Alex Kerr is no stranger to Japan, his books and history demonstrate a continuing personal involvement and deep affection for the country which is hard to find in many foreigners. Perhaps best know for the seminal Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan was published eight years later in 2002 and aims to get to the heart of how Japan as a nation has been degrading since the Second World War and before. At times it is a bleak and unforgiving book that aims with ruthless precision to uncover why Japan, once sequestered, then exposed, then devastated, then superior and now, supposedly irrelevant, has become that way. By and large it succeeds and prises open a world that no other book has had the courage to touch upon - indeed Kerr expands on this at many points throughout the ~400 page book. Unfortunately though it is hamstrung by many arguments which boil down to personal opinion and though convincing, it is difficult not to see this as only one side to a very complex and pertinent argument.
There is a spacious fifty minutes to each episode of Katanagatari - enough time for sweeping, epic tales befitting of the peculiar art style and setting within feudal Japan. Disappointing then that each episode has enough content for ten minutes which is written for twenty four then stretched torturously out to fifty. Utilising every possible means to extend and protract results in great swathes of time dedicated to ceaseless banter between the two protagonists. The script may be sharp enough to prevent abject boredom and the characters just shy of caricatures, but like the recent Bakemonogatari, this isn't enough to hide deficiencies in key areas such as storyline and pacing.
Based upon a light novel series, Katanagatari follows the reclusive martial-artist Shichika Yasuri and the white haired strategist Togame as they search for twelve legendary swords forged by the master craftsman Shikizaki Kiki. After travelling to the island where Shichika has stayed all of his life, Togame explains her predicament and manages to enlist his help after one of the twelve sword's current owners attacked, endangering both her life and that of Shichika's sister. Journeying to Kyoto then to Inaba (now Tottori Prefecture) they track down the second sword, wielded by an proud swordsman still clinging to his ancestor's legacy. Despite Shichika's naivete, he and Togame begin to bond through their tribulations and a reticent respect for each other's role and specialities is born.
The first two episodes of Black Lagoon are a carnival of ridiculousness. The climax of the opening story sees a boat use a ramp to launch torpedoes at a pursuing helicopter while the instigator of the plan flips off the doomed pilot. To say the series is quite silly would be an understatement. Even through two seasons it doesn't ever forget just how absurd a lot of it is, but tempering that craziness is a slick and very poignant look at villainy, existentialism, obligation and trust. What makes this mix so rare - gunfights, car chases and philosophising - is how well they meld together and crucially how entertaining the entire package is.
The series starts atypically enough with a Japanese salaryman, Rock, being kidnapped by a mercenary company, the titular Black Lagoon, and opting to stay with them after his initial ordeal is over. The story follows him through the exploits of the company and his attempts to come to terms with his new life within a city a villains. The narrative is broken up into a collection of stories lasting anywhere from two to five episodes and involve a transport job gone wrong to an overseas gang war and all points in between. As well as the three other members of the Black Lagoon company, Rock collides with an eclectic batch of characters including combat maids, scarred Russian soldiers and pistol toting nuns.
Darker than Black asked more questions than it reasonably answered so a second season is welcomed not simply for the chance to tie up loose ends. Lamentably, as so far this sequel is as obtuse as the first and omits an overview of the first season in favour of a cryptic flashback, some light romantic drama followed by some out-of-character fan service. The first three episodes present a haggard, visibly scarred Hei with ill-explored traumas inflicted in the intervening period between seasons; an incessantly annoying teenage girl with a flying squirrel sidekick and a selection of Contractors with a variety of outlandish remunerations. So far so Darker than Black.
It diverges little in both pace and atmosphere of the first series with the animosity between humans and Contractors still prevalent and mention of a shadowy organisation that seems to exist only to be enigmatic rather than any pragmatic reason. The two episode per story is dropped in favour of a more straightforward linear narrative that sees the teenage girl witness her home destroyed by a number of groups searching for (what else) a meteor fragment; through this she meets Hei and experiences a number of her friends either killed or turned into glassy eyed Contractors. Were it not for the shadow cast by the first season this could well be an intriguing genesis for a new series, there is however an all too present fear that BONES will be miring the already labyrinthine mythos and the conclusion will perhaps give a character but not a story ending.
The missing Kyoto photos are retrieved! All things told there weren't that many good photos on the iffy card, mostly blurry geisha photos (geisha ghosts?) and some lamentably blurry night shots - one of the great problems of my D50 screen and chimping is that slightly blurry photos tend to be missed and only visible upon more detailed examination.
I have been awake since 0330 local time which is annoying as I was asleep 2300 local time and up for lord knows how long before that, jet lag is a real pain and I don't remember ever suffering from it to this extent beforehand. Anyways, some thoughts on travelling around Japan:
- Get used to train stations: where to look for times and what to look for (rapid, limited rapid express etc.); always note which exit you use and entrance you want, they may not be one in the same and orientation is easier if you've done the route before; get familiar with the ticket machines as you'll either be ticketing, SUICA'ing or PASMO'ing and they all involve adjustment machines at some point
- Improve your train sleeping: this is a necessity if you are jetlagged or have a full schedule as you'll be able to hit the town at night and still have energy for the important parts during the day, even an half an hours nap can improve things; just make sure you're the last stop or have people around you who can wake you up if you get overzealous with the napping
- Learn your landmarks: if you're like me and can't read Japanese fluently then navigation can be tricky so instead of recognising stores / pubs, go for colours or tall buildings or quirky objects outside, there are plenty of all three kicking about and makes exploring a hell of a lot simpler
- Be prepared to be scrutinised: if you're European or American then you will naturally stand out in most areas of Japan, Tokyo not so much but other areas you will be glanced at more often than not, a friendly smile and a nod is usually all it takes to make everyone feel at ease; there will also be a natural radius around you on trains and local transport, you can mitigate this by plonking yourself in between two current passengers but otherwise there is a general reluctance to sit next to you if it can be at all helped.
- Don't expect high technology everywhere: Tokyo is privileged in its use of wireless internet, modern transport methods and so forth but other areas of Japan can be just as rural and disconnected as your home country - downloading TV to your mobile phone is a nicety, not provided as standard
- Get good shoes: or tough feet (general life advice but especially relevant)
I know have a plethora of bits of paper (receipts, ticket stubs, reservation tickets, leaflets etc.) and photos to organise. Last count for photos was just a hair under 700 and unlike my last trip there are very few duplicates and the overall quality of the photos has surprised even me - helped of course by the stellar weather that held for all but a single day. One thing I do regret is not taking my lens hood for my 18-200, with the 18-55 there's little need for one but looking through some of the photos there was definitely a need for one (and me holding the lens cap in conspicuous positions was not a good interim solution) - here was me thinking lens hoods were just for camera pimping.
Other random thoughts include my choice of clothing - definitely took too many warmer tops although I was expecting the weather to be 6-8 degrees less than it was, unseasonable warmth indeed. No matter how much you cram into a backpack, it can always hold more with judicious application of body weight and zip moulding. Do not trust hotel bedside clocks - their alarms oscillate between weedy and useless to sonic sleep destroyers. Hotel wake up calls are surprisingly sinister at 6am.