Friday, 28 February 2014

Just watched: Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer

Barely twenty-four hours after I spazz out over the geek joys of The Genius, this is another story where mathematics features heavily. This film relates the story of Yasui Sansetsu, an astronomer who overcame politics, prejudice and tradition to reform the Japanese calendar.

The story is an entertaining one. By the late 1600s, the Japanese calendar was two days out, but the Imperial court felt that changing it would be disrespectful to the emperor. Yasui Sansetsu, frustrated that his more accurate calendar hadn’t been adopted, stages a number of public demonstrations (predicting eclipses) to show the public how accurate his calendar was. This caused a strong, occasionally violent, backlash from the authorities.

The film is full of neat little period details, such as the craze for mathematical puzzles, the method of doing maths with counting rods on a grid and also of a peculiar form of entertainment where two people would recreate games of Go that had been played out many years before, complete with commentary. Also, the film is full of reproductions of the equipment the astronomers used and the charts and maps of the sky that they made. It looks great.

The acting, too, is good. Miyazaki Aoi floats through her scenes serenely, and Okada Junichi goes from steely determination to self-doubt very convincingly. And the directing and photography is very good. But it doesn’t quite fit together. On the one hand, it’s an interesting part of history, but at the same time this film suffers from the problem that science dramas often suffer from: most scientific discoveries are, visually, quite dull.

The film has a lot of fun portraying the public exhibitions of the calendar’s accuracy, with shots of crowds and eclipses. But the most important part of the story: the moment when he realises why his calculations have been wrong, isn’t given the same level of attention. It seems a bit lop-sided somehow.

But like I said, this effects all science dramas. Maybe I'm being too harsh. In fact, yes, I think I am. This is a fine piece of work. It's impossible not to like a film made with such attention to detail and an obvious love of the period.

Recommended: The Genius

“If crack cocaine was made out of numbers.” That’s the kind of effect this show had on me. Since I discovered it two months ago, I’ve watched both series in an overdose of tense gaming fun. A horror movie can use blood and gore to make me nervous and force me to peep between my fingers, but this show had exactly the same effect using only the turn of a card.

While watching the final episode, I sat away from my computer, afraid that if I jogged the table I might move the mouse which would bring up the video player’s controls, showing how long was left before the end. This would give me a big clue as to who the final winner would be. This would have been unforgivable. And I put my phone on silent, went to the toilet beforehand and made sure I had enough to drink. Nothing was going to interrupt this.

It was the climax of several months of alliances and treachery, as people with different skills went into battle every week. Those who were skilled at mathematics and probabilities had to outwit those who were more socially gifted, able to build a team that would see them safely through to the next round.

Huge thanks to subber Bumdidlyumptious who kept releasing the subs so promptly. Now I have to face the world without my weekly fix. I can cheer myself up with the fact that they ended with “See you next time” and also that there was only four months’ gap between series one and two.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Watching again: Time of Eve

I first wrote about this short anime series over four years ago. Four years! That’s a bit scary.

Anyway, this time I decided to watch the film version. This is, essentially, the six TV episodes put together with a little extra material about some kind of government investigation into places where androids and people can interact socially. Because that is what the story is about: a world in which androids, created to serve people, are indistinguishable from humans.

In this world, this causes social tensions as people are suspicious of these android and equally mistrustful of people who prefer the company of robots to real people. When I wrote about it before, I compared the androids in this series to an underclass. This time, I considered the philosophical points that the film was making.

The debate about whether humans are beings whose consciousness alone demonstrates that part of them is spiritual or if we are simply the sum of our parts: purely physical beings, is a debate that touches a nerve with a lot of people. Time of Eve talks about a world in which, to all intents and purposes, the Turing Test has been passed. What would that say about ourselves? It’s one thing to state that a robot is incapable of feeling, but it’s quite another to say the same thing while a robot is looking you directly in the eye and telling you that you’re wrong.

Additionally, of course, there is the habit of people to given characteristics to certain objects. Two of the most affecting stories in Time of Eve concern robots who do not resemble people at all. I’m reminded of a blog post I wrote a while back about a machine devised in the late 1700s that could simulate human speech. One of the people who heard it ascribed certain emotions to it, even though it was little more than a box, a bellows and a rubber mouthpiece: ‘When its answer is not perfectly understood, it repeats it slower, and if required to speak a third time, it repeats it again, but with a tone of impatience and vexation’.

The film is a good way to see the series. Its directed by Yoshiura Yasuhiro, who also made Sakasama no Patema (which I still haven’t seen yet) and the animation is crisp and clear, and the episodic nature of the stories isn’t too obvious. It’s an intelligent and good-looking anime series that’s well worth a look.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Currently watching: Infinity Challenge

I’m a newcomer to this long-running Korean variety show (since 2005, according to Wikipedia). My previous attempts at watching it have always been ruined by IC’s biggest failing: it can be pretty inaccessible if you haven’t seen the previous week’s episode. It’s one of the most popular shows on Korean TV, so they must be doing something right, nevertheless it makes very few concessions to new viewers. Perhaps, after nine years of high ratings, the production team thinks there simply isn’t anyone left in Korea who hasn’t already seen it.

But a few weeks ago, I tried again. The format is simple: each week the seven regulars have to complete a challenge set by the production company. It could be anything, hence the name “Infinity Challenge.” It certainly makes for a wide range of situations. In the past few weeks, the team have had to learn cheer leading to encourage members of the public, to play a huge game of Yut, and to learn how to be a detective.

This week’s episode began with the punishment game from last week which I watched thinking “This is exactly the sort of thing that put me off last time.” There’s almost no explanation about what you’re looking at. You just have to go with the flow. Infinity Challenge is an odd show (perhaps even brave) because there’s a pretty good chance you won’t understand much about the first episode you see.

However, once you’ve got past that first barrier, it’s much easier. It relies a lot on phsyical humour, which usually rises up out of the situation they’re in. It’ll be a while before I get all the in-jokes, but I’m in no hurry. I can see this show becoming quite addictive. It’s unpredicability – the same thing that put me off at the start – is exactly what will keep bringing me back.

However, watching Infinity Challenge for the first time is a bit like trying to jump onto a moving merry-go-round. You’re sure it’ll be fun once you’re on, but they could at least slow down a bit to give you a chance.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Currently listening to: Bito

Ah, YouTube. It may be stuffed full of videos of pranks and home-made channels whose videos have titles that scream “You just won’t believe this dirty fail!” but on the positive side you can find examples of almost anything.

I decided to look for some Japanese singer songwriters. Recently I’d been thinking about the archetypal guitar playing troubadour, the kind slightly arrhythmic, eccentric yet deeply passionate type who would suddenly go into a rambling monologue about something, with only the occasional strum on the guitar to reassure the audience that he hadn't forgotten about the song. Like the kind I'd seen in Live Tape or even episode one of Ueno Juri no Itsutsu no Kaban. A couple of days ago, I wondered if I could find a few on the internet.

Before long, I found myself watching a video of some guy in a tiny venue, singing to his own guitar playing, and I was captivated. He had a great soulful voice, and after searching around I found about half a dozen more songs, and I became more and more impressed.

It’s hard to say much more than that, though. With a name like Bito (written in katakana: γƒ“γƒˆ) it’s hard to find much about him on the internet. His twitter feed (in Japanese) is under the name hamabito69, but that’s about it. I’ve no idea how long he’s been playing or what other things he’s done. But that doesn't matter. I'll just listen to these songs and enjoy the energy behind them.