Tag Archives: writing

Barakamon: The Artist In Recovery

Contains spoilers for the ending of Barakamon.

I have been working on a fantasy novel called A Pattern of Light in some form since 2007. The ideas for it date back much further, but I wanted to update them. I began the outline for it while I was visiting my father in the hospital. In between sessions of Final Fantasy 3 on the Nintendo DS, I wrote the novel’s outline in a now battered Moleskine notebook. Around that time, too, I was watching the ending of Mai Hime and I even wrote about it here, because the sense of loss and grief in that show spoke to me then. While the novel itself didn’t deal with that directly, that is the soil where it took root.

A lot has happened since December of 2007, when the ideas first came. Anime Diet was only a year old then, and now has become far larger than the lark it began as. Friends have come and gone. I graduated from seminary, and found my way back into computers. Multiple Nanowrimos have passed, some of them dedicated to finishing A Pattern of Light, but while sometimes the 50,000 word barrier was breached, the work itself was never finished. It stopped when a number of things began to break down in my and others’ lives and had been lying dormant since, waiting for a moment when my mind and heart could settle down and feel enough both drive and pain to continue the work.

Make good art,” Neil Gaiman charged a graduating art school class, and especially on bad days. It was advice that I didn’t heed.

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When life’s messy, all you can do is to start to clean it up.

* * *

So when I first started watching Barakamon, and saw how Handa-sensei had been exiled to an island in order to reflect not only on his aggression toward the critic but also on his calligraphic art, I felt a pang of recognition. In a brief moment, Handa has to face two stark realities: first, that he had hurt someone undeservedly, and second, that the critic was probably right—his art was workmanlike rather than inspired. Those of us who tend to be perfectionists, and writers tend to be both that and procrastinators, know the pain. To be told that something isn’t good enough is a devastating blow to someone who bases his self-esteem on accomplishment.  For a creative person, to be told that one’s work is uninspiring is perhaps worse than most other critiques. When I was young, I clung to my creative abilities to help me get through a difficult middle and high school existence. To have that sense called into question hurt Handa badly.

So he has to go away for a while, to a remote island. Here, the story of Barakamon takes a familiar shape, of the broken man being healed by the charming eccentricities of the rural yokels. It is to help him recover his talents, yes, but it is also a form of exile. Exile, in literature, is sometimes a painful but necessary step to growth. The Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. After realizing the suffering of the world, the Buddha had to wander as an ascetic before he received the enlightenment of the middle way. For an artist whose inspiration has left him, Handa needed a change of place and context: overfamiliarity is bad for art, and bad for the soul too if it leads to complacency. So is arrogance, and Handa had plenty of it initially, rejecting the critique and rejecting the children who have come bounding into his life on the Goto Islands.

There’s something quietly monumental that Naru, the lead child, is played not by one of the usual seiyuu but by an actual child—Suzuko Hara. So are most of the other children, played by actors and actresses not much older than their characters. We are not dealing with the projection of children (or worse, “lolis”) that we usually see in anime. Instead, with the writing, we are getting something much closer to reality of childhood: the carefree, illogical leaps of subjects, the annoying pranks, the sheer aggravating delight in repetition, and most importantly, the unforced affection and love. With the authentic acting, we get its texture. Barakamon’s depiction of kids is sentimental (the natural selfishness of children is only depicted occasionally), but not unreal. I saw much the same when I was a summer camp counselor, many years ago. And those children are instrumental in Handa’s healing.

Handa’s healing process is surprisingly drawn out for an otherwise formulaic show. For much of the series, his exasperation gets the better of him; he regularly berates Naru and the other children to the point where, in real life, it would border abuse. Moments of ecstatic joy are often immediately undercut by the machinations of the boys, or the teasing middle school girls who, too, are realistically snotty as opposed to the near sex objects they have become in other anime. The calligraphic work he produces varies wildly in quality, and the people of the town are not especially interested in their artistic merits as opposed to their practical uses: paint us words on a boat! Or a sign for the temple! He would not have taught the girls how to write if they hadn’t essentially forced that decision on him. And the one masterpiece he does create, “Stars,” is a product of a literal fall into despair and frustration punctuated by one moment of wonder. Good art often seems to come from violent juxtapositions, and it was made possible in large part because he was in a place where he wouldn’t be insulated from extremes anymore. It was not to be emulated again, either, marred in a bout of insecurity that frustrated me deeply when he did it.

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Because so many of us do that too, don’t we? We put ourselves down even when part of us says we did good work. That nagging perfectionist voice—Anne Lamott calls it Radio KFKD—refuses to shut up about its flaws, or about its reception. We stop working when we think the piece has reached a dead end, or that life is too hard to think about such frivolous things and that there are more important things to be done in life. Handa has to be pushed, by circumstance and by the annoyingly loving support of his island community. He only begins to miss them just before he is supposed to leave for Tokyo again. Whatever it is, that is what recovery looks like: halting, sometimes unsure, but definite.

Even more: the work he does submit, the canvas full of the names of everyone who has touched his life on the island (Naru’s name is largest), does not win. In fact, it loses in spectacular fashion, in 5th place. A work of positivity like that, it seems, is not necessarily appreciated in a contest. In a way, though, it was the work Handa needed to produce before he could move on. It is as important to him, perhaps more, that his student Miwa earned first place in her contest than that he win first place in his. That realization was what helped Handa’s mother let him go, because it is a great sign of maturity, that he cares more for others than himself. He is not a perfect artist yet, but he is a better human being.

Maybe that is actually more important than the work. Or, perhaps, the work and the person are inseparable. You improve one, you improve the other.

* * *

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The only part left in the first draft of A Pattern of Light was the final part. As originally conceived in 2007, it was going to be a part full of battles, desperate maneuvers, and self-sacrifice before reaching a happy ending. It was always going to be long and serious and epic, and the synopsis for that part was longer than any of the others.

For many reasons, that is where I stopped. Life happened, betrayals happened, and the fanciful imaginings of that ending to the story seemed hollow and unrealistic, the product of someone who had read and watched a lot of stories but lived little. Attempts to go beyond it sputtered, such as in last year’s Nanowrimo. It was as if the characters would not respond to my entreaties to go with a particular plot.

The other day, I started outlining the final part again. It has now been nearly two years since I last picked it up, and this time, the ideas slowly dribbled out. The premise is actually the same, but the path is different. It is more somber and reflective: the conflict comes from something the protagonist feels rather than externally imposed on him by outside forces. The betrayal, not there in the original plan, comes from a place of genuine but misguided concern. The battles are no longer outside, but also inside too. No one escapes unscathed, but everyone knows what must be done.

These days, I live near a beach, and I live with a good friend. It’s been a year now since that happened.

I’m not done yet.

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“But To Be Chuunibyou Was Very Heaven!”: A Memoir of Art and Embarassment

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be chuunibyou was very heaven!
William Wordsworth (modified)

I

I never knew there was a label for this sort of thing. When I was in the eighth grade, inventing the worlds that my stories still inhabit, I thought I was just doing what every author—oh, how I loved that word author” rather than “writer”!—did to create a fantasy novel. I approached the task matter-of-factly: drawing maps, like the one below. Making up nations, cities, forests, rivers, mountains, islands, letting my pencil—and my soul—trace the scraggly coastlines on the backs of French quizzes and notebook margins. Inventing histories and then, finally, characters who moved inside them. Apparently JRR Tolkien invented his languages before he wrote stories to go with them. I made up maps and wrote stories to give them life, because after all, I was following after his footsteps.

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This map is Western Imagria, ca. 1998.

Once, I wrote a story about a desert kingdom named Andor, situated in the eastern part of the world I later called Imagria. It specialized, like the planet in Dune, in the spice trade, and it was ruled by an emperor named Sareth Darva Arakin Tanera III. Royal personages needed long names and numbers after them, right? Sareth Darva was me, more or less. SarethIII was my first email address, and my IM screen name—and still is. My college website had the address darva.net. My current website is still imagria.com, and my Tumblr is imagria.tumblr.com. Sareth Darva, amazingly for an adult king, was an anguished person given to profound thoughts like these:

Shadows . . . they fall down, slip into mental cracks in the grey corners of imagination – only rising again as the ghosts of haunted memory prance in cobwebbed corners – and the memories, oh the memories, broken and crying of glory days that have passed, they mock me now! Spirit of life, where are you? Oh, why did you murder my soul, leave me trapped behind forbidding walls with unhinged doors . . . Aversa, why have you forsaken me? Aversa help—
“Mourning for Shadows,” c. 1995

NO NO MAKE IT STOP! OH LORD WHY OH WHY? WHY WAS I SO ARGGH

I humiliate myself with these memories and words because, at last, the otaku of Japan have found a name to what afflicted me back then, at the age of fourteen in the eighth grade. The word is chuunibyou, eighth-grader syndrome, and I will raise my Sareth Darva to Dark Flame Master any day.

As those words and the short story it introduced show, I was a class A case.


II

Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! (Chu2Koi) is perhaps the best comedy of this anime season. Not only does it have superb comic timing, which Kyoto Animation has excelled at since Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu, it takes what could have been a gimmicky, fetishistic concept and turns it into both comedic gold and a surprisingly insightful look into the teenage mind. The grandiosity, the insecurity, the terror of embarrassment: it’s all there. The show presents it empathetically, probably because the storytellers themselves were like that once, and probably still are.

In middle school, fantasy writing was all I had. I was more socially awkward than most. Girls called me ugly (well, with one exception). My math skills were subpar for an Asian: I had trouble grasping pre-algebra, something which frustrated my parents to no end. I was alienated from the kids in church youth group, too. Writing was my only talent and my refuge, and I wrote fantasy in the mode of Terry Brooks and David Eddings, my constant literary companions through the summers and the afternoons after school. I remember stacks of novels next to my bed, next to my chair at the public library. I set my ideas, and my soul, inside the Mead Five Star spiral bound notebooks I carried with me everywhere—to school, to church, even to restaurants and the houses of my parents’ friends. Inside them were story ideas, fragments of first drafts, and random journal-like musings about how lonely and painful it was to be me. Here’s one less embarrassing example, written before a youth group meeting as I watched everyone come in:

Trying to see people in action is difficult; moreso, concentration, especially as the irritating strains of “Chopsticks” and “Walking in Memphis” are poisoning the air with their discordant sound waves. What’s that? Beethoven’s Fur Elise? Not again. My fingers almost begin twitching in time to the 3/8 time, echoing all the memories of childhood piano lessons and my own fingers pressing wrong notes, like a dancer’s feet slipping and falling down on the stage.

We are all students sight reading off the page, trying our best to pick out melodies.

—5/14/1999

Listen: I’ve longed for someone like Rikka all my life. Her delusions were not far from mine, and she keeps them up because it’s increasingly obvious that she’s in a lot of pain too. KyoAni didn’t just do a great job making her moe—they made her fundamentally relatable. Unlike Yuuta, I had no intense desire to be “normal” and put it all behind me. I clung to my fantasy worlds and stories for as long as I could, even when the girl I had a crush on wondered what my writing had to do with Jesus, even when my first muse never finished reading my manuscript, even when I embarrassed myself on another girl’s yearbook page by referring to one of the stories I showed her long ago. (Siri: I’m sorry. Please forgive me.) I was melancholy and awkward, but I knew who I was: an author who would one day join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Rikka, I know, would have understood. And there is nothing more a teenager wants than to be understood.

Yes, Rikka would have understood. She would have said it was cool.

Rikka forms a club, a place where she, Dekomori, Yuuta, and—reluctantly—Nibutani can be themselves, or at least learn to be more comfortable being themselves. They are fantasists too, each and every one, going even further than I ever did and actually viewing the entire world through the lens of their self-created world. What’s interesting to me is how, unlike my solitary self, they all created the world together: Rikka, Dekomori, and Nibutani. Their play and their imaginations inhabited the same space and they shared their joy together, collected in their “Scripture,” the Mabinogion written by Nibutani as Mori Summer. Through their imagination, the entire world becomes enchanted: silly fights with the sister become epic battles with giant weapons cutting arcs through the air. A magic circle really is more than just blinking Christmas lights and cloud of exploded flour.

There is a poignancy to Rikka and Dekomori’s use of these “special effects”: deep down, they know it’s a fantasy. They know that it’s their minds that are elevating that field into the boundary between worlds. Unlike Nibutani and Yuuta, who struggle with this fact and wish to live in the “real world,” they cling to their world, and cannot understand why their counterparts refuse to do the same. The real world is banal and full of loneliness, where the number of contacts on your cell phone can be counted on one hand. It is not full of people with cool names like Dark Flame Master or Black Raison d’Être. Perhaps more profoundly, it is not a world with clear quests and missions in life: to find the Deep Horizon. To bring the Ring to Mount Doom. What, exactly, is so great about being “normal”?

It makes me wonder whether being chuunibyou is something that should even be grown out of. Especially if we want to continue to have a life of play and imagination, to have enough child-like joy to give your full concentration to those other worlds.


III

It’s been almost 18 years since I was Sareth Darva. His name still continues in several online accounts—IM, Skype, and Steam—and while I haven’t written a story about him or his kingdom for a long time, the world he inhabited still lives on in one of my current novel projects, A Pattern of Light. Which itself is a reworking of my very first novel, Sanctuary, written between 1995-1998. Written during peak chuunibyou.

This much is true: I am still living off the imaginative capital of my chuunibyou years. Almost everything I’ve done recently is rooted in things invented between 1995-1999, settings, concepts, and characters I have returned to time and time again. My notebooks back then were thick and mostly full. The other day, I discovered 2/3 of an entire novel outline that I had completely forgotten about, written in the year 2000.

Another notebook of dreams.

I have come up with few genuinely new ideas or settings since. I no longer carry a spiral notebook with me everywhere; the notebook tradition tapered off sometime around 2007. When I think about restarting it, I seem to forget and stop doing it. I’m not sure why I do. The days have been long and difficult lately, and filled with many other things.

During a church retreat in the year 1999—perhaps the most fertile year of all, the year I nearly filled an entire 5 subject notebook with ideas, poems, and drafts—I was sitting under a tree by myself with my notebook. Watching some of the youth group kids throw around a frisbee, feeling alone and apart, I wrote a poem:

Children
are playing under the sun, voices
crying chaos through the air.
I’m one of them. I try
my shoes on for the dancing lesson
(all free, under the sun), stepping
on grass, caterpillars, and ants unbeknownst
thrown into the wheel of life. I see her smile
from far away, saying ‘Catch!’ I dash
but tumble backwards, landing on the grass, watching
the ball flying through the air, out of time,
not falling but migrating to its birthplace.
“Coming of Age”, 5/24/1999  (original handwritten draft here)

I don’t remember who I had in mind with the “her” in the poem. Maybe it wasn’t someone in particular, but rather an eternal Form of a Muse who’d pull me back from mundanity and let me catch the vision of that other, invented world. Someone who’d remind me it wasn’t always bad to be a child. Someone, maybe, like Rikka.

That “to be continued” is hope: the hope that imagination never dies. That stories never end. That you can be chuunibyou 4 life.

Now excuse me—I have a novel to write. I’m behind, but I’ll catch up.

Anime Diet: Now Looking For Fresh Blogger Blood!

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Edit, 10/10/09: we’ve chosen our new writers for this round! So this round is now closed. Thanks to everyone who applied.

Anime Diet is looking for more staff writers. Yes, we’re looking at you, dear readers and fellow bloggers! We need some more hands to cover the upcoming fall season and beyond and can keep the ship running when we get caught in a DAI PINCH of life. Ever wanted to reach out to an existing audience of thousands with your love…of anime and manga? Now’s your chance. And here’s some proof.

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OK, so you’re interested. What kind of qualities are we looking for? Our ideal candidate is

  • CONSISTENT. We’re looking for someone who is going to commit to writing at least 2-3 times a week. Someone who, when committing to reviewing a show, sticks to it for as long as possible or announces and explains why it’s being dropped. Of course, life sometimes gets in the way, and there’s plenty of slack for real circumstances and emergencies. But we’re looking for someone who loves writing at some level and is self-motivated enough to want to do it. Out of all the qualities, this is the most important.
  • A COMPETENT WRITER. You need to be able to write clearly, concisely, and correctly, and not need significant editing for each article. Writing well for you shouldn’t be a struggle or something that takes enormous effort. It helps to love writing itself, and to love the process of reviewing.
  • INSIGHTFUL AND/OR FUNNY. Both would be best, of course. Thing is, we’re looking for someone who can do more than just summarize an episode and give a few sentences of general opinion. We want someone who can either dig a little into the significance of a show, and/or show us just how ridiculous some things in anime really are and make us laugh.

It’d also be awesome, though not required, to be:

  • UNIQUE. How do you stand out among all the other blogger hordes in some way? Maybe you hate a particular sacred cow in the fan community, or you know some long-overlooked shows that you’d like to introduce to everyone. Maybe you know Japanese very well. Whatever–tell us why you’re special.
  • COMMUNAL: this is not absolutely required, but it’s a huge plus. We’d like someone who is, or would like to be, plugged in to the rest of the anime blogosphere. This might include coming to monthly staff meetings over Skype so you can talk to the rest of us, replying to intelligent commenters for your articles, and following up with other bloggers who link your articles.

Experienced or existing anime bloggers welcome! If you are already on other blogs you’re more than welcome to apply, so long as you can keep your commitment at Anime Diet too.

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There’s some perks, too. If you’re in the vicinity of a convention, we may be able to get press passes for you if you’d like to cover it for the site. Convention reporting is one of our pillars and especially if you’re in an area we’re not at, it’ll help us expand our reach to other places.

So what are you waiting for? Send your interest to writers@animediet.net. Please attach two sample articles with your email. If you are an existing blogger, links to two posts will suffice.

Thanks! We look forward to hearing from you soon.

ef-a tale of memories 8: Mostly a Breather

Shadows and light

After the concentrated intensity of episode 7, the writers smartly decided to largely lay off the emotional intensity (save for one final scene near the end, though it hardly comes as a shock). Too much drama can be bad for the viewer as well as for the soul.

Continue reading ef-a tale of memories 8: Mostly a Breather

ef~a tale of memories 7–Dependency

Anno would be pleased

There is a very strong relationship between love and worth. We can’t feel like we’re worth anything as people unless we are loved, because we’re simply not made to be content with ourselves. The characters in this episode learn this in the starkest, most harrowing, and heartbreaking way the creators of this show can muster. It is the artistic and emotional high point of the best show of Fall 2007.

Continue reading ef~a tale of memories 7–Dependency

ef~a tale of memories 6–The Irreplaceable Moment

 Truth is beauty, and beauty truth

This, one of the best episodes in what is already a fine show, takes both the relationship and the artistic conflicts up a few notches and sets up the characters for a high-stakes climax. There were so many memorable images and memorable scenes that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Continue reading ef~a tale of memories 6–The Irreplaceable Moment

ef~a tale of memories 5–The Outlines of Our Lives

Sometimes I wonder about that when I post blog entries

ef~a tale of memories continues its march toward artistic and romantic harmony with this episode, which in many ways is about the beginning of the stages of writing–no wonder it’s called “Outline.” I should know, because like Chihiro, I myself have written far more outlines and half-finished stories than completed ones, and it is the outlining process which gives the most joy and pleasure. Even though, in the case of Chihiro’s story, it is a reflection of terrible pain and sadness; it is her cry of life nonetheless.

Continue reading ef~a tale of memories 5–The Outlines of Our Lives

ef~a tale of memories 4–The Praise of Others

We all need a place to begin…

Why do we create? Why do we begin anything worthwhile? For many of us, myself included, the prod to begin was when someone we cared about–a teacher, a friend–saw what we were doing and said: “this is good.” Or, for the characters in this show: “you’re a genius.” Which is another way of saying, “you’re worthwhile.” So this episode, which had a few shaky moments, explores.

Continue reading ef~a tale of memories 4–The Praise of Others