Sunday 05 October 2003

Not a bug in Mojikyo, but rather a feature of Unicode

It wasn’t a bug in Mojikyo, nor the fact that Windows is a sorry excuse for an operating system—rather it turned out to be the inherent design of Unicode that limits my ability to display (on a Web page) both variants of the Chinese character mentioned in my previous post.

Variants of the boku character used in the title of Kafu's Bokuto kidanA comprehensive explanation came via email from Mr Tanimoto of the Mojikyo Institute, confirming what Brian Hunziker and gaemon had suggested in their comments: that the two variants of the character “boku” (shown at the left) have the same Unicode number (or, in Unicode-speak, “share a single codepoint”). In his comment, Brian linked to a screenshot of the Macintosh Character Palette showing how Mac OS X allows one to choose between the two variants; in response to an email request, he graciously made new screenshots and gave me permission to reproduce them. In the illustration below, the green triangles to the right of certain characters indicate that alternatives exist to the character being currently displayed. At the bottom of the Character Palette, a button provides access to the character variants which share the same codepoint.

Macintosh Japanese character palette
(Scaled down screenshot— click to see full size image)

In a BYTE article titled Unicode Evolves, Ken Fowles explains how codepoints work:

The Unicode/ISO10646 standard provides one uniform 16-bit encoding that can store information from all the world’s commonly used scripts. The key word here is “standard.” Unicode itself is a standard, not a technology. Where technology gets involved is how the software makes use of the standard.

The Unicode concept of parking characters into a 64-KB space sounds simple enough — until you realize there are three or four times that many characters in the world’s written languages. So a key part of Unicode’s design is to handle that 64-KB space as valuable real estate since it has to support a large number of scripts in one consistent encoding.

Several parts of Unicode’s design help it maximize this use of what’s called a codepoint , the permanent Unicode address of each character. For example, diacritic marks in most other character sets are not stored as unique characters, but in Unicode each diacritic can be separately tracked and shared among several characters. Codepoints are conserved through Han Unification, sort of like a highway carpool lane where two or three characters with similar appearance share the same space. To Unicode, small differences in appearance should be handled as a font issue, not by inventing another character encoding. Also, Unicode does not guarantee a particular sort order, since software should handle that separately.

Thus, the two variants of “Kafū’s boku character” share a single codepoint (濹). The crucial concept—the one that led me to to wonder if a bug in Mojikyo caused it to produce the same Unicode character entity for each variant—is that, as Mr Tanimoto explained in his email, Unicode does not differentiate between design differences within the same character—each character is assigned a codepoint and “the judgement of which design is adopted is left to the font maker”.

The Mojikyo system, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach by separately registering all the different designs of a particular character and assigning to each variant a separate Mojikyo number. Mr Tanimoto illustrated the relationship between Unicode and Mojikyo—as it applies to the boku character—with an ASCII diagram in his email, which I’ve recreated here:

Relationship between Mojikyo and Unicode numbers for boku character

As Brian Hunziker’s screenshot shows, the Hiragino Mincho Pro font includes both variants:

Detail of Macintosh Character Palette showing font variant selection

Unfortunately, as one might expect, the IME Pad (the Windows XP “equivalent” of the Macintosh Character Palette) and MS Mincho font combo leave a lot to be desired:

Windows XP IME pad

I wrapped the word “equivalent” in quotation marks because there is really no way that the butt-ugly Windows IME Pad can compete with the design, functionality, and appearance of the Macintosh Character Palette. Nor do any of the Windows Japanese fonts (MS Mincho, MS Gothic, and Arial Unicode MS) include the range of character variants included in Apple’s beautiful Hiragino Mincho Pro font.

“I hope I’ll not derail this into a Mac vs. PC discussion as that certainly is not my intention”, wrote Brian Hunziker in his comment. That’s OK, I’m sufficiently irritated to derail it myself:

<rant>The relentless mediocrity of Japanese support under Windows absolutely typifies Microsoft’s “near enough is good enough” approach to functionality and interface design. In fact, Windows Japanese support seems about as good as that offered by the Japanese Language Kit I was using on the Macintosh in the late eighties.

I get so tired of hearing about all the super-smart people who work for Microsoft when it’s abundantly clear that either they don’t have a clue about how to do things properly or else they don’t give a rat’s arse about anything but gouging money out of users and causing us grief.

Using the Windows operating system—as distinct from using Windows applications, many of which are superb—is like having to take photographs with a Soviet Zorki or Kiev camera when you could be using a Leica or a Hasselblad. Sure, you can take great pictures with a shitty camera but, since you’re constantly fighting the deficiencies in the equipment, there’s hardly any joy in the process. Elegance is one word that’s conspicuously absent from the Microsoft vocabulary.</rant>

Why don’t I switch? Primarily because I have thousands of dollars invested in Windows applications. Though, as I said to Brian Hunziker in an email, his screenshots “may have gently nudged me onto the slippery slope towards buying a Macintosh.”

Until then, I’ll rely on the Mojikyo Character Map to make up for the deficiencies in Windows, using Mojikyo’s RTF output to copy the character variant I need to Photoshop via Word (for some reason, the RTF output won’t paste directly into Photoshop for Windows). I only have access to all the character variants, of course, because I’ve installed the Mojikyo fonts. And, regardless of which operating system one uses, the chances are you’ll see Mojikyo font 050021 instead of Mojikyo font 079131 when I include the &#28665; Unicode entity—like this: .

That’s the reason that I’m using images to illustrate the characters—and to do that I’m taking advantage of another service offered by the Mojikyo Institute: links to 24x24 and 96x96 pixel GIF images of all the characters included in the Mojikyo character set. I’ve linked to the 24x24 pixel GIFs (in the previous paragraph), using these IMG tags:

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif/050/050021.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 050021" name="mojikyo_font_050021" width="24" height="24" />

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif/079/079131.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 079131" name="mojikyo_font_079131" width="24" height="24" />

The 96x96 pixel versions look like this:

Mojikyo font 050021    Mojikyo font 079131

and require the following links:

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif96/050/050021.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 050021" name="mojikyo_font_050021" width="96" height="96" />

<img src="http://www.mojikyo.gr.jp/gif96/079/079131.gif" alt="Mojikyo font 079131" name="mojikyo_font_079131" width="96" height="96" />

This means you can embed any of the Mojikyo characters in a Web page, without requiring that visitors have the Mojikyo fonts installed. (Note that the user license does not allow the GIF images to be downloaded, redistributed, or loaded onto another server.)

And, if you discover a Chinese character that is not currently contained in the Mojikyo character set, you can ask the Institute to create a new character (providing you tell them where you discovered the character).

So, to sum up, I couldn’t access the boku character that Kafū used because none of the default Windows Japanese fonts includes that particular variant. And I couldn’t display Kafū’s boku in a weblog entry because Unicode needs to preserve codepoints so that they don’t run out of permanent addresses. And I was able to find Kafū’s boku on my Windows PC with the aid of the Mojikyo Character Map because the Mojikyo Institute regards Chinese characters as “a very important cultural asset of the human race” and—like Apple—is committed to making that wonderful variety of characters widely available. The fly in the ointment is, as one might expect, Microsoft. (I’m sure Dave Rogers would agree—I was amused (though hardly suprised) when I followed his pointer to these Dan Bricklin photographs of the BloggerCon audience.)

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Tuesday 07 October 2003

Super Best

Mark Pilgrim posed an “addiction koan”:

Your spouse, who hasn’t had a cigarette or a drink in 12 years, comes home late one night with smoke in their hair and alcohol on their breath. What do you do?

I picked up Ayako at her apartment one Sunday morning, many years ago. We were meeting some friends for a picnic in the Royal National Park, an hour south of Sydney. Waiting for the lights to change at the intersection near her apartment, I leaned across and kissed her. Mingling with the Listerine was the unmistakable taste of whisky.

“You taste of whisky,” I told her.

“I do not,” she replied.

Enka singer Ishikawa SayuriI knew better than to argue, remembering her habit of flatly denying inconvenient facts. So we chatted about the weather, the onigiri she’d made as part of our lunch, and our plans to spend a couple of weeks in Shikoku the following spring. I popped a cassette into the player, one I’d made the night before from my favorite enka CD, Ishikawa Sayuri’s Super Best. (It’s oddly gratifying to find, on the Ishikawa Sayuri page at Barbara’s Enka Site, that Super Best is Barbara’s desert island enka CD: “If someone really forced me to choose one performer and one album, here it is.”)

Ayako pretended not to like enka, dismissing it as obasan no ongaku (“music for aunties”), but I could tell she secretly admired Ishikawa Sayuri. As Barbara says, “She pours feeling into every song until it bursts, but somehow she does so with a beautifully elegant restraint.”

Arriving at the park, we drove slowly along until I saw our friends in the distance, carefully laying out the contents of their picnic basket on a bright tartan blanket.

I parked the car and turned off the ignition.

“I have a confession,” said Ayako. I waited for her to continue, and the words tumbled out in a torrent.

“This morning, when I met Shinobu for coffee, she offered me a cigarette and I couldn’t resist. I know you don’t like the smell of cigarettes but Shinobu told me that if I washed my hair and had a couple of sips of whisky it would get rid of the smell of tobacco and the taste. And then, if I drank a glass of milk, that would take care of the whisky too. But the milk didn’t really work because ten minutes before you were due to pick me up I could still taste the whisky in my mouth. So I gargled twice with Listerine and hoped you wouldn’t notice. But you did. And now I feel a little bit drunk.”

Though I’d once told Ayako that it was much nicer kissing a woman who doesn’t smoke, I hadn’t expected my casual remark to have such an impact.

“They must have been big sips of whisky,” I replied. “Next time you have a cigarette it might be best to go with just the milk and Listerine.”

I leaned across and kissed her again. The barest trace of whisky on her tongue tasted indescribably sexy.

“We’d better get going,” I told her. “Emiko and Ken are waiting.”

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Saturday 11 October 2003

There ain’t no such thing as plain text

I wish Joel Spolsky had published his excellent introduction to Unicode and character encoding a week earlier, because then I wouldn’t have wasted a couple of hours trying to write a snippet of PHP code to convert Japanese characters to Unicode character entities. In the fourth paragraph of The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!) Joel Spolsky reveals what what finally provoked him into writing his essay:

When I discovered that the popular web development tool PHP has almost complete ignorance of character encoding issues, blithely using 8 bits for characters, making it darn near impossible to develop good international web applications, I thought, enough is enough.

That statement knocked me for a six. Historically—as Joel Spolsky infers—American programmers have been indifferent to dealing with languages other than English. But PHP started out in 1995 as a series of Perl scripts written by Rasmus Lerdorf who was born in Greenland, lived in Denmark for much of his childhood, then spent a number of years in Canada before moving to the United States. In 1997, Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans—both Israelis, who between them speak Hebrew, English, and German—completely rewrote the core PHP code, turning it into what became known as the Zend engine. If anyone would be sensitive to language and character set issues, you’d surely expect it to be these guys and their colleagues.

Yet a Google search on “unicode support in php” turned up an interesting, and ultimately dispiriting, series of threads. Firstly, this reply by Andi Gutmans to an October 2001 question on the PHP Internationalization Mailing List about “the current status of multi-byte character handling in PHP, and also some kind of forecast of when it is expected to work in a stable manner”:

No one seems to be working seriously on full Unicode support except for the mainly Japanese work Rui [Hirokawa] has done. I thought that the Email from Carl Brown was quite promising but adding good i18n support to PHP will require much more interest and volunteers. It seemed that not many people were very interested.

More recently, l0t3k replied to an August 2003 question about Unicode support:

i certainly am not an official voice of PHP, but some movement is happening (albeit slow and scattered) to provide some form of Unicode support. the Japanese i18N group have recently created a path to allow the engine to process scripts in various encodings, Unicode included [1].

[1] refers to another thread in which Masaki Fujimoto reported on progress with the i18n (internationalization) features of the Zend Engine 2, adding:

yes, I know most of you (== non-multibyte encoding users) do not care about this kind of i18n features (and somehow feel ‘more than enough’) as the comments in http://bugs.php.net/bug.php?id=22108 shows, so I paid close attention not to do any harm with original codes: everything is done in #ifdef ZEND_MULTIBYTE.

What’s really dispiriting is the conversation at PHP Bugs to which Masaki Fujimoto refers, where the issues of Unicode and internationalization are met with either indifference, hostility, or—as in this question—both:

And why on earth would you save PHP files in any other format than ascii?

Color me flabbergasted. If you tried to imagine the target audience for Joel Spolsky’s essay, this guy is standing right on the bullseye. As Joel explains:

If you completely forget everything I just explained, please remember one extremely important fact. It does not make sense to have a string without knowing what encoding it uses. You can no longer stick your head in the sand and pretend that “plain” text is ASCII.

There Ain’t No Such Thing As Plain Text.

If you have a string, in memory, in a file, or in an email message, you have to know what encoding it is in or you cannot interpret it or display it to users correctly.

But why did I want to use PHP to convert Japanese characters to Unicode entities anyway? Procrastination mainly (anything to avoid my essay about the George W Bush aircraft carrier stunt). Curiosity too. While working on another essay, about Ozu Yasujiro, I wanted to make a table listing his films: their Japanese titles, translations of those titles, the actual English titles, and the year of release.

Since I have a PC exclusively devoted to Japanese (so that I can use some native Japanese applications), I wound up creating the table in Word 2000 and save the document as HTML. When I examined the HTML in Dreamweaver on my main (English) PC, I noticed that Word had transformed the Japanese characters into the equivalent Unicode entities. When I type Japanese into Dreamweaver, on the other hand, the Japanese characters simply appear within the HTML.

As an example, the next two lines of text both read Ochazuke no aji (The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, the title of one of Ozu’s films) and, if you have Japanese support enabled, should look the same:

お茶漬けの味

お茶漬けの味

But, if you check the source code in your browser, you’ll see Japanese characters in the first line and Unicode entities in the second, like this:

Japanese and Unicode characters for ochazuke no aji

I might be utterly mistaken, but I can’t help thinking that using the Unicode entities might be preferable (ie more reliable) than using the actual Japanese characters. Though, as long as the character encoding is set to utf-8, it may not make any difference. I’d be interested in what anyone else thinks about this. Since I thought it would be useful to get some advice from the experts, I’ve emailed Joel Spolsky and Masaki Fujimoto. (I didn’t think there was any point in bothering Mr ASCII.)

Update

Masaki Fujimoto and Joel Spolsky graciously replied to my email, basically confirming the points that Michael Glaesemann made in his comment. Joel Spolsky wrote that he has been using UTF-8 for all the translations of Joel on Software (currently translated into 28 languages) and “has not had a single person complain about not being able to read it”.

Whilst favoring the use of characters rather than Unicode entities, Masaki Fujimoto pointed out that entities offer two additional advantages:

  • avoiding implicit encoding translation (some software—including PHP can implicitly convert one encoding to another and using entites allows you to skip this);
  • avoiding any null-bytes problems (UTF-16 and UTF-32 can contain null-bytes, which can cause various kind of problems with unicode-unaware software.

Fujimoto-san also explained that the Japanese think of Uncode entities as a “kind of work around for the japanese-unavailable-environment” and so would never normally use entity references. He also noted out that it is not really all that difficult to make PHP completely Unicode-aware, with the main roadblocks being that:

  • because PHP does not distinguish binary data from strings it is not possible to change “string type” to “unicode-aware string type” without breaking any binary contents;
  • most of the core PHP developers live in Europe, so they are not so interested in the Unicode issue.

I have a feeling that the second roadblock will be easier to dismantle than the first, that the interest of European PHP developers in Unicode will increase proportionately with the economic influence of China.

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Sunday 12 October 2003

I’m not giving up my day job (to become a PHP programmer)

Having colored myself “flabbergasted”, I now need to color myself “embarrassed” since Scott Reynen has comprehensively demonstrated that PHP does have limited Unicode support, which he uses to create his Daily Japanese Lessons. Even more impressively, Scott followed up by doing what I couldn’t manage—writing a snippet of PHP code to convert japanese characters to unicode character entities. As I admitted in Scott’s comments, “I should leave PHP coding to those who actually know what they’re doing”.

Regarding the issue of which is better—CJK characters or Unicode entities—Michael Glaesemann’s comment has convinced me beyond any doubt that it’s best to stick with the characters.

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Monday 13 October 2003

A double Ozu retrospective

Through some mysterious serendipity, whilst I was in the midst of writing an entry about Ozu Yasujiro’s films a trackback from Kerim alerted me to the Ozu festival, a special event of the 2003 New York Film Festival, being held at the Lincoln Center. Oh to be in New York, because this is the real deal:

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu, the New York Film Festival will present a complete retrospective of Ozu’s extant works. Universally regarded as one the greatest film directors, Ozu’s work was discovered outside of Japan much later than that of Kenji Mizoguchi or Akira Kurosawa. Although the winner of more Kinema Junpo “Best Film” awards (the Japanese Oscar) than any other director, his work was never deemed suitable for export as it was assumed that audiences would consider it “too Japanese.”

Ozu directing Dragnet GirlThe thirty-six films in the festival represent about two-thirds of the fifty-three feature films Ozu directed (he also made a documentary about the Kabuki theater in 1935). His first feature was Zange no yaiba (Sword of Penitence) in 1927; his last was Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon), completed in 1962. Ozu died the following year on his birthday, December 12.

[The photograph shows Ozu directing Oka Jōji and Tanaka Kinuyo in the 1935 melodrama Hijōsen no onna (Dragnet Girl).]

I’ve seen all the films Ozu made from 1941 on, plus a couple of earlier ones—about half of those being screened at the Lincoln Center. Had I learned about the festival a week or two ago, rather than in the last couple of days, I would have felt heartsick at being so far away since Ozu is, unequivocally, my favorite filmmaker. On each of my recent trips to Japan, I’ve inquired about whether any of Ozu’s films have been released on DVD and have invariably been disappointed.

But on Friday my prayers were answered: I was taking another look at Kurt Easterwood’s account of the Ozu 100-year Centennial Exhibition at the Kamakura Bungakukan earlier this year and noticed that Kurt points to a page of information about a series of Ozu DVDs scheduled for release by Shochiku, the studio for which Ozu made most of his films. (I have no idea how I missed this the first time I looked!)

Ozu Yasujiro, DVD Box Set OneA quick check at Amazon Japan revealed that the first box set was released on September 25, with another three to follow at the end of October, November, and December. I ordered the first box set immediately.

The 24 DVDs include all the surviving films Ozu directed for Shochiku, the production company for whom he made almost all of his films. According to the most comprehensive book in English on Ozu, David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, “no script, negative, or prints [are] known to exist” for two films made in 1929: Wasei kenka tomodachi (Fighting Friends—Japanese Style) and Tokkan kozō (A Straightforward Boy). Yet these are both on the fourth box set (although only A Straightforward Boy is being shown in New York). Evidently prints must have been discovered after Bordwell’s book was published in 1988.

None of the films on the DVDs appear to be subtitled in English (and they are not listed on Amazon’s US, British, or German sites); yet subtitled versions exist for all of those I’ve seen—whether silent or talkies. Perhaps Shochiku still regard Ozu as “too Japanese” for Western audiences to appreciate, though I think it’s more likely that the cost of subtitling the remaining films together with the added cost of producing multilingual DVDs were probably the main considerations. The alternative, to offer a mix of films with or without subtitles, would probably only give rise to complaints that all the films should have been subtitled.

Ozu YasujiroThe fact that the Criterion Collection offers only two Ozu films on DVD (Tokyo Story and Good Morning) and none by Mizoguchi or Naruse—compared to eight by Kurosawa—is the best evidence that it’s not just the Japanese who regard Kurosawa as far more accessible for Western audiences than Ozu and his contemporaries.

The Film Festival introduction to Ozu’s films correctly points out that “the director considered too Japanese for foreign audiences was in fact steeped in foreign, especially American, pop culture”, adding that Ozu’s work “has been cited as having a major influence on the films of artists as diverse as Jim Jarmusch (USA), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Aki Kaurismaki (Finland), and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan). The latter assertion, although commonly made, needs to be taken with a grain of salt (Jim Jarmusch’s films, for instance, resemble Ozu’s to about the same degree as Woody Allen’s films are like Kurosawa’s).

Contemporary directors who claim to be influenced by Ozu always remind me of the period Ozu spent in Singapore during the war: coopted by the Imperial Army to make propaganda films, instead Ozu spent most of his time watching American films that the Japanese military officials had confiscated. According to Donald Richie’s study of the director, simply titled Ozu:

The film that most impressed Ozu was Welles’s Citizen Kane. “If you give Chaplin 62 points, this film gets about 85.” He looked at it again and again. It was apparently the technique of the film that most interested him, and according to Yoshimura [another director] he kept shaking his head in wonder over this effect or that. Thereafter, whenever asked about his favorite foreign film, he always said Citizen Kane, though it is impossible to imagine a picture more antithetical to his own.

For diehard Ozu fans, I’ve listed the contents of each of the box sets in the table below—some of the Japanese titles have links to reviews at Strictly Film School (to which Kurt Easterwood pointed).

DVD Box Set One
東京物語 Tokyo monogatari Tokyo Story 1953
彼岸花 Higanbana Equinox Flower 1958
お早う Ohayō Good Morning 1959
秋日和 Akibiyori Late Autumn 1960
秋刀魚の味 Samma no aji An Autumn Afternoon 1962
DVD Box Set Two
晩春 Banshun Late Spring 1949
麦秋 Bakushū Early Summer 1951
お茶漬けの味 Ochazuke no aji The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice 1952
早春 Sōshun Early Spring 1956
東京暮色 Tokyo boshoku Tokyo Twilight 1957
DVD Box Set Three
出来ごごろ Dekigokoro Passing Fancy 1933
母を恋はずや Haha o kawazuya A Mother Should Be Loved 1934
浮草物語 Ukigusa monogatari A Story of Floating Weeds 1934
東京の宿 Tokyo no yado An Inn in Tokyo 1935
一人息子 Hitori musuko The Only Son 1936
淑女は何を忘れたか Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka What Did the Lady Forget? 1937
戸田家の兄弟 Toda-ke no kyōdai The Brothers & Sisters of the Toda Family 1941
父ありき Chichi ariki There Was a Father 1942
長屋紳士録 Nagaya shinshi roku Record of a Tenement Gentleman 1947
風の中の雌鳥 Kaze no naka no mendori A Hen in the Wind 1948
DVD Box Set Four
若き日 Wakaki hi Days of Youth 1929
和製喧嘩友達 Wasei kenka tomodachi Fighting Friends — Japanese Style 1929
大学は出たけれど Daigaku wa deta keredo I Graduated, But… 1929
突貫小僧 Tokkan kozō A Straightforward Boy 1929
朗らかに歩め Hogaraka ni ayume Walk Cheerfully 1930
落第はしたけれど Rakudai wa shita keredo I Flunked, But… 1930
その夜の妻 Sono yoru no tsuma That Night’s Wife 1930
淑女と髯 Shukujo to hige The Lady and the Beard 1931
東京の合唱 Tokyo no gasshō Tokyo Chorus 1931
生まれてはみたけれど Umarete wa mita keredo I Was Born But… 1932
青春の夢いまいづか Seishun no yume ima izuka Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? 1932
東京の女 Tokyo no onna Woman of Tokyo 1933
非常線の女 Hijōsen no onna Dragnet Girl 1933
鏡獅子 Kagamishishi Kagamishishi (Kabuki Documentary) 1935

Three films for which prints are available are not included in the box set edition because Ozu made them while on loan from Shochiku to other studios.

Films Made for Other Studios
宗方姉妹 Munekata shimai The Munekata Sisters Toho/
Shintoho
1950
浮草 Ukigusa Floating Weeds Daiei 1959
小早川家の秋 Kohayakawa-ke no aki The End of Summer Takarazuka/
Toho
1960

It’s frequently been a source of amusement amongst Ozu’s Western fans that so many of his later films have similar English titles: Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon. Yet, of the six films I’ve listed, only two have English titles that match the original Japanese: Late Spring (Banshun) and Early Spring (Sōshun).

Of the other four (which I’ve highlighted in red), Akibiyori (Late Autumn) actually means “fine autumn weather”; Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) means “the taste of Pacific saury” (a fish that is commonly served broiled in Japanese drinking places); Bakushū (Early Summer) means “wheat harvest”; and Kohayakawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer) means “the autumn of the Kohayakawa family”.

I imagine that whoever gave the films their English titles realized that “the taste of Pacific saury”—though immensely evocative to the Japanese—would be meaningless to a Western audience. However, it’s just as doubtful that “the flavor of green tea of rice” would conjure up for a non-Japanese Ozu’s intended sense of taking pleasure in simple, everyday things. Perhaps the goal was that the English titles convey the elegiac mood of Ozu’s later films.

Ozu’s career spanned the period in Japanese history that most interests me, the Thirties through the Fifties: the rise of Japanese militarism, the catastrophe of the Pacific War, and the post-war reconstruction. The first DVD box set should arrive within the next few days. Though seeing the sound films without subtitles will present a formidable challenge to my Japanese listening skills, I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Ozu’s world over the next few months.

(In his post on There Was a Father, which alerted me to the Ozu retrospective, Kerim admits to loving the film yet being “troubled by its moral ambiguity”:

In a very real sense the film’s power comes from its moral ambiguity. After the fact, such ambiguity itself in face of the horrors of Japanese wartime aggression (something which Japanese have yet to come to terms with) seems inappropriate, but it certainly makes for a powerful movie. Nor do I think anyone would compare Ozu to Leni Riefenstahl.

Though it’s been a few years since I saw There Was a Father, I don’t recall being struck by any sense of moral ambiguity. I do remember that not long after I saw the film I read—and could not disagree with—Donald Richie’s assessment that “this is one of Ozu’s most perfect films”. Needless to say, there’s lots I could write on the subject of Ozu and fascism, but I’d prefer to save those thoughts for another essay.)

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What life is

Life is not what one has lived, but what one remembers and how one chooses to tell it.

Gabriel García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale

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Tuesday 14 October 2003

Made in Usa

I don’t regard myself as particularly gullible, yet I’ve long believed the story that in the post-war period—when “Made in Japan” was a synonym for “shoddy quality”—Japanese manufacturing companies set up branch offices in the Kyushu town of Usa, so that they could label their export products “Made in USA”.

Five years ago, I spent a couple of weeks traveling around Kyushu, winding up in the hot spring town of Beppu. On the morning I was due to take the two-and-a-half hour train ride back to Fukuoka and my flight home, I checked the map and was thrilled to see that the Nippō line passed through Usa.

Map of northwest Kyushu, including Usa

We pulled into Usa just long enough for me to take a quick snap of the station sign, which displayed the name in hiragana (うさ) and Chinese characters (宇佐), as well as the names of the previous stop, Nishiyashiki (にしやしき) and next stop, Buzen-nagasu (ぶぜんながす). The names on railway signs in Japan are shown prominently in hiragana for the benefit of school children who may not yet have learned the appropriate Chinese characters (西屋敷 and 豊前長洲 respectively).

Station sign, UsaIn those days I was shooting my still photographs with a Sony DCR-PC10 digital video camera because it had a Carl Zeiss 10x zoom lens and I could store over 500 stills on a single 60 minute tape. Transferring the images to the computer via a video capture card was tedious, but the video camera—with its tiny flip-out screen—was as quiet and unobtrusive as a Leica. This is not a great example of what it can do—especially compared to the clarity of these Japan Railways photos of the station signs at Usa—but I loved shooting stills with the video camera and took a lot of lovely pictures on that trip.

Although I can’t recall where I first heard of the “Made in USA” scam, Google soon disabused me of its accuracy by pointing to an entry at snopes.com, the Urban Legends Reference Pages:

This rumor was almost certainly a tongue-in-cheek joke inspired by someone’s noticing the coincidence of a town in Japan named Usa (and perhaps fueled by American xenophobia or lingering resentment of the Japanese). In fact, the Japanese city of Usa (on the island of Kyushu) was not creating by renaming an existing town; it was called Usa long before World War II. As well, nearly every country that imports goods requires them to be marked with the name of their country of origin, not a town or city, and it would have taken some circuitous (and probably expensive) routing to get goods marked “Made in USA” into other countries without anyone’s noticing that they had originated in Japan. America, especially, Japan’s largest market by far, would certainly have noticed the incongruity of goods marked “Made in USA” being imported into the USA.

The truth, as so often happens, isn’t nearly as fascinating as the (urban) legend. But nowadays, when people ask me if I’ve ever been to the USA, at least I’m able to reply: “Yes I have—both of them.”

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Sunday 19 October 2003

Spirited away

The magical moment of our ninety-minute trip through the Orient Cave occurred when the guide led us into a large chamber, turned out the few dim lights, and left us in the dark for a minute or so.

“Even if you stayed in here for a week,” he told the group, “you still couldn’t see a thing.” I knew he wasn’t exaggerating—it was almost as though one could feel the absolute absence of light.

Then, in an artfully arranged sequence, he turned on the main illumination, astonishing us with the beauty of the limestone formations.

Interior of Orient Cave, Jenolan Caves, NSW

I hadn’t been inside a limestone cave since visiting Ryūsendō (竜泉洞) in Iwate Prefecture in 1991. So I readily agreed to a suggestion by my friends Herman & Fiona that we make a day trip to Jenolan Caves—which I’d visited many years ago, when I was 11 years old. Jenolan Caves is three-and-a-half hours west of Sydney by car. Herman and Fiona live in the upper Blue Mountains, about midway between Sydney and the caves. They picked me up at Springwood station around 11am and, a couple of hours later, three adults and three children were eating lunch, having already booked for the 2:30pm tour of the Orient Cave.

I have no idea which of the three main chambers—Persian, Egyptian, or Indian—was illuminated after we’d been plunged into darkness. But I know I’d have been perfectly happy if the ninety-minute tour had ended right then, after just fifteen minutes. For if Miyazaki’s Spirited Away first made me aware of my animist sympathies, the Orient Cave confirmed them.

So it was mildly disappointing that our guide, whose skilful piece of theater had provoked my transcendental experience, spent the rest of the tour encouraging us to “use our imaginations” by projecting meaning or identity onto the various limestone formations. Fairies, animals, the Medusa’s head, Cleopatra lying on a couch… one by one, the flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, columns, and shawls were drained of their abstract magic. (I tuned out by concentrating on taking photographs—but I’d have been infinitely happier had we been allowed an unmediated interaction with the subterranean landscape.)

A related impulse was at work in Ryūsendō Cave where it seems that neither the natural beauty of the calcite formations nor the astonishing 120 meter deep underground lake were deemed sufficient—for one would turn a corner to be confronted by an exact replica of a prehistoric cave painting from, for example, Lascaux.

Does this need to impose meanings upon (supposedly) inanimate objects spring from our reluctance to acknowledge their innate—although arbitrary—beauty? Or is the desire to name the unknowable a defining characteristic of human behavior? In either case, it seems to me that the pleasure obtained from subjugating natural forms with names often comes at the cost of being blinded to the spirits that animate them.

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Sunday 26 October 2003

Immersion Japanese (DVD style)

Ozu Yasujiro, DVD Box SetThe first Ozu DVD box set, which arrived last week, turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more. Six DVDs—Tokyo monogatari, Higanbana, Ohayō, Akibiyori, and Samma no aji, plus a bonus disk (Tokuten disuku)—as well as a lavishly illustrated booklet.

The box itself is covered with coarse-woven fabric, reminiscent of the background that forms the background to the opening titles of so many of Ozu’s films.

Main title for Ozu's Tokyo monogatariAs soon as I unwrapped the package I popped Tokyo monogatari into the DVD player: the distinctive opening titles combined with Saito Ichiro’s theme music prompting an intense nostalgia.

As for many other Western viewers, this was the first Ozu film I ever saw. I never tire of watching Tokyo Story—usually regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece—even though Banshun (Late Spring) remains my favorite. Tokyo Story is lovely to look at despite the fact that, as David Bordwell explains, “it does not survive in good condition: the original negative was destroyed by a laboratory fire, and the internegative struck from positive prints does not render the chiaroscuro that Ozu and [cinematographer] Atsuta sought”.

Natsuko, who doesn’t admire Ozu’s films, asked me recently what is it about them that I love so much? And how is it that I can watch the same films over and over again? I said something along the lines of “one can never grow tired of seeing the beauty and sadness of everyday life depicted with unflinching honesty”. What I struggled to convey to Natsuko, Donald Richie expresses with great economy in the preface to his book on the director:

What remains after an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have had experiences you cannot describe because only film, not words, can describe them; you have seen a few small, unforgettable actions, beautiful because real. You are left with a feeling of sadness too, because you will see them no more. They are already gone. In the feeling of transience, of the mutability and beauty of all life, Ozu joins the greatest Japanese artists. It is here that we taste, undiluted and authentic, the Japanese flavor.

Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo monogatari, DVDRichie also points out that “Ozu’s method, like all poetic methods, is oblique”. Ozu offers a severely constrained vision of the world in order to transcend those constraints; his films are suffused with human emotion because they are so rigorously constructed; time is stretched in an Ozu film because his movies are longer than average even though they contain hardly any “story”. The cumulative effect of these formal strategies is that “technique restricted comes to make us see more, [while] tempo slowed comes to make us feel more.” The end result is that we are gradually drawn into the film and “invited to infer and deduce” its meaning which, because of the almost non-existent “plot”, resides in the characters and their behaviour. And so

…we are often given that rare spectacle of a character existing for himself alone. This we observe with the delight that precise verisimilitude always brings, and with a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of human beings.

This effect is not at all diminished by the lack of English subtitles. Firstly, I understand more of the Japanese than I expected to. And, perhaps more importantly, I’ve adopted the same strategy I use whenever I spend time with friends in Japan. Instead of worrying about the meaning of every word of a conversation, I content myself with absorbing the essence of what’s being said—which is much easier for them, since they don’t have to continually make allowances for my lack of fluency. As long as I behave as though I know what’s going on—which I usually do—they mostly talk to me as they would to another Japanese.

And since I’m no longer concerned with reading the subtitles I can pay closer attention to other aspects of the film and its characters. It’s strange that although I’ve done this with conversational Japanese (and now with watching films without subtitles), it wasn’t until I encountered Alaric Radosh’s advice that I realized I could apply the same strategy to reading:

When you read easy, don’t look up unfamiliar words. I mean, you can look them up occasionally when you just have to know. But, for the most part, skip those words, like you did when you were a kid reading in your native language. When you do look them up eventually, you will only understand them and remember them all the better for having become familiar with them beforehand in this way.

(I can’t begin to explain what a difference Alaric’s approach has made to my Japanese reading. Whereas I used to be fixated on learning kanji and vocabulary, I now spend much of my study time actually reading and am amazed at how many words I recognize in context, words that I would probably not have recognized in a vocabulary list.)

Bokuto kidan DVD coverWhen I was ordering the first Ozu Box Set, I thought I’d check whether Toyoda Shirō’s 1960 film version of Nagai Kafū’s Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) had been released on either DVD or VHS.

Toyoda, who never achieved the reputation or critical regard accorded his contemporaries Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, was a member of the jumbungaku movement, a group of directors with an interest in filming serious works of literature. In addition to Bokutō kidan, Toyda adapted Mori Ogai’s Gan (The Wild Geese) and Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country) for the screen.

Toyoda’s Bokutō kidan was not available but, much to my surprise, Kaneto Shindo’s 1991 version has been released on DVD. I couldn’t resist and added it to the Ozu order. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet since I have a huge backlog of movies to watch: four Ozu movies, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, two versions of The Loyal 47 Ronin, and Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies (recommended by Language Hat). And it’s the end of the month, which means that the second Ozu Box Set has just been released.

I’ve stopped eating out, I’ve given up drinking, I no longer go to the cinema, and I’ve abandoned any hope of buying a new laptop (Macintosh or PC). All my spare cash is going towards Ozu DVDs. And I’m not sure where this is going to stop because I just discovered that there’s a Kurosawa Masterworks DVD Triple Box Set. Though, since I taped a dozen or so Kurosawa movies when they were shown on SBS, I might forget about Kurosawa and hold off for the Mizoguchi and Naruse Box Sets. That way I could look forward to drinking a couple of beers on New Year’s Eve, while I’m watching a film from the fourth (and final) Ozu Box Set.

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Tuesday 28 October 2003

Mahoroba

The sixth (Special Bonus) DVD is in my recently delivered Ozu Box Set is fascinating too, for its title just as much as the contents. As you’d expect, the bonus DVD includes:

  • Ozu Yasujiro Special Bonus DVDa profile of Ozu’s career (Ozu Yasujiro’s World);
  • an interview with German director Wim Wenders;
  • an interview with Ryū Chishū about working with Ozu at Shochiku’s Ōfuna studio (near Kamakura);
  • documentaries about the making of Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon;
  • cinema previews of some of the later films;
  • footage of the press conference at which the Box Sets were announced;
  • a compilation called Ozu no fūkei: sentakumono, entotsu/denchū (Ozu’s Scenery: Items to Be Washed, Chimneys/Telegraph Poles), which contains a selection of the brief exterior shots with which Ozu punctuates his films.

Ozu Yasujiro's Scenery, Items to be washed, chimneys and telegraph poles

Ozu used interior “still life” shots for the same purpose: to separate the various sections of a film and to indicate a change in narrative direction (he stopped using fades and dissolves early in his career). Donald Richie calls these transitional shots “empty scenes”; Paul Schrader refers to them as “codas”; for David Bordwell they are “intermediate spaces”.

But the real surprise is that the bonus DVD is titled まほろば (Mahoroba), a word I’d never heard of. I asked Natsuko what it meant but it was a mystery to her too. Nor could I find mahoroba in any of my Japanese-English dictionaries, print or electronic. Even more surprisingly, it was not listed in Jim Breen’s EDICT Japanese-English Dictionary file, which currently has approximately 106,000 entries.

Yet a Google search in Japanese yields about 55,500 results whilst a search in English for its Romaji equivalent returns about 99,700 entries! The top site for both searches is Internet Mahoroba, an ISP and web hosting provider. Other Japanese results include a ski club, a band, a resort hotel, and a patisserie. Episode 6 of an anime called Iria: Zeiram is titled Mahoroba (Shangrila). And in Pinnacle—a high-level D&D campaign—there’s a character called Yuriko Mahoroba.

According to the Mahoroba Restaurant in Vernon, BC, mahoroba means:

Surrounded by mountains, and nice to live (from oldest Japanese book: Kojiki)

The Kojiki (古事記) or Record of Ancient Matters is a loose account of Japanese history from the mythical age of the gods to the reign of the Empress Suiko (592-628).

I emailed xiaolongnu and Jim Breen, asking them if they’d heard of mahoroba. xiaolongnu wrote back that it sounds like a Buddhist term:

“maho” being the Japanese pronounciation of Chinese “mohe” which translates the common Sanskrit prefix “maha” meaning “great” (as in Mahatma —” Great Soul” — Mohandas Gandhi’s epithet). I can’t make anything out of “roba” in the absence of kanji (it’s that old signal to noise problem again).

The absence of kanji does make interpretation difficult yet mahoroba seems to be spelled almost exclusively in hiragana (a search for まほろ場 yields only 14 results).

In a follow-up email, xiaolongnu picked up the reference to the Kojiki, noting that mahoroba “is associated with the notion of Yamato (i.e. an idealized homeland in the mountains)”. Some further Googling revealed that a Japanese musician named Sojiro has released an album called Mahoroba

with a theme of deep respect and understanding for the Jōmon culture and people that had high technology and strong spirit more than 5000 years ago. Examining his own roots, SOJIRO elevated the album into a worldwide work. MAHOROBA, the old Japanese word, means Utopia.

Jim Breen replied that he’d found one online dictionary (available in three locations) with an entry for まほろば. I followed his suggestion and checked Excite, where the Sanseido Daijirin J-J dictionary provides a definition confirming mahoroba as an old Yamato word meaning “surrounded by mountains”, that it was used in the Kojiki, and that it is the same word as mahorama and mahora.

Jim also found it in the Fifth Edition of the (paper only) Kenkyusha J-E dictionary:

まほろば [すぐれた場所] an excellent [a splendid, an unsurpassed] location

And he mentioned that he is adding mahoroba/mahorama/mahora to EDICT as:

まほろば;まほらま;まほら /(n) excellent location (Yamato word)/splendid place/

Tonight, as I was finishing this entry, I called another friend, Nana, who loves Japanese art and literature. I asked if she’d heard of mahoroba. She hadn’t but, as I was midway through explaining that the word was used as the title for the Ozu bonus DVD, she suddenly said, Atta! (Got it!). As I’d been speaking, Nana had been looking it up in both her Sanseido dictionaries.

As Nana explained it, one of the dictionary definitions associates maho with two kanji: (makoto: truth, reality, genuineness, a Buddhist sect originating in the 13th century) and (shū: excel, excellence, beauty, surpass). Adding the ra to maho—as in mahora—turns it into a place, she added.

“It’s an old Yamato word meaning ‘surrounded by hills or mountains’,” said Nana, “but the sense I get is that it’s beautiful and special, a kind of mythical place that’s perfect and complete.”

I remembered that in one of the Google results someone had mentioned “Arcadia” as well as “Utopia” so I looked up “Arcadia” in my electronic Oxford dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia.

“How does this sound?” I asked Nana. “‘A mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In ancient times Arcadia was the home of the god Pan and a noted centre of song and music. In poetic fantasy Arcadia is a rustic paradise, the idyllic pastoral home of song-loving shepherds.’”

Nana agreed that mahoroba had a similar connotation. A Japanese Arcadia.

I’d been wondering whether the Ozu bonus DVD had been titled Mahoroba to convey the sense that the world Ozu created in his films was a kind of beautiful, mythical place, remote from the reality of contemporary Japan. I asked Nana what she thought.

“I think once you’ve watched thirty Ozu films,” she replied, “you’ll have a better idea of what mahoroba means.”

Ozu Yasujiro in center-rear, working as an assistant-director at Shochiku's Kamata studio

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Thursday 30 October 2003

Mega Memory™

Do you suffer from these symptoms?

  • Poor Concentration?
  • Short Term Memory Loss?
  • Slow Mental Ability?
  • Mental Exhaustion?
  • Mental Fatigue?
  • Clogged Mind?
  • Forgetfulness?
  • Blankness?
  • Poor Recall?

You may need Mega Memory™!

Mega Memory packageI doubt I would ever have heard of Mega Memory™ had I not mislaid my mobile phone a few months ago. Perhaps I left it in a hotel room—or it might be somewhere in my house. I was packing to go to Melbourne at the beginning of last month and couldn’t find the handset anywhere so I called Telstra to see if anyone had been using it but the customer service representative said that there hadn’t been any calls made from that phone for six weeks. I had her put a bar on the number, just in case. On Monday morning, having finally decided to replace it, I drove to the nearest Telstra shop to choose a new phone and (hopefully) a cheaper monthly plan.

On the way I tuned the car radio to 2UE so I could listen to John Laws, the thinking person’s Rush Limbaugh. I spend so much of my life in a left-liberal ghetto that if I’m in the car on a weekday between 9am and midday—I never turn on the radio at home—I like to catch up via Lawsie with what the majority of Australians think and believe. Which is how I heard the Mega Memory™ advertisement.

Since I started my crash course in reading Japanese a few months ago, I’ve been suffering this low-level anxiety about how I’ll ever remember the twelve hundred kanji and thousands of compound words that I need to know in order to read even tolerably well. On the way home from the Telstra shop—with a new Nokia phone and a ten-dollar-a-month-cheaper plan—I thought briefly about stopping at a pharmacy but decided to wait. I’ve always been skeptical about vitamin supplements—they’re only of any use if your dietary vitamin intake is inadequate and I make sure my diet is healthy and well-balanced.

But on my way back from the pool yesterday afternoon, I dropped by the local pharmacy and walked over to the vitamin section where Karen, the pharmacist, was arranging the stock on the shelves. I asked her if she had any Mega Memory™.

“We sure do,” she replied, plucking a blue packet off the shelf and handing it to me. I was instantly reassured by the picture of the brain, which seems to be pulsing with billions of easily retrievable facts. I turned the package over and read the blurb on the side:

Mega Memory™ is a blend of traditional herbs combined with a special selection of vitamins and amino acids, which help nourish and support healthy brain and memory function. Mega Memory™ may also help to improve alertness, better recall, clear your mind, enhance mental ability, help you think quicker, improve your accuracy and memory retention. Great for students, or anyone who needs to retain a lot of information in a short space of time!

“Do you think it’s actually any good?” I asked her.

“I think it might be. A guy came back after taking it for a few weeks and told me he’d started to remember all these events from his childhood. It contains Gingko biloba and Brahmi which are both supposed to enhance your memory.”

I read the blurb again: Great for students, or anyone who needs to retain a lot of information in a short space of time! That’s definitely me, I thought to myself. I need to retain a lot of kanji and compounds in a short space of time.

I looked at the Consumer Information Panel on the back and saw that Mega Memory™ also contains Schizandra chinensis and Gotu Kola, plus a dozen other ingredients.

“I’ll take it,” I told Karen and followed her back to the cash register.

“That’ll be $29.95,” she said. “Cash or credit?”

“Credit,” I replied, opening the pocket of my sports bag, only to find a $5 note and my gym membership card.

“Oh, I forgot to bring my credit card,” I explained. “I don’t like to take my wallet or a lot of cash to the pool.”

Karen burst out laughing. “You might need this more than you realize.”

Cover, Kevin Trudeau's Mega MemoryI went back and picked up the Mega Memory™ pills later that afternoon. So far, I’ve taken two but I realize it might take a month or so until I start to see the benefit.

There’s also a book, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory: How To Release Your Superpower Memory In 30 Minutes Or Less A Day.

Mega Memory watchI’m trying to read less in English and more in Japanese so the chemical approach is probably best for me. But Karen is a savvy businesswoman so it might be worth suggesting to her that she do a cross-marketing deal with the bookshop two doors up the street: buy a six month supply of Mega Memory™ pills and get the Kevin Trudeau book free.

There’s even a Mega Memory watch, with an integrated 128MB flash drive and a built-in USB cable that tucks neatly into the watch band. Reliable Mass Storage Solution On Your Wrist. I could use it to back up my LexiKAN Flash Card files.

I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the whole Mega Memory concept. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour