Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book Review: SLUM ONLINE by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, published 2005, 2010 English Translation by Joseph Reeder, publisher: Haikasoru

Slum Online tells the story of Etsuro Sakagami, a college freshman who is obsessed with playing a beat'em up online MMO called Versus Town. Versus Town, as it is rendered in the game world, is this sort-of barren city where people log-in with their tough-guy avatars and beat the shit out of each other in stylized martial arts combat. It's like Grand Theft Auto, but no guns allowed, no crimes to be committed, or missions to carry out, just brawling. There's an arena where players go to win championships and have the official title of ultimate winner bestowed upon them. Etsuro's avatar is a karate ace named Tetsuo, and he's battling his way to the top.

But something strange is happening in Versus Town. A rogue avatar who comes to be called Ganker Jack is roaming the virtual streets taking on all comers. Ganker Jack doesn't fight in the official arena, but he's gaining unofficial rank as the toughest brawler in the game. His MO consists of challenging highly ranked fighters while wandering the virtual back alleys. No one knows who this guy is. Maybe he's some kind of AI. Tetsuo becomes obsessed with tracking him down, finding out who he is, and besting him in single combat.

In meatspace, Etsuro is a desultory student, but he catches the fancy of fellow freshman Fumiko, who is much more serious about her studies. The book alternates the virtual saga of Tetsuo's quest for ultimate championhood with Etsuro's somewhat listless dates with Fumiko in the gaudy, lonely Shinjuku district. Fumiko's obsession is cinema, an earlier, cruder form of virtual reality. Etsuro doesn't watch movies. Versus Town takes up all his memory capacity. It's a little mysterious why Fumiko is attracted to Etsuro. Maybe she sees this young man as a project. Or maybe she finds him non-threatening and this appeals to Fumiko, who's kind of a shy, bookish person. Etsuro and Fumiko's amusingly chaste real world relationship plays counterpoint to the virtual blood and thunder of Versus Town

Slum Online is an absorbing, clever, mellow read. The overall flavor of it is a mix of light comedy and existentialism. The comedy comes from Etsuro and Fumiko's humane, yet goofy, relationship, and the existential part comes from Etsuro's alter-ego Tetsuo as he grimly battles to prove himself in Versus Town. Along the way, Etsuro proves himself surprisingly insightful about his obsession. For example, in Versus Town some players go to great lengths to role play their avatars: typing text bubble speech "in character," engaging in virtual consumption of food and drink, affecting elaborate body language and costuming. Etsuro/Tetsuo finds this all rather risible. He's there to fight, to become the best, not get caught up in a Second Life-esque identity fugue.

Sakurazaka also pulls off something rather surprising: he makes the online brawling quite exciting and he quite clearly explicates the complex gaming mechanics of Versus Town's fighting styles and physics engine. This is important to understanding Etsuro/Tetsuo's existentialist obsession with mastering Versus Town. Etsuro/Tetsuo seemingly sees through the artifice of the role play aspects which ensnare other players, and keeps his focus on the control pad and the monitor.

Or is Etsuro becoming ensnared in another kind of illusion?

There are also some intriguing twists and turns to the story which are best left unrevealed. Slum Online is an engaging, fun, mellow, but occasionally intense foray into the head of a young man whose consciousness is divided between the real and the virtual.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Drug Gangsta
Deity in the Flesh
The Man With The Video Game Name
Puts All Evil Doers To Shame
Mines Atrocity to Increase His Fame

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Movie Review: ANTICHRIST (2009) Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier, Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg

A man and a woman are making love when their baby son walks out of a second floor window, falling, along with his teddy bear, to his death. The boy's mother is hospitalized with "abnormal grief." The husband, a psychologist, tells her that grief is normal, and that she doesn't need the medication being prescribed for her by her doctor. The husband insists on his wife's need to confront her grief and her fears, and not medicate herself into a stupor. Weirdly, the husband never seems to lose his calm. He never seems truly traumatized by the loss of his son. Perhaps he holds his feelings inside. Even as he uses his skills as a therapist to try and help his wife, he seems strangely detached from the situation. Maybe the husband suffers from an abnormal lack of grief. Eventually the couple decide they must go to a place called Eden, which is their name for a cabin out in the woods that the wife spent time in attempting to finish her thesis on the history of violence and persecution against women titled Gynocide. Storm and stress ensue.

It's hard to review Antichrist without giving too much away. It's best to watch this film with no idea of what's going to happen, no sense of the depth of the pain the wife is feeling. Beware reading reviews of this film. There are a couple of scenes which have been much worked over by critics, and with good reason. But I would say that it's best to watch this film with no idea of how it unfolds.

Antichrist is a horror film. It deals with horrors that grow out of the conflict between emotion and logic, reason and superstitious terror. It also deals with the hubris of the therapist husband trying to take on his wife as a patient. A classic example of a bridge too far.

At one point the therapist tells his wife that it's our thoughts that distort reality, not reality that distorts our thoughts. Maybe so. But wouldn't it depend upon the mind in question? In the past, women who were accused of heresy and witchcraft could be tortured and burned alive. Some questioned this practice at the time, no doubt, but there were many in those days who accepted the reality of witchcraft, of supernatural powers, God, Satan, the whole bit. You could say that there were a lot of thoughts back then distorting a lot of reality, but maybe reality was too much for ignorant, superstitious people. Some troubles have no easy solution, no easy cause to root out, so many would settle upon a scapegoat, a target of convenience, the community victim soon to be the community sacrifice.

Willem Dafoe plays the husband. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the wife. Their character names are listed in the credits as He and She. Both actors give intense but effective performances. The actors are confronted with harrowing situations, and they manage to strike the perfect notes particularly in the moments where the characters are in extremis. For a movie that deals with extremes of emotion and conflict, it never seems overacted. Lars Von Trier directs this movie with a great deal of care and precision.

The film also looks great. The woods of Eden look beautiful and clear sometimes, and at other times are shrouded with fog and a mood of impending doom. Von Trier directs the movie in such a way that the psychological state of the wife and husband are never really separate from the landscape. The movie views the woods, nature, through the rationalist lens of the therapist at times, and sometimes through the fearful perceptions of the academic. The mood of one also affects the perceptions of the other. These conflicting perceptions in relation to nature also become a source of conflict and horror.

Antichrist is a great example of horror cinema. It's not about a guy in a mask with a knife or ax. It doesn't have any vampires or zombies. It looks to history and the nuts and bolts of intimate relationships for its sources of terror.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reminiscence of "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" by EMPCollective

This is a distillation of a theatrical/multimedia production I participated in 2009-2010. I contributed live theatrical material, a short film, and I even appeared, briefly, in a scene from the short film. I also helped conceptualize the show via online group chats along with many others who are named in the credits of this awesome video. Takes me back . . .

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Roger Ebert's Modest Proposal

"Our nation is willing to spent trillions on war and billions to support the world's largest prison population rate. Here is my modest proposal: Spend less money on prisons and more money on education. Reduce our military burden and put that money into education. In 20 years, you would have more useful citizens, less crime and no less national security. It's so simple."

--Roger Ebert, from his review for the documentary Waiting for Superman

Complete review here:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Old Lacquer Box

Wagon wheels,
Lost in churning waters,
Lost to their wagons,
Lost to each other,
Each in its own private Samsara,
But not lost to my sight.

Monday, August 16, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: MAZES AND MONSTERS, 1982, Starring Tom Hanks, written by Tom Lazarus from the novel by Rona Jaffe, Directed by Steven H. Stern

Mazes and Monsters is a fantasy role playing game enjoyed mostly by high school and college students. Players take on the roles of barbarian warriors, thieves, powerful wizards, and maybe even pirates. People gather in dorm rooms and living rooms to play, using game maps, handwritten character sheets, and embroidered velvet bags filled with dice.

But the most important element is the imagination of the players themselves. It's kind of like improvisational theatre, but with less movement. People sit around a table, pushing character markers around maps representing dungeons, castles, mazes, and there are other markers that represent goblins, orks, dragons, monsters, etc.

One of the players is assigned the role of "Maze Master." The Maze Master is the referee, and he also conceives of the overall scenario that the other players tune into, and the players do their level best to sort of perform or embody the characters they've created. This performance or embodiment usually consists of the players putting on funny voices, stilted, vaguely Britishy accents, and declaiming spells, oaths, curses, and other brave sounding things. The Maze Master obliges the players by doing the voices and noises of the various monsters and dastardly villains. This usually consists of fakey sounding roars and growls and stilted, vaguely Britishy accents.

But sometimes all these conventions about how to play, and what's appropriate, and where performance ends and real life begins--for some people it just ain't enough.

Sometimes, the real ketchup's gotta flow.
Sometimes, a dudeman has to take matters into his OWN chain-mailed hands.
Sometimes, the mazes and the monstes gotta come to life . . .

Something like that happens to Tom Hanks's character, Robbie, in this made-for-TV movie derived from a novel of the same title by Rona Jaffe. Robbie is a college student with a troubled past, transferring to a new school at the beginning of this sordid saga. At first glance, he seems normal. He seems about like the Tom Hanks characters in movies like Big or Bachelor Party. But something more twisted and complex lurks beneath the surface . . .

See, long ago, Robbie's brother Hall disappeared under inexplicable circumstances. Robbie's mom is a lush, his father is a pushy asshole, and Robbie just tries to go along to get along. He's seemingly taken on an unreasonable amount of guilt over his brother's disappearance, and his only real outlet to express himself is by playing Mazes and Monsters, and immersing himself in the role of a holy cleric, Pardeux. But, at his first college, Robbie got so wrapped up in his character that his grades suffered, and he was forced to drop out. After an unspecified stretch of time, Robbie has given up the game, gotten some therapy, and is ready to rejoin the academic rat race.

Or is he? Once a player, always a player?

Robbie falls in with a group of Mazes and Monsters enthusiasts. They want him to play. Robbie resists . . . but not too hard. Soon, the players are upping the ante: instead of just sitting around a table using hand drawn maps and fakey accents to excuse sedentary performances they will take the game live into a possibly dangerous network of tunnels not far off campus. Now, they will wear full, handmade costumes, and they will wield prop weapons cribbed from the theatre department to supplement their fakey, vaguely Britishy accents--evil ensues!!

Well, sort of . . .

Robbie goes into the tunnels and encounters something, a Gorvil, which is a kind of half-dragon, half-man, and Robbie loses his marbles. He kills the beast, but his sanity is mortally wounded in the process. Robbie, from this point onwards, goes from being similar to other Tom Hanks characters in other early Tom Hanks films, to being like a member of a cult . . . a cult of one!

He swears off sex, dumps his girlfriend, and begins to draw mysterious maps and diagrams. Robbie, now Pardeux, is tormented by nightmares where a godlike voice commands him to go on a journey, a journey that might lead him to his doom in the dangerous network of tunnels.

Robbie's friends are concerned. They set out to solve the mystery of Robbie's transformation . . .

. . . This movie grew out of the early 1980s hysteria over Dungeons and Dragons, and rumors that players were taking their characters waaaaay too seriously and sacrificing cats and dogs and babies to Satan and voting for Jimmy Carter--all things deeply offensive to the Moral Majority and others who saw D&D as a recruiting packet for the Armies of Lucifer and his Communist allies.

The tone of the film is a strange mixture of matter-of-fact and melodramatic. There's even a faint strain of satire. Some of the dialogue of the parental characters in the movie hint at a pervasive mood of stress, of a pervasive fear of change, of how the growing pressure to succeed at all costs in the New Reagan America is driving people to novelty and distraction--is Robbie's saga a parable of all Americans? Is his lost brother Hall symbolic of America's lost innocence?

Probably not. Let's just blame it on a game that engages the imagination and encourages collaboration and sharing amongst young Americans--no doubt the precursors to total Communist takeover!!

Actually, the movie sticks close to the story of Robbie and his trauma. It also makes good use of location shooting. It looks like they actually shot this movie at a real college campus, in actual dorm rooms, restaurants, and some other locations I will not reveal.

As ludicrous as the notion is that a pen-and-paper RPG could be a catalyst for insanity is, the movie tells a pretty good story, and Tom Hanks handles the material pretty well. His journey becomes an interesting journey, even a half-clever psychodrama. It's also laugh-out-loud funny.

Look for an early appearance by Kevin Peter Hall as the monstrous Gorvil. Hall would later go onto fame as the Predator in the first two Predator films.


MOVIE REVIEW: PAYDAY, 1972, Starring Rip Torn, written by Don Carpenter, Directed by Daryl Duke

Rip Torn plays Maury Dann, a country singer who is the stuff of VH1 Legends. He boozes, pops pills, and treats women like property. Disposable property. He mostly lives on the road, in the back of his low-rent limo, flanked by his long-time girlfriend on one side and a new pick-up on the other: a young woman who works as a store clerk in some podunk town he and the band played a couple jumps back. Maury isn't too big on names. Of places or people.

He's a decent musician. But this isn't a concert movie. Mostly this movie just observes Maury's behavior towards the people around him. He's a bit of a despicable douchebag, but he has talent. Rip Torn performs a couple of times in this movie: once, at the beginning, for a crowd at an anonymous shitkicker bar, and again, later, by himself. Both times he acquits himself well. The later performance is especially poignant, as it is the only time you get to see him working on his music, which is presumably his passion. He's all by himself in a hotel room, swilling Coca-Cola to jazz himself out of an alcholic funk, and strumming on his acoustic guitar. He consults legal pads with lyrics scribbled on them. There's a closeup of his face, as he plays, eyes closed, his ragged voice barely stage worthy. Is the music an escape from his pain? Maybe his pain is an escape from the music.

There are other people in his caravan: a slick, reptilian, hard-driving agent from the big city, who tries to keep Maury on task; fellow musicians; Maury's deranged mother; a youngblood wannabee musician who begs Maury to let him join the band; and later on we even get to meet the wife and kids Maury abandoned.

The movie presents a damaged character, in thrall to his addictions, his appetites, and does not water down his vile attitudes towards women, or his profound, dangerous immaturity. Rip Torn doesn't so much perform the character, as embody him. His approach is rather low key, which is also the approach of the movie: not a lot of yelling, or soul-searching speeches, just behavior, keenly observed. It's all in how Maury gets up in the morning. It's in his diet of fried chicken, Coca-Cola, amphetamines, whiskey, and the occasional marijuana joint. It's the way Maury carries himself, like the pain is never far from the surface. It's in how, even when he sleeps, he never seems to get any rest.

The movie seems to suggest that a guy like Maury is constantly on the road because he needs the sensation of constant movement. The music really does seem like an afterthought at times, though Maury plays very well. Maybe he feels he has to live the Life in order to be authentic to the fans. Maybe it's something else.

The movie gives a realistic sense of what it was like in the 1960s and 1970s to be a country western band on the road, and all the shit work and drudgery that goes into being on tour: negotiating the nightly wage from the venue manager, popping in for a guest appearance on local radio stations, partying and playing poker all night in ratty motel rooms, etc. But at the heart of it all is Maury Dann, and the revelation of his tormented character.

Highly recommened.

ANIME REVIEW: HEAT GUY J, 2002, Creator/Director Kazuki Akane, Character Design Nobuteru Yuuki, Music Try Force

Heat Guy J tells the story of the city state of Judoh, one of seven cities managed by a high tech cadre known as the Celestials. In the future, war and other largescale conflicts between nation states have been eliminated by careful management of high tech human societies. Judoh and the other city states have all the amenities and many of the problems of real world cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or London: pollution, traffic jams, crime, racketeering, and poverty, but the affliction of disease and the threat of open warfare and imperialistic aggression have all been curbed.


Control of technology. The Celestials are the only human group with the know-how to maintain the machinery and sophisticated computer architecture that allows Judoh and the other six city states to continue to function. The know-how to build firearms, armored vehicles, mechs, nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction has been excised from public knowledge.

Some people opt out of this system. Outside the boundaries of Judoh is the wilderness of Sieberbia, where people go to live in seemingly Edenic tribal bliss, growing their own organic food, living in open air huts, and dressing like San from Princess Mononoke. Others live in the subterranean Underworld of the city state, a kind of managed zone of illegality where people in the know go to cut loose, deal in contraband technologies, and operate businesses outside of the offical tax structure.

But, as is almost always the case in anime, all is not well in the perfectly engineered future. War has been eliminated, but human desire has not. And human desire for greater power and control over fellow humans still exists.

Heat Guy J starts out as a conventional episodic police procedural in a sci-fi setting: brash young hero-cop Daisuke Aurora and his hulking android partner J. battle the mafia, led by the psychotic Clair Leonelli. Clair has inherited the leadership post known as "Vampire" for the Vita Corporation, which is the respectable, tax-filing face of the Leonelli mob. Clair has inherited the position from his newly-deceased father. He shows up at dad's funeral with a grenade, and the intent to hurl it in after his father's coffin, in lieu of flowers I suppose.

Daisuke and J, along with their office manager Kyoko, form the Special Services Bureau, a kind of anti-organzied crime task force under the direction of Shun Aurora, Daisuke's brother. Daisuke is in his early twenties and is the classic hotshot cop. J is a towering, Gigantor-like robot who acts both as Daisuke's protector and as the young man's conscience. J is constantly spouting pre-programed axiomatic statements relating to the nature of manhood, duty, and justice, however, as the series goes on, it seems that his AI begins to pick up on things and formulate standards of ethical behavior on his own. Kyoko is mostly stuck in the office, but her verbal sparring with Daisuke provides humor and counterpoint to Daisuke's playboy nature. Later, Daisuke and J meet Kyoko's unusual family . . .

One of the amusing elements of the series is how it plays with cop show conventions. Daisuke is cast as a kind of hotshot cop, and yet he is only allowed three bullets for his gun on any given assignment. And he has to ask permission in advance from office manager Kyoko, who is the only one with access to the combination safe where the bullets are stored. Sometimes, he doesn't have any bullets. This forces him to rely on the superhuman speed and strength of J., but even then the problems they face aren't necessarily resolvable through brute force.

Almost all of the characters in the course of the series reveal something unexpected in their natures and this in turn illuminates some complex facet of the fictional world they inhabit. Daisuke's constant wrangling with Kyoko over ammunition ties into the dilemma of illegal arms smuggling in Judoh: who's bringing in the weapons? how are they being manufactured? Why? Daisuke's high tech gun also has various kinds of high tech ammo: stun rounds, high explosive rounds, traditional ballistics, etc. Is the solution to crime to let the hero bring heavier artillery to bear on the perps, or is it a matter of eliminating the presence of deadly weapons altogether? Is it possible to wholly eliminate arms in human society? What about self-defense? If you are being threatened what is the appropriate amount of force to bring to bear in self-defense? How does technological innovation tie into all this?

The notions of defense, control, and technology on both an individual and societal level permeate the series as it shifts gears from cop show situations to the larger world-political situation in which the cop show elements are but one piece of the puzzle.

What's life like in other city states? This question is addressed in part by the character of Boma, a fearsome, lycanthropic swordsman who shows up as a kind of sword for hire in the Underworld. In other nation states, criminals are punished with genetic tampering which causes them to grow animal heads and exhibit feral qualities. Is this what's happened to Boma? Boma's situation and the revelations surrounding his character make for one of the most interesting developments in this series.

Other important supporting characters include hard-boiled homicide detective Edmundo, who seems like an anime version of Columbo; Dr. Bellucci, the beautiful roboticist who helps maintain J in working order; Monica a ten-year old street urchin who takes pictures of tourists and whose best friend is a donkey named Parsley; and the prostitutes Cynthia, Janis, and Vivian, whom Daisuke hangs out with for information gathering purposes much to Kyoko's consternation . . .

The characters, major, minor, supporting, are all interesting and have simple, but memorable designs. In many ways, Heat Guy J could be interpreted as a reincarnation of Escaflowne, and this would not be too far off. Kazuki Akane was involved with Escaflowne as was character designer Nobuteru Yuuki. Fans of Escaflowne, such as myself, might also be intrigued by many of the parallels between the two series. On the surface, Heat Guy J is a kind of high tech cop show, and Escaflowne is a high fantasy swords and sorcery type deal, but both series deal with the complexities of human conflict and schemes of control and oppression in intriguing ways.

Highly recommended.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010


A young martial artist's master is humiliated by a ferocious kung fu gangster!

The young martial artist must seek revenge, but he knows he's no match for the gangster.

So he looks up the toughest swordsman in town, a fanatically principled young man named Chang.

Chang isn't for sale. But another swordsman, the drunken womanizer Green, may be willing to take on the job.

Chang, Green and others become embroiled in a kung fu street fight for ultimate vengeance!

This is a swordplay and kung fu epic from a filmmaker mostly known for his gun fu classics A BETTER TOMORROW 1 and 2, THE KILLER, BULLET IN THE HEAD, and HARD-BOILED. After HARD-BOILED, he had an intriguing but disapointing dalliance with Hollywood making a couple of okay movies, FACE-OFF and BROKEN ARROW, and some really mediocre films with occasional moments of fun, like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 and PAYCHECK. He also directed a WWII epic with Nic Cage, WINDTALKERS. Windtalkers isn't a bad movie, but it is an underwhelming one. It tries to blend Woo's stylized action with a nominally realistic combat story and it's like oil and water. It does have some tremendously badass action scenes in it, so I would recommend it to hardcore fans.

Recently, Woo went to China to make his five hour epic RED CLIFF, a film of jaw-dropping grandeur and intensity. A lot of people made a big deal out of the over-the-top mayhem of 300, but Red Cliff is the real deal: actual stunt people with a minimum of CG chicanery.

When I watched Red Cliff, I was surprised at how much it was of a piece with Woo's heroic bloodshed masterpieces of the 1980s and 1990s. No guns, the characters aren't criminals, but they have the same values, the same codes of honor and loyalty. In Woo movies, sworn enemies find themselve drawn too each other, almost magnetically, and it sometimes comes across as sexual. Since this attraction is often times between male protagonists this adds a provocative twist to the usual macho heroics of action cinema.

As I watched Red Cliff, I recalled reading about how Woo had made another kung fu and swordplay film that was well-regarded, and so I tracked it down.

LAST HURRAH contains the usual elements, male bonding, honor, sacrifice, but something else I wasn't quite prepared for: insane, punishing, sometimes humorous fight choreography with exquisite timing. It was a near perfect synthesis of martial arts and musicality without quite being a musical. Woo takes the usual martial arts flick staples, vengeance, betrayal, conflict between the older and younger generations, and spins them into a complex web of schemes within schemes.

Red Cliff was also an impressive fight film, but it had a different energy. Red Cliff was a war film. It emphasized the sweep and chaos and mass destruction of large-scale battles with thousands of soldiers. Last Hurrah is more personal, more one-on-one conflict, although there are some impressive brawls involving dozens of fighting men.

At first, this might seem to be the usual case of a kung fu movie with a plot that serves the action, but I found it hypnotic and expertly woven together. In a regular drama, characters speak, and yell and cry and accuse one another with words. In this movie, the fight scenes are themselves intricately worked out dialectics between men who have given themselves over completely to the martial code: to fight to the death, to never back away from a challenge.

Yes, it is insanely melodramatic, and has little to do with how violence works in real life. In real life, violence is awkward, ugly, and leaves people dead or crippled or bewildered and heartbroken. But Woo works in some rather stinging consequences for his characters in all of his movies and LAST HURRAH is no exception.

I have said nothing specific about the plot of this film, which is a good thing. It's best to watch this with the only prior knowledge being that this is an all out action packed kung fu film. The rest you should discover for yourself.

Highly recommended.

Monday, May 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga by Natsu Onoda Power, 2009, University Press of Mississippi

Osamu Tezuka is the Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and Harvey Pekar of Japanese comics all rolled into one. He wrote manga adaptations of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, sex-ed comics, autobiography, galaxy spanning sci-fi sagas,quotidian kitchen sink psychodramas, and historical fiction centering on Adolph Hitler, Gautama Buddha, Mozart, and the quasi-mythical Yamato clan from the annals of Japanese history. He also created the iconic characters of Astro Boy, Black Jack, the Phoenix, and a host of recognizable characters which populate his works like a reperatory theatrical company, or like the universe of familiar faces one encounters in The Simpsons. Tezuka wrote for children, teenagers, and adults. He was not the first Japanese animator, but he did break new ground in terms of technique and content with the original anime TV hit Astro Boy, and other shows such as Kimba the White Lion which is believed by some to be the inspiration for Disney's The Lion King. Tezuka created a robot child built by a traumatized scientist to replace his dead son. He told stories about serial killers and state sanctioned genocide. He crafted grim sagas of first contact between human and non-human sentients that result in all out warfare. He explored themes of reincarnation, of man's inhumanity to man, and the cyclical nature of human desires and conflicts. Tezuka's career spanned from Japan's surrender to the Allies in World War II to February 1989. He is said to have worked feverishly on numerous manga projects right up until his final weeks.

Reading over the preceding summary of Tezuka's career, I am struck by its inadequacy, its boilerplate shallowness. I have read almost everything by Osamu Tezuka currently available in English translation. I have even "read" some of his work in the original Japanese, having absolutely no ability in reading or speaking that language. I recall reading three volumes of Dororo in Japanese. I had no idea what was going on, what the characters were saying, or why they were doing what they were doing, but I was captivated by the fluidity of the imagery, the amusing grotesquerie of the demons that assaulted the heroic swordsman (who I erroneously assumed was the Dororo of the title. Later, reading the comic in English, I was surprised to find out that Dororo is the small child who accompanies Hyakkimaru, the swordsman, on his adventures) and the dynamic design of the story's protagonist. I am a fan of Tezuka, and it kills me that only a fraction of his output is available in English. It's almost enough to make me want to learn Japanese.

Non-fiction books about Osamu Tezuka's life and works are few and far between. As far as I know there is no definitive biography of Tezuka in English, and there are only a few books which could be considered critical studies of Tezuka's works available. For me, reading a non-fiction book which discusses, summarizes, and analyzes Tezuka's work is the next best thing to being able to read a new Tezuka comic in translation. This was my primary interest in seeking out and reading Power's book on Tezuka.

Power's approach to Tezuka is not biography, although she does explore the circumstances of Tezuka's life and its context in history, nor is it a comprehensive analysis of his works. A biography, even a brisk one, would be quite a lengthy undertaking, numbering in the hundreds of pages. A comprehensive study of Tezuka's complete works would run to many volumes. Power's slim volume is neither of these things. And yet it does something very useful. Within the space of about one-hundred sevety pages she explores Tezuka and his work and their relationship with Japan's post-World War II transformation and the evolution of the manga industry in the twentieth century. Power's work is not so much expansive as it is theoretical. She works out a very interesting and powerful framework for reading and analyzing Tezuka's work which both enriches and expands the reader's experience.

Each chapter in her book takes up a specific aspect of Tezuka's work: his early years as a cartoonist and the context of World War II and the Allied occupation, the influence of cinematic technique on his work, his use of humor, his pioneering efforts in the realm of girls' comics, his varied fortunes in commercial animation, his creation of an imaginary star system for his comics, and his use of intertextuality.

This last idea of intertextuality is explored in great detail in the last chapter in which Power applies the concept of intertextuality to a comic called The Curtain Remains Blue Tonight. Intertextuality is a theoretical idea that proposes that any given text, a film, a novel, a short story, a comic book, a painting, is not just the text in itself, a wholly original product of a singular author. Rather, it is the result of the author's labor and the many other texts which the author has consumed, read, absorbed. These other texts have influenced the author to a greater or lesser degree such that an author might weave into a given work self-conscious homage to other texts, or might simply be influenced on a subconscious level. The films of Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone are clear examples of this theory. Power analyzes The Curtain Remains Blue Tonight and shows a variety of influences from theatre, film, music, and other comics at work within Tezuka's manga. She also illustrates how Tezuka's practice of intertextuality is not mere pastiche, but rather a sophisticated form of manga practice.

Power's book is slim, but powerful. I sought it out hoping to learn more about the man, a hero in my mind, and his works which I admire. Instead I came away with a powerful new theoretical framework for engaging Tezuka and his works.

This book is, according to a blurb on the back cover, part of the University Press of Mississippi's Great Comics Artist Series. I would be most interested in seeking out other titles in this series.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Hacking by Tim Jordan, 2008, Polity Press, Digital Media and Society Series

This slim volume explores the concepts of hacking and hackers. Author Tim Jordan's method is to extract from the literature on hacking, both journalistic and academic, what he perceives as important, essential, and illuminating ideas, interpretations, innovations, and analysis regarding his subject. In this sense, the book is more of an introduction to hacking and hackers than it is a new narrative or comprehensive study of the literature.

Jordan gives a brief summary of the definition of hacking as established by other authors and makes the distinction between hacking and cracking. Cracking has more to do with computer crime and illegal intrusion into computer networks whereas hacking refers more to the broad territory of computer programming, both illicit and sanctioned, and, as a cultural term, extends beyond the realm of computer programming into other areas of life.

Jordan's main thematic concern is with the ideas of technological and cultural determination and how they interact. Jordan makes the case that the common, and erroneous, perception of these two types of determination is that they are diametrically opposed: either technology is the primary factor in determining human endeavor and experience or culture is the primary determining factor. Jordan argues that they are mutually intertwined, that culture often determines technology and that technology alters the culture and this process goes back and forth creating new culturea and new technologies. At times one determining factor assumes ascendency over the other, but this is only temporary. Moreover, our perceptions of which factor is more important also play a role. If we perceive technology as being the primary determining factor in our lives that has an impact, and the same if we perceive culture as the most important factor. Perception, identity, and agency are all affected.

Chapter 4, "Hacking the Social: Hacktivism, Cyberwar, Cyberterror, Cybercrime" was especially intriguing, from my point of view, in that it brought together the different scales on which computer hacking, and cracking, can operate: the personal, the individual operating against a large organization, the individual operating against the individual, and the nation state acting against other nation states. The anonymous nature of hacking and cracking often blurs these distinctions: were the cyber attacks against the government of Estonia sanctioned by the Russian government or just individual perpetrators operating on their own? Were cyberattacks against US institutions and assets found to be originating in China authorized by the Chinese high command, or were they actions taken by individuals or organizations without offical state sponsorship? Due to a lack of information coming from the US and other governments about these cyber-intrusions, it's still highly speculative that these could even be considered acts of cyberwar. Jordan writes a clear and concise primer on these rather murky issues.

Jordan's emphasis is on the sociological and not the technical: what do these actions and actors mean in human terms? Jordan's short volume is an effective introduction backed up with a detailed bibliography for those readers who want to explore futher.

Reading this volume made me interested in reading more in this series from Polity Press, known as the "Digital Media and Society Series."