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!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Listening spree

I haven't really been updating very often lately, but that's because I haven't felt the need to discuss much - things are really going pretty well and I have very few things to rant or whine about.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been focusing my energy on listening - lots and lots of listening to a variety of material, over and over again. This is something I've tried doing in the past, mostly using KeyholeTV, with... mixed results. (90% of Japanese TV makes me want to tear my hair out - which I suppose is still a significant improvement over American TV) 
I tried again with various Japanese audiobooks, but never really found very much that I cared to hear dozens of times over. (我輩は猫である seemed nice - but the narrator began to grate on me, and the story was far too long for repetitive listening)

Then, recently, I decided to dig up the ol' audio book thread at RevTK, download as much as I could, find a few keepers and then stick with them for a while. It actually didn't take very long for me to find some really fantastic listening material. I must say I'm most partial Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, which are exceptionally well narrated and acted, and seem at least a little more appealing to me than something like Little Red Riding Hood - not that there's anything wrong with listening to children's stories! It's actually quite interesting hearing classic lines such as "The better to eat you with" in Japanese - like Khatz says, listening to a translated version of something you're very familiar with and have heard many times before in your native language is really a great way to pick up bits of your second language.

I also had to weed out some of the more obnoxious material, unfortunately, most of which had irritating background music and/or narration that made me want to punch a puppy. Seriously. I can deal with a little background music if it's relevant to the story, or a tasteful intro ditty... but most of the stories on, for example, are just begging for an asskicking. Ah well - something tells me that their target audience isn't the jaded 20-something crowd...

At any rate, I have around 8-9 hours of material which I'm listening to as frequently as I can, mostly passively as I go about my day. I'm probably averaging about 8 hours of listening a day, having listened to most of these stories several times by now, and although I still find it difficult to understand much, I'm really starting to patch things together and understand more and more, without even having consulted transcripts yet. It's really quite impressive how the brain can piece together puzzles such as these on its own, if given enough repetition and time.
Next step will be the transcripts, of course.

Friday, April 3, 2009

I have seen the depths of Hell

...and it came in the form of Takashi Miike films.

Some weeks ago, I was introduced to the existence of some particularly disturbing and controversial movies by a friend of mine, by an incredibly prolific and versatile Japanese director by the name of Takashi Miike. While his portfolio included a wide range of material, including a recent live-action Yatterman (which supposedly followed the original anime quite faithfully), I took a morbid curiosity in his more notorious films - mainly 殺し屋1 (Ichi the Killer) and Visitor Q.

Now, I'm normally not one to take a fascination in the particularly morbid or shocking. In fact, I generally avoid such things unless there's some kind of meaningful underlying artistic message to be conveyed. I love such films as A Clockwork Orange and Oldboy - movies which could easily be described as shocking, and perhaps morbid - but both powerful in their own right and well worth watching. Going into these two Miike films, I really wasn't sure what to expect apart from the over the top "torture porn" and vague recommendations I had been given.

I could tell early on that I would enjoy 殺し屋1. Lots of colorful yakuza language (complete with plenty of deep growls and rolled Rs!) you'd never hear in everyday Japanese, an interesting premise with equally interesting characters (particularly the sadomasochistic Kakihara, pictured above), and a dark sense of humor I could immediately appreciate. Oh yeah, and enough blood and gore to make Kill Bill look like the frolic through Gumdrop Lane it really is by comparison. Make no mistake about it - if you don't have an appreciate for dark humor and a cast iron stomach for buckets of blood, dismemberment, torture, graphic jugular-spraying deaths, violent rape and other such delightful matter I really don't care to go into on this blog, you'll most likely want to pass up this film. For the rest of us - indeed, for the couple dozen of us - 殺し屋1 is a surprisingly enjoyable and well made film that I can highly recommend.

Now, as for Visitor Q... My first impression came from skimming its plot on Wikipedia, which was probably a bad idea, in hindsight, as the more shocking parts of the film stood out against the important subtleties which fill this movie to the brim. As a result, I was put off from watching it until I had manned up and watched 殺し屋1 and craved something more.
At its core, Visitor Q is a comedy. A very, very, very black comedy the likes of which I've never seen before, and most likely never will see again. The premise is rather simple - an intensely dysfunctional family (a runaway prostitute daughter, a bullied son who takes out his frustration on his defenseless, heroin addicted mother, and a father with numerous serious problems) and a mysterious, unknown man (known as Visitor Q, but never named in the film) who quite comically works his way into the household, and the bizarre turn of events that unfolds as a result.
Like 殺し屋1, much of the film can be difficult to watch, but in this case, for entirely different purposes. Visitor Q manages to tackle more social and sexual taboos in its two hours than the whole of Howard Stern's career combined. Much of the imagery is intense and shocking, yet the bits of comedy thrown in manage to lighten the mood, if ever slightly. Speaking of comedy relief, Visitor Q is downright hilarious at times, though you may be laughing it up between visits to the barf bag.
All in all, I'd have to say that Visitor Q was probably one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen, and easily the most disturbing comedy. There's certainly a message to be conveyed beneath it all, though - a message which mocks and satirizes modern society, dysfunctional family matters and numerous taboos. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this film.

I certainly plan to see more Miike films, but I think I'll try and space them out within a span of one month a piece. For obvious reasons.