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Where to go in Tokyo

April 22, 2017

I’m in the middle of planning another holiday to Japan. Yay! I lived there several years ago and have visited several times since, so as a holiday spot, I probably know it better than I know my own country, to be honest. (Mind you, it’s a heck of a lot easier to town-hop and city-hop in Japan than in Australia. Last year I was considering going to a beautiful spot somewhere else within my own state and calculated that it would take me 18+ hours by car to get there and back. Give me the shinkansen any day!)

Anyway, here is my totally subjective list of best places to go if you’re taking a trip to Tokyo.

My top picks

Asakusa and Ueno (and surrounds)

Asakusa has a traditional Japanese atmosphere; lots of little streets selling Japanese snacks and souvenirs, rickshaw pullers and a big, famous gate/temple/shrine complex. Also nearby are Tokyo Sky Tree (the tallest building in Japan) and ferries that you can take to other nearby areas of Tokyo. Asakusa is pretty touristy but I would still put it as my top destination. I love all the little stalls.

Ueno, which is not far away, features a large park with several museums and a zoo, and Ameyoko, a collection of streets selling cheap products, with the feel of a bustling open-air market which is quite unique in Tokyo. There’s usually something going on in Ueno Park, whether it’s some kind of festival, a cultural event, or hundreds of hanami (cherry blossom) parties.

If you had extra time and enjoyed a lower-key sort of sightseeing, you could also head north of Ueno Park to the Nezu/Sendagi/Yanaka area and just wander around. The neighbourhoods there have a cool vibe and a traditional feel; there are lots of tiny, character-filled little shops, temples all over the place, and a big, beautiful graveyard. This area is one of my favourites in Tokyo.

Yoyogi and Harajuku

This area, just near Shibuya, is one of my favourite spots to go in Tokyo, especially on the weekend. It’s quite unique and very Japanese, I think. In this area you can visit Meiji Jingu, quite an impressive shrine, go to a unique (very youth-y) shopping strip in Harajuku, and on weekends, see all sorts of weird and wonderful expressions of fashion, cosplay and street music performances around Harajuku station and Yoyogi Park. I always like Yoyogi Park; it seems people there are always enjoying themselves in lots of different ways, whether its running around with dogs, lying barefoot on the grass, playing hackysack, or performing dance routines with their friends. Every time I go there I see something truly strange.

You could finish the day by going to nearby Shibuya or Shinjuku to see the bright lights.

Other good places to go

Akihabara

I’d recommend this for geeky people only. If you have no interest in going to lots of shops focusing on anime, manga, electronics, etc, then there’s really not much else of interest (unless you want to go to a maid cafe o_O). It is one of those ‘I’m really in Japan’ sorts of places though.

Shibuya or Shinjuku or Ginza

If you’re not from a big city and want the ‘cool’ factor of seeing lots of lights, billboards, tall shiny buildings and whatnot, one of these three would be a good place to go. Shinjuku and Shibuya are also generally good areas to go shopping, eating, drinking, etc. Shinjuku’s more of a business area (but it has everything), while Shibuya is bigger on youth culture. Ginza is more of an up-market area.

Of the three, Shinjuku is the biggest, and has a massive, busy train station, so go there to see Tokyo on steroids. Shibuya is where you can find the famous statue of Hachiko and the famous, much-photographed/video-ed ‘scramble crossing’. I’m less familiar with Ginza.

Theme parks

Even if you’re not a big fan of Disney movies, going to Disney Land or Disney Sea is a fun way to spend the day. If you’ve already been to Disney Land in some other country, then Disney Sea might be a more unique experience. Both are a lot of fun. Crowds can be a big problem though. Avoid weekends and holiday periods. Even weekdays can be extremely busy.

If you’re a Studio Ghibli fan, the Ghibli museum is nice, and so is nearby Inokashira Park. (You could also tie it in with a visit to Mt Takao, although that could be a rather full day.) The museum is not large, but it’s rather charming to explore. Be aware that tickets for this museum must be bought in advance – they don’t allow too many people in at a time – and timeslots do fill up, so don’t book at the last minute.

Odaiba

You can take an elevated train or boat to get to Odaiba, which is a nice way to see views over Tokyo Bay. There are a few attractions around Odaiba like funky shopping malls, a huge Ferris wheel, a little beach (you can’t swim but it’s a nice place to have a sundowner), various entertainment complexes, parks, museums, iconic buildings, etc. If you had kids, you could probably find lots of things for them to do in Odaiba.

If you’re keen to get a hot spring experience but don’t have the chance to leave Tokyo, you can visit ‘Oedo Onsen Monogatari’, which is rather fun and has a number of different baths, including foot baths that men and women can enjoy together. (As far as I’m concerned, any place with hot springs is a good place. :))

Kamakura and/or Enoshima

For a day trip to a more natural spot, Kamakura is great for lots of walking around in nature and seeing shrines and temples. It’s pretty, has character, and has loads of sightseeing spots.

Enoshima is a bit less famous for foreign tourists; it’s an island which is quite pretty, has a number of little interesting shops, sightseeing spots and restaurants, nice views (and lots of steps!) and shrines. Not to mention a lot of cats. 🙂 After a few days in such a busy city, it’s nice to get some sea air.

Kamakura and Enoshima are not too far apart, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to do both in one day unless you start pretty early or are staying down in the area – it’s good to take some time and do them justice.

Hakone

If you had enough time for an overnight stay somewhere near Tokyo,  I think Hakone is best, because there are several sightseeing choices. You could stay in a ryokan and enjoy hot springs there.

For sightseeing, if the weather is clear, it’s nice to do the Hakone Round Course which has you use different modes of transportation to travel all around; you can see sulfurous Owakudani ‘Hell Valley’, take a boat across a lake, and (hopefully) get some nice views of Mt Fuji. The Hakone Open Air Museum is an open air art ‘museum’ that is great to potter around, and also fun for the kids. A third option is Yunessun, which is like a hot springs theme park, with different types of hot spring (for example, a very salty one in which you float a bit, hot springs with tea or wine in them, etc) in which you wear bathing suits. (There’s also a more traditional hot springs complex just next door if you don’t want all the crazy novelty hot springs!)

All three of these options are really nice. If you started early in the morning you could do both the Hakone Round Course and the art museum on one day, Yunessun on the other.

So those are my personal picks, but there are plenty of other places that are well worth a visit if they interest you.

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Movies: Beauty and the Beast

April 15, 2017

I just saw the live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ movie. So here are some random thoughts on it cf. the original.

Overall, I thought this movie was… pretty okay. A less good version of the original, but not bad.

The acting and casting

Generally, I thought the acting was quite good, but I did think Gaston’s role called for a bit more of a bombastic delivery. You don’t have to be totally goofy, but that role needs commitment and swaggering arrogance. He needs to feel a bit larger than life. I will say that Luke Evans is very easy on the eye though.

Emma Watson has charisma and charm; I always want to watch her when she’s onscreen. I liked her singing parts, especially at the beginning, and I thought she did well in the action scenes later. Earlier, I did sometimes feel she wasn’t quite responding naturally to the things around her, probably because they weren’t actually around her and they were all CG. It’s hard to develop chemistry with someone who isn’t there. (Was the Beast totally CG? It felt like he was.) I felt like she was quoting rather than speaking from the heart as a person. (Then again, I often have this problem with re-makes of things I know very well. Like when I first watched ‘About a Boy’, the dialogue sounded stilted and unnatural to me, because I knew the book so well, and it sounded like they were quoting long passages from it. Now, however, it’s one of my favourite movies and I love the comic timing and delivery of lines.)

I also felt Emma looked a bit too modern, like a modern person with modern hair and make-up and style, but dressed up in a costume. The other female characters who were dressed up looked more convincing.

I did like that they made one fleeting attempt to put her into the kind of over-the-top gown of a lady of the time. That was a nice touch, as were the (??18th century French) fashions in the opening where everyone was at a ball.

The group scenes, like when all the villagers gathered to go and hunt down the beast, were good.

In terms of acting, I thought the household objects were the best, and they were all portrayed by really top-tier actors from the UK. I liked that although they bore resemblance to the originals – Lumiere had a French accent, Mrs Potts was more plummy – they didn’t sound like just like they were trying to copy them.

Dan Stevens – though his voice was modified – did well too and always sounded authentic. I wished they could have given a little more development to the relationship between him and Belle, which is, after all, the whole point of the story. Build more chemistry and show him becoming nicer.  I mean, they do, but not quite as successfully as in the original.

Changes from the original

A few extra scenes and changes to dialogue were made. I think this was good overall; it’s good where the movie doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of the original.

The only ones I didn’t quite get were about the backstory with Belle’s mother, who died before Belle could remember. I have no problem with this being included, but I do wonder what the point was. Was the point to show how precious Belle and her father are to each other? I’m not sure if it completely delivered that message. Or maybe it was showing how Belle was courageous and self-sacrificing like her mum. I just feel like a sub-plot like that should contribute to the main plot in some way. You could use it to give Belle a bit more of a character arc, which is one thing she didn’t really have much of in the original. Instead, it seemed like it was going to be a big revelation, but wasn’t.

Although this movie had some funny moments and funny lines, a lot of the silliness of the original was taken out. The main characters who changed most were Maurice and Gaston.

Maurice went from being a bumbling, oblivious goofball to a more sensitive man, an artist, someone who was much more able to understand Belle. I thought this was a good change to make. It would have been hard to take him seriously in his original form; the movie as a whole was going for a slightly more realistic vibe.

Gaston also became less of an over-the-top parody, although no less evil. It takes a while, though, to see his true colours, as at first he just seems a bit obnoxious but not *that* awful. I think it would have been nice to see some of his ridiculous swaggering, sexist ways before seeing Belle reject him (like in the first movie). That would make it more satisfying when she does reject him.

Maybe the idea was just that Gaston was not supposed to seem so bad, just an ordinary guy, but not someone who could be compatible with Belle. Only gradually, after being thwarted, would he reveal the depths he could sink to. But I think having Gaston be an obvious jerk (but oblivious to it) shows what Belle is up against. I mean, in the original movie, he’s ghastly but everyone loves him; even her father suggests Gaston might be a good match. Nobody understands her. This is the kind of guy available to her, and this is one reason why she wants much more than her provincial life…

One other change in this movie was to the curse, was that the household items would become less human as time went on, and would turn into inanimate objects entirely if the curse could not be lifted. This makes the stakes for everyone feel much higher. In the animated movie, the suggestion was just that they’d forever stay in their current state (ie, not human but at least able to talk and move around).

‘Fixes’

I noticed every time they changed something that people had commented on or criticised about the original. For example:
‘If there was this giant castle and royal family RIGHT THERE just a few years ago, why doesn’t anyone remember this?’
‘This guy was cursed… then they were under the curse for 10 years… and he has to break the curse by his 21st birthday? So the poor kid was only 11 when he was placed under a terrible curse? That’s pretty rough!’
‘How on earth did tiny Belle get the gigantic, unconscious Beast onto her horse?’

In this movie, all these things are ‘fixed’. I liked the way they dealt with the ‘nobody knows about the castle’ problem. Okay, it was hand-waved with ‘magic’, but what I liked was that at the end, various villagers were reunited with people they had known, and forgotten, who lived in the castle.

Dialogue

In my last post, I mentioned Mad Max respecting the audience by trusting them to figure things out and not explaining much. This movie is the opposite. Like Maurice narrating his every step and decision as he walks around. We can’t be expected to remember that Belle asked for a rose ten minutes ago; we need to hear him talk about it as he walks over to the rosebush. Or later, when the Beast is feeling sad, we can’t see him be sad; he has to immediately break into a song. It often feels like a stage show being acted out, with the slight unnaturalness that comes with it. (And most of those new songs added are really on the nose.)

I know, I know. It’s a movie a lot of kids will go and see. I shouldn’t be too hard on it. 🙂

CG

I know that CG is inevitable because you can do so much more impressive things for far less money. And I know that this sort of movie would need it, as there are so many household objects doing strange and wonderful things. However, when too much is CG, I can’t quite feel engaged, because I don’t feel like I’m looking at something real. Like every action scene involving CG (wolves attacking, castle architecture crumbling) had me looking at my watch rather than holding my breath.

In conclusion

In conclusion, I think they adapted this movie fairly well to live action, and they successfully made a number of improvements that they’d have to make to pull off a live action version. However, the animated version is more charming, more funny, more atmospheric and more memorable.

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Movies: ‘Max Max: Fury Road’

April 9, 2017

I am completely uninterested in action films as a genre, and I watch as few of them as possible, but I really enjoyed ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. Judging from their high Rotten Tomatoes score (97%!), I was not alone.

This story is set in a dystopian wasteland controlled by a malevolent dictator, Immortan Joe. Because he controls the water supply, he controls everyone. However, one of his trusted servants/warriors, Furiosa, defies him by trying to escape, and taking with her something that Joe values more highly than anything else… The rest of the movie is basically Joe and his men trying to take down Furiosa and those travelling with her; what happens is one long car chase/fight scene after another. The titular character, Max, gets caught up in this whole dramatic chase and is soon travelling with Furiosa.

I’m not a big movie watcher; when I watch a new movie, quite often it’ll be one my housemate is in the middle of watching. I’ll come in, say, 40 minutes into it, and get intrigued and have to figure out who the characters are, what their relationships are, what they are doing… in some ways I like that better than starting from the start, because it engages my brain more. So this movie worked for me.

Unlike a lot of movies that focus on dystopian futures or other worlds, this movie has a minimum of exposition. We’re not constantly told, through endless dialogue, what has happened, what is happening and what is going to happen. We don’t know why this world is a dystopian wasteland, why there’s a psychotic being revered as if he’s a god, or what our main characters were doing before they got flung into this story. There is a lot of space for the audience to fill in the blanks and think about what’s going on and how this world works.

Information is given sparingly and because it’s done well, it’s really a nice way to depict this world. All the characters know their world and how it works, so instead of dialogue like this:

“It’s the People Eater himself.”
“Oh, who’s that again?”
“You know! The mayor of Gas Town! He must be helping our enemies to chase us down!”

They’ll just say:
“It’s the People Eater himself.”

And you are left to wonder who or what on earth that is. And if you don’t know (I had no idea; an hour later was still vaguely wondering who that fat guy was), it doesn’t really matter. You know he’s an antagonist, and somewhat important within that world, and that’s really all you need to know. The characters know who he is, and that’s what counts.

Similarly, we don’t need a long spiel – or introductory text on a black background – telling us that this land is poisonous and irradiated, that it’s people are wretched, sick, deformed, cancerous – we see that constantly just by encountering the characters.

Why is Furiosa doing what she’s doing? Typically taciturn, she simply says that she wants ‘redemption’. It’s left to us to deduce what for. She’s obviously been of value to Immortan Joe, so presumably she’s done a lot of things she regrets. We never know what these things are.

I also like the way the characters’ relationships change, slightly, as the story goes on, and do so naturally as a result of circumstances, without much dialogue being required to explain things.

[some spoilers from this point]

When Max first gets into Furiosa’s rig, he is far more enemy than friend. He may be working out of fear and self-preservation rather than hate or murderous intent, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is a threat, and he regards Furiosa as a threat. Yet it doesn’t take long for the two to have to work together and join forces against the many external threats pursuing them. There’s a change of tone – as he offers to go onto the rig rather than one of the women, and it’s his first time to help rather than harm. Then another when Furiosa asks him his name. And before long, the two are cemented as allies.

These changes of relationship are probably the most interesting part of the movie. Nux’s shift from manic, Determinator villain (albeit one who is more misguided than genuinely malevolent) to sympathetic ally was my favourite storyline. At first he’s super excited at the thought of taking down Furiosa and co. Brainwashed to live and die for Joe – this is all he’s known in his life – all he wants to do is please his idol. This spurs him on, despite a lot of hard knocks, to great feats of derring-do.

(I must say, incidentally, that these people are remarkably hardy for people who have serious incurable illnesses, or have been kept prisoner for days while having the blood drained from their body. They’re also very good at being flung from fast-moving vehicles and just getting up and running off.)

Then Nux fails. Publicly and unforgivably. In front of the man he worshipped.  When one of the women finds him later, he makes no attack; defeated, he’s not a threat any longer. In small, short scenes, we see how the other characters accept him.

Lindsay has a good video on this, giving some examples of how the movie sets up a concept in an unobtrusive way, and then trusts the viewer to remember it and make the connection when the element reappears later.

By the time we got to the big final chase, where they go back to the Citadel, I was starting to get a bit sick of all the car chases, but I kept watching because I was interested in the characters. Without having long scenes setting up their different personality traits and backstories, somehow this film created characters to care about.

On the other hand, It’s interesting to me that the online response to this film has been so uniformly positive, because I’m quite certain that almost none of my friends would like it. All the weird, bombastic elements of the movie – the bald War Boys leaping around in their white body paint, the dude blasting his electric guitar on his way to war, the Cirque du Soleil swinging about, the manic over-the-top speeches… these things would put them off and they’d be completely uninterested in it, just as they don’t like a lot of the big pop culture phenomena like superhero movies, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and violent NetFlix series. All these things require you to kind of step outside of normal life, and that’s exactly what appeals to some people about them, while others are unengaged by it all.

I don’t avidly watch much of that stuff myself but I’d still call myself interested in pop culture; I’m more aware of it and interested in it. I read TV Tropes for fun, watch the Nostalgia Critic, visit Reddit for people’s opinions on different shows and games. It seems to me like a certain type of person likes all this pop culture stuff (in general, maybe not every single title) and others don’t like any of it. But going by these reviews of the movie, you wouldn’t know that there were people in the ‘don’t like’ camp.

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Games: Ace Attorney Investigations

March 7, 2017

I got the game ‘Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth’. In this game you play as star prosecutor Edgeworth – once a rival character from the Phoenix Wright series. I’ll write my random thoughts as I play through each case. Minor spoilers.

Case 1

Okay, I’m quite excited to start this game. I’ve been really enjoying the Phoenix Wright series, and Edgeworth was my favourite character in that, so a whole game starring him should be fun. I’m also looking forward to taking on cases from the ‘other side’. Presumably, since playing as Phoenix (defense lawyer) means you constantly get to defend innocent people, playing as Edgeworth (prosecutor) should mean I get to constantly convict guilty people.

We start, like all good Phoenix cases, with a murder that our main character basically walks right into the aftermath of.

This game is quite different already. Edgeworth appears as a little animated character on the screen, so you physically move him around to inspect things or speak to people. When you make discoveries or have thoughts, questions and thoughts collect in a screen called ‘Logic’. As you go, you can make connections between facts and questions to come up with new conclusions and ideas.

Okay, I’ve scrutinised every item in the room, linked together the obvious logical connections, talked to every character numerous times, and basically done every action I can think of, some over and over again. I can’t leave the room or progress. I can’t believe I’m actually checking the strategy guide to figure out how to get out of the first room of the first case of a game. This is a new low.

Oh, I see. There was some logic I was supposed to link together. I didn’t see an obvious connection between those two facts, but there… done. Now I realise you don’t necessarily have to keep your ideas for later to be connected to later evidence. Sometimes you can solve/deduct things almost immediately.

The banter between Edgeworth and Gumshoe is lacking a bit. I think the whole ‘I’ll deduct your pay!’ threat has been played out for any comedic value it once had.

Hmm… there’s no court case. Is that going to be true of the whole game? I know that if they followed the same style of court hearing they have in Phoenix Wright, the prosecutor wouldn’t have that much to do – just present the research and the witnesses, then wait for the defense to speak up. But I think there must be a way to make it work. I just don’t think Edgeworth having a short one-on-one argument with someone has quite the drama and stakes of a real life-or-death court case.

It’s good to have recurring characters sometimes, ‘cos you can use the relationships for more interesting dynamics. And seeing the fate of someone you ‘know’ hanging in the balance has dramatic potential. But I don’t think Maggey should be a suspect.  She’s already been suspected of two murders. A third isn’t fresh any more, it’s getting tedious.

Case 2

This case takes place on a plane. This is the largest, most spacious, luxurious plane I’ve ever seen. I wish I could just saunter downstairs to the bar during a flight.

Woah, Cammy comes from the Mia Fey school of ‘not quite putting on clothes properly’. Where’s your shirt, love? Do you usually go to work looking like that?

(None of these busty characters ever seem to need bras, despite being, say, an F-cup.)

There is a bottle of wine in this case. It is very obviously a bottle of wine. All the characters refer to it as ‘grape juice’. Because brutal murders are fine, and female characters who forgot to get dressed are also fine, but acknowledging the existance of alcohol would be Corrupting?

Why is Franziska so hostile to Edgeworth? In the last game, she was a bit prickly toward him – seemed to see him as a rival to defeat, suddenly – but overall, the two had been established as friends, if anything. I think Franziska was always one of the weaker characters, because she was always needlessly nasty and abrasive. Even when she supposedly learned her lesson and they gave her positive things to do, she just kept reverting to type. At least Edgeworth was allowed a sort of redemption arc and became less of a jerk.

A big difference, so far, between this game and the Phoenix ones is that this one demands fewer big jumps of logic. In fact, Edgeworth himself (the character; not you, the player) does most of the difficult work of coming up with theories and tying together the facts properly. Because he explains what he’s worked out – and because you’ll usually be presenting evidence only moments after Edgeworth has explained it to himself – by the time you have to rebut arguments and find contradictions, it’s pretty unmistakable what you need to do or say.

You’d think this would be a good thing, since I have complained about Phoenix’s logic leaps before. In Phoenix, you collect lots of disparate bits of evidence and testimony, none of which match up logically, and then go into court with absolutely no idea of what’s happened or what you’re going to say. As various statements come up, you figure out problems that gradually, slowly, point you toward the truth. You have to remember quite a lot of detail about the case yourself so that you can follow along. It’s not until right near the end that the last pieces fall into place.

This makes less sense as an example of how the legal system works, and sometimes it’s very hard to figure out what to present, when you the player don’t know what’s really happened in the crime, but it does make you feel satisfied when you figure out the flaws and progress through.

But with Edgeworth, it holds your hand a bit more and doesn’t get too far ahead of itself – you solve parts of the crime, then proceed, then learn more and solve more, then proceed, then solve more – so at no point is the task unmanageable. This actually isn’t turning out to be very interesting. I don’t feel any sense of achievement.

Case 3

I mentioned that this game holds your hand more. Sometimes I just feel like I’m moving the character around and clicking on things to activate the various scenes and dialogue, and then eventually the case finishes. I don’t have to invest a lot of thought or effort in it, and at the same time, I don’t really care about the outcome of the case at all.

Another example is the process of having to investigate and find clues.

In Phoenix, although it also controls your progress, you always have a choice of a few things you can do – looking at crime scenes, talking to various people, presenting them with different pieces of evidence to learn more, going between locations. The investigation phase can occasionally be frustrating (when you think you’ve clicked on everything and presented everything relevant to every character and there’s something you’ve somehow overlooked). But it feels more like you’re actively engaged in it all.

In this game, you are limited to a single room/screen and can’t move away from it until you’ve found everything you need. If there is anything dodgy on a screen that you haven’t found, Edgeworth uses the same stock phrase to indicate that he hasn’t finished his investigation. If there is anything on a screen that clashes with available evidence, the ‘Deduce’ button will appear (it’s not there always).

What about the other actions you have to take as Edgeworth? They’re a bit lacking too.

Firstly, you have to figure things out using ‘Logic’ – you connect bits of info together logically – but glorifying it with the name of ‘Logic’ is a bit of a stretch. For example, in this case, one of my facts is ‘there is a trapdoor in this room which is locked’ and another fact is ‘I have a small key that probably unlocks something in this room’. It doesn’t actually take a huge leap of logic to put the two together.

Secondly, you have to rebut people’s arguments with contradictions, just as Phoenix does in court with witness testimony. The process is very similar, but in the case of this game, it is usually very obvious which statement you need to challenge, because several of the statements won’t actually say anything at all.

Example:

Statement 1: What happened here was a terrible shame!

Statement 2: People shouldn’t go around murdering each other!

Statement 3: I saw John enter Kieren’s office at exactly 2am.

Statement 4: And that’s the truth!

In such an exchange, it’s pretty obvious which of the four statements has a ‘fact’ you need to challenge.

Okay, Edgeworth has just found yet another murder victim, after being victim of a kidnapping, a false murder charge and a murder that happened in his own office. Edgeworth, you’re having a bad time. This is why you shouldn’t be the protagonist of your own game.

Kay is probably the best new character so far, but that’s not saying much. Even Edgeworth, in this game, is not very interesting.

Why is that? Edgeworth was my favourite character from the Phoenix Wright games so I thought it would be fun to see him in his own game. I realised though that Edgeworth is mainly interesting for his relationship to Phoenix. Their awkward friendship – where they are at first more rivals than friends, and then gradually later grow to really trust each other – is quite sweet, and so is seeing Edgeworth’s softer side.

Edgeworth is also fun in the Phoenix games – especially in ‘Trials and Tribulations’ – because he’s a character with such dignity and intelligence that when the game forces him to deal with absurdly difficult people or minor humiliations, it’s really quite funny. He gets flustered and sarcastic. Again though, this hasn’t really come to the forefront of this game.

One problem is that Edgeworth hasn’t had any good characters to bounce off in this game. As of case 3, the only recurring secondary character is Gumshoe. Now I like Gumshoe; so earnest and bumbling, but always trying to do the right thing. Gumshoe is always a fun enough sidekick but the jokes about cutting his salary and living on instant noodles have kind of been overdone already; his character hasn’t been given anywhere new to go. He’s just your partner and wants to help you solve crimes. The relationship between Edgeworth and Gumshoe, though good for the odd joke, is not enough to base a game on.

Actually when I got this game I kind of hoped it would be like Phoenix Wright but from the prosecutor’s perspective – so, of course, we would have guilty people to successfully convict – and we might even get to take a case or two against Phoenix himself.

Since that one time in case 1 when I needed a walkthrough – I hadn’t quite figured out the game mechanics at that point – I haven’t needed one at all, which would normally be a good thing, but…

Okay, I’m about 40 minutes into case 3 and I’m still really bored. I think I’ll stop playing. The original Phoenix Wright game, which I’ve never played (I’ve only played games 2 and 3) has just arrived in the post, and I think I’d much rather play that instead.

This game might get better and I assume it will get more challenging, but I can’t be bothered to find out.

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Chinese and Japanese (characters)

March 7, 2017

At first I also thought there’d be a lot more overlap between hanzi (Chinese characters) and kanji (Japanese characters).

I mean, heaps of characters are used with the same meanings in both languages. But to me it seems that a lot of the simpler, everyday words are different (and I suppose a lot of the simple/everyday words are hiragana in Japanese). When I was learning more complex Japanese vocabulary (mostly 2-kanji compounds), a Chinese friend looked at my list and could read/understand most of them.

How do they look different? To give a couple of examples…

Here’s how to say ‘My blood type is ‘O'”, in Japanese:
私の血液型はO型です
And in Chinese:
我的血型是O型

The Japanese hiragana words ‘of’ and ‘is’ (の and は…です) have been replaced by equivalent hanzi (的 and 是).

The word ‘I’, which is 私 in Japanese, is 我 in Chinese. (This character 我 is also used in Japanese to mean ‘I’, but in Japanese, it is a more literary/formal word, not a common, everyday ‘I’. Still, if you can read Japanese, you can still get the meaning of the Chinese.)

The keywords, ‘blood type’ 血液型 and ‘type’ 型 use the same characters in both languages. So if I saw this Chinese sentence, I’d be able to understand it, because enough characters are recognisable.

Another example:
‘My daughter is 2 and a half years old.’
私の娘は2歳半です (Japanese)
我的女儿现在30个月 (Chinese)

You can see that not one character in the second sentence is the same as the first. (Also, in the Chinese sentence, the age has been rendered in months.) But several of those hanzi – like ‘女’, meaning girl/woman, and ‘月’ meaning month – are still recognisable.

As someone who can read some Japanese, I would not be able to look at the Chinese sentence and understand it, but I could see it had something to do with ‘me’ and ‘her’ and months.

As for an example of ‘simplified’ characters, I’m not always sure what is a ‘simplified’ character and what is simply a different character. I think I found an example in ‘Tokyo’. In Japanese, it’s 東京 and in Chinese, 东京. In Chinese, the first character has fewer strokes.

So I still have plenty to learn!

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Japanese and Chinese

March 5, 2017

For ages I’ve had the vague feeling that I ought to learn Chinese (in my case, Mandarin). I have a lot of Chinese speakers around me in my life and I’ve had an ongoing interest in the country and culture. In any case, I suspect that Australia is just going to continue having more and more connection with China in the future.

Meanwhile, what I have actually studied for the last 9-10 years is Japanese, a language which I rarely hear or see around me here, and mostly only get to use when I go on my occasional holidays there. Mostly I’ve just studied it because I enjoy the language itself and I’ve enjoyed sensing my own progress in it.

So I’ve had practical reasons to learn Chinese, and occasionally I’d make very slight attempts to start learning it – joined a course I only attended for a few weeks, started using a book and gave up after a couple of pages, bought a number of resources I didn’t use – but the language itself didn’t grip me.

The barrier – sounds

One reason I like Japanese so much is I really like the way it sounds; to me, it just sounds cool. Poetic. Fun to say. Chinese, on the other hand, can sound a bit harsh, with all those clashing tones – and so many words that are only one syllable make it very hard to fix in my mind.

Take one of the sample sentences in my ‘learn Chinese’ book: ‘I plan to go back to China next week’.

In Japanese, it’s ‘raishuu, chuugoku ni kaeru tsumori na no’ (literally: next week, China to return plan’). This rolls off the tongue in a delightful way.

In Mandarin, it’s ‘wo da suan xia xing qi hui zhong guo’ (literally: I plan next week go back China’).

Now, grammatically, clearly the Chinese is more similar to English. It has a pronoun (‘I’) clearly in there, and the word order is fairly similar. But in Chinese, each of those syllables is a separate Chinese character and to me, it sounds less mellifluous. All those sharp ‘chi’ and ‘j’ sounds. And with tones going up and down, no sound leads smoothly into another. It sounds choppy.

Another problem is that to me, a lot of Chinese words don’t sound anything like English ones. So if I’m trying to make up mnemonics to remember Chinese words, it’s a lot harder.

Not to mention the tones. I can’t help remembering my experience learning ‘gender’ when I studied French. In French, every noun is masculine or feminine, and this affects the words you use with that noun (eg, ‘le’ or ‘la’). I knew it would be best and easiest to learn the gender of a noun at the same time that I learned the noun, but in reality the gender needed to be reinforced and practised so many times to stick in my mind – I could learn the word itself far more readily than I could remember its gender – that I’d just say ‘stuff it’. Thus, by learning lots of nouns without the gender, I learned the words faster but guaranteed a French-speaking career full of loads of minor mistakes.

I think tone will be similar in that the temptation will be to just learn the word, not the tone. It’s hard enough to make these short, non-intuitive-sounding words stick in my mind without remembering the tone… however, in this case, it’s not just nouns but all words that have a tone, and getting tone right is pretty crucial to being understood. So I can’t ignore that aspect of it.

Starting from reading

Finally this year I decided to try to push myself once more to get into learning Chinese, and I’m finally making a little progress. How did I get over that initial hurdle?

I thought it was a good idea to start an interest in Chinese by attaching it to my interest in Japanese. The biggest common point between the two languages is the Chinese characters. (I’ll call them kanji, for the ones in Japan, and hanzi, for the ones used in China.)

Now, there are loads of differences in the two countries’ writing systems. Firstly, Chinese uses only hanzi, while Japanese uses a mixture of kanji and its own orthographies. Secondly, Chinese includes a number of characters that have been ‘simplified’ (well, Japanese has some too…) and that thus look different from their Japanese counterparts.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of overlap. While there are plenty of hanzi I can’t read, generally I’m finding it much easier to read and understand basic Chinese sentences than to remember how to say them.

One of the resources I’ve been using is a Chinese-learning book I bought in Japan – that is, explanations and translations are in Japanese.  By having Chinese and Japanese sentences side by side, I can clearly see where character use is the same, and this is nice reinforcement.

One advantage of Chinese

You know, I used to imagine that Chinese would be much harder to read than Japanese. After all, Japanese uses plenty of hiragana and katakana, so that even if you can’t read some kanji, you can get ideas about what’s being said in a sentence. Chinese, however, is an intimidating mass of hanzi; even a children’s book is intimidating. And that is still true. But one area in which Chinese is vastly superior is that by and large, one character has one pronunciation.

Take this character: 上

In Chinese, it’s pronounced ‘shang’ (in fact, it’s the ‘shang’ in ‘Shanghai’). Once you’ve learned that, you’re good. Then it doesn’t matter if this character is appearing in the word ‘Shanghai’, or used to say someone is ‘in’ the bathroom, or is in ‘wangshang’, meaning ‘online’, or means ‘last’ as in ‘last week’. Even if the meaning/use of the character is different, the pronunciation is consistent.

In Japanese, it’s a nightmare that can be pronounced ‘ue’, ‘jou’, ‘kami’, ‘uwa’, ‘a’, ‘nobo’, ‘shan’, etc, depending on what word it appears in.

This is definitely one of my least favourite aspects of kanji; the fact that one kanji has at least two completely different readings, and often more. I usually remember one, but then I see the character in a different word and, though I might be able to figure out the meaning of the word, I don’t know how to say it. Trying to remember the different readings of a character has probably been my biggest time-waster in Japanese, as I invariably learn and forget over and over again.

Similarities and differences

Often, the hanzi used for a common word in Chinese is different from the kanji used in Japanese.

For example, to say ‘go’ in Japanese we use the character 行(行く)。

To say ‘go’ in Chinese, we use the character 去。

To say ‘look’ in Japanese, we use 見 (見る)。In Chinese, 看.

However, for someone who knows Japanese, these hanzi are still easy to read. Okay, in Japanese, 去 is not the usual, everyday word most often used for ‘go’. But it still exists in Japanese, in the word ‘saru’ (depart) and ‘kyonen’ (last year) and other words. Japanese people can recognise it has the meaning of ‘go’.

Likewise, the character 看, though not the go-to everyday character for ‘see’, is used, in Japanese, in a number of words that have a meaning of ‘seeing’. (One example is ‘kankyaku’, meaning ‘spectators’; another is ‘kanshu’, meaning ‘seeing through, noticing’.)

So it’s interesting to see familiar kanji popping up in different guises in Chinese.

Patterns and common threads

Another thing I’m enjoying with Chinese now that I’ve got a few basic words and phrases behind me is seeing patterns and familiar characters popping up in this sentence or that. I like looking at a new word and finding out what the characters mean.

I can read a book like the Chinese food travel book, ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ (a good read, by the way), and really pay attention to all the Chinese words and dish names and phrases that pop up throughout, thinking ‘I wonder if that word is the same as the word in ___’).

Once I get to this point of learning a language, it’s a good sign. It means I’m starting to find the language interesting in its own right, rather than just a meaningless collection of syllables.

I’m an idiot

There’s a well-known list by the Foreign Service Institute ranking languages according to how long it would take an English speaker to become proficient in them. In Category 1 (the ‘easiest’) are those languages most similar to English, such as Spanish and Norwegian). In the middle are languages like Greek, Hindi and Russian. And down at the bottom, in Category V, are the languages deemed ‘exceptionally difficult for native English speakers’. This category comprises Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Arabic, with Japanese considered the hardest of all.

So not only have I spent years studying what is supposedly the most difficult possible language, but now what have I done but chosen another language from the ‘exceptionally difficult’ category.

Well, let’s see how we go…

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Games: Phoenix Wright

February 18, 2017

I’ve just been playing the original Phoenix Wright trilogy. These DS games have you play as a lawyer trying to win court cases. (Minor/vague spoilers in this post.)

These games are good fun and packed full of drama and humour. They are heavily text-based; it’s like an interactive story, so the focus is on the twists and turns of the stories and the interactions of the characters. As Phoenix, a defense attorney, you have to frequently defend people who seem to have all the evidence stacked up against them. You investigate the crime scene, interview people, gather evidence – and yet most of the time you step into the beginning of a trial with almost no idea what actually happened or what you’re going to say.

At the beginning of the case, you start with almost impossible odds, which would make a normal lawyer seriously question their own possibility of success. For example, you might take on a client who not only has numerous points of evidence against them, but has actually already confessed to their crime. Or you might have to defend someone who was actually shown to run the victim through with a sword. If someone actually saw you running someone through with a sword, it’s pretty hard to get off the hook, isn’t it?

Fortunately, in the world of Phoenix Wright, things often aren’t all they seem. People constantly dress up as other people, have doppelgangers, and channel the dead. Even if numerous people actually witnessed you murdering someone, that doesn’t mean you actually did it.

Usually you start the case having no idea what happened or how the contradictory facts you’re hearing could possibly be true. All evidence points to your own client being guilty. However, as time goes on, you learn that there’s always more to the case than initially meets the eye. The game works well at gradually revealing more and more facts so that by the end of the case, you can finally piece together what really happened. It was very rare that I could predict where a case was going to go; even if I could guess who the murderer might actually be, it would take a while to figure out why and how they’d done it.

Happily for Phoenix, your clients are usually conveniently innocent and so there’s no moral dilemma defending them. The job of a defense attorney, after all, is to bravely defend the innocent and believe in them until the end! I wonder if Phoenix could be quite so heroic if he had to defend a string of clients who were all blatantly guilty of their crimes…

(On that subject, this blog entry is an interesting look, by an actual lawyer, at the second Phoenix Wright game (it has lots of spoilers) that talks about this issue. It talks about how the games portray being a defense attorney as achieving justice for the innocent, whereas in reality, as a defense lawyer you should provide your client – innocent or guilty – an essential service, which is the right to a fair defense in court. See also their first post for more about how the justice system in Phoenix Wright differs from the real justice system (in America anyway).)

The game’s logic

The main decisions the player has to make are in regard to presenting evidence. As a case goes on – and sometimes during the investigation period, as well – you have to prove your points with supporting evidence. Conveniently for the defense, every witness on the stand will either lie their heads off, have misinterpreted something, or have remembered something incorrectly. Your most important job is to identify the contradictions in their statements by choosing the right statement to query, and presenting evidence that will highlight their error.

Ideally, the player’s mind will follow along with what Phoenix is thinking and be able to logically work out what to produce. For example, if a witness says they recognised the defendant by their distinctive hat, but you have a photo that proves the defendant wasn’t wearing a hat that night, you produce the photo. In general, I feel that most of the time it is possible to logically deduce what to present and when.

When you can’t follow it, though, it’s time to save constantly and keep hitting the strategy guides, because a game only allows you a few errors before you fail your case, and finding contradictions through trial and error is too costly. I usually have a walkthrough open in the background while playing this, and especially in the last case of each game.

Figuring it out

Occasionally, you’ll know the witness is lying through their teeth but have no idea how to prove it. This can happen either because there’s too great a leap in logic required for the player – and this doesn’t happen all that often but it’s quite frustrating when it does – or because you just have so many pieces of evidence you could produce that it’s hard to know how to proceed or which statement has the flaw.

Unfortunately, the game cannot read your mind either. So you might be thinking ‘well, obviously the victim couldn’t have written the defendant’s name in the dirt in huge letters, because the victim had a broken neck; are you all stupid or what?!’ But until the game is ready for you to make that point, it won’t accept the piece of evidence you want to present.

 

Or perhaps you have figured out what the correct problem is for that stage in the trial, but not how to present it. In another example, a witness claims that it had stopped snowing by the time a murder took place. You know this is untrue, for three reasons. Firstly, there were two pieces of evidence that fell into the snow during or after the murder, which were both found with snow on them (indicating the snow hadn’t stopped at the time they fell on the ground). Secondly, a weather report shows when the snow stopped, and it seems unlikely it would have stopped before the murder. Thirdly, if the witness really had dragged the victim’s body across the ground after the snow had stopped, there would have been tracks left in the snow, and there weren’t any.

However, producing those two fallen items, the weather report, etc, all fail to make Phoenix make your point. It’s not that your logic is wrong. You’ve figured it out perfectly, and you get frustrated because everything you do makes you get penalties rather than progress in the game. Turning to a walkthrough, it turns out that instead of presenting this evidence after the witness says ‘it had stopped snowing…’, you have to present it when she says she dragged the body. Sometimes it can be frustrating having the game only accept one very specific action at one specific point.

Every witness gets a hearing

No matter how dishonest or incompetent the witness is proven to be, every new statement they make is considered gospel truth and taken very seriously.

Made-up but very representative example:

Witness: At about 9pm, I saw Joe drag the victim’s dead body across the room and push it out the window.

Phoenix: Objection! At 9pm, Joe was outside with a broken ankle, as we know from Jane’s testimony.

Witness: Oh… well, maybe I misremembered the time. Yeah, maybe it was earlier. I can’t be expected to remember every little detail! So maybe it was about 8 o’clock. He dragged the body across the room and pushed it out the window. Oh, but before he pushed it out the window, he hacked at the victim several times with an ax, and that’s when the victim died.

Phoenix: Objection! This autopsy report clearly shows that the victim died of gunshot wounds, not an ax.

Witness: Oh yes, I forgot, it was a gun, not an ax. I saw Joe chopping wood earlier in the day and I must have just got confused. Silly old me. Joe shot the victim with a gun and then pushed him out the window. That’s the truth, I swear it.

Judge: Okay, so clearly, it has been proven that Joe was the murderer in this case.

This judicial system has the attitude of ‘guilty until proven innocent’. No matter how many holes you poke in witness’s testimonies – no matter how much you establish ‘reasonable doubt’ – you still have to conclusively prove that someone else committed the crime before your client gets let off the hook.

Missing the obvious

Sometimes also, the prosecutor will make a point, all smug-like, and you, the player, will think of a perfect objection that Phoenix completely fails to bring up.

Example: a witness describes how she saw a certain person fighting another. Phoenix strongly doubts that these two people would have been fighting. The witness admits it was very dark, so she couldn’t see what happened to the murder weapon, and she blatantly makes an error when describing how the victim was killed. Phoenix points this out, and the prosecutor smugly replies that the witness has already covered herself by pointing out that it was dark, so she couldn’t be expected to have seen everything perfectly.

In that case, shouldn’t Phoenix make the logical point – if visibility was so terrible, how can this witness actually be sure she saw the people she claimed she saw? To me, the fact that she could barely see anything is hardly something to proudly proclaim; it completely invalidates her whole testimony and we shouldn’t be taking anything she says seriously!

Still…

Still, these nitpicks don’t often get in the way of enjoying some genuinely fun games. Apart from some occasional disconnects between the player’s brain and the game’s, it’s fun to go along for the ride, prove your clients’ innocence and serve the bad guys their due.