Tuesday 19 August 2003

Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi

It was probably silly and unfair to watch Richard Linklater’s Waking Life immediately after seeing Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away. I’d been looking forward to Linklater’s “animated-live-action” movie for a couple of years, ever since reading the Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review.

The picture, which Linklater both wrote and directed, is a collagelike meditation on the nature of dreams, on the ways in which we proceed through our lives with varying levels of awareness (or a complete lack of it), and on the degree to which we’re influenced by random elements like art or physics or language.

What’s not to like? Art and language absorb most of my attention. And, it’s not just that I have intense, engrossing dreams almost every night—I’ve long been convinced that life is a yume no ukihashi (“a floating bridge of dreams”), in the words of Ivan Morris, “a flimsy, dreamlike structure which we cross in our journey from one state of existence to another”.

There’s no point in trying to explain why I didn’t persist with Waking Life; under different circumstances I might have loved it. The real surprise was the degree to which I was spirited away by Miyazaki’s film. My interest in Japanese language and culture—intense as it is—has never encompassed anime. I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the classics such as Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, The Castle of Cagliostro, Akira, Wings of Honneamise, Neon Genesis Evangelion plus a few hentai titles. Earlier in the year I even waited in line for a special screening of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, only to be turned away when they sold the last tickets to a couple just ahead of me. Still, that hardly qualifies me as a anime fan—you’d cover all the movies I’ve mentioned and more in the first week of Anime 101.

To be honest, I’d been put off by the hype surrounding Spirited Away. But on Thursday nights it’s only AU$2.95 per three-day rental so I grabbed Spirited Away, Waking Life, and a Henry Jaglom movie, Festival in Cannes, which turned out to be a disappointment too. (I’ve admired Henry Jaglom ever since his first feature, the magical A Safe Place, with Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson, and Tuesday Weld but I wrongly assumed that Anouk Aimée would more than compensate for the irksome Gretta Scacchi.)

Poster for Spirited Away (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi)Though I expected to watch a different movie each night, on Thursday night I didn’t even get half-way through Spirited Away. I kept rewinding (do you rewind a DVD?) and watching scenes over and over again—partly to savor the dialog, mainly because the movie is so densely packed with intriguing characters, gorgeous animation, and nostalgic details of everyday Japanese life. On Friday night I managed to get to the end. At which point, even though it was late, I started to watch Spirited Away a second time.

On Saturday morning I spent some time at Nausicaa.net, where I was astonished to learn that the Japanese title is 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi) which is (literally) “Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away” or “Sen and Chihiro’s (experience of) being spirited away”.

神隠し (kamikakushi) is derived from (kami: god) and 隠す (kakusu: hide/conceal). One of my dictionaries offers the following example sentence:

Mukashi, kodomo ga yukuefumei ni naru to kamikakushi ni atta to itta mono da.
Formerly, when children were missing, people used to say they had been spirited away (by a fairy [ghost]).

Sen and chi are alternate pronunciations for the character , meaning “one thousand”, while hiro, , means “fathom” (1.8 meters or six feet). Jim Breen’s Enamdict dictionary of Japanese names, offers the meanings “one thousand fathoms”, “great depth”, and “bottomless” for Chihiro though the second meaning, “great depth”, is probably closest.

I’m sure that 99.99% of a Western audience would think of 10 year-old Chihiro as the protagonist of Spirited Away. Chihiro and her parents wander into an invisible parallel world populated by gods and monsters, a hot spring town where “eight million gods come to rest their weary bones”. Her parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro’s only chance of surviving long enough to set them free is to work for Yubaba, the greedy witch who runs the bath house where most of the action takes place. Yubaba deprives Chihiro of her name, saying that it’s too complicated, and that from now on she’ll be known as Sen.

Thus, from a Western perspective, a timid, querulous little girl Chihiro is “turned into” Sen and discovers through the course of the story that she is resourceful, loyal, and courageous whereupon, at the end, she “turns back into herself” (Chihiro) again. Not only does the English title, Spirited Away, infer that the story is about Chihiro alone but the French and Spanish titles are completely unambiguous: Le Voyage de Chihiro and El viaje de Chihiro respectively. The Russian version is called Unesenniye prizrakami (I trust a Russian speaker will reveal the meaning in a comment) whereas the Chinese title is Shen Yin Shao Niu (The Missing Girl).

But the original Japanese title, Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi (“Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away”) implies that Sen was always present within Chihiro and one of the story’s themes is Chihiro’s discovering a lost or unacknowledged part of her identity. I’m not suggesting that a Western audience won’t understand the story at this level; I’m simply pointing out that the Western translations of the title fail to communicate something that—from the Japanese perspective—lies at the heart of the story. Sen always understands that her “real” name is Chihiro and that if she forgets her name she has no chance of freeing herself and her parents. In that sense, another theme of the film is the need to value words, including one’s name. As Miyazaki Hayao explains:

A word has power. In the world into which Chihiro has wandered, to say a word out of one’s mouth has a grave importance. At Yuya, which is ruled by Yubaba, if Chihiro says one word like “No” or “I wanna go home,” the witch would quickly throw Chihiro out. She would have no choice but to keep aimlessly wandering until she vanishes, or is changed into a chicken to keep laying eggs until she is eaten. In turn, if Chihiro says “I will work here,” even the witch cannot ignore her. Today, words are considered very lightly, as something like bubbles. It is just a reflection of reality being empty. It is still true that a word has power. It’s just that the world is filled with empty and powerless words.

The act of depriving (a person) of one’s name is not just changing how one (person) calls the other. It is a way to rule the other (person) completely. Sen becomes horrified when she realizes that she is losing the memory of her name, Chihiro. And every time she visits her parents at the pigsty, she becomes (more) accustomed to her parents as pigs. In the world of Yubaba, you should always live in the danger of being eaten up.

In this difficult world, Chihiro becomes lively. The sullen, listless character would have a surprisingly attractive expression in the end of the film. The essence of the world has not changed a bit. This film will persuade one of the fact that a word is one’s will, oneself, and one’s power.

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My experience of 'Waking Life' is almost the opposite of 'Spirited Away' and its careful consideration of language and, more generally, the importance of each choice the characters make. 'Waking Life' (like most of Linklater's work) suffers from an inability to make any choices: every word is thrown out lightly, as if they all have the same weight to the story (none), so the whole film falls apart under the burden of its own pretense. Linklater lacks Miyazaki's ability to blend the ethereal and the concrete into a stories that offer more than self-indulgence. That indulgence may mirror our dreamstates, but to make the film just a mirror of inner confusion is an imitative fallacy, not an effective narrative device--something Miyazaki seems to know.

Posted by steve on 19 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I haven't seen either movie, but you've certainly whetted my appetite for Spirited Away (and dampened it for the Linklater). The Russian title means 'carried away by ghosts/phantoms,' with a plural participle, so (implying both Sen and Chihiro) it would seem to be the best foreign rendering of those you mention.

Posted by language hat on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You turn right around, young man, and don't you let me see your face again until you've watched _My Neighbor Totoro_.

I said march!

_Robot Carnival_ is hard to find, but it's got some segments worth watching. (Some not so much, I warn you in advance. The carnival segment is pretty cliched. But the little-robot-journey segment would redeem much worse than that.)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

While I saw Spirited Away a couple times already, I want to go there again this time armed with the knowledge you provided. I was aware of the importance of will and commitment, the important role that an expression had in Yubaba’s world has. Of course, the symbols are powerful enough to carry their meaning, but a thorough illustration makes the discussion much more animated and deep.

Posted by Camilo on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The next time I go to that wasteland known as Blocksbuster I'll actually have something to look for, Jonathon. Thanks.

My favorite current movie is Whale Rider, and one of my all-time favorite movies is Edward Scissorhands, and this movie seems to fall in the same category.

Posted by Loren on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm amazed that Spirited Away has resonated so well with non-Japanese audiences. It is very Japanese in my opinion and there's stuff in there that's gotta seem a little strange. I don't mean the big stuff. I'm talking the little stuff. Like the interest in food. Every Japanese drama/animation/etc. that I have ever seen makes big deal of food. If you aren't interested in food you might not notice. But food is very important in Japanese culture and you see a lot of it in Spirited Away.

I think whoever did the script for the English version did a pretty darn good job. Some things are kinda tough, like the way Chihiro is left with only the first character of her name. Or the fact that the title has to have a couple extra layers of meaning to it. Jonathon's already pointed out that the title means "Spirited Away". But, of course, the movie takes place in a Ryokan (a Japanese inn) for spirits. It is the kind of place where the spirits can "hide" to get away from it all. And, of course, Chihiro herself is hidden among all the spirits.

My favorite play on words in the English script is No-Face. The mask of that character looks a lot like the kinds of masks you'd see on characters in a Noh play. Now I don't know if Miyazaki had that in mind. In fact, in the Japanese version that character is simply kao-nashi, which means, well, basically no-face :) But in English you get that little extra pun.

My wife tells me that hard-core Miyazki fans in Japan don't consider Spirited Away to be one of his best works. Ditto for Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke). Actually, Japanese culture spins around Manga, for the most part. Many of the movies, animations, and tv dramas that appear in Japan are from Manga. We never see the really good stuff. In fact, most of the stuff we do see, such as Dragon Ball, Inuyasha, etc. is really for kids. The adult stuff is really really amazing. Full of all kinds of amazing layers and textures. Now that stuff would be really tough to translate into English, I'm betting, and a lot of the meaning would be lost.

Although a completely different kind of movie, Metropolis is also very good.

Posted by Will Leshner on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Oh, and while I'm at it, Hakkenden is good stuff. Much of it went straight over my head, but I still liked it.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Ok. I guess my wife doesn't buy my ideas about the title of Spirited Away. She tells me that a native speaker of Japanese wouldn't read so much into it, but instead, would just get the "Spirited Away" sense of it. Chalk it up to overzealous.

Posted by Will Leshner on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

A Japanese colleague of mine made an interesting comment on "Sen to Chihiro." He said that he felt it was the first truly Shinto movie he had ever seen -- and that it reflected a kind of domestic Shinto, not the codified state-sponsored Shinto of the Meiji Restoration and since: the domestic world of old Japan, populated with spirits and ghosts. I thought it was an interesting perspective.

Posted by xiaolongnu on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Japanese all time box office is something like: 1) Spirited Away, 2) Titanic, 3) Princess Mononoke, 4) Star Wars Episode I. Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki's production company) dominates the sell thru DVD top 20.

Rather than My Neighbour Totorro (aimed more firmly at a children's audience) or Princess Mononoke (adolescent audience), I'd highly recommend Miyazaki's Porco Rosso, that SBS plays intermittently and is coming out on DVD later this year. (Studio Ghibli also produced Graveyard For Fireflies, that language hat recommended regarding the firebombing of Kobe.)

Miyazaki films have been constant successes with my friends who (bizarrely) dislike all things Japanese. I'm extremely impressed with the dubs and subs that John Lasseter's team at Disney have produced. (I'd be interested to know what other people think of the elision of Haku's fate in the English version.)

Posted by David Golding on 20 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Several of the comments here are interesting. I think the comparison between Linkletter and Miyazaki are interesting -- I think both are excellent, bold filmmakers: a commonality is that they make enigmatic films. You can watch "Waking Life" or "Spirited Away" a number of times and find interesting bits you didn't notice before. Linkletter may not have the storytelling mastery of Miyazaki, but I hardly think you can criticize "Waking Life" for its lack of plot or storytelling -- it's free-form and full of little moments of lucidity or interest -- we really don't care that much about Wiley nor should we. It's the incidental characters he encounters that are important.

Similarly, "Sen" or "Chihiro" is not that great of a character. She kinda grows up in the film -- but compared to other Miyazaki heroines, she's not top-notch (see Nausica or Porco Rosso for greater ones). I was annoyed by her -- especially in the beginning -- but she grew on me, the same way Alice does as she makes her way through Wonderland.

The commenter who connected the film to old Shinto -- that was interesting. I would like to know more about this. It seems a very astute reading of the film.

I also agree with the last commenter -- Porco Russo is an awesome Miyazaki movie that gets overlooked. I think it really works because it has 1) the miyazaki young heroine, 2) airships (specifically early 20th century airplanes, a Miyazaki fetish) and 3) a great, solid male character (usually the lack of this to balance the main heroine is the problem with his films). And Porco has a lot of style.

Bootleg copies of miyazaki's collection (I'm sorry to say it -- but sometimes the best way to find the other miyazaki movies) are available on ebay or amazon. I got mine for like 50 bucks -- something like 12 movies. wotta deal.

Posted by jon holt on 21 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm with the person who commented that he will now know what to look for next time at the video rental place. About food: anyone remember Tampopo? Talk about food priorities! I had two Japanese brothers-in-law (one died), and although I haven't been to Japan, I can attest to the food obsessions, since one family lived in NY for a while and I was able to visit: from preparation (don't touch the chef's knives) to presentation, everything had to be in synch, flowing, graceful. Very different from us cheese-eating, buttery-smelling westerners whose very pores betray slippery and intrusive habits....

Posted by Yule Heibel on 21 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Wonderful movie! And it makes appropriate fun of Western dining habits...

Posted by language hat on 21 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Yes. I had a friend who thought it (Tampopo) was too western, but I don't think so. The food angle is very Japanese. But another movie by the same director (Juzo Itami) called The Funeral (Ososhiki) might be more what my friend was looking for. There's also A Taxing Woman (Marusa no onna), which is quite famous. I think you can now get all these movies from Amazon.

Posted by Will Leshner on 21 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks, everyone, for the great comments.

Steve, since I haven't seen Linklater's other films I have no frame of reference for Waking Life. I'd always intended to give it another try, which I'll definitely do in light of Jon's comment.

LH, Loren, and Yule, I'd be pretty surprised if you didn't enjoy Spirited Away -- if you do get to see it, please let me know what you think.

Dorothea, thanks for the recommendations. I'll see if I can track down My Neighbor Totoro, Robot Carnival, and Hakkenden.

Having watched the movie a couple of times also, Camilo, I've ordered the DVD from Amazon. I have the feeling it's one of those films one never tires of watching.

Will, you're absolutely right about the importance of food in the movie and in Japanese culture generally. Much of my interaction with Japanese friends centers on going to restaurants, cooking, eating, etc. No-Face was my favorite character. I just loved the scene where they get on the train to go to visit Zeniba and Sen/Chihiro tells No-Face to sit down and behave himself. As for the title, my Japanese friend Natsuko didn't think it was such a big deal either. But she couldn't explain why the film wasn't simply called Kamikakushi, even though the single word is extremely expressive.

I agree with you, xiaolongnu, that the film is permeated with Shinto beliefs. Interestingly, my friend Natsuko who has lived in the west for years, still holds extremely strong animist/Shinto beliefs. She once told me that she could never be a Christian because she couldn't believe in a single god given that there are gods everywhere.

David, I'll keep my eye out for Porco Rosso and I've ordered Graveyard of the Fireflies. I didn't watch the dubbed version of Spirited Away so I'll have to wait till the DVD arrives to see what happens to Haku in the English version.

Jon, thanks for defending Waking Life. As I said, I'll watch it again (it's exactly the kind of movie I normally love). I also had the same response to Chihiro at the beginning of the movie but she soon grew on me. And thanks for the tip about locating other Miyazaki films. I'd like to see as many as I can, now.

And Yule, you've reminded me of Tampopo, which I have on tape but haven't looked at for years. Time to see it again.

Posted by Jonathon on 21 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Um, call me Queen Obvious or something, but I think you're *supposed* to think Chihiro is a brat when the movie starts.

I know I did; sounds like everybody else did too.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 22 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

My favorite of Juzo Itami's films--though "Tampopo" is way the hell up there, and "The Funeral" is really, really good--is "Minbo," (usually) subtitled "The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion" in English. It's really funny, charming as hell, uplifting yadda yadda, and a powerful corrective to any mythic portrayal of the yakuza (or any gangster culture, really) that you'd care to name.

But that's Itami, and this is Miyazaki, and "Spirited Away"--which, I've just discovered, was titled "Chihiros Reise ins Zauberland" in Germany, and "El Viaje de Chihiro" in Mexico (which for no particular reason reminds me of the movie posters I saw in Madrid years ago for John Waters' "Serial Mom," which was called "Los Assassinidos del Mama"--I may be flubbing the basic Spanish, but I am monolingual). Miyazaki's stepping out of retirement (again) for a new film due out next year: "Howl's Moving Castle," based on a book by Diana Wynn Jones, so yay! --And as a sideline to the Shinto/rural spirits discussion, I'd recommend "Raccoon Wars," also called "Pom Poko" (from the Japanese title, "Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko" (Miyazaki produced, but did not direct). It'll break your heart--and folks familiar the masking theory Scott McCloud talks about in the context of comics can watch it being used in some very interesting ways in animation, as the raccoons move back and forth from realistic to hyper-cartoony representations.

Posted by --kip on 22 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Did you watch the DVD extras? I thought that the sketches were amazing in themselves. They may have even conveyed more than the actual film did.

Posted by CC on 22 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

On the basis of Jonathon's write-up and these comments, I bought a copy of Spirited Away the other day, and watched it last night with my daughter. There may be a spoiler or two ahead for anyone who hasn't seen the movie.

Although it's naturally and intimately bound in its Japanese cultural context, the appeal of the story is universal because it is essentially a "hero's journey" tale. Birth, death, resurrection, Chihiro, Sen, then Chihiro again, but transformed. Denial, "It's just a dream, it's just a dream, it's just a dream." Bargaining with Haku (sp?) to get her parents back. Anger, depression, the stages of grief are all there, followed at last by acceptance where Sen begins to discover herself beyond her concerns about her new school and her new home.

What was gratifying was Chihiro's simple innocence, which she managed to retain, her faith in Haku and ultimately in herself.

She even wins a boon, in this case the memory of Haku's true name and his liberation.

Then there is the return, along with her parents, to the "real" world. It's the hero's journey through and through, in a delightfully told story.

My favorite characters were the little soot pixies, and the three heads...though the transformed bird and baby were pretty amusing too. All the characters were delightful in some way.

Posted by Dave Rogers on 24 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Kip, I have Minbo no Onna on tape and it's every bit as good as you say. Thanks for the pointer to Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, I've added it to my list -- particularly since it was directed by Takahata Isao (Graveyard of the Fireflies).

CC, the DVD I rented didn't have any extras but the one I've ordered from Amazon does. I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Dave, it is a classic "hero's journey" tale, as you say. And while it's clear that all the adults around here enjoyed Spirited Away, I'm curious about what your daughter thought of the movie...

Posted by Jonathon on 24 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm not a big fan of anime but after your write up Jonathon, and the discussion here, I decided to see if this movie is in my public library's fairly extensive DVD collection.

The library had an entry for the DVD, but no copies yet. I was able to place a request for a VHS of the movie, though all copies of it are on hold filling back requests. Others must share the same interest in this film.

The library also has a book with the original screenplay, adapted to English by Yuji Oniki, but with "...some Japanese characters". According to the book's cover description, "This book is printed and should be read it its original Japanese right-to-left format".

I ordered this also. Curious to see how easy it will be to read.

Posted by Shelley on 25 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Further checking -- this book is first in a five volume series that scans images from the movie and recomposes them into strips. The scanned images are read, right to left, but the text is traditional left to right English.

Posted by Shelley on 25 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Bb, I'm curious as to what you'll do if the illustrated screenplay arrives before the VHS tape...

Posted by Jonathon on 25 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Not sure. Depends on how long before VHS comes in and how long I can hold the book. It's the first of a five volume set, I guess I could consider it a rather long, slow moving trailer.

Posted by Shelley on 25 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, I'll ask Caitie what she thought of the movie, but I'm not sure how much I'll get more than "I liked it." She watched it again the next day with her friend who is almost never allowed to watch anything on television at our house. I don't know if she was doing it without permission or what...

Language Hat mentioned that he thought the movie was making fun of western eating habits. I'm not sure if he was serious about it, because it could easily be taken that way; but the movie was set in Japan which would seem to be an odd place to comment on western eating habits. And in the only other bit of anime I've watched a lot, Dragonball Z, that's the way the heroes eat, especially Goku.

I did notice something that seemed to be an odd sort of homage to Disney, although in kind of a mirror-image. The boiler tender has magical powers of some kind, he was able to put the coal soot under a spell to carry coal to the boiler. It reminded me a lot of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia, except there Mickey puts a spell on a broom to help him clean, only to make a bigger mess - while the boiler tender puts a spell on the dirt who neatly carry the coal to the boiler.

Probably reading way too much into it to call in an homage, but it seemed intriguing.

Posted by dave_rogers on 26 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dave: Have you seen Tampopo? There's a scene in which Japanese are taking a course on how to eat Western-style. The Japanese do "comment" on things outside Japanese tradition, you know. (There's also a hilarious scene in which a very junior salaryman turns out to be the only one at a company lunch who can cope with the French menu and wine list.)

Posted by language hat on 26 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

A lot of the "over-the-head"-ness of Hakkenden (and it's not an uncommon comment) has to do with the extremely compressed nature of the anime. They, the producers, also decided to not include narration or a narrative style, which is interesting. The novel, in contrast, is much more straightforward. Almost Dumas-like in its way. (I enjoy both, but the two have very different feels to them.)

Mostly, when I think of the title for Sen to Chihiro, I remember the speculation when the title was announced. Who were the thousand who were being spirited away? While it's not quite grammatical (sennin to chihiro, I guess), it's another way of looking at the title. (The title is lovely to look at too, with the repetition of the kanji like that. I think it looks nicer written than it sounds said, actually, but that could be just me.)

Posted by isfogailsi on 26 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This is in the nature of a postscript:

The book came in but the movie may be weeks. I couldn't wait so read the first of the five volumes of the annotated screenplay. What an interesting challenge for reading, as you read the book back to front, right to left. The English is left to right, but the bubble captions are also read right to left. And then there's this odd vertical thing, and interesting sound annotation. The artwork of the backdrops is incredible, like nothing I've seen before; and the story is surreal, which means it appeals to me. I went through it rather quickly.

I will have to break my self-imposed discipline and not wait on the public library and rent the movie.

Posted by Shelley on 30 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Shelley, that sounds like an interesting challenge indeed. If you have a scanner, it would be great to see a page or two...

I'm glad you're going to rent the movie. The thought of your having to wait for weeks was making *me* tense.

Posted by Jonathon on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by olit on 10 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by olta on 10 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

where can i get the script in english or in spanish? i mean, free and in the internet...?

Posted by A. Molina on 27 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Now if you think the French or Spanish Title of Spirited Away is bad, have a laugh at the German one: "Chihiros Reise in's Zauberland" (Chihiros journey to the Land of Magic (or also to the magical Land).
This is so bad! The whole mythological notion of the land of the Kami is lost. Sometimes I wonder what kind of people do such poor translations...

Posted by Sigur on 23 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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