Saturday, July 12, 2014


Haha, nice try, but no, this is about the film.

I just watched this movie, after I said I was going to on the flight to Japan, but didn't because I didn't want to arrive at the terminal a sopping sack of man-tears. Instead, I found a opportunity on a quiet Saturday afternoon to sit down at watch it start to finish.

I like this show. A lot. I didn't end up bawling my eyes out, but it touched me. What I particularly like is that it's a science fiction film, disguised as a romantic movie. I like how a lot of very interesting philosophical questions are raised, especially about the nature of artificial intelligence and their validity as feeling, sentient beings. I thought it was handled very well, and puts a different angle on the whole surpassing-our-intellect-and-leaving-for-deep-space thing. And the thing is, it's not a very farfetched idea in our increasingly technological world, especially with the invention of things like Chatbots and Siri - how soon before the program a software with personality? Something more than a simple dating-sim - an actual personality with feelings, desires, beliefs?

But no, the truth is that this film is still about people, about feeling, about that strange wonderful mysterious sensation that we call love. And it points out things about our culture as well. Is it possible to love hundreds of people at a time, and still have an intimate relationship with each and every one of them? Can we accept that an entity with enormous mental and emotional processing power is capable of such things? And if we keep demanding that we be the sole object of their affection, does that not say something about what we believe?

"But there's something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody."
The Edna Man

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuugo

It's the last time I'm ever going to eat at the Waseda cafeteria, that's why. And I guessed that they would have a new menu, since it was a new month and all, and I decided to try some tasty summer udon special. Little did I know that the main ingredient was uncut green chilli.

The noodles were good though, so I was happy.

Our class today was a short film documentary called Tokyo Waka, made by a couple of Princeton professors in their free time, according to our prof. It's a pretty interesting story about Tokyo told in a - what I felt at least - very The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa way, where you tell the story of a place through a set of characters; this one being the ubiquitous crows of Tokyo. Seriously, they're everywhere, and they're freaking big and damn scary. They're halfway intelligent, which I guess you have to be if you want to survive in an urban environment. It's a mix of shocking and intriguing.

I decided to make a trip to Nakano today because I wanted to pick up some art books. Nobody wanted to come with me so I went by myself. I guess I shouldn't have gone on a weekday because most of the shops were closed; good thing the Mandrake I wanted to go to was still open. I marvel at the number of different types of hobbyists the place caters to; there are of course many anime and manga figurines; but there are also shops for model train collectors, retro toy collectors, Gashapon enthusiasts, antique watch dealerships, idol fans, and so many other weird and wonderful things.

pixiv exhibition!

I had no idea Battle Cats was such a big thing.

On my way back home I also decided to finally try one of the digital vending machines that were only around in large train stations such as Shibuya. Aside from dispensing my cold beverage, it also told me the weather forecast for the next three days and happily wished me a pleasant day. Boy, I love this country.

And I didn't even have to kick it once!

Today, another crazy thing happened. Sae-san messaged me to ask me what I would be doing for the rest of my week in Tokyo, and in the middle of us both saying that it would be nice to meet up one more time before I left, I somehow ended up asking if she wanted to meet for dinner. I don't know; I thought I was just going through the motions of Japanese social courtesy and I end up asking a girl out for dinner. I mean, what?

Exhibit A, your honour.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuushi

Caryn wanted to bring Linus, Mel and I to try out a really good bento shop for lunch. Mel had some sudden sickness and couldn't make it, so we followed Caryn down backstreets and found this small bento shop run by an old lady and her husband, selling varieties of really good-looking bento boxes at student prices. I chose a 600-yen combo, and this is what I got:

There are also nine different fruits in here.

We sat outside in the shade, at some chairs chained up with their tables. (Why not just steal a whole new dining set?) And since Linus asked Caryn if she was thinking of working here (which I asked her the day before), I got another perspective on the torturous trials of graduate job-hunting. I found out that there are some positions only open to students, such that some people enroll in the university for another year (but not for any classes) just to have that "student" status so they can apply to certain jobs. It's pretty insane, but there doesn't seem to be any chance of it changing any time soon.

On the way back, I also bought a Haagen-Dazs crispy sandwich from the nearby supermarket.

Bourgeoisie ice cream for proletariat prices.

Today in class we watched two episodes a Japanese television series called Densha Otoko, or Train Man. I mean, this is one of our readings. How awesome is that, seriously? Why can’t we have different media readings at Yale-NUS?

Train Man is a television series adapted from a novel which is allegedly based on true events that occurred on an Internet message board. While that sentence should instantly repel you from any Hollywood movie review, in Japan you are allowed a little more discretion. It tells the story of an Akihabara otaku who intervenes when a drunk on a train starts harassing this young woman. She admires him for his courage, and sends him teacups as a present. The otaku, who has no experience with dealing with women, turns to the Internet message board A-channel for help. The novel is actually a printout of the message board, a stylistic variant on the traditional form of the contemporary novel; a story of the information era.

Halfway through the first episode, I cried. The show depicted the main character having the shittiest birthday of his life, just a classic sequence of misunderstandings and disappointments. He enters his family’s kitchen and sees his father and sister adding the finishing touches to a cake, and he’s overjoyed for a moment, before his sister packs the cake away and explains that it’s for her one-year relationship with her boyfriend. He goes to work, where he’s treated horribly by his superior. He’s asked to deliver some documents to a different office, and along the way he tries to help a little girl retrieve a balloon from a tree. As he’s struggling in the branches, almost reaching the string of the balloon, a woman slams open a window right next to him and accuses him of peeping, and throws something at him. He falls out of the tree, twisting his ankle, and the little girl adds insult to injury by calling him an idiot and throwing his documents into the nearby canal. He then has to fish out the documents, gets splashed by a sudden burst of water out of a drain, and then, cannot catch a cab to get him to his destination. So, limping, he runs to the office, stumbling along the way; and when he finally reaches his destination, the abusive office lady hits him and insults him for being useless. At this point, I was literally moved to tears. The next scene is of him at the top of a building, singing a lonely birthday song to himself as he mashes a slice of cake into his mouth, sobbing all the way. He climbs the parapet, but steps down again a moment later, too cowardly to even end his miserable life.

My description doesn’t do that montage sequence justice - you really have to watch it. But I don’t know why I was so personally affected by this sequence of events. Obviously it’s meant to evoke sympathy, but as to why it moved me to tears, a physical manifestation of my empathy, is puzzling. It’s maybe because I clearly identify strongly with this character – I’m terribly awkward with girls, I know what it’s like to be interested in hobbies which aren’t mainstream or socially acceptable, and I also know what it’s like to be treated like dirt by every other living thing (see: NPCC, army) – and I’m also familiar with the notion of the “one bad day”, where everything seems to be going wrong, and instead of giving up you keep going because you know that’s the right thing to do, but the world just spits in your face and offers you no karmic reward for your actions. It’s like I felt all my frustration with the world at the point was shared by this guy, and even though he’s this fictional character, silently root for his success. This is truly the power of fiction, to enable our empathy, and to bring us closer to others. I realise that the same thing happened in the show itself, where the members of the message board all give Train Man advice and rally behind him and his story, and kind of lift themselves as well.

I’m not sure how the rest of Train Man goes, but I definitely recommend watching at least the first two episodes; if not for the immense amount of feelz, then at least for the realisation that maybe everyone is a little bit otaku, in their own little way.

Tonight we also had the graduation party for our class, even though it isn't the last day, due to scheduling reasons. We had a large dinner and all the host families were invited, and Steph put together a video to show them what we have been doing over the past month and with little messages of us to our host families. It was incredibly sweet; it would have been a lot better if the projector wasn't lagging and de-synching the video with the sound.

Also: I passed the class! Metaphorically, since I still have a final paper due!

The happy graduates with our awesome professor.

(Photo credit: Steph)