Korean and Japanese pop culture

… I soon found myself in a delighted mob of fans, many of whom had been lined up since 8:30 am. Some had handmade signs: I LIKE LUHAN MORE THAN FREE WIFI, said one. They were well behaved, queuing quietly without complaint, despite most events and kiosks being crowded beyond belief or comprehension. The exception? The beer stand, whose two disgruntled-looking vendors said had sold exactly two brews all day. That’s because the vast majority of attendees were too young to drink, and looked even younger.


This from the WSJ‘s Speakeasy blog, which takes an interesting look at the relative fortunes that Japanese pop culture — music, anime/manga, and to a lesser extent, games  — and its Korean counterpart have enjoyed in the West. I don’t know enough about the Korean Wave to comment on that aspect, but certainly the discussion of anime rings true to me. Worth a read if you’re interested in Asian popular culture.

When is the premise of a story too ridiculous for you?

Here’s another question for you guys: When do you find a work of fiction’s (book, game, etc) premise so ridiculous that it prevents you from picking it up?


For me, as a science fiction/fantasy/anime/video game geek, an open-minded attitude towards far-fetched concepts comes with the territory. I mean, I’m currently playing a game about demon-fighting schoolchildren who summon their guardian spirits by pantomiming suicide! Even by JRPG standards, that has to take the cake for bizarreness. But on this blog, I’ve also mentioned a TV series about people who cross the galaxy by walking through wormholes, a time-travel-steampunk American Civil War game, and an anime about a biplane-flying pig, none of which cause me any problems.


Yet  one concept never fails to make me howl with disbelief: a foreign power invading the continental United States (most famously, Red Dawn). Aliens with the technology to fly dozens of light-years are landing on the White House lawn instead of lobbing giant rocks from orbit? No worries! Giant two-legged robot lizards are tearing up California? Pass the popcorn! But the moment the first jackboot touches down on American soil, having apparently teleported past a US Navy and Air Force that are the most powerful in human history, is the moment I say, “Not interested.”


The underlying principle here is similar to the Uncanny Valley. Just as we are repelled by robots and animated characters who look like humans, but aren’t quite right, so I roll my eyes at settings that are obviously meant to be the real world, but aren’t quite right. In other words, I have a much higher threshold for suspending disbelief in real-world settings, and these scenarios (as with any other that suggests the author failed to grasp the basics of a real-world issue, whether it’s politics or a financial crisis) fall egregiously foul of that. And that is why it will be a very long time before I ever look at THQ’s Homefront, not to say Red Dawn itself.

What are your favourite genres?

I have three questions for you guys reading this:


1.     What are your favourite genres in any medium (games, books, TV, movies, etc)?


2.     How have these changed over time?


3.     And why have these changed over time?


In my case, when it comes to games, I spend most of my time playing strategy and RPGs, but I’ll dabble in almost anything except sports – and many of my favourite games, such as Star Control 2, Okami, and God Hand, are neither strategy nor RPGs. My tastes were even broader when I was younger – I grew up playing Civilization and SimCity 2000, but also everything from Street Fighter 2 to Zelda: Link to the Past and Herzog Zwei. The subject matter of a game, more so than its genre, is what usually interests me, and it just happens to be the case that the narratives/historical periods/imaginary worlds that I find most appealing tend to be in strategy and RPGs.


When it comes to every other form of media, if you asked me one or two years ago I would have called myself a pure science fiction/fantasy buff, but since then I have identified less and less with that genre. Most of my recent book purchases have been history books, always a love of mine, and what fiction I have read has increasingly been historical fiction. I read these to satisfy my growing interest in trade, prosperity, the course of empire and the slow birth of the modern world, and these are issues for which I find speculative fiction increasingly irrelevant.

Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous

Black Lagoon is an anime series following the adventures of a crew of modern-day gangsters/guns for hire/pirates, and one very out-of-place Japanese salaryman, as they  battle mob bosses, mercenaries and maniacs. Meanwhile, God Hand is a PS2 brawler about a guy who protects the supernatural power of  the titular limb from hordes of mohawked punks, whip-wielding women, and demons who range from corpulent to alluring to plain monstrous. Other than violence, what on earth could these have in common?


The answer is, they are both powered by the same core concept, what I call Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous: if you’re going to tell a story that is ludicrous, over-the-top or plain silly, not only must you be aware of that, you’d better make very sure that the audience knows you’re aware of that.


Note that the Rule of the Ridiculous is not the same as “so bad it’s good”, although it is related to that long and honourable dramatic tradition, hamming it up. “So bad it’s good” is unintentional on the creators’ part, whereas self-awareness is the whole point of the Rule of the Ridiculous. Meanwhile, hamming it up is what happens when the actors, not the writers/directors/creators, are the ones who embrace the ridiculousness.


How does the rule apply to Black Lagoon and God Hand? Both take genres that, by definition, stretch believability – action films for Black Lagoon; video games in general, beat ‘em ups more specifically for God Hand – and drag them through the realm of self-parody. Action movies presented us with zombie pirates, whip-wielding Nazi-fighting archaeologists, and martini-quaffing, laser-defying, hit men; games often rely on endowing us with similar Macho McToughguy powers. Black Lagoon’s characters are even more overpowered, but it doesn’t stop there. Its heroes yell, “We’re being chased by an unstoppable killer robot from the future!” and in one episode, go up against an army of supervillains toting not just pistols, not just rifles,  not just swords, but every way to die known to man: flamethrower, chainsaw, minigun, even a kukri-on-a-rope. God Hand, meanwhile, will never have you looking at fight scenes the same way again after the first time you kick a demon in the groin, knock him flat, stomp on his head, and then launch his buddies into the sky, accompanied by an in-game laugh track.


In contrast, I can think of a couple of franchises that would have been improved had they run with the Rule of the Ridiculous:


  • Exhibit #1 is Warhammer 40,000, where IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, THERE IS ONLY WAR. And that war includes ten-foot tall superhuman space marines, barely-literate space orcs orks, space elves, space dark elves, 50-metre (150-foot) tall mecha piloted by machine-worshippers, demon-summoning cultists, rifts that can swallow up whole space fleets, and somehow managing to survive in all this, human grunts and tankmen led by sword-waving commissars.


  • Exhibit #2 is the Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise, which – in the entries I’ve seen – tends to follow a formula. Whiny teenaged heroes miraculously stumble into command of superweapons! Teenaged heroes repeatedly fight off hordes of enemies! Teenaged heroes barely take a scratch even when fighting veteran soldiers!


Are these universes inherently more unbelievable than those of Black Lagoon or God Hand? No. The problem is, they’re presented in so po-faced a fashion that my mind balks at accepting them. And from there, it’s only a short step to dwelling on their flaws. But in God Hand, and in Black Lagoon once it warms up to the Rule, suspension of disbelief never has the chance to become an issue – I’m too busy laughing, exclaiming, “Holy–!” or otherwise being dragged along for the ride.


And that’s the beauty of the Rule of the Ridiculous. It takes unpromising or hackneyed raw material, and transforms it into sheer glee, almost like a Philosopher’s Stone for storytellers. It makes Black Lagoon and God Hand memorable rather than generic. It lets creators achieve the cult classic status associated with “so bad it’s good” while skipping the “bad” part. And it can be as simple as exaggerating genre conventions instead of simply playing them straight. Of course, all this is easier said than done. But when the rewards are so great, and the risks (remember, we start with uninspiring source material) so marginal, well, wouldn’t failure to embrace the ham just be a recipe for… ridicule?

Why can’t all stores have mascots as adorable as Steam’s?

I didn’t buy anything during the soon-to-be-over Steam sale (24-29 November), but that was no fault of the adorable mascots used to promote the sale. Here they are:

Onto the holidays!

A time to share with friends

I want that one!

Mascots seated at computers

Unfortunately, if we assume that there was a new picture every day, then that means there would have been six pictures overall – and I only have four. Does anyone know where the remaining pictures, if any, might be found?


ETA: Courtesy of Talorc at Quarter to Three, here are the remaining two:




For me, every Friday is black

One sign that our geeky hobbies have gone mainstream

How do we know when a favourite, but hitherto niche, hobby has gone mainstream? I’m sure there are many indicators. The most obvious is, have its sales skyrocketed? There are others: has it featured on a talk show? Are our co-workers discussing it?


But lately, I’ve noticed one more: How widely is it being advertised? In particular, is it being advertised in public places?


Using this litmus test, gaming has definitely gone mainstream. In the last few months, I’ve seen the bearded special operator from Medal of Honor, the scowling cowboy of Red Dead Redemption, and “Super Mario 25th Anniversary – Part of the Family Since 1985” all staring down at me from the sides of buses. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing LittleBigPlanet posters at the train station, in which an adorable-looking Sackboy proclaimed, “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary.”  And I could be mistaken here – this was years and years ago – but I seem to recall seeing CivAnon brochures at university, in which case even turn-based strategy can be mainstream..


Speculative fiction movies and TV are also mainstream by this definition. Most recently, I’ve seen posters at the train station advertising vampire TV shows, but pretty much any speculative-fiction blockbuster would count.


On the other hand, speculative fiction NOVELS are most definitely not mainstream. Neither is anime (well, in Australia, at any rate). No real surprises in either case…

“The golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”: when do you have the most fun with a hobby?

There is a saying, attributed to one Peter Graham, that “the golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”.


Now, assuming “12” is a metaphor for “when you first discover it”, I can understand the argument. I discovered most of my favourite anime in the first couple of years after I came to the hobby: Cowboy Bebop, Crest of the Stars, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc. I suspect this is due to my relatively narrow tastes in anime – in other words, it didn’t take me long to come close to exhausting the pool of anime that are to my liking.


But it’s not true when it comes to the games I’ve played. Oh, I whiled away endless hours playing games when I was a kid. And I was willing to spend more hours on any one game than I am now: the two that first spring to mind are Civilization II, which I played and modded ad infinitum, and the original X-Com, which I never bothered to finish because I was having so much fun stomping around on Earth, but there are undoubtedly many, many others. From an “amount of free time” perspective, any time you don’t have to hold down a job will be your golden age.


Yet many of my favourite games, or the games I would consider ‘the greatest’ or in some way the best, or those that had the biggest impact on me, are ones that I only played in the last 3-4 years: Fallout 3, Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters, Okami, etc. And I think coming to them with a grown-up’s eyes is a major reason why. For now I have had the benefit of years and years of reading books and playing games and absorbing stories. And now, I can better recognise originality. I can now dissect games well enough to see how they bring together individual building blocks, analyse them in terms of theme and character arc and worldbuilding. In other words, I can appreciate games on more layers than I could when I was younger.


Perhaps, then, the golden age of science fiction, or gaming, or anime, or movies or TV or any hobby, is when you’re sufficiently well-versed to understand why you like it.