m curvier and heavier, and, dare I say, slightly taller than most Asian women, and my nose is different. (Tangent: I remember seeing a weight loss ad while travelling on a bus in Hong Kong and realising I looked like the “before” ad. Not long after, I tried to buy jeans at Uniqlo HK—only to discover that none of them were big enough to fit me. It made me glad that I hadn’t grown up there; perhaps I would have developed an eating disorder.)
This is why I get the “Where are you from?” question most often from other Asians trying to work it out. (Someone—someone who wasn’t Asian, by the way—also once thought I was an indigenous Canadian—perhaps because of my nose and because this person heard that I was born in Canada, which confused them.) Furthermore, I can’t speak any of the Asian languages, and when I do speak, I speak in a mongrel of an accent that’s part Australian and part North American. People ask me to repeat myself all the time because I sound weird to them and I sometimes use terms that are slightly unfamiliar. (I make a point of refusing to pronounce “tomato” the Australian way, for example, [unless it’s with my kids as I didn’t want to confuse them] and for the longest time, I said “washroom” instead of “toilet” or “loo”, and “sidewalk” instead of “footpath”.)
So what am I? Where am I from? I’m going to try and answer that question now. In my own way.
I am Chinese …
Firstly, ethnically and racially, I’m Chinese through and through. My ancestors came from southern China where it’s hot and humid for most of the year. I think this is why I struggle so much when it’s cold and yet don’t mind the scorching Australian summers as much. My father can trace his family line back to the sixth century AD. My mother knows less about her forebears, but they seem to have come from the same general area. Both my parents were born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents. The only ethnically dubious thing is this very vague reference to one of my father’s ancestors marrying a “princess” from “across the sea”—a woman we know nothing about, and the only reason why we know about her at all is because it’s written in the genealogy on the wall of the temple of my father’s family ancestral village. (I haven’t been there since 2002, but it should be noted that it’s less a village now and more a sprawling metropolis of several million people.)
…. but I am not very Chinese
The thing is, apart from my looks, I am not very Chinese at all. I don’t speak my ancestors’ language—Cantonese. Neither do I speak Mandarin. I know bits and pieces of Cantonese—how to say “Happy Chinese New Year” and a few random words and phrases. But I can’t speak it. I can’t read it (aside from a character or two). Language is a window into culture (as I’ve been learning while progressing through Japanese on Duo Lingo), and me not being in possession of the language is A Very Significant Thing. Well, at least to Asians.
Why did I never learn? My parents didn’t really speak it around me consistently. My mother said that it was easier to just talk to us in English instead of Chinese. My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was young, but when we moved to Australia, there were no Chinese schools—that we knew of, anyway; this was the mid-80s. There was a half-hearted attempt by my father to have me and my brother tutored one time when we visited Hong Kong during the summer and were staying with my grandmother. But my parents didn’t persist with it. So I didn’t persist with it.
Furthermore, the way I was treated by my Chinese relatives and by other Chinese people for not having the language pretty much killed my desire to learn. When we would make those trips to Hong Kong, I was constantly asked, “Why can’t you speak Chinese?”—as if it was my fault and as if genetics should determine linguistics (which is sometimes the attitude of some people I meet, even though it’s illogical). I got so sick of it that, in my childhood pettiness, I resolved never to learn. (Victoria Ying’s comic “Growing up, I felt rejected by the language I was “supposed” to know, so I rejected it back” encapsulates similar feelings.) I realise in hindsight it was the perfectionist part of me getting angry and choosing to rebel. I was a child when these things happened, so I reacted as a child, not as an adult.
Now as an adult, I have found myself learning Chinese very indirectly through Japanese, because Japan borrowed the Chinese writing system (the kanji), so even though the words don’t sound the same, the meaning usually is (sort of). This means that I can recognise certain characters now—numbers, certain nouns and so on. I did start the Duo Lingo Mandarin course once, but found it difficult and stopped. Cantonese is probably more useful to my life, but there is no Duo Lingo Cantonese course (too difficult, perhaps?), and even if there was, I wonder if my emotional baggage around all this would prevent me from giving it a go. I don’t know. The nice thing about Duo Lingo is that, even though it’s not proper and serious language learning, you can do it in private and not have people laugh at you for stuffing up. Which is another thing I am overly sensitive about. (I identify with some of the people interviewed in this NPR Rough Translation episode “How to speak bad English” who feel awkward about speaking English because they don’t speak it “well”. But for me, it’s speaking all languages other than English.)
I am also not very Chinese culturally. Well, I am and I’m not. It should be noted that I have never lived in and I did not grown up in an Asian culture; my upbringing has taken place solely in Western nations. And yet there are things that resonate with me about being Asian. When Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came out, I found the media coverage about it absolutely fascinating. For example, this tweet by main actor Simu Liu (who is Chinese Canadian, by the way):
“86% on RottenTomatoes? What happened to the other 14?”
It made me laugh, and I sort of identified with it, even though I didn’t have Tiger parents who pushed me and who made me feel not good enough. On the contrary, my parents never put that kind of academic pressure on me. But then I suppose they didn’t have to: my grades were always good and I was a model student. I always conformed to the Asian academic ideal—often without even trying. I showed respect and obedience to my elders (parents, relatives, teachers, anyone older than me), even if I didn’t feel it. I took on my parents’ work ethic, which they led by example; I didn’t need it drummed into me. If I wasn’t good at something, I always tried. If I didn’t know how to do something, I would find out. If I didn’t know something, I would figure out where to learn. I don’t know if that way of operating independently was because of them or because of my education or because I’ve always been quite self-motivated. I suppose it’s all those things.
Growing up, my family ate Chinese food and celebrated Chinese holidays (mostly Chinese New Year; less so the August Moon Festival). We’d go to yum cha and dinner in Chinese restaurants where we ate real Chinese food (not your Australianised fried rice/honey chicken/beef in black bean sauce variety), where my father would always know the boss, where we’d get seated at the best tables, and where he’d order for everyone without consulting anyone, but always including our favourite dishes. My father would take us to Hong Kong regularly to visit his mother and other relatives. (My mum never came with us; she was usually working.) We would stay at my grandmother’s place, and my dad and grandma would buy us toys to play with—the kind you couldn’t get in Australia (usually Hello Kitty stuff for me, but some other toys too; hey, I was raised on the concept of kawaii, which seeped into Chinese culture from Japan, and I don’t have a problem with adults liking stuffed toys). We spent a lot of time watching Hong Kong TV (anime-type shows that I couldn’t understand; there were no subtitles), eating out in places where I couldn’t read the menu, and visiting relatives who would often be critical—not just of my lack of language, but also other things in the way relatives do—making comments about my appearance (most of which, fortunately, I didn’t understand. But I do remember once an elderly relative telling me I shouldn’t tie my hair up in a ponytail because I was young and unmarried as only older and married women wore their hair up; girls of my age should wear it down).
The things I struggled with were more to do with traditions and values I didn’t understand or didn’t share. Filial loyalty and the importance of family (which I think only hit home when I watched The Legend of White Snake on Netflix and reached the scene where Xu Xian’s family refuse to let him marry Bai Suzhen because they know nothing about her and her family.) The importance of making lots of money and being wealthy—and therefore pursuing a good career. (Wanting to be a writer and studying Creative Arts did not go down so well with my extended family, though my immediate family were mostly supportive.) Who to marry, and whether he was well off enough to support me. (I married a white guy and it was A Big Deal, though I didn’t know that until later.) Who gives gifts/red packets to whom. (I’m still confused about that and it’s become more of an issue now that I’ve got nieces and nephews.) The endless number of obscure Chinese superstitions that I find ridiculous and refused to let rule my life—for example, it’s bad luck to give someone a clock as a gift (because the word sounds like death???), but watches are fine; the numbers four and nine are a problem; you eat black hairy fungus at Chinese New Year because the name for it sounds like the word for prosperity and riches; the fights I got into when I got married because we had set the wedding date too close to Chinese New Year, which was unlucky and inauspicious, plus I got in trouble for wanting to print my wedding invitations in blue and white. (This is why the wedding banquet scene in The Farewell doesn’t seem right to me; the characters would never have decorated the room in blue and white.) Also, being Christian (though my parents never opposed that outright and more or less respected my beliefs—perhaps because they were nominal about that sort of thing themselves).
There are Asian things (like Simu Liu’s tweet) that I recognise and identify with, and yet there are many things I don’t. I present as Chinese, but I’m not really Chinese. And to compound things, sometimes Chinese people don’t think of me as Chinese either—because I don’t speak the language, because I never lived in Asia and because I’m married to a white guy. (Tangent: I can understand where the writer of this Salon.com article “K-dramas cured my prejudice against Asian men” is coming from because, like her, I didn’t grow up in a culture that viewed Asian men as being desirable. My [very short] romantic history has only ever been with white men. But then I also wasn’t around very many Asian men.)
If I’m not Chinese to Chinese people and I’m Chinese to everyone else, what am I? (Cue College Humor video: “Are you Asian enough?”):
All this further complicated by my feelings about the so-called “Motherland”: China. China feels like a behemoth to me: it contains such a long, rich and complex history of different peoples and cultures that it has tried to subjugate and unify through things like its writing system, Confucianism, Buddhism, education, government policy, and persecution of anyone who is different. (An over-simplification, perhaps? Still, surely it’s fair to say that China is way less multicultural than other parts of the world.) I saw some of the footage of protests in Hong Kong against Chinese interference in government elections, and the response of the authorities, and I could understand where the protestors were coming from. I read about the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese government, and then Chinese people I know tell me it’s not true and that I’m being brainwashed by Western media. I’m all too aware that being Christian in China is problematic. (Recently, Apple took down a Bible app and a Quran app in the Chinese app store at the request of their government.) So how can I call myself Chinese when there is so much I am uncomfortable about with regards to China?
I am Australian …
The second part of my triple cultural heritage is that I am Australian. I wasn’t born here, but I hold Australian citizenship and I have the right to vote in Australia’s elections. I have spent the majority of my life living in Australia: I’ve been here from the age of six. My education has been thoroughly Australian—primary school (all except Kindergarten), high school, university, and even theological study. I was taught Australian history, Australian government and Australian spelling. We learned the national anthem by singing it over and over again in at assemblies. I danced the Nutbush, along with all my other school mates. I learned to dodge swooping magpies in the spring, and my friends served fairy bread, meat pies and sausage rolls at their birthday parties. We observed Australia Day by watching the fireworks, and I had to adjust to celebrating my birthday in winter and Christmas in summer.
In many ways, I am what they call a “banana”—yellow/Asian on the outside; white on the inside. My education was very Western: I grew up reading European fairy tales, as well as Shakespeare, Austen and the other giants of English literature. All the history I learned was very Western/English/European-centric. It did not to occur to me, as I was learning art history in Year 12, that the curriculum was only focused on one part of the world. I imbibed Western values such as freedom, the rights of individuals (over the collective), the equality of all human beings, the importance of self-expression and self-actualisation, and multiculturalism.
It’s not that Australia is free of racism. It most definitely is not; it’s in deep denial about the fact that its history has always been multicultural. But when you live in a place like Sydney whose inhabitants include people from all over the world (which hasn’t always been the case, I know; a lot changed between when my family arrived here in the mid-80s to now), you learn to co-exist peacefully. You benefit from the rich array of cultures you brush up against. I had friends in high school and university who were Australian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indian, Afghan, American, and so on. When difference is all around you, you get used to living with it.
… but I am not very Australian
That said, I’m not very Australian. I grew up here, but I didn’t have the typical Australian upbringing that many of my Aussie friends had. I don’t recognise some of the things in Bluey that resonate with them. There are overlaps, of course—things I talked about in the previous section. But there were also differences: my friends didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. They didn’t have the large sprawling extended family that I had, with too many uncles, aunts and cousins to name or count. They didn’t get their toys and stationery from Hong Kong—Hello Kitty toys, double-sided coloured pencils and pencil cases with pop-up compartments—the kind that didn’t emerge until Smiggle started making them about twenty years later.
Furthermore, when I first arrived in Australia, Asians were a very small minority. I stood out like a sore thumb. For the longest time, there was only one other Asian kid in my entire primary school, and the other kids would make jokes about how we should pair out and go out because we were both Asian. That changed in late primary school—particularly around the time of the handover of Hong Kong in 1987 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when many of Hong Kong’s residents decided to emigrate to Australia. By the time I reached Year 5, the number of Asian girls in my class had quadrupled, with the four of us having alphabetically consecutive (English) names: Jennifer, Karen, Loretta and Michelle.
Even so, by that stage, I was still very different from them. Too different, perhaps. Not only did I not speak Chinese, I had lived here for 4-5 years longer than they had. I was effectively more “Australian” than they were, but I wasn’t as Australian as the Australians around me.
And to some Australians, I was not Australian at all. As I said, Australia is largely multicultural, but it has a long history of racism that it has never come to terms with. Remember, the White Australia Policy of 1901 was largely enacted in response to Asians coming to this country during the gold rush. Asians fought for Australia in World War II and were treated abominably by the government and not allowed to stay. There are Asian families who can trace their lineage back generations and who have known nothing but Australia their entire lives. Yet they will still encounter people who say to them, “Go back to your own country!” (You can read some of their stories in Growing Up Asian in Australia, which I have started, but not yet finished.)
It’s hard to feel like you’re Australian when other people don’t treat you like you are. I remember a couple of women knocking our front door about something (they might have been Jehovah’s Witnesses) and asking me if I spoke English. I remember a boy whizzing past on his skateboard who, when he caught sight of me, started to kowtow mockingly. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of Australians and feeling mystified when they all picked up the dishes and passed them to each other to serve themselves food, instead of reaching out and grab the way my relatives did. I remember how the way the waiters at the local Chinese restaurant we frequented acted one way when my father was around and another way when it was me and my Australian friends. All these things reminded me how different I am.
I am Canadian …
Prong three: I am Canadian. I was born in Canada (in summer). I hold Canadian citizenship. I attended primary school and two years of kindergarten in a Canadian school that taught me French as well as English. I remember tobogganning and making snow angels in the winter; the slush and the flowers blooming in the spring; the hot glorious summers when the sun wouldn’t set until 9pm; the maple leaves falling into large piles you couldn’t resist kicking about and going trick-or-treating in the fall. I remember going to childcare and pulling the ribbon out of a cassette tape, and not being able to sleep during nap time. I remember going to the wrong classroom on the first day of school because Kindergarten 2 had a play kitchen, which looked WAY more fun, and when they’d realised they’d lost me, someone came to bring me back. I remember refusing to wear ski pants in the winter because I hated them and would only permit leg warmers. I remember eating lunches in a cafeteria, though I think we still had to bring our own. I remember going to after school care, being served celery with peanut butter (I ate the peanut butter and left the celery), and getting freaked out by an animated short about a giant cake that came to life and ran around the countryside, eating people.
I remember being surrounded by kids of other races—including Chinese kids—and race never being an issue among us. That said, I also remember growing up reading the children’s version of Obasan by Joy Kogawa and not quite understanding about the internment of the Japanese during World War II, as well as another book about a girl from one of the indigenous peoples of Canada learning to perform one of the dances of her tribe. I also remember going to Chinese class with some of those kids after school. (I remember nothing about actual Chinese class.) I remember going to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a white family and their kid eating more of the food than I did. (I would only eat white rice.)
My Canadianness is harder to define. It comes out in my mongrel accent, though a couple of years ago, a Canadian couple at church told me they couldn’t hear it, which made me sad. (Recently when I went for a medical appointment, the specialist asked me about it, so obviously he could hear it and that made me happy again. Though I’ve noticed in recent years that I have actually become better at sounding Australian, depending on who I’m talking to.) It comes out in bits of terminology that I haven’t been able to jettison—“washroom”, “sidewalk”, “to-MATE-to”. I see it in my confusion over the gender segregation of certain spaces—like the Moore College dining room, where girls would only sit with girls and guys would only sit with guys (though if Ben and I sat down at a table together, it would fill up with married couples, which was just as weird). Being good friends with someone of the opposite sex is not done so much in Australia, or at least it wasn’t when I was growing up. (Or maybe it was because I went to an all-girls high school.) Those friendships between girls and boys you see on the silver screen in American cinema aren’t so much a thing here, I think. I also see my Canadianness in my refusal imitate the Australians in cutting down the Tall Poppies (arguably one of the worst parts of Australian culture): Canadians, like most North Americans, I think, are a lot more encouraging and supportive of others. In Australia, if you talk about talk about your achievements, people think you’re boasting.
… but I am not very Canadian
It’s been over 30 years since I lived in Canada and enjoyed white Christmases. It’s been at least 16 years since I was last there and no doubt, a lot’s changed. For one thing, a number of people we used to know there have died. Obviously the country in which I was born is no longer the same, and my memories of it are of a particular time and place. While I still sound a bit Canadian, my mongrel accent also marks me as Australian, so I can hardly blame other Canadians for thinking I don’t quite belong. There is nothing about my appearance that marks me as a Canadian, and yet I am one. And the only way I can prove it to you is with my birth certificate and my passport.
The year I was a student at theological college, I remember taking a subject on cross-cultural communication with Mike Raiter, who had been a missionary in Pakistan. He talked about this thing he called culture stress—the discomfort and strain you feel when you have to adjust to a new way of living in a new culture. He told us a story about coming back on home assignment and having a minor meltdown when a cashier innocently asked him if he wanted to pay by EFTPOS—a technology he was not familiar with, having lived in a place where it was unavailable for the past three years.
You’re probably familiar with this feeling by now, because you, like the rest of the world, have actually experienced it in recent years: Simon Gilham, Head of Mission at Moore College, pointed out most helpfully on the CCL podcast that during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, we were all experiencing culture stress:
[B]efore I went to be a missionary in Africa—so we were eight years in Namibia—before we went, we spent six months doing cross-cultural mission training. And during that training, we learnt a heap of things. But one of the big things we learnt was about adjusting to a new culture and the idea of culture shock. And you get culture shock because you’re in a world in a place that is so different to what you’re used to. And that difference is exhausting and it’s off-putting, and I used to know where everything was and now I don’t know where things are, and I used to know how to shop, and now I’m not sure how … and—and there are different languages and different greetings and different ways of communicating … and every single one of us is now living that experience.
So we’ve all entered a new culture, but with no training! And I think one of the things I’d like to say to everybody is if you’re feeling exhausted by this, yep: that’s about normal. You’ve got to expect that this is exhausting. There’s a whole lot of grief tied up in it. So I’m grieving the things that I used to know how to do, but now I don’t know how to do. I mean, even just think of going to the shops: I used to be able to go there anytime and I’d be able to pick up exactly the brand of thing that I wanted and pay my money and get back in the car, and it was—it was a simple thing. And now it’s not. And I used to be able to go out whenever I wanted—to meet up with people whenever I—and I can’t. So there’s a whole lot of grief. People have planned weddings—have planned big parties—there’s anniversaries—graduations. Cancelled. And all of those things bring grief and that grief with my new incompetence is exhausting.
When I first heard about that idea of culture stress, it really resonated me and made me realise that with my triple-barrelled cultural heritage, I feel like that All. The. Time. After so many years, it’s now more low-level, and most of the time when these things aren’t in competition with each other, it’s not a problem and I don’t think about it. But every now and then, it does take a mental and emotional toll. I constantly feel like I’m on the outside, even when I’m on the outside—that I don’t belong, even though everyone’s being very welcoming and no one is doing anything hurtful or racist or exclusionary.
I realised the difference the first time I went to SMASH!, the Sydney manga and anime show. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of anime; there are movies and shows I like, but there are also masses of movies and shows I’ve never seen, and if you talk to me about Naruto or One Piece or Attack on Titan, I would be lost as I actually don’t know anything about them, aside from their titles. Even so, at SMASH!, I felt curiously at home—arguably the most at home in a public place I’ve ever felt in my whole life. It was partly because the demographics of con-goers was very multicultural and strongly skewed towards the Asians. It was partly because I was surrounded by the trappings of Asian culture I was familiar with, even if many of them were mostly Japanese—anime pop culture, maid cafés, karaoke, kawaii culture, craft tables for making origami and other little things. But also, it was also being able to be there in a very Asian space without anyone expecting me to speak in any language other than English.
Another example: when Crazy Rich Asians came out, I remember feeling excited and keen to see it, despite not having read the book at the time. Then I asked my father and stepmother when we were out at yum cha if they had heard of it and would go to see it, and being slightly discouraged by their lukewarm response. Then I realised why it mattered more to me than it did to them: they live in China and Hong Kong and see representations of themselves in mainstream media all the time, whereas I live in Australia where the only Asian on TV when I was growing up was Lee Lin Chin, a newsreader for SBS. When Neighbours introduced an Asian cast member in the early 2000s, I was shocked at how much I had never thought about it before, and when So You Think You Can Dance? Australia aired for the first time in 2008, I was bowled over because it was the first time I had ever seen the multiculturalism of Australia on full display on Australian TV. (It’s interesting that Simu Liu says something similar about Asian representation in media, growing up in Canada.) The night I went to see Crazy Rich Asians at the cinema with two Asian Australian friends in the middle of the city was amazing and reminded me of being at SMASH! The cinema was packed—again, a multicultural audience, but strongly skewed towards Asians—and even though we didn’t know anyone else in the theatre, I still felt like we shared an understanding, laughing at and identifying with the same (or similar) things in the movie.
In contrast, I went to see The Farewell with one of those friends in a small indie theatre in Newtown in a theatre full of white people, and he and I laughed at things that everyone else didn’t laugh at (and they wondered, perhaps, why we were laughing), and I nudged my friend to point out the incongruity of the colours during the wedding banquet scene while the rest of the audience didn’t batt and eyelid.
It’s a shock, you see, for me to be somewhere and actually feel comfortable. I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling mildly uncomfortable—feeling that I don’t quite fit in, that I don’t quite belong, that I don’t quite match with the culture around me. There are certain friends in whose company this is not the case. But as for the rest of the time …
I am Christian
Of course in all the above, I’ve neglected one key thing in the cultural pile—the thing that is the true locus of my identity, which lies not in my race, but in my religion. I am a Christian, and Christianity brings with it its own pieces of culture that overlap with all the others. It’s not completely Western or Eastern, and it’s not completely Chinese or Australian or Canadian. But there are aspects of it that dovetail with aspects of those. It’s just that we tend not to realise what those are until we hear from missionaries.
For example, a missionary family in Africa that we partner with at my church talked recently about how looking to and respecting elders and teachers is a big part of African culture. This means that questioning them is a sign of disrespect, and the students at the Bible college where these missionaries were serving would never ever do it. However, our missionary friends were trying to teach these students how to read the Bible for themselves, encouraging them to ask questions of the text and then work out the answers together. They didn’t want to tell the students what the Bible was saying; they wanted the students, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discover that for themselves using the tools of good Bible reading skills that they were teaching them. Furthermore, they wanted to normalise a culture in which it’s okay to say you don’t know something. The Bible is a large and complex book, and not even the most expert of experts knows everything about it. But in African culture, it’s unheard of for those in authority to say they don’t know something because it’s a sign of weakness.
I could go on. I could go on about Christianity’s egalitarian attitude towards humanity—that we’re equal in sin and equal in redemption (Rom 3:23-24); how racism is completely inappropriate because all nations were created by God under God (Gal 3:28; Acts 17:24-27); how gathering with other Christians is important (Heb 10:24); how singing is an essential part of worship (Col 3:16); how Bible reading and prayer are the non-negotiable activities of all Christians (2 Tim 3:16; 1 Thess 5:17; James 5:13-16)—and so on, but I fear I have tested your patience with the length of this post for long enough. Let’s finish up.
Where are you really from?
I am pulling out all these examples and thoughts, and presenting them to you for your sampling pleasure. But to return to the questions from the beginning of my post, how do I feel about all this?
And I still don’t know.
Well, I know some things. I’m angry about the times when I was intentionally excluded. I’m tired of trying to make myself be understood. I’m constantly stressed, trying to navigate spaces and cultures where I still don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable. I’m exhausted with the effort of doing all that, and I’m resigned to the fact that things will, for the most part, continue to be this way.
That said, I’m overjoyed when I discover places and spaces where I feel like I fit. I love that I can talk about these things with certain people who are actually interested and who don’t mind my tentative explorations of culture and language and identity. I’m starting to embrace some of the benefits of being a child of three different nations/nationalities/cultures. I’m still learning to sit comfortably in my difference.
Is that a satisfactory answer? Does that help me with my novel? Hmm, good question.
The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.
Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.
I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.
Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.
Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)
Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.
If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.
The more I use social media, the more I’ve realised there’s social media and there’s social media.
Social media has gotten to the point where it is almost ubiquitous and inescapable. I use the main ones—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (not TikTok)—as well as lesser known/more niche ones, like Ravelry (for all things knitting-related), Letterboxd (for all things movie-related), Clubhouse (mostly so I can listen to comic creators chatting about stuff) and Pinterest. There are ones that are less social and more interest-driven (like Ravelry, but also YouTube and arguably Duo Lingo, Apple Music and Spotify), and there are ones that are more like a private messaging service (like WhatsApp and Slack).
My favourite of the bunch is still Twitter, even after 13 years of being on the platform. I love that through it, I can keep a finger on the pulse of both the comics industry and the publishing industry. I can connect with comic people, writers, editors, publishing houses, Christians and friends. I can tweet and retweet whatever I like, and sometimes the things I tweet/retweet are appreciated by others—even by people I don’t even know.
I should qualify my love of Twitter, though: I love Twitter on Tweetbot, as the way the current algorithm works makes the actual Twitter website the dumpster fire everyone complains about. Viewing Twitter on Tweetbot removes much of the angst: there are no ads/sponsored posts, no Favourites from other people, no algorithm trying to control what you see, and no recommendations of people Twitter thinks you ought to follow. (Which is just ridiculous; why keep adding to your follows? No one could possibly keep up.) On Tweetbot, your feed in reverse chronological order and not much else. (That said, Tweetbot isn’t perfect: unfortunately polls don’t work and threads sometimes break, but if you really care about those, you can always view the tweets in a browser.) I read Twitter every day multiple times a day, and unlike most Twitter users, I read my entire feed (pretty much). But I do read it in actual chronological order—from bottom to top—so it’s not doomscrolling, it’s intentional. And when I reach the top and am up-to-date, I stop, because that’s a natural end point. I don’t need to read anymore.
I really wish there was something like Tweetbot for my least favourite social media network: Facebook. (I like calling it “BookFace” because I am petty.) Like I said, there’s social media and there’s social media, and Facebook is the worst of the lot. It’s large and unwieldy. It’s stuffed full of ads. It’s driven by infuriating algorithms that keep showing me stuff I don’t care about, despite my efforts to train it otherwise (and now that they’ve abolished the feed for Friends Lists, I can’t even do that). And it doesn’t always connect me with the things I care about.
Nevertheless, I can’t really excise Facebook from my life. Facebook connects me with a whole bunch of people who aren’t on my other social networks—family, friends, but also people in Facebook Groups. (The two I enjoy the most are the Sydney Comics Guild and the Australian Speculative Fiction Group.) People use Facebook to message me about various things. Also, I have to use Facebook for work as part of my job involves social media marketing.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Facebook. Lately, I’ve been trying to work out what it is I dislike about it, and it’s not what people normally dislike about Facebook. I’m not addicted to it and it’s not a time suck for me; because I don’t enjoy it, my engagement with the platform is cursory, and whenever I find myself doom scrolling on Facebook, I tend to wake up and switch over to Twitter on Tweetbot. I know people post all sorts of trash on there, but I tend not to see it, or if I do, I ignore it; that’s their problem and I don’t need to engage with them. Facebook as a company is pretty awful: check out this eye-opening investigative podcast series by The Wall Street Journal for a behind-the-scenes look at how Facebook plays favourites, fails to restrict and moderate disturbing content, facilitates human trafficking, contributes to the body image issues of teen girls (through Instagram, which Facebook owns), and stokes outrage in the name of engagement. Its track record does make me feel uncomfortable about using it and contributing to its ad dollar revenue. But (unfortunately?) it’s not enough to make me break with it.
No, I think my main problem with the platform is the ways in which I’m forced to relate to people while on it.
Consider, firstly, their algorithm, which works using a formula the company calls Meaningful Social Interactions (MSI):
Ryan Knutson: What exactly is MSI?
Keach Hagey: It is a number that measures how much a post is interacted with by people who you are close to. The interactions can be things like comments, likes, re-shares, emojis. And then there’s another mathematical part of it that’s measuring how close the people who are doing that are to you. So it both measures the interactions and the closeness of the people who are doing the interacting and that has an impact on the number.
Ryan Knutson: Facebook used the concept of MSI to create a scoring system. The more likes, comments and shares and the more those happened among people who were close to each other, the higher the MSI score.
Keach Hagey: And in the very beginning, the goal was just simply to get as much MSI as possible.
Ryan Knutson: If MSI is high, that means you’re not just a zombie passively scrolling and watching videos. You’re interacting, you’re engaged.
Keach Hagey: You are more likely to post something, to share a little tidbit about your life if you are more likely to get a comment or a like about it.
Ryan Knutson: There’s nothing more humiliating than sharing something on Facebook or Instagram and getting no response from anybody.
Keach Hagey: Exactly.
Ryan Knutson: The documents Keach reviewed actually break this MSI formula down. It provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the algorithm.
Keach Hagey: It’s actually a pretty simple formula. When they rolled it out, a like was worth one point. A reaction or reshare was worth five points. A significant comment was worth 30 points. And then they would add or subtract based on how close the people who were commenting or interacting were. So whether it was a group or a friend or a stranger.
Ryan Knutson: For example, an RSVP to an event was only significant if it was a yes, that would be worth 30 points. But if you RSVP’d maybe or no, it was only worth five points. Facebook would show these significant interactions to more people with the goal of spurring even more engagement.
“There’s nothing more humiliating than sharing something on Facebook or Instagram and getting no response from anybody”. This happens to me a lot: despite having 804 Facebook friends and 101 followers, I will post something and BookFace will respond with silence. No likes, no comments, no nothing. And then, because the post has failed to elicit a reaction—from the Friends closest to me and perhaps from those a little more distant from me—because it’s scored so low on their social metrics, BookFace buries it. And then no one sees it. (Unless they specifically visit my profile, but let’s not split hairs.)
The whole thing is daft because it relies on people’s engagement with me. I totally understand why those 804 BookFace Friends wouldn’t want to engage. Maybe the thing I posted wasn’t relevant or interesting or funny to them. (My sense of humour is a bit odd, and often most people don’t realise I’m making a joke online—perhaps because I’m usually so serious.) Maybe it was about something obscure—for example, sharing my excitement over the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop series on Netflix , which the majority of my BookFace Friends wouldn’t share. Maybe my BookFace friends were tired or in a hurry or scrolling quickly. The point is, they shouldn’t need to engage with me in order to make piece of content more view-worthy. I shouldn’t need their engagement, their likes, their comments, their whatever in order to be seen on the BookFace platform. I believe that God created humans to be relational beings, which means we’re hard-wired to connect with each other, and the positive side of that is that we can help one another, love one another and care for one another. But the negative side of that is that we can demand things of one another, manipulate one another, and care too much about what other people think of us. I don’t want to be like that on BookFace.
Two years ago, I wrote (on BookFace, of course), “Facebook often feels like a popularity contest I never asked to participate in”, and since then, not much has changed. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to be popular on BookFace. I don’t need thousands of likes and comments; I’d never keep up. I just don’t like being ignored. That’s the problem: BookFace makes me feel ignored. It makes me feel like that person at a party who says something and everyone else turns their back on them and pretends nothing happened. It makes me feel invisible—like I don’t exist. Or if I exist, I am barely tolerated.
Now, it’s really important to note that my BookFace friends are not deliberately doing this. They aren’t the kind of people who would shun me at the party for saying something stupid. In real life, they wouldn’t ignore me when I talked to them. And even if they don’t share my (admittedly odd) enthusiasms, they would still understand them and even tell me about things related to them that I might have missed. (Bless you, my good friends, who went out of their way to make sure I knew that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series is coming to Netflix!) It’s the BookFace algorithm that’s doing this.
And sure, I know I have psychological issues. (I mean, who doesn’t?) I know that I react more strongly to feeling ignored and abandoned because of stuff that’s happened to me in the past. Even so, let us acknowledge that the feeling of being ignored is not a nice one full stop, regardless of who you are.
In July of this year, fed up with the way the BookFace algorithm was handling my posts—particularly my public posts (which you’d think would reach a larger audience than my Friends-only ones), I finally caved and created a BookFace Page for myself. I don’t intend it to be a platform-building sort of thing; instead, I wanted somewhere where I could post stuff publicly and have people follow me as posting Public posts to my profile wasn’t working.
At the moment, only 79 people Like the Page and 84 people follow it, which is obviously not a large number, compared to the number of BookFace Friends I have. Even so, I am liking using it far more than my BookFace profile, because the BookFace Business portal lets you see exactly how many people have seen what:
The number of reactions and comments I get on those posts rarely exceeds single digits. But I don’t care because I can see at least I’m not being ignored.
Comparison, the thief of joy
Secondly, BookFace adds insult to injury by seeming to boost my BookFace Friends’ content. I don’t just mean in terms of engagement: from a cursory glance at my News Feed, it seems like my BookFace Friends’ posts attract a higher amount of likes and comments than mine, but I also know that News Feed manipulates what I see because it’s run by BookFace’s algorithm, and that there may be posts of theirs that remain buried like mine. If BookFace operated like Twitter on Tweetbot, I could get more of an idea of whether that’s actually the case.
That said, there have been a couple of instances where BookFace has buried my post and has not seemed to bury my BookFace Friends’ posts. In April of this year (and thankfully way before lockdown!), I went to see Hamilton at the Lyric Theatre with two friends. I took a lovely photo of us in front of one of the posters:
Then I posted it to both Instagram and BookFace. On Instagram, it garnered 15 likes. On Facebook, it garnered 9 reactions and zero comments and therefore (I presume) was buried. My friends also reposted it (with my permission!) to their Facebook profiles, where one got 25 reactions and the other, 62. (She paired it with her review of Hamilton, which probably helped.)
62 reactions! It’s essentially the same piece of content, but look at that difference. I’m lucky if my reactions ever tally beyond 20. Clearly, BookFace didn’t bury her post.
The thing is, I am not in competition with my friend. It’s nice she got 62 reactions! People obviously liked her review. (It was very good!) But it’s hard not to feel like we’re competing against each other when BookFace’s algorithm buries my post and boosts hers.
Thirdly, BookFace doesn’t actually serve me the content I’m actually interested in. In mid-August of this year, I was trying to think through the issue of Christians and medicine (and the related areas of God’s sovereignty and human civic responsibility vs individual freedom) because of a work email I received. I wanted to reply with something useful—something that outlined how Christians should view medicine and medical procedures, written for a popular audience. I asked my BookFace friends for recommendations and also popped the stuff I found useful that I had found through Googling in the comments to that post (which, by the way, only garnered three reactions).
The following day, I discovered that my brother-in-law—who BookFace knows is my brother-in-law (I am listed under his family members in the “About” section of his profile)—had posted the perfect article for my situation on his wall on the day I asked the question. But not only had BookFace failed to show him my post on the subject, BookFace had also failed to show his post to me.
Furthermore, the article in question was “The Suspicion of Science” by Lewis Jones on The Gospel Coalition (Australian edition) website. I’m actually BookFace friends with Lewis. The article went up on TGCA on 16 August (the day I posted my question) and he didn’t post about it until 17 August. Even so, BookFace didn’t show me his post either.
Which leads me to ask, is the BookFace algorithm broken? Isn’t it supposed to serve me the stuff I’m interested in? If it doesn’t, what is the point of it?
Hellooooo? I’m talking to you!
Fourthly and finally, BookFace does not notify the people I care about about my direct interactions with them. Here’s an example from yesterday: while on Twitter, I stumbled across this tweet by journalist Talia Shadwell
I posted it to Ben’s wall because I knew he’d find it amusing. (You know: Ben, my husband? Arguably the most important person in my life after Jesus Christ?) BookFace knows we’re married. BookFace failed to notify him.
(How do I know this? Because I noticed that Ben didn’t like the post and though that was weird, and so I straight up asked him today and he had no idea what I was talking about.)
The problem with algorithms
Looking over what I’ve just written, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been included in one of Facebook’s mood experiments (like the one they did for one week in January 2012). I know that makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Still, given the age we live in, it’s not that far-fetched.
Anyway, you can see why all of this has made me quite interested in algorithms. They affect so much of our lives now, I think it’s useful to understand how they work and how we’re being manipulated by them.
At this point, let me reproduce part of a post I put up on BookFace back in June (4 reactions/9 comments), which BookFace buried, because it’s relevant:
I was listening to this NPR Planet Money episode on recommendation engines/algorithms and it was fascinating. They interview Doug Terry, the guy who invented the domain name system for URLs and also, coincidentally, the system that would eventually become the “Like” button on Facebook.
But it started with email: basically Doug was frustrated that his inbox was cluttered with all sorts of things that weren’t necessarily important or relevant to his day-to-day job. So he created a system where you could rate emails that would then prioritise certain emails (e.g. ones from your boss) over others (e.g. spam or forwarded jokes [remember those?]). And then he got his colleagues to try it out. And then he realised that he didn’t have to rate all the emails himself, because his colleagues were rating the exact same emails; he could use their likes and dislikes to filter his inbox in a process that he called “collaborative filtering”. It cut the time they were spending on emails in half, which was a big win for all of them!
Fast forward about 16 years: Netflix was using technology similar to what Doug had invented in its own recommendation system. But it wasn’t improving. So they held a contest called the “Netflix Prize”—one million dollars to the team that could improve their recommendation engine by 10 per cent. And a man called Bob Bell and his team won it by building on Doug’s collaborative filtering technique. They did this by looking not just at explicit data points (e.g. what rating you had given something), but implicit ones (e.g. whether you had rated something at all). From there, they could work out, say, whether you had an interest in science fiction films or police sitcoms. And then they added other layers to the algorithm designed to try and reach other people’s interests.
Which was all very well until, in the wider field, research starting noticing how recommendation engines were affecting our decision-making and preferences. A researcher named Jing Jing Zhang started looking into this and found something interesting: she and her team took the top 100 songs from this Billboard chart and then manipulated the recommendations, which was based on a five-star system. They then told students that the ratings were tailored to their preferences. The students had to listen to the whole song and then were asked if they wanted to buy it. If so, they were then asked how much they’d pay for it. And they found that increasing the star rating on a song increased a student’s willingness to pay for it by between 7 and 17 per cent. Here is the most significant part of the entire episode:
Mary Childs (Planet Money host): The students offered significantly more money for higher-rated songs, even when those ratings were totally manipulated. Jing Jing tested this and retested this. And the results were clear. When a machine tells us that we’re going to like something, we trust the machine more than ourselves.
Kevin Roose (Planet Money host): And, like, look, recommendations aren’t all bad. Sometimes they’re great. They save us time. They help us avoid decision fatigue. Sometimes I just don’t want to, like, manually curate my own playlists of vibey electronic music. But here’s what I worry about. These recommendation systems are getting so good that if we aren’t vigilant, we’re just going to end up drifting toward whatever the machine tells us we like.
Mary Childs: This isn’t just a problem of human psychology. It’s also a computer science problem. Jing Jing says it becomes a feedback loop. Those little drifts add up.
Jing Jing Zhang: Over time, this will make the system less effective, less accurate and provide less diverse recommendations. Eventually, I know this longitudinal impact on the system will make the system provide similar items to everybody, like, regardless of personal test.
“If we aren’t vigilant, we’re just going to end up drifting toward whatever the machine tells us we like”: does anyone find this prediction as chilling as I do? Algorithms are affecting our tastes and preferences as much as we are teaching them about them.
A lot of our social media today is only positive sentiment oriented. There’s no dislike button on Facebook. There’s no dislike button, necessarily, on Twitter. And when you only capture positive sentiment, the danger is you have a blind spot to things that mildly annoy or disturb people. In real life, humans are very attuned to this. You know, if you’re with your friends or your family or your significant other, and you do something that bothers them, they might not actively come out and say, “Oh, you’re annoying me,” or something like that. But you pick up on their body language and you realize, you know, and you adjust based on that. That’s a really important feedback loop in just the social world generally.
What happens when we live in a world where we never come across anything that affects us negatively—anything that annoys or irritates us—anything we disagree with? What sort of people will we become? Furthermore, what will we do when we’re faced with that sort of content—or even people who believe in that sort of content? How will we treat them? How will they treat us?
There is social media and there is social media. Some of it is changing us. It’s hard to see because we’re currently swimming in this water. But we need to be aware of what it’s doing to us.
(Postscript: I’m currently dealing with my frustration with BookFace by not posting anything to my Profile wall. However, I haven’t completely given up reading BookFace or posting to my Page. That might not be the most mature response, but I’m interested to see what the platform does with that—and also how it affects my Page stats.)
Lately I’ve been finding it hard to blog. I plan posts in my head, but don’t ever get to putting them down. I have good intentions. I even clear time to do it. But when it comes to actually putting fingers to keyboard, I often feel like I run out of steam. Or I have nothing worthwhile to say.
So this blog lies here doing nothing when I want so much for it to say something.
I was contemplating this today while doing something I’ve meant to do for a while—which is transcribe the most helpful part of this episode from The Happiness Lab podcast about rejection: “Treating the pain of a broken heart” (Season 3, episode 2). It’s in the section where the host, Laurie Santos, interviews psychologist, speaker and author Guy Winch about practical things people can do to mitigate the pain of rejection:
Laurie Santos: … Guy [Winch] argues that we need to learn how to treat rejection pain right away—the same way we’d grab a first aid kit to put a bandaid on a cut.
Guy Winch: If you leave it up to our mind to make a decision about what’s the best way to heal an emotional wound, it will inadvertently send you down the wrong path. It will do the wrong thing, because it’s just trying to protect you from having that wound again. It’s not trying to heal it in an adaptive way.
LS: When I think of rejection first aid, I’ll be honest: I think of booze, frankly, and ice cream. It’s, like, what I think of—so is this kind of common?
GW: You didn’t invent booze and ice cream. In other words, that is the go to. But, yeah, we tend to numb the pain. That’s our basic response: let’s numb it with sugar; let’s numb it with alcohol. All very well. Doesn’t actually solve anything. You’ll wake up feeling both hungover or nauseous, and still in emotional pain the next day, so it’s not necessarily the most useful.
What would be useful is to counter some of the impacts by, first of all, exhibiting self-compassion—you know, like, we literally go and find ways to beat ourselves up when our self-esteem is at its lowest point. And so, instead of reviving our self-esteem and our confidence, we’re actually doing the opposite. It’s one of the most unfortunate tendencies we have, post-rejection.
LS: So that’s the first step of rejection first aid: stop making all those rejection wounds worse. Don’t kick yourself when you’re already down with all that negative self-talk. But a second step is to fight the urge to lick your wounds in solitude. Healing from rejection requires a dose of social connection.
GW: We’re tribal animals, and part of the rejection is about our need to belong—our need to feel affiliated with certain groups. It can be a church group. It can be our amateur softball league. It can be our clique of friends—our college roommates. But that group membership gives us, literally, this layer of protection—this shield—because we feel part of a group. We feel more protected. In a moment of rejection, you won’t. But then go and reach out to your group and reconnect and have a few chats with people in the group to remind yourself of your fact that you belong—that people appreciate you. And it’s an amazing tonic.
LS: But what if you can’t get that social support in person? What if you’re like [actor] Tim Colceri, stuck in a foreign country, away from your friends and family when you get fired or jilted? For situations like these, Guy recommends a practice he calls “social snacking”: just as we grab a snack when we hungry, but can’t eat a full meal, so too can we ease our social hunger with small reminders that we’re connected to others. Studies show that merely surrounding yourself with pictures and mementos of people you love can make the hurt of rejection subside a bit.
But the most important rejection first aid treatment, according to Guy, is a practice that actively helps you remember your own value. You need to recall that you’re still a good person, but not in the way that self-help books suggest. You don’t need to launch into a bunch of cheesy, positive affirmations.
GW: Like, “I’m beautiful and I’m going to find great love” kind of things, and they often don’t work, because in a moment of rejection, you actually don’t feel beautiful or very optimistic about finding great love. That will actually make you feel worse.
LS: Guy’s work has found that a better value boosting technique is to get really specific.
GW: Let’s say it’s the romantic domain. Your head is going to take you to all your shortcomings and deficiencies. What you need to do is balance them out. So make a list of every quality that you know you have. It’s got to be stuff you know you have, not stuff you would like to have. But things you know you have; it’s got to be real—that make you a good dating prospect: you’re emotionally available, you’re good with in-laws, you bake stupendous muffins, you give a back rub—whatever it is. Make the list long and exhaustive and varied. And then choose one of those things that’s actually meaningful, and write a couple of paragraphs about why that’s a meaningful thing in relationships, how you’ve exhibited it in the past, and how that’s been appreciated or how it might be appreciated in the future. Do one of those a day when you’re feeling rejected romantically.
If it’s about you got rejected from a job, do one about what makes you a good employee: you’re loyal, you’re reliable, you’re responsible, you’re timely, whatever it is. But do the things—you know, write out what you’re bringing to the table—what makes you valuable—to directly counter that tendency to do the opposite in your head.
LS: Guy has found that leaving our emotional wounds untreated without any rejection first aid can have long-term negative impacts on our psychological health.
GW: We do think differently. We become very, very risk-adverse. We withdraw. Our instinct isn’t to then go out and reconnect with the people who we can reconnect with; it’s to withdraw because we then become risk-adverse; we just don’t want to suffer anymore rejection.
I love the idea of having an emotional first aid kit—a go to list of tools to employ when you’re in pain that will actually do something about that pain. I love that part of that kit involves connection and community, which is a very Christian idea (see Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” [ESV]). But I also love that part of that kit involves self-care and pushing back against the negative self-talk with positivity. It sounds quite counter-intuitive, and I dare say that one of the ramifications of Tall Poppy Syndrome is that we Australians feel less incline to talk about our strengths because it sounds like bragging. But I can see how it would be helpful to remind ourselves—particularly when there is no one who will do it for us—of the things that we are actually good at and the positive effect that being good at that thing has had. Surely it will help us become more resilient.
I wrote in my now defunct newsletter once that I felt like I didn’t have much resiliency. Several years and a number of rejections on, I think that’s still the case. I feel like I’ve become more and more risk-adverse—not putting myself out there as much (and blogging is part of this. So is social media, I think; maybe I will blog about that sometime when I feel like I have the constitution to do so), withdrawing, being reluctant to suffer any more rejection.
A good friend asked me not long ago whether I had been through something that had delivered a significant blow to my confidence. I was about to answer “No”, but then remembered that I had: I had applied for a creative development program and had been unsuccessful. But the being unsuccessful part hadn’t been the part that stung: it was the letter of feedback I received. It was prefaced with “the judging panel have some feedback for you which we hope will be helpful”, but the feedback was written in what I found to be a most unhelpful manner. Reading back over it, I think it’s because it was one judge’s comments copied and pasted out of their report; it wasn’t actually feedback written to me as the direct recipient. This meant that the feedback came across as cold and brutal—the very opposite of helpful.
At the time, I posted on social media,
Another rejection with some rather savage feedback on my work. I look forward to the day when this hurts less, instead of leaving me feeling like I’m bleeding all over the floor.
And my community rallied around me, providing encouragement and messages of support.
I wallowed for a while. I reminded myself that the work this judge had critiqued had been shortlisted for a national award, and when it didn’t win, one of the judges for that award had said some nice things about it in private. I added it as another line in my rejection spreadsheet. And I tried to rally.
But I was still very affected by it.
I still am, I think.
I don’t quite know how to get out of this trench I’ve found myself in. I’m reluctant to leave it as I don’t fancy getting shot at again. But I know that if I want to write and put my work out there, I have to.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 …
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.
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.