Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: _Brave Story_ by Miyuki Miyabe

I remember as a child watching cartoon movies on HBO and Showtime, movies like Nausicaa, which fascinated me, as they were nothing like any of the cartoons you saw on television at the time. Characters with emotional depth, with real feelings. And sometimes the characters died, which is something you don't see on American cartoons. Cobra Commander might have been an evil mastermind, but he couldn't shoot the broad side of a barn. And no Transformer ever got killed until the movie, which sent many of us into therapy. There's a fundamental difference between anime coming from Japan and those cartoons coming from America.

Take even video games of which I've talked about recently. Final Fantasy VII was ported directly from Japan, with all of its movies added. This includes the death of Aerith, the flower girl, some 2/3rds of the way into the game. She's a playable character with special skills and everything, and even though you work on leveling her up, at that point, she dies. Of course, I thought (not having read any walkthroughs) that she'd be resurrected at some point. Of course we'll have her at the end of the game, or Cloud would go into the lifestream and find her essence and bring her back. But that's not the case. She never comes back. It was a shock to many people (look her up on the internet, it affected a lot of people). I think that's why J.K. Rowling shocked so many people with the deaths that occur in Harry Potter. Main characters just don't die. It doesn't work that way....

But it does. And that's what makes the movies and video games and books coming out of Japan for young adults so much more poignant than those that come from Western Civilization. We're just not willing to see someone that we have invested emotional ties to be killed off in the middle of a story line. They have to come back. Nowadays, when Optimus Prime is killed (which he is, inevitably, every single series), it's not a shock to anyone, because he will always come back somehow.

So, to the book review. I read Brave Story, by Miyuki Miyabe, who is most known, until this book, for Suspense thrillers. Most reviews will tell you that it is slow in the beginning, that it drags out and it is good, but too long. What they don't get is that the length of the set up of the story is meant to set up Wataru's real life. Which is the life that we all lead, for the most part. There are bullies, and divorces, adulterous affairs... all the things that makes the real world what it is.... and most importantly, it sets up all the things that children are protected from in the real world in America. The book talks about the suicide of one of the friend's parents. You wouldn't have that talked about in a normal kid's fantasy novel. But it is the real world that people run away from, and only through Wataru's running away into the land of Vision do we experience the growth during that time of escapism.

The book is like the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki all laid out in print. It is the world of Hyrule or Final Fantasy in words. Masterfully constructed, a work that should be aside Paolini's Eragon or Harry Potter. The interesting thing is that the book is placed in with the Manga works, with most of the Japanese authors. I understand why, as the story has been adapted to Manga form, and Anime, and video game form (on the PSP and in Japan on the PS2). But the main work is a novel, and deserves to be read by those who love Fantasy or Young Adult fiction. It will change someone's life, just as The Hobbit changed mine.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Complexities of Christmas

Remember that episode of Home Improvement where Tim Allen's Christmas lights help to guide in the plane his wife and kids were on? Sometimes that's how I feel driving through my neighborhood at night nowadays. Blazing lights everywhere. On the roof, around the windows, hanging like icicles, netted on the bushes, the trees... not to mention the shaped-wire reindeer and plastic snowglobe Santas. The inflatables and the nativity scenes all lit up, usually right next to each other. I didn't know that Santa Claus and Frosty visited the Baby Jesus in the manger. And the patterns of blinking lights now in sequence to music (where's TSO when you need them?) or patterned just right to give anyone a seizure when looking at them. And the media drags their cameras out to each house where lights have been gathered for generations and fields of lights span for blocks, as when some neighborhoods do it. I remember going to neighborhoods in Oklahoma City just to drive around the streets for hours looking at the lights, in some grotesque vehicular samba line. Woe to the person in that area that had a heart attack and needed an ambulance.

I think all that is needed is a little planning, a little discipline. My dad would never put up lights on our houses in Oklahoma City, for fear that my mom would yell at him about how straight the lights were(n't). And she's right. Properly placed Christmas Lights should be arranged as closely as possible to a straight line. But people go to the local dollar store, buy 800 strands of lights and just throw them up there and expect it to look good. Bonus points if you use all one color, but usually it's all just one big blob of lights.

Instead, let me suggest this. Simplicity should be the goal for Christmas. God could have had Jesus come down to a full fanfare of lights and song and trumpets, with Cherubims a singin' and Seraphims a swingin'. But He didn't. He had, get this, one light. A star (well, scientists say it was a supernova that happened at that time, so that works too.). The angels came later like gossipy neighbors and told the shepherds later. The caravan of cars coming toward the light (again, just one) were the three wise men. And the only frankincense we have are the scented Christmas trees hanging on our rear view mirrors.

One of our neighbors, who I guess has since moved, has forever made a classy entrance to our street, placing upon the door a single wreath, and in the windows, one bright electronic (cause that's how we do it nowadays) candle, centered on the pane. Finished off by a spot light that covers the home in a soft incandescent glow. Works for me every time. Or better yet, let us pass by the houses where a Christmas tree shines through a window, glistening out through the yard. I've always wanted to know how they get those trees to look so gorgeous. So instead of trying to attract 747's to land in your yard, let's look at how many lights God had over the manger.

So I'm out shopping, going to get that wonderful Cinnamon Pumpkin Pie at the Honey Baked Ham Store, or getting the yearly Christmas Tree ornaments (and trying to find them at Kohl's because the Hallmarks in this area have all shut down), and I keep running into customers that, after getting their things will say "Merry Christmas!" to the cashier. Or, since I work in Retail, I get the hundreds of customers that say the same thing, and having been said "Merry Christmas" to me over and over again, I began to hear inflections in it that I thought peculiar.

First, there's "Merry Christmas," as in, "I stand in defiance of all who would say "Happy Holidays" and I've got to get home to watch Fox News and read George W. Bush's autobiography I just bought. Conspiratorially, as if Christians are those who are secretly meeting in the Catabombs of Bablyon once more. (and before my conservative friends get all huffy on me, I leave Fox News on at night when I sleep, so that I may be brainwashed accordingly. I only wish Red Eye wouldn't come on at 3 in the morning). I guess it's just around retail, that customers are lead to believe that every company has instructed its employees to only say "Happy Holidays" because they don't want to offend anyone of another religion. Well... I've never been told that, and I doubt that and company specifically has that policy. So if you want to say "Merry Christmas" to someone, do it with joy and simplicity, not "Merry Christmas and Power to the People!" Doesn't quite work. Or there's the under the table "Merry Christmas," as if one were in those Catacombs. As if someone heard you, they would be offended about it, or you would be forced to wear some label on your clothes branding you as "one of those people. (Sounds familiar, don't it? Either in a WWII way or in a Revelation end of days way.)

As I said earlier in my blogs, Christmas should not be warring with other religions. I prefer to take care of myself, and believe what I want to believe. Let the others figure it out for themselves, and if they're wrong, well... that's their problem. I'm not going to pretend I'm in some sort of secret society, whispering "Merry Christmas" as if it were a password for Fight Club. And I'm not going to worry about it offending the Jew or Muslim or Zoroastrian in the crowd. Let them know that I'm wishing them a good December 25th, which according to my religion, says it's Christmas. And if they believe the same and are reminded about the origins of that day, then so be it. If they are reminded that they have their own end of the year celebration, then that's good too. If it wants to make them go and blow up a building, well, I have a good psychiatrist I can recommend them.

It should all be more simple than this. Everyone has their own individual beliefs, and that's fine. I'm a Libertarian at heart... I can dig that. But expressing your opinion about your belief (1st Amendment and all that) should not go offend anyone. They are not secure in their beliefs if they are. But there comes a point where it goes overboard. If I say "Happy Holidays" to a customer, and they go right home and post on some website (there's one that a Texas church has set up) about how x and z person didn't say "Merry Christmas," and so that business is Anti-Christian and they're probably all going to Hell anyway, well... that's just overboard. Let's find the balance, which is really easy, actually, and there won't be any problems. Make it simple. Be secure in your own beliefs. Share those beliefs simply, with a "Merry Christmas," and that's it. No need to take up arms, to sharpen swords and words of passion and vitriol just because someone didn't use the word "Christmas" while picking up a Snuggie for your niece. Just say the words, mean them, and move on.