Sunday, December 27, 2009

Project: RPG-o-thon


It feels like I've been away from this blog forever, and for the most part, I have. However, that doesn't mean I've been away from my studies - nooo, sir. As of the past few weeks, I've been working harder than ever toward my ultimate goal, and things could hardly be going much better (at least, given the 24 hour day cycle I'm sorta forced to deal with...).

Most of my little updates, thoughts and so forth have been reported via Twitter, a tool I once loathed but now embrace, albeit after a lot of kicking and screaming - but that's the way we do things around here.
My urge to scribble like a mentally impaired chimpanzee with a box of crayons write tends to overlap with my SRS time, a very delicate few hours time of the day where I'm feeling my sharpest and most creative, which can present a bit of a problem if I get too distracted. Whereas spending an hour or more writing a long, semi-coherent (at best) blog post branching from one of my random thoughts/insights/rants could easily (and often does) knock my study momentum off course, a few short messages on Twitter takes hardly any time at all. Whether or not those messages actually contain anything of value, well, that's up to debate...

Anyhow, things are going swell, and tonight I'd like to talk about my latest "project".

I've recently acquired a PSP, which I promptly put to good use by hacking the heck out of, slapping in an 8GB memory stick pro duo, and going nuts with. It's now my portable study station of choice, with the ability to play any drama or anime I encode and throw on it, the ability to read PDFs and comics, to play any PSP or PSX RPG (and most other games from emulatable systems)... and this all comes at an opportune time when my motivation is incredibly high and I'm really wanting to dig into Japanese media. Bangin'.

So where does this "project" come into play? Pretty simple - I plan to complete one full RPG in Japanese every month.
Perhaps a little too simple? 30 days gives me more than enough time to get through all but the longest, most drawn out RPGs around. On the other hand, it's a goal I can easily obtain with nary a second thought, and can easily adjust once I get into a groove. I'm guessing that I'll eventually push that quota up to two RPGs a month, or one RPG every two weeks, but I'll worry about the boring logistics later. For now, it's friggin' RPG time.

My first play through will be Lunar: Harmony of the Silver Star on PSP, the second remake of one of my favorite RPGs of all time, Lunar: The Silver Star. Being a game I'm quite familiar with, it's already been quite easy to get into, and now that my Japanese skill is at a good enough level to understand the "gist" of most everything in the game, I can see just how cleverly and skillfully Working Designs translated the original games. It's quite a treat for an old fan of the series such as myself.
I'm only a few hours in, so far... and even having completed the previous two Lunar: The Silver Star games multiple times, I've already managed to get lost. I can't even blame it on my lousy Japanese, either - this is just the kind of oldskool RPG where puzzles can and will screw you and make you lose an hour bumbling around and battling respawned monsters the entire time. I love these oldskool RPGs.

Yes, there are far better native materials to dive into than video games, that I'm aware of. But when it comes to things that draw me in for hours at a time, nothing beats RPGs. While I have trouble sticking with manga or dramas or anime consistently (and tend to get frustrated too easily yet to stick with a novel), RPGs are an almost instantaneous addiction. Consistency is key to success, and playing an RPG from start to finish is something I rarely have trouble being consistent with (unless that game is Final Fantasy 10, oh god). This is an addiction I'll gladly give into it when I get so much out of it.

I needs my fix, man.

Turning a weakness into something I can exploit to my benefit? You bet I'm gonna take advantage of that! To be fair, I've been playing very few games these past few months, and really haven't felt the desire to do so very much short of a few short sessions here and there. ...
And that's why it's time to awaken the dormant beast once again and get my game on! Can I get a hell yeah.

Of course, that won't be the only thing I focus on this year. I continue to partake in all the drama, anime and manga I can get my grubby mitts on, not to mention the blogs I read regularly, and the hour or two of SRSing I do each day. As time goes on, I also find myself naturally increasing my immersion as I'm able to understand and enjoy more and more, with Japanese slowly but surely beginning to overtake English as the dominant language. Such a feisty one, that Japanese.

How far will this RPG-mania take my Japanese skills? Who knows, but I know that I'll be enjoying every minute of it and getting a heck of a lot of needed exposure. Besides, how awesome is it to SRS words such as 経験値 and 幻獣? Eh, eh?!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Walking through the fog

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet. But as you keep walking, you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, "Oh, this pace is terrible!" But actually, it is not. When you get wet in a fog, it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress. It is like studying a foreign language. You cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over, you will master it.

-Shunryu Suzuki

Thursday, August 6, 2009

[Anime] 蟲師 / Mushishi

Ever been passively interested in something for a few years before you finally bite the bullet and actually experience it? Since 2006, I recall seeing images and art (on anonymous imageboards I've long since outgrown - praise be to the 神々) of a particularly intriguing anime, a few whispers here and there about a series I had barely heard of. Intrigued as I was, I suppose I had "better" things to do and watch, so I sort of ignored and buried the intrigue somewhere in the back of my mind. In my experience, this practice is rarely a good idea as it will eventually resurface with a vengeance like a bamboo forest reaching for the glowing ball of fire in the sky.

The same feeling overcame me recently with モノノ怪 / Mononoke, an anime series I thoroughly enjoyed that captured my imagination and took it places I never even knew existed. An enigmatic and unusual (yet entertaining) protagonist who wanders the land in Edo-period Nippon with his box of medicine and tools on back, ultimately acting as both detective and exorcist to the many characters in the series with some serious skeletons in their closet. It was a recipe for success for me, and one short series such as モノノ怪 just couldn't quite sate my insatiable thirst; I craved more.

Conveniently, the image of a mysterious, white haired man with a large box of tools on his back (not unlike the Medicine Seller of モノノ怪) that I had seen some years ago resurfaced in my mind. Even if this series was only marginally similar to what I had just seen, I just knew I'd be satisfied. Wouldn't I?
Unfortunately, I had completely forgotten the title of the series in which this character starred, so it would be a few more days until (by happenstance of a friend mentioning it, actually), once again, it would resurface and I'd finally begin watching it. Even when I forgot such simple things as its title, it just wouldn't go away - apparently I was destined to see this thing.

Well, thank you, destiny, because 蟲師 / Mushishi turned out to be one of the finest anime series I've ever seen, and I've seen a good plenty in my lifetime.

蟲師 is actually one of the most difficult anime to describe I've ever come across. In a way, it shares similarities with モノノ怪 in that it stars a wandering, enigmatic merchant (of sorts) in old Japan who exorcises spirits, but the similarities, for the most part, end there.

The story follows Ginko, a white haired wandering peddler with (surprise, surprise) a mysterious past and an expansive knowledge of the strange creatures of this world known as 蟲 (mushi). Mushi, as the word suggests, are insect-like spiritual beings that inhabit any place with life: people, plants or animals. Their nature is never really explained in great detail; they simply are what they are, whether anyone realizes their existence or not. Very few are even able to see them at all, and those who are able often become the centerpiece of the mushi's involvement, often to their plight.
I think it's important to note that the mushi aren't necessarily inherently good, nor evil. They're barely even sentient at all; they simply part of the neverending circle of nature, using humans as a means of survival, even if doing so means feeding off of humankind's weaknesses and temptations.

蟲師 is presented episodically, so that each episode stands on its own with very few recurring characters and themes, as Ginko wanders the land and encounters the simple, hard working, country dwelling people who have (usually unwittingly) become involved with mushi - often to their danger and detriment. It's Ginko the rescue!
Only, as knowledgeable and wise as he may be, he's far from the omnipotent demigod that the Medicine Seller is, and quite human at his core. While Ginko does his best to lessen the damage of the mushi, conclusions are rarely happy and cheerful - the damage is done, compromises have been made and life and nature have taken their toll, usually with bittersweet results. Perhaps the nature of life itself is what the entire series boils down to - but I won't discuss it further, as I think it best to experience the stories of 蟲師 on one's own. Lemme just say that it's incredibly rare for an anime to moisten my eyes, and only two come to mind - Grave of the Fireflies, and this one.

Speaking of emotional impact, the animation and music are quite impeccable - at the same time simple and profound, not unlike the series itself. Landscapes, villages and the people that inhabit them take on a life of their own as they're beautifully drawn and animated. Likewise, the music of 蟲師 lends much to the mood and atmosphere, ranging from the singer-songwriter opening theme, "The Sore Feet Song" by Ally Kerr to the many different somber credits themes by Toshio Masuda. Everything blends together to create one of the most enchanting pieces of animation in recent memory.

If I had but one complaint about the series, it would be the character design - not that there's anything wrong with Ginko, or the other one or two "major" recurring characters, but a good many of the towns folk look strikingly similar, causing me to blink and scratch my head a few times and ponder, "Didn't I just see them in the last episode? Is this is the same character?"
That the series is episodic renders this gripe a very minor one, however. Besides, when everyone wears a kimono and wears their hair in the same (small handful) of styles, there isn't that much room for fashion individuality, is there?

To say I simply "enjoyed" this series would be a disgusting understatement punishable by death, as it went above and beyond my expectations and has become one of the only 26 episode anime series I've begun watching again less than a week after finishing. That should tell you a little something about how much I love 蟲師.

However, I'd also completely understand if someone else was completely bored to tears by it, and couldn't force themselves to sit through it in its entirety. I honestly wouldn't consider 蟲師 a "slow" series, as plenty happens in the span of each 20~ minute story. Much of that is dialogue, and the series contains little to no action to speak of. To me, this isn't a big deal. To others, it may very well be.
Additionally, 蟲師 is wrought with the philosophy and tackles some particularly difficult (and potentially painful) subject matter which I seldom see in anime or manga. This may be a turnoff to some; it's challenging and fascinating to myself. I think it takes a certain type to appreciate this series to its fullest, and I don't mean that in an egotistical sort of way. Watch and judge for yourself.

Even having completed the series, I still feel as though there's a lot I haven't properly taken in yet, thus my second viewing and eventual reading of the manga.
All in all, however, I think it's safe to say that 蟲師 will go down as one of my favorite anime series of all time. For those looking for something thought-provoking, challenging and far out of the ordinary where anime is concerned, I couldn't recommend 蟲師 more.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Slow and steady wins the race

Progress hasn't been stellar the past few months, but I no longer worry about nor really think about my progress at all, honestly. In nearly one full year of study, not one day has gone by that I haven't done something substantial in Japanese, even if I've neglected things such as my SRS a little too frequently for comfort. The result is that I've very rarely gotten burned out in my 日本語 studies, pacing myself as I run this long, long marathon, having trekked through the winding, confusing roads of this journey and covered a significant amount of ground. Of course, this marathon ain't anywhere near over yet, but I'm showing no signs of tiring any time soon...

It's always interesting to pick up something I had struggled on previously, only to discover a few months later that - lo and behold - I can now understand and enjoy this thing! There was a time when I had some naive notion that, by the time I could read and enjoy Berserk, I'd probably be at a pretty damn decent level of Japanese and all would be swell and I'd never need to study Japanese another day in my life again. Imagine my surprise the other day when I flipped through several pages of Berserk with a surprisingly decent level of comprehension...
Whereas in the past I had to rely on katakana words in order to vaguely navigate my way through RPGs while ignoring most of the story, I can now understand the vast majority of plotlines and very rarely get lost since I can follow the directions of the NPCs with few problems.
And the list goes on and continues to go on - it's a really nice feeling, and sure beats worrying about where I should be or could be with my Japanese level.

I still find listening to be difficult, though, and generally find reading pure kana quite tricky as well. Perhaps I've grown a little too acquianted with the contextual power of kanji (and o, how powerful it is), and no thanks to the massive amount of homophones in Japanese (indeed, 日本語 puts the "homo" in "homophone"...), but I often find myself returning a blank stare to these tricky things. I think this is also due to having not yet "internalized" a lot of the vocabulary I've learned. Exposure is really the only solution, and exposure I'm getting - I try to average 2 hours of watching unsubbed (or Japanese subbed in the rare situations when these are actually available) drama/anime/movies/TV a day, and as much passive listening via podcasts (again, I love TBS Life) as I can cram in.

Another thing that keeps me motivated is the concept that, while there may be a heck of a lot of kanji, there is a finite amount of them. I'm constantly learning the readings of more and more kanji, and eventually there just won't be many left to learn, save for the obscure ones (which I particularly enjoy learning). When you think about it in that way, fluency doesn't seem too far fetched at all, does it?

Slow and steady wins the race, this much I'm sure of.

At any rate, I hope to be bloggin' a little more frequently in the near future. I have plenty of interesting music, drama, anime and movies to discuss and share, and really, aren't these things part of the reason why we're learning the language in the first place? Exactly.

Friday, July 3, 2009


It's certainly been a while, hasn't it? I've been neglecting my lil ol' blog here for quite some time, but not because I'm necessarily slacking in my 日本語 studies. I have been quite busy the past month or two (and am in the long, excruciating process of moving), but I've made significant progress since my last post. Most of my miscellaneous updates have been confined to the endlessly banal, barren wasteland known as Twitter (a banal wasteland I've come to enjoy, thank you very much), but one can only cram so much information into a 140 character message. It's now come time for me to report on my progress in a proper manner.

Well, where am I currently, in my journey... It's difficult to say, exactly. I estimate that I'm probably somewhere around 3,000 cards in my SRS, not counting either of my kanji decks (oldskool keyword-to-kanji Heisig, and new Japanese word-to-kanji deck).

My old deck of 900~ cards was deleted with prejudice, never to be missed again, and mostly consisted of various tidbits from, 2001KO and dictionaries. I simply couldn't bear going through that thing again - the boredom and drudgery drove me nuts, so I did the most sensible thing that came to mind. DELETED!
My newer, vocabulary and onyomi-centered deck (with sentences almost exclusively from topped out at exactly 1,000. While I can generally force myself to plow through its reviews, it's getting more and more monotonous as time goes on, and I can't really foresee myself adding very many new cards to it (for reasons I'll get into later). This will probably mark its demise in the near future, though I'll keep it around for the time being as it's served me quite well.
The rest of my decks are miscellaneous bits and pieces such as grammar points and so forth.

For the most part, I feel like I've been pretty lazy when it comes to actually adding material. Well, strike that - I know I've been lazy. On my hot streaks, I can add 50 or more cards per day for a week straight. But more typically, I hover between 20-30 and take a heck of a lot of days off.
Actually, I haven't added one new card in at least three weeks, and my reviewing has taken a sharp decline as well. This is thanks in no small part to a very busy June, but I also hit a massive wall of SRS burnout somewhere around my 1,000th card in the aforementioned vocabulary deck. Life happened, I had suddenly come to a screeching halt, and it took me over a week to get back to my studies... which didn't include very much SRSing. Try as I might, I just couldn't justify the frustration and tedium when I had hours upon hours of drama, anime, games, books and various listening material to indulge in. Of course, this wasn't necessarily a problem inherent in SRS itself and more to do with my dull sentence material, but I'll get to that part yet...

At this point, my hard drive was pretty much full with anime and drama. I have a 500GB drive, which isn't enormous by today's standards, but considering how conservative I tend to be with space, for me to fill the poor thing takes some serious downloadage. Before I knew it, I was up to my neck in roughly a dozen anime series and a handful of dramas, as well as about a half dozen movies and a few good gigabytes of audiobooks, podcasts and radiocasts. よしっ!I was ready to rock.

A main character so remarkably badass, he can make pointed ears, makeup and nail polish look cool. (モノノ怪 (eng))

Of course, all of these things have one thing in common as far as studying goes - they're all listening material. At this point (roughly one month ago), I felt like my reading comprehension and vocabulary had "leveled up" significantly, but my listening really left something to be desired. Even if I knew all the words in a spoken sentence, it'd still take my brain a few extra seconds to actually process it all into something I understood, unless said sentence was a phrase very familiar to me. Clearly, this was a problem stemming from my lack of input on the listening side - something I knew I've been neglecting, but... well, you know me and neglect, don't you?

For about a week straight, my studying involved little else but watching drama and anime, and listening to podcasts - very little SRS review, and just enough reading to keep me sharp. Though I'd have periods of several seconds where I didn't understand diddlysquat, I began to notice my listening comprehension improve steadily with each hour I invested in my active listening. After some time, I was able to follow the story pretty reliably, at least getting "the gist" of things, even if I missed a lot of the details otherwise.
I've been trying to get in at least an hour of active listening material each day, ideally two if time permits. Gradually, my listening is definitely improving.

Meanwhile, I've kicked up my reading, as well. I've found a goldmine in 16-bit RPG classics, which are packed with text and generally pretty easy on vocabulary while still introducing plenty of interesting new words. I can quite easily play through and understand the majority of dialogue, understanding the details of storyline and rarely getting into a "wait, where am I supposed to go, again?" situation.

Sadly, the chocobo kinda got screwed when it comes to screen time.

I sorta got bored with FF6 (knowing the game inside and out kinda does that eventually...) so I picked up FF5, a game I've actually never beaten and had a massive craving to play through. Though lighter on story than FF6 (and arguably, FF4), FF5's dialogue is also surprisingly easier. Whereas FF6 is packed with dialect and (comparatively) complicated vocabulary, FF5 is really a piece of cake. I stop and look up words frequently, but mostly for completion's sake; if there's one word in a sentence I don't understand and I haven't looked one up in a while, well hey, why not? Otherwise, I tend to either work things out through context, ignore unknown words for the time being or look up only the repeating vocabulary I come across (I figured it was probably important to look up 流砂 after having been warned by several NPCs...).
I figure I probably understand about 70% of the game, which is more than enough to understand what's going on at any given time, though I miss out on nuances and quite a few of the hiragana words (kanji has seriously spoiled me - never thought I'd see the day).
As with my listening, all of this reading via RPGs has done a heck of a lot in the past month to improve my comprehension, speed and (to a lesser extent) vocabulary and grammar. I absolutely intend on playing through more of these puppies once I complete 5!

Ahh, and tonight I had planned to start a fresh, brand new SRS deck - the next step in my SRSing cycle of life. I keep a list of all of the words I look up while playing RPGs, and nearly all of them are awesome words I'd like to memorize, so SRSing them in sentences seems like a logical step.
Then more SRS rage kicked in. This time, because Anki decided it was a great time to tard out on me, bugging up whenever I tried to modify the deck properties of a new deck. This is sort of a show stopper, since I really need to customize fields to get a deck to my liking - not to mention, I won't trust any SRS deck with my data if I suspect it's gonna toss its cookies at any moment.

Arrrrgh. We'll see if I can't get this bug sorted out soon, but my "screw it all" side might just opt to keep up the reading and listening, SRS be damned. SRS is absolutely the most efficient way of retaining knowledge, but boy, can it be a headache.

When I seriously get back into the swing of things, I'll be adding things at a much slower, more limited pace of only the little goodies I really want to remember. I finally feel as though I'm now at the point where I can cherry pick, without stumbling around barefoot in a dark room full of mousetraps, now that my language abilities are at a far more sustainable level. Now I can really watch and listen to and play things and understand enough to actually enjoy them, something I struggled with in the past. キリスト神神様、it's taken me long enough.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A means to a common end

There's been a great deal of interesting discussion lately on the (always interesting) Reviewing the Kanji forums, which really hasn't been a benefit to my study time (and lack thereof), but some pretty decent reading nonetheless. The recent activity of a few more baller native Japanese speaking guys and gals whose English skills are quite literally indistinguishable from those of a well educated native English speaker has been a significant boost to my own inspiration as an L2 studier - but invariably, one of them was asked to check out Khatzumoto's writings in order to verify a few popular claims about his Japanese writing style, such as his alleged overuse of classical kanji and generally overzealous "kanjification". Not surprisingly, this sparked yet another long, drawn out, and largely pointless debate about AJATT and Khatz himself.

Welcome to the Internet
Exhibit A: The Internet.

This is something I tend to see around practically any language learning methodology - a very vocal minority will undoubtedly step in and question the credibility of the teacher, debunk the teacher's methods as ineffective and claim their own as superior. Personally, I welcome some degree of debate on all of the above; I feel as though these are important things to take into consideration during the long path toward fluency. There comes a point, however, when a debate such as this surpasses the boundaries of ad nauseum and dares venture into the point of no return - the realm of sheer pointlessness, where the original points which really mattered - quite simply, getting one's L2 from point A to point B - are long forgotten in favor of endless bickering (on both sides).

I've done my fair share of criticism on figures such as Khatzumoto and Heisig, myself, but at least I recognize the merit and wisdom of what they teach, and the importance of trying new things, experimenting, and maintaining a fresh level of diversity while keeping things both efficient and fun. This doesn't mean that I disrespect either of them, of course - quite the contrary. To put it another way, I also voice political dissidence frequently with the way my country's government handles foreign affairs and economic matters (among many other things), but I still love my nation.

I believe it's important to consider that, as knowledgeable as people such as Khatzumoto, James Heisig, Steve Krashen, Steve Kaufmann, Alexander Arguelles and Stu Jay Raj are (to name but a few), none of them can ever be considered the prime authority on language learning - their experiences are unique to themselves, after all. There are so many factors that come into play, such as one's own native language, previous languages studied (if any) and environment that going entirely by another person's directions, opinions or guidelines is almost certainly a recipe for failure in all but the most astute and dedicated learners. Using their successes as a basis, I've been able to find a comfortable balance between everything I've learned from them while still adapting a system that is unique to my own needs as an individual language learner who aspires high fluency in Japanese, and eventually Mandarin.

In the world of language learning, there is no right nor wrong way to do things. There is no central doctrine, there are no rules which state you must do this, or mustn't do that. Whether you drill sentences with an SRS every single day or not, whether you spend four or more years learning a language in academia or not, whether you do nothing but watch television and read comics or not... Everything you do is simply a means to an end - becoming fluent. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

All Japanese... Some of the Time

Way back in the Fall of 2008 (if one can consider that "way back"), I was lucky enough to stumble upon a little ol' site by the name of All Japanese All the Time that would ultimately inspire me to undertake this long and grueling journey. I have a great deal of respect for Khatzumoto and all he's done for the language learning community, and I've learned a considerable amount of valuable information from his articles.

However, I quickly realized that such a full immersion environment simply wasn't feasible, nor enjoyable for me - at least, not in the way Khatz has it all laid out. 
I also realized how much he over exaggerates in order to get his points across, and I think this is something a lot of people don't recognize. I don't believe that he literally wants his readers to ditch their friends in favor of Japanese speaking ones, nor do I believe that he literally means we should all get rid of our non-Japanese music, or deck out our living quarters in traditional Japanese decor, all for the sake of immersion.
These are extremes that may have worked for him, personally, but things I'd never even consider touching with a ten foot pole. I love learning this language and I'm very comfortable at the pace I'm going, and to sacrifice things so dear to me for the sake of learning a little faster is beyond ridiculous.
Besides that, living in Japanese simply begins to wear on me, and when I want to do something very specific and technical on my operating system, for example, I'd really rather not stumble around in the dark and risk doing something stupid like accidentally formatting my hard drive (yes, now I'm exaggerating to get my point across). It's not fun, it's not productive - at least, not at the point I'm at currently. I can certainly see myself pushing immersion to this level a year from now, when I can really get a lot more out of everything I've learned up to that point, but if the immersion isn't enjoyable for me, I don't feel as though I'm missing much by forgoing it.

Which leads me to another criticism - Khatz does a decent job of explaining his whole system, but really hurls you out of the nest straight into the great beyond once it comes time to really start things. Learning kanji before kana? I can see the benefits for a beginning learner who is absolutely, unfalteringly dead serious about learning Japanese, but for the vast majority of those interested in learning the language, this approach is ridiculous. Considering how much of the important fundamentals one could soak up in a short period of time from a good beginner's text book or a well instructed class, it boggles my mind to recommend leaping straight into kanji before learning the kana.

And that leads me to my next point: the propaganda that all language classes are a horrible, despicable, draconian thing to be avoided at all costs. I'm truly sorry if your language class experiences were that bad, but the vast majority of my language teachers were nothing less than wonderful. There's nothing inherently bad about language classes; it's absolutely about the teacher and how they teach the language. Assuming a class isn't too infrequent, I can think of few better ways to build a solid foundation for any language. Of course you're not going to become fluent from classes alone, but this is common sense.

Another point which many AJATTeers seem to get caught up on (which is only their own fault) is Khatzu's "10,000 sentences" model which, while a pretty darn good guideline for all intents and purposes, should by no means be the ultimate goal of the learner. All too often do I see learners trying to import huge quantities of sentences via pre-constructed SRS decks for the sake of reaching this figure of 10,000 faster, but it just doesn't work this way.
Quality of sentences will vary dramatically depending on source, and the method by which the learner is studying said sentences will also have a significant impact (focusing on one word from the sentence? the entire sentence, strictly? going by production from kana to kanji? etc).
Khatz mentions quality of sentences very frequently - if you feel that a sentence sucks, in any way, shape or form, it's destined for deletion. I believe he cites a near 50% deletion rate of his sentences, in fact, which I can definitely believe as I do my fair share of deleting with prejudice, myself. Imagine going through 10,000 without ever deleting one - think of all the garbage cards you'd have to suffer through in the process. On the other hand, assuming you're deleting 50% of these suckers, you're more likely going to go through 15,000 or more before you reach the 10k goal (in theory anyway).

By now, I must sound like I'm an anti-AJATT, purist pundit, but quite the contrary as I've adopted and practice plenty from this system (and indeed, philosophy)
As I've said, I have massive amounts of respect for Khatzumoto himself and AJATT in general. As with all teachers, though (see also: James Heisig, another invaluable 先生 of mine), I believe it's important for individual, mental (and even spiritual) growth for the student to regularly question and challenge, and to keep a critical and open mind at all times.

Presently, I'm progressing at a pace comfortable to me without constant immersion, and I never thought I'd have made it this far in well under a year. I've set goals (big and small) throughout the year which I know I'll obtain, and it's a great feeling. I'm playing through my favorite RPGs in Japanese, I'm reading my favorite manga in Japanese, I'm watching slews of dramas and movies and anime in Japanese and every single day I move a few steps closer to my ultimate goal of fluency and literacy - all of this without full immersion, without worrying about collecting 10,000 sentences, without abandoning all of life's simple, English-language pleasures. Let's call it, All Japanese Some of the Time.

Now if you'll pardon me - it's back to reviewing sentences while rocking out to Iron Maiden, a band I can only wish was in Japanese.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The power of music and language

As I mentioned in a previous post last week, I've really not gotten a whole lot out of music listening as far as language acquisition goes. For the most part, a great deal of the music I listen to places most emphasis on instruments rather than lyrics, with vocals often playing the role of an additional instrument in the mix, so it's just not something I pay much attention to. I can listen to a song dozens upon dozens of times without so much as picking up one word, even in English. There are, of course, many exceptions.

Lately, however, I've been doing a bit of experimenting. I've taken my favorite Boris album, Heavy Rocks - a fuzzed out, overdriven, high energy stoner rock masterpiece and one of the band's more lyrical works - and have made a conscious effort to pay close attention to the vocals, going so far as transcribing (and translating, when possible) a few songs by ear.
The result has been interesting, to say the least. First, and not surprisingly, I've managed to unearth new life in an album I've listened to probably a hundred times by now. I discovered that not only do their lyrics add a heck of a lot to their music, but they're quite badass to boot - take part of the chorus from the song 殺す for example:
俺の全てを殺す 入り込む邪悪イメージ 俺は全てを殺す 放射する「有」のイメージ
How I've missed out on such badassery all this time is beyond me.
Second, and also not very surprising, perhaps thanks to the repetition of having to rewind and listen to specific parts numerous times before I'm able to transcribe them accurately, my listening comprehension for these songs has shot up tremendously, and many of the new words I've come across are sticking quite nicely. As I listen more after having learned all this new vocabulary, it only becomes further cemented in my head.

This experience has opened my eyes a bit more toward music as a tool for language acquisition. As my listening comprehension in general improves (it's admittedly quite poor currently), I seem to get more out of listening to music in Japanese.
I also have to consider the more obvious educational aspects of music as a learning tool - who, among us native English-language speakers, isn't familiar with the ABC Song? I'll unashamedly admit that I still bust that sucker out on occasion to verify that S, indeed, comes before T. It's perhaps the most basic example of how music can aid in the learning process and burrow itself into our long term memory for years and years - so it's certainly no stretch to conclude that the same principles can be applied to music and general language learning.

From The NY Times comes this fascinating article on memory, the following paragraph being most relevant to the topic of music and language:
A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. “It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information,” Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.
Testament to both the power of music and mnemonics, I'd say. Let's just hope that I can replace "simply melody with a simple rhythm" with "shredding guitars, polyrhythms and guttural Cookie Monster vocals" and I'll be good to go!

Anime: Michiko to Hatchin

Hark, I seem to have stumbled upon a treasure trove of excellent anime! This time a somewhat more recent series, just having concluded in March of this year, and one of the most unique and interesting I've seen in quite some time.

ミチコとハッチン immediately struck me as appealing for the simple fact that it's an anime with a little bit of cultural diversity. Don't get me wrong, it's quite understandable that a sizable portion of anime is based in the country it's made in, set in or around high schools because of its target demographic, and so forth - but it all just gets a little boring and stale eventually, doesn't it? Especially in this decade, anime has seriously been bumping down a path of cliche, and don't even get me started on this whole モエ craze...
So how often does an anime set entirely in a (fictional) country resembling South America come along? And how often does a foreign-based anime manage to get everything so right? From the culture and architecture of the Brazilian-esque cities, to the copious use of written Spanish and Portuguese, Michiko to Hatchin quickly demonstrates that not all anime has to be about schoolgirls and ninjas.

The premise is perhaps even more unique, as it follows a mother and daughter (that is, Michiko and Hatchin, also known as Hana) on their journey to track down the girl's father. While this plot might sound a little dull on the surface, it eventually leads to some interesting situations with a colorful (and often dangerous) cast of characters.
Michiko is brash, tough and would more often than not prefer to beat the living tar out of someone rather than put up with their crap. In contrast, Hatchin is far more calm, rational and independent (and quite intelligent and mature for a 10 year old girl), which often causes clashes between the two - quite often, in fact. But ultimately, it's the relationship between mother and daughter that makes this story so compelling and almost believable. The characters of Michiko to Hatchin are, at their core, all too human and vulnerable, capable of succumbing to their own weaknesses and often taunted and tormented by the pains of their past. This leads to some interesting events and revelations, and numerous unexpected outcomes which I daren't spoil... Let's just say that I've rarely seen an anime that breaks the kind of ground Michiko to Hatchin does in terms of storyline and characterization.

If you're looking for something a little different with a dash of crime drama and a whole lot of culture, you could do far worse than Michiko to Hatchin. Fans of Cowboy Bebop should feel right about at home.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

What a long, strange trip it's been

I've come a long, long way since I began in late August of last year. I'm cruising along quite comfortably now, but it hasn't always been this way. I've written in detail about my trials and errors and I've extensively gotten my hands dirty and tested new things in order to figure out exactly what worked best for me, and what did not; that's simply the kind of learner I am. If there's a different way to do something, you'd better believe I'm gonna give it a try. This is sometimes met with success... and sometimes not. Mileage varies, to be sure, but one important fact remains above all else: no matter what I end up doing, I'm still learning Japanese. 

The method is only a minor detail in the grand scheme of things - the most important thing of all is enjoying the ride, because it's gonna be a very, very long one.

So, what have I learned throughout my trial and error? Well, I'll tell you. The following should not be taken as gospel, as there is no such thing when it comes to language acquisition - if it works for you, do it. If it doesn't, change it. I hope that by sharing my experiences and opinions, I can help others discover and form their own.

  • Music
If makes plenty of sense that music is a recommended tool for language acquisition. Repetitive choruses, catchy hooks and common thematic elements should be quite easy to pick up in music, right? But it just doesn't seem to do a whole lot for me.

You know, maybe it's just the way I listen to music in general, but I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the lyrics. Perhaps it's the kind of music I listen to, which is often very melodic, heavy and... well, loud. Lyrics are great and some of my favorite music is absolutely brilliant and poetic in its lyrical content, but it's not something I actively pay attention to - if I can clearly hear and interpret the lyrics, I'll do so. Pop, folk and country music are examples of genres where lyrics are prominently featured and quite difficult to miss. Meanwhile, I doubt you're gonna care nearly as much about lyrics in, say, death metal or shoegaze where they tend to take the back seat to the much more powerful instrumental elements.

Maybe the solution is more Japanese country music.

Whatever the case may be, I don't find myself learning very much from listening to music. YMMV.

  • Subbed material
One of the most prevalent doctrines I've come across is the principle that subbed material is detrimental to the learning process of a language. For the most part, I agree: consider the massive popularity of fansubbed anime, for instance, and that most fans know only the most common of words and phrases. This is no slight against them, because most anime fans have no (or little) desire to learn the language; they simply want to enjoy the show in a language they understand. In that case, of course, subs aren't going to go very far where language learning is concerned.

Conversely, if one is actively working to acquire a language, they'll presumably be paying far more attention to the spoken language than the typical sub watcher. Assuming the subtitles are fairly accurate, a learner with basic knowledge of the language should be able to very easily pick out spoken words to match with subtitles. Without the aid of subs, the watcher is left entirely to context, which may be confusingly ambiguous given the situation, and may be passed up entirely.
In my experience, this has been the case. I certainly pick up plenty of goodies when I watch raw material, but at the point I'm currently at in my "journey", I find myself soaking up a heck of a lot more vocabulary from subtitled stuff. But don't get me wrong - this is not a case of which is better for learning, but a case of two entirely different methods with very different kinds of learning. Whereas one picks up on patterns and words through repetition and context from raw material, one has a more direct, unambiguous link via subtitles, and I believe the brain handles either instance differently.

I must note that subbed material still makes up only a very small portion of what I watch. Ultimately, however, I've found that subbed material is most definitely not the scaly, fire breathing devil it's demonized as by the community at large. Give it a try and see if you get anything out of it - see if you can follow the spoken dialogue and subs at the same time and keep a good dictionary handy (preferably going J-J, if you're manly enough!).

  • Monolingual dictionaries and J-J in general
Ahh yes, the much feared concept of J-J, which even many advanced-level Japanese learners still avoid! The basic idea is that looking up words in a Japanese to Japanese dictionary will give you the most accurate definition in the context of - surprise, surprise! - Japanese, without the many ambiguities and inaccuracies of Japanese to English, all the while giving you crucial exposure to the language and building a familiarity with the way a J-dic works.

It's easy to understand why people might get a little nervous at the prospect of looking an unknown word in a largely unknown language, for obvious reasons which I need not elaborate upon. It's not uncommon for me having to look up words within definitions within definitions, sometimes up to half a dozen or more generations. This can indeed quickly get tiring, but considering how much you've just learned by leaping from word to word, the benefit is right there in plain sight.
Even more profound is the fact that, even if a definition contains several words you don't understand, you can still quite likely get a very good idea of what the word means by the other words in the definition that you can understand. You'll realize this more as you get comfortable to the layout of the dictionary. It's quite a powerful thing, and it gives you access to a huge world of language acquisition at your finger tips.

One thing I've struggled a bit on, however, has been adding J-J definitions to my SRS. For the most part, I found that it's simply too time consuming, tedious and generally not beneficial enough to warrant all the extra typing and copy-pasting - at least not unless the unknown word or words are really tricky ones. Besides, my sentence decks are already, for the most part, monolingual. If the source sentence comes with a translation, I'll paste that too, but I have to highlight it with my mouse in order to make it show up (thanks to some very simple HTML tagging in Anki).

  • One deck to rule them all?
Some months ago, I consolidated my good ol' RTK deck with my growing sentences deck. At the time, it was the best solution to tackle my growing problem of reviewing two relatively beefy decks at the same time, and it worked pretty well. Though I find reviewing RTK cards quite dull, this sorta forced me to get them out of the way before sinking my teeth into the sweet, cream-filled center of the sentences within - gotta eat the vegetables before getting to the dessert, basically.
But boy, did that deck start getting messy and disorganized quickly. I don't keep much of anything meticulous and perfectly arranged, but talk about a bunch of bloat. This wasn't particularly the fault of a consolidated deck as it was my own overzealous experimentation with importing material from spreadsheets and iKnow, resulting in more bloat than Windows Vista and Rush Limbaugh combined. I kept up the reviews regardless.
Recently, I made a brand new deck as something of a supplement, and something of a "fresh start" - that meticulous, clean deck I've sorta always wanted (which, of course, would build up its own clutter over time as well), focusing on NukeMarine and co's awesome 2001KO lists on, vocabulary and onyomi in general. It was then that I realized once again the benefit of having multiple decks - more focused and flexible reviewing.

When it came time to back up Anki for my reformat last week to give Windows 7 a try (pretty slick OS, by the way!), I made the decision to split these two decks into three: RTK would become its own deck once again, as would all my 900~ grammar sentences, and my new, growing vocabulary/onyomi deck. I've been quite happy with this setup. Sure, it means more neglecting my RTK deck while I focus on the two others, but as I've said in the past... I don't think anything can make reviewing that deck any less dull. Luckily, the writing I do when I review sentences goes a long way in reinforcing my mnemonics, so perhaps I can soon retire that poor ol' bag of bones? We'll see... At any rate, I'm back to multiple decks and quite comfortable.

  • Importing SRS material
Letting a spreadsheet or Anki plugin do the hard work and injecting slews of new material into your deck. This is a very tempting proposition, especially considering how much time it takes to enter hundreds, thousands of your own sentences. In some cases, it tends to work out quite well, too - Tae Kim's grammar guide comes to mind.

However, assume you import one thousand new sentences from, each containing a new word you're not familiar with. Will the plugin even import the image and audio along with it? Will it import the kana correctly? If you're like me and prefer to break up kana with spaces and highlight key vocabulary, you're pretty much S.O.L. there, too.
But most of all, doesn't this sort of go against the whole idea of the SRS, where you're technically meant to "learn" the sentence first, before throwing it into the thing? Or, at the very least, having a vague familiarity with the sentence. In my experience, it's that complete unfamiliarity that completely ruins the process of importing material, causing me to spend significantly more time reviewing and frustratingly failing cards, without any sense of association between image, audio, kanji and the sentence itself. 

Allowing yourself time to build those associations beforehand seems like a very important step, which is why I do almost all of my adding by hand. It takes time, to be sure, but my brain thanks me later when I don't have to strain during the already intensive reviewing process to make sense of all this junk! Besides, I can also ensure that I have everything in place the way I want it (as I outlined above) with no unwanted surprises, no B.S., nothing that will slow me down or distract me.

  • Distractions and Concentration
If there's anything more detrimental to progress than distraction, I sure don't want to be on the receiving end of it. I'm sure this is something that everyone is more than a little familiar with, in any line of study or work or what have you: you're chugging along on a project when, suddenly, something inexplicably distracts you from your work and completely derails your concentration. If you're anything like me, it takes time to regain that state of concentration and focus. Whatever that distraction may be - instant messages, door bell from the mail man, booty call on the telephone, dog on fire, fire alarm from the dog on fire, building burning down around you - you can be certain that your focus will be left in shambles after some amount of (or magnitude of) distractions.
If there's a way to prevent this broken focus, I sure haven't found it yet. It helps me to quiet my mind and meditate for a short period of time, certainly, but this is only one step of many back to the path of concentration. The trick is, of course, to prevent these distractions entirely... but that's easier said than done.

One of the tools I sometimes use is, which is just that - simply white/pink/brown noise in the most literal sense, which is actually quite soothing to listening to and does a great job in muffling nearby sounds. The side effect is that this could just as easily muffle any audio cards, but I haven't really had this problem (I do wear headphones often, though).

Another solution for avoiding distraction is finding the best times in the day when possible distractions are kept to the bare minimum. Again, easier said than done, especially for the more busy and active among us. Personally, the early afternoon works well for me, when I can comfortably invest a good hour of uninterrupted SRS review time. When it comes time to add more sentences, distractions aren't as big a deal since that process is a little more mechanical and doesn't require as many mental cogs working in tandem. 

Your mileage, once again, may vary. Sometimes, I just have days where I wake up on the wrong side of the bed and can't seem to focus at all, distractions or none. In those cases I just have to suck it up and do the best I can, which is really the only thing I can do. Other times, I'll go for a week straight with my mind blazing, plowing through anything thrown at me with ease and a pristine clarity. Man, I wish I had those more often.

  • Video games: not just for antisocial kids!
Looking back, as a jaded 20-something, it's easy to grimace at all the time I wasted on video games since a very early age. At the same time, they've undoubtedly helped shape me into who I am today (ahem, for better or worse!), and the experiences have stuck with me quite profoundly. It was largely the classic RPGs of the early 90s that influenced my greatest interests and hobbies (writing, Japanese culture and language, etc), so I can't regret those countless spent hours.

Lucky for me, they'd serve another, far more practical purpose further down the road. I've begun replaying many of them in Japanese, of course, and since I know a great deal of the dialogue by heart, I've found it incredibly easy to adapt to the Japanese script and pick up phrases and words. 
The most recent example is Final Fantasy 6 (classically known as Final Fantasy 3 here in the USA), a game I've probably played to completion a dozen times since its release in 1994. It still ranks as one of my favorite games of all time, and my very favorite Final Fantasy game along with 4. A memorable cast of many, an epic struggle versus an oppressive, power hungry empire (hey now, it was one of the first RPGs to do it, practically!) and dark, thematic elements I had never seen in a game before (many of which were, in fact, censored from the original SNES release). It seemed like the perfect choice of a game to replay, and now a few hours in, I'm sure I made the right choice. Loads of text and a story I already know like the back of my hand makes for some highly effective language learning.

Another example was Cave Story, which was actually only recently released, in 2004. I discovered it about two years ago and loved it to pieces, got the itch to play it again recently, and of course did so in Japanese (this time completing the insane difficulty "hell mode", to boot!).

Even if your past experience with RPGs (and any other text heavy game with a Japanese release, really) is nonexistent, I highly recommend picking up a few. I can hardly imagine a more fun language learning activity, personally.

That covers most of the bases for the time being. Needless to say, I've gotten my hands dirty in the brief time I've spent so far, and yet, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. There's much experimentation, trial and error ahead, and much to learn. Never a dull moment, that's for sure, but considering how long the road to fluency is, this is nothing but a good thing.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Games: 洞窟物語 (Cave Story)

Developed entirely by one talented individual known as Pixel over the span of five years and released for free on the Internet is perhaps the finest freeware indie game ever made, entitled 洞窟物語 (Doukutsu Monogatari), better known as Cave Story.

In Cave Story, you play the role of an android named Quote as you awaken in a strange village of rabbit-like anthropomorphic creatures called Mimiga. You quickly discover that all is not right in this odd land where the Mimiga are being terrorized and kidnapped by an enigmatic figure known only as "The Doctor" and his henchmen. Of course, saving them all from certain doom is your job.

Gameplay in Cave Story is rather similar to the Metroid series, giving you a modest variety of weaponry and tools to overcome obstacles and enemies. The potency and power of weapons can be increased by collecting the shards dropped by enemies, capable of leveling most items up through four tiers, with level 1 being relatively weak and maxed level 3 quite destructive by comparison.
Be careful, though - Cave Story's difficulty can be quite harsh, and indeed, within the first minutes of the game you'll likely meet an untimely demise, even if you're careful. Quote begins the game with very few hit points, making even a few hits (or one gentle poke from a spike) quite deadly. Additionally, Quote's currently equipped weapon loses quite a bit of its "EXP" whenever he takes damage, so you'll want to take care to keep your weapons maintained and maxed out whenever possible to maximize your damage output.
As if the main portion of the game wasn't tricky enough, the game contains a few hidden challenges with absolutely demonic difficulty for those masochists among us.

Coding, artwork and graphics, music and sounds - everything in Cave Story was built from the ground up by one man. The amount of time, effort, sweat and blood that's gone into this game is nothing short of amazing, and every ounce of it shows from beginning to end. Whereas many games of today are backed by tens of millions of dollars and dozens, if not hundreds of developers and still turn out mediocre, at best, it's an inspiring thing to see the work of one man take fruition and excel so far - and for such a low price, all the while.

Of course, the game has been entirely translated into English (as well as other languages), but you'll download the Japanese client, won't you?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

RevTK stories and political correctness

This is quite a peeve of mine that stretches back to when I first began RTK in late August of last year.

I stumbled upon the rich resource of creative, helpful RTK mnemonic stories in RevTK rather quickly, which served incredibly beneficial over the next few months as I worked my way through. What I quickly noticed, however, were the amount of "reports" against stories with anything remotely related to race, gender, sex and sexuality and so forth. In my mind, I began to imagine that every single user of this site must be a prude of enormous magnitude to be offended by such trivial things - things which Mr. Heisig himself would probably give a polite nod to, as he originally recommended the use of extremely exaggerated, even shocking mnemonics, as an effective memory tool.

Of course, after becoming more involved with the community, I discovered that most users were mature and rational enough to either understand the usefulness of shocking, vulgar stories, or ignore them and move on. After all, the entire Heisig process is a very personal one, and one mnemonic story may be useless for one person, whereas it sticks immediately for another, so some amount of variety, even vulgar, is surely beneficial.
But as I poked through the threads, I'd come across calls to delete specific stories which were supposedly vile, disgusting or immoral. Almost always the same kind of thread, really - someone, somehow, gets their feelings hurt by a funky little two sentence story meant to aid in the recollection of a Chinese character, and demands that it's removed. Rarely are these stories removed (I can't recall a specific incident, anyway).

It boggles my mind that intelligent adults such as these can get so wound up on something so trivial and meaningless, when it's so easy to turn the other way. When one can instead use rational thought to understand the existance and usefulness of such things, of counter-points and opinions, rather than crying foul and demanding censorship which benefits no one. 

Political correctness is a disease I'd rather stay far, far away from; it's an impossibility to satisfy everyone, it's impossible not to offend or upset someone by means of simple words. So what do we do? We censor ourselves, the way we speak and our opinions. We make up new terms and phrases to mask the original, offending ones. Where does it end? Who's to say what's offensive and what's acceptable?

My ol' buddy George Carlin sums it up in his skit titled "Euphemisms" better than anyone:

We have no more deaf people in this country. Hearing impaired. No more blind people. Partially sighted or visually impaired. No more stupid people, everyone has a learning disorder. Or he's minimally exceptional. How would you like to told that about your child? 'He's minimally exceptional.' Psychologists have actually started calling ugly people those with severe appearance deficits. It's getting so bad that any day now I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an unwilling sperm recipient!
And we have no more old people in this country. No more old people. We shipped them all away and we brought in these senior citizens. Isn't that a typically American twentieth century phrase? Bloodless. Lifeless. No pulse in one of them. A senior citizen. But I've accepted that one. I've come to terms with it. I know it's here to stay. We'll never get rid of it. But the one I do resist, the one I keep resisting, is when they look at an old guy and say, "Look at him Dan, he's ninety years young." Imagine the fear of aging that reveals. To not even be able to use the word old to describe someone. To have to use an antonym.
And fear of aging is natural. It's universal, isn't it? We all have that. No one wants to get old. No one wants to die. But we do. So we bullshit ourselves. I started bullshitting myself when I got in my forties. I'd look in the mirror and say, "Well...I guess I'm getting ...older." Older sounds a little better than old, doesn't it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer. Bullshit, I'm getting old. And it's okay. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die. I'll pass away. Or I'll expire, like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they'll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient care outcome. And if it's the result of malpractice they'll say it was a therapeutic misadventure.
I'm telling ya, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit ...makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill."
My one and only concern with RevTK's story section would be exposing children, but there are manageable solutions that have been discussed in the past, and will likely be put into place in the future (considering the website is administrated by one busy guy, I can totally sympathize). In the meantime, though - exactly how many children actually use Heisig? Having poked through a few "age threads" out of curiosity, the youngest user I came across was 15, which isn't exactly the most innocent age anymore when it comes to racy, risque or borderline-offensive material. Heisig's method was developed with the adult brain in mind, after all, and while nothing explicitly states that a younger mind can't benefit from visual memory mnemonics, the system is clearly geared toward adults. Somehow, "think of the children" doesn't really seem very relevant.

And with that, I leave you with my first official rant on this blog. 
Ultimately, I don't think the matter is a major one on RevTK considering, as I mentioned above, that the community is largely mature, intelligent and rational enough to either understand the potential benefit of, or turn a blind eye to, potentially offending material. I feel that the ever looming threat of censorship (which includes political correctness, in my mind) is one that must be fought on any front if we, as a global community, are to protect the fundamental rights of expression we're entitled to as a social species.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Anime: Kaiji

It's been quite some time since I've been this hooked on anime series.

The spiritual successor to the ridiculously manly (and equally pointy nosed) mahjong suspense series Akagi, Kaiji returns to the bleak underworld of high-stakes yakuza gambles.

The story takes place in late 90s Japan during the recession and follows a dude by the name of Kaiji who seems to follow a never-ending cycle of unemployment, gambling and cheap pranks. One day, he's visited by a man named Endou who intends on collecting Kaiji's outstanding debt, giving him the option of spending the next ten years working low paying jobs to pay it off, or the unique opportunity of boarding a ship called the Espoir where he and others will gamble for the chance to clear their debt and start anew. Obviously, he chooses the latter, because 26 episodes of watching Kaiji clean windows probably wouldn't make for a very entertaining series. (OR WOULD IT?!)

Whereas Akagi starred a confident, natural genius who'd always seem to pull through with incredible strategies, no matter how dire the situation, Kaiji differs dramatically in that he's really quite an average Joe when all is said and done. Mistakes and misfortune aren't uncommon, and often, the series dives into deep psychological analysis of Kaiji and the other characters, which quickly becomes the most crucial aspect of the entire series as mind games abound in gambles of life and death. He often experiences feelings of doubt, temptation, bewilderment and wild philosophical swings that transform his character dramatically throughout the series, leading to some seriously surprising twists and circumstances.

And Kaiji is full of twists, too. Seldom was I able to successfully predict the outcome of any of the situations Kaiji or his few compansions find themselves in, and more often than not, I was quite shocked with how how things turned out. Cunning, ingenuity, deception and desperation carve the way for some of the most exciting, brilliant, disturbing and all around memorable moments in recent anime memory.

Perhaps most memorable, for me, was just how differently each character behaved, thought, and ultimately viewed the world around them. While Akagi certainly touched on these themes, they really lay at the core of Kaiji, exploring the raw humanity of those in positions of extreme desperation, the rich and powerful elite, and everyone in between along the way. With that having been said, Kaiji never becomes too preachy, never claims one character's philosophical perspective to be correct and, indeed, manages to show the highs and lows of nearly every major character in the process.

The gambles themselves are another matter entirely.
A strategic rock, paper, scissors card game may not sound very exciting on the outside, but things quickly gets crazy, and the penalty for losing is intentionally kept ambiguous, with only the odd whispering of rumor about being sent to foreign countries for manual slave labor or being used as a guinea pig for experimental drugs to strike fear into the contestants.
I won't spoil anything by mentioning the other gambles, but let's just say that the stakes are very, very high.

It's definitely not a series for everyone, though. Although I was hooked by the first episode, I must say that I was pretty surprised by how depressing this series can get. Whereas hopelessness almost always leads to a miraculous outcome in most stories, Kaiji doesn't always play by the rules and hopelessness can easily dig itself deeper and deeper. The worst of man's emotions and behavior strike at the worst possible times, and... and well, you'll just have to watch and see, NOW WON'T YOU? Just be sure to have something a little more cheerful to watch afterward.

I should also note that this is one of the first subbed anime I've watched in a while. At first, I was disappointed and irritated to discover that, even as an mkv file, the subs were hard encoded in, leaving me without the option of disabling them and unwilling to seek out raws which would take who knows how long to download.
Now, I know that the overwhelming popular opinion around RevTK and AJATT Land is that subtitled material is basically the Antichrist, but I simply don't buy that. Indeed, watching anything in its original language without aid is the best way to learn language naturally, but if you're stuck with subbed material, it's far from the end of the world and you can soak up plenty of useful information without disrupting the delicate balance of bla bla bla. The amount of vocabulary I picked up from these subbed episodes was quite surprising, and probably would have amounted to an otherwise frustrating experience had I seen this series raw. Don't believe the hype, folks. With that having been said, I'd still recommend raw material over subbed, nine out of ten times.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The journey so far

Well, it's been a little over seven months since I began this little "project" of mine, and just about six months since starting this blog. 

It's interesting looking back on my trials and errors up to the point I'm at now - what's worked for me, what hasn't; what I've enjoyed and what I've occasionally downright loathed. If you've been following my verbal spew for a while, you've likely noticed enough trial, error and frequent change in my routines and methodology to drive any sane man to the brink of insanity. It's a good thing I left mine in the gutter years ago! Sanity, that is.

I'm quite happy and comfortable with where I am now, in both my methods and habits and my current Japanese level, to be honest. If I had focused harder and spent more time on my studies (so to speak), I'd probably be a good deal further along, but given the time and energy I've had I believe I've made a significant dent - an ever-growing crack, perhaps - in my ultimate goal of breaking down this language wall for good. 
Besides - all things in moderation... including moderation. I'm in no rush, I know I'll obtain fluency soon enough, and besides, I still have another good 50 years or more of walking this Earth if all goes well!

As any serious language learner can most certainly tell you, though, it's not just the language knowledge that you obtain from an ordeal such as this. Recently, especially, I've noticed some incredible things with my memory which, while usually more akin to a rusty wheel than a workhorse, has been rapidly leaning further toward the latter as time goes on. 
Of course, it could be the fact that I've been out of school for a few years and simply haven't had the mental stimulation and challenge required to keep my memory up to par (until recently with my Japanese studies), but I think it would be a crime to rule out the visual memory, associative memory and mnemonic techniques I've been practicing this past half-year as heavy contributors to my heightened mental prowess. And let's not forget this wonderful, versatile tool known as SRS, the power of which I've fully realized and utilize on a daily basis.
I've noticed that I'm able to pause briefly, reach into my head and pull out any variety of information with very little effort, such as words (in either English or Japanese), people's names (subconsciously associating a name with a face - not much different from associating a reading with a kanji compound), dates (again, associative and visual memory at work) - it's really quite incredible, yet unsurprising in the grand scheme of things.

This has all impacted my language studies significantly as well, of course, as I'm constantly finding that new words stick easier and I'm no longer failing the same card a dozen times over before I have even a chance to remember it (unless, of course, it's a ridiculously boring word that I'd rather forget, in which case it's probably getting deleted from my deck).

I still have a long way to go, but (at risk of sounding arrogant) I've really impressed myself with how far I've come. I know that there's absolutely no possible way I'll stop now, so it's only a matter of time and exposure. I'm curious to see where I'll be another six months down the line, but that's a tale for another day!