Kong: Skull Island or Godzilla Prequel

This article does contain spoilers for the film Kong: Skull Island.

Kong: Skull Island is another reset of the King Kong franchise. That being said, it is not a bad film; not a great one either.

First, let me say what this film actually accomplishes.

  1. Puts King Kong in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla film
  2. Sets up Godzilla 2 (looks like Godzilla Destroy All Monsters)
  3. Sets up Godzilla versus King Kong (rumored Godzilla 3)
  4. Gives an idea of how Monarch was founded

That being said, this movie is nothing more than a set up for expanding the Godzilla (2014) universe. The 2014 movie had left people wondering: who are Monarch? Beyond that simple question, the 2014 Godzilla is a great standalone film that provided the potential for sequels. Kong lacks that stand alone feel. Throughout this film it feels like it is a set up film. The island world is shown, teased at, and then semi-subtle references to events that took place in the Godzilla 2014 universe during the 1970s are presented. Once the references start flying, most viewers will get the gist that this is a setup film.

Here is the simplified story outline, this way I avoid serious spoilers, beyond the obvious “let them fight” climax.

  1. First recon satellites find legendary island
  2. Research group sets off to explore said island
  3. Monarch uses Communist Russia as a reason to tag along with the research group
  4. Sam Jackson’s character and his team are introduced
  5. Go to the island
  6. All hell breaks loose when they drop bombs and anger the giant Ape
  7. Travel to the other side of the island to escape, meeting monsters and NPCs along the way
  8. Godzilla fights the giant armor headed bipedal lizard snake things
  9. Kong wins
  10. Closing exposition and setup for Godzilla 2 (might as well be called Destroy All Monsters)

That is an incredible simplification of this film, but if you are expecting anything deeper, you will be sadly disappointed. The characters in this film on the whole are forgettable. This is to be expected as they are just a driving element in causing the giant monsters to beat the ever living snot out of each other, in what can best be described as a celebrity death match.

Samuel L. Jackson has recently been on the villain kick in his roles, and as human characters go, you could call him a villain in the simple terms. His character Preston Packard is a Viet Nam commander who has a hard time accepting that the war is over, and that the USA has given up/lost this war. He is lost without the war and is looking for something to focus his energies on. Through story elements Preston Packard become Captain Ahab obsessively seeking revenge on his own white whale. This sub-plot becomes the driving force behind a number of senseless deaths in the film. The character is neither sympathetic nor even likeable and his quest for vengeance is ultimately his downfall and that of his team.

Tom Hiddleston     is introduced as a former SAS expert tracker James Conrad. David Fielding (Original Zordon from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) covered my sentiments on this character on his blog

they missed the boat and should’ve put Kebbell’s character more at the forefront and ditched the SAS tracker character altogether – but as Hiddleston has more star power

– David Fielding (https://therealzordon.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/the-trouble-with-giant-monsters/)

At points, his character detracts from the story because he simplifies and speeds up the journey across the island. He is the expert “scout” and “can track a falcon on a cloudy day.” His character comes across as a result of a focus group who found that Toby Kebbell’s Chapman could not carry the movie as the sympathetic hero. I will return to Chapman later in this article.

John Goodman plays the obsessed Bill Randa, the founder of Monarch, and the only character who is actually excited about being on this island. The character is both secretive about what is going on and exploring with a wide eyed wonder. His secretive nature about what he knows is a true detriment to the story, which is common in disaster movies as a way of forcing the characters into situations that could have been avoided by this archetype divulging a little bit of information about what his organization does, and what he was expecting to find on this expedition.

John C. Reilley, who I typically do not like because he is often cast as stereotypical stupid comedy relief, actually was one of the redeeming characters in the film. His character, Hank Marlow, is a crashed WWII pilot forced to live on this island with the natives. He has survived this long by being intelligent and respecting the living creatures of this island. He consistently tries to introduce reason into this party by reminding them over and over again to respect the creatures of this island. This introduces the only character that you want to see make it off the island by the end of the film.

Of the characters worth mentioning, there is Mason Weaver played by Brie Larson. By best description, she is there to include the token female element, fulfill one of the King Kong tropes (Kong falls for the female lead), and give Conrad something to ogle. The character is a photojournalist who covered the events of the Viet Nam war. Through some magical means, she gets herself onto this expedition and forms a pseudo relationship with Conrad. A big problem with her character is that she has grown too worldly. She has seen so much that she does not fulfill the “Damsel in Distress” trope. This trope is something, that while most people want the character to die horribly, it helps create an urgency and need beyond “we have to get off this island” to protect and fight to survive. A strong female character can still do the “Damsel in Distress” if the writers take the time to write her strengths into the character and allow her the opportunities to put herself into the unfortunate situations. The “Damsel in Distress” is a way of putting the characters in jeopardy and force them to explore in ways that a normal human would never do. This is a horror and monster movie trope, and without it, the film feels more like a disaster movie.

Death… death… and more death. You have to admit that going to see this movie, you have the expectation that giant monsters are going to kill humans in oddly humorous ways. As a viewer you expect it, you are waiting for it, you want to be amused and entertained by these forces of nature killing the stupid humans. Here is where the real problems start to crop up.

In the 2014 Godzilla film, there was a build up to seeing Godzilla fight the MUTO in California. The deaths along the way were meaningful. They left you with this feeling of awe and wonder at the power of Godzilla and the destructive force of Godzilla and the MUTO. The devastation was there, a lot of it left to the imagination of the viewer to fill in the blanks. This filling in of the blanks let the viewer become involved in the film by having to think and imagine everything else going on. You followed Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody on this adventure as a traveling companion; you still wanted to see him get squished or eaten for being a generally unintelligent character. While it is not a great movie, in some ways is superior to Kong.

Monsters, monsters, where are all the monsters?

Contrasting Godzilla 2014 is Kong. The film presents you with a world that you and the characters are experiencing for the first time together, but unlike Godzilla, the viewer wants to experience and explore this world as it is completely foreign to the viewer.

While the party makes their way across this island, they encounter five giant monsters that are not Kong or the Skull Crawlers (and have a giant ant mentioned). They are a Giant Octopus, Spider Thing of Death, Yak, Camouflage Tree Bug, and another Yak. On an island with limited size—so much so you can travel across it in two days via foot and boat while also taking a side trip to kill half your party—you should encounter more than 5 non-starring monsters. One would expect that mega-bugs would be everywhere; one would expect that the party would be trying to avoid these giants or at least become aware of more than what they encountered in the film. The party travels along with what feels like a bad Dungeon Master who just airlifted a random monster, monster swarm, or a giant monster as if to say “Here’s a monster now because… I don’t know… I need them.” The other issue is that the characters react in a way that makes it feel like you are playing a bad D&D adventure where the players have a monster compendium in their hand to look up what the monster is, then take that knowledge to play their character. Their reactions never seem to be of fear and reverence to what is on this island. Kong’s monsters seem to be thrown in at random times just to kill some unsuspecting character or remind them they exist here for no reason.

Deaths of main characters at times seem cruel. While in the real world, deaths occur like this all the time, in a film, deaths of main characters need a meaning. If there is not a meaning, the viewer is left with feeling of disappointment. This happens a couple of times in the movie. The deaths of characters for no reason other than to present a cruel world and make the viewer cringe (MAJOR SPOILERS):

  • John Ortiz’s character, Victor Nieves, is a whiny scientist, similar to Martin Ferrero’s Gennaro (the lawyer) from Jurassic Park. He is going to die. It is a trope that the whiny character is going to die in a humorous way. Gennaro dies while hiding in an outhouse being gobbled up by a T-rex, it was funny. Victor Nieves get carried off by a small reptile bird monster, which starts out as amusing, then mid-air a number of these “birds” proceed to draw and quarter him. The problem is that the viewer is expecting “gobbled up hiding on the toilet” and instead gets a gory, poorly CGed sequence. There was no humor in his death, and the audience actually made an audible response, not laughs, but more shock and disgust. The death also occurred at a point where there was no perceived danger, so the death was more uncomfortable, teetering this movie more into the realm of disaster movie.
  • The first quarter of this movie is driven by Chapman, a character that the story makes a significant effort to get you to like. This is the character that you as a viewer want to go down swinging if he is going down. You are built up for this. You want him to live or die fighting. In the end his death is tragic, unheroic, and cruel. Again, the audience at my screening was audibly disgusted and disappointed. The overall feeling was that this is not what should happen in a giant monster movie. Survival horror or disaster film? Yes. Giant monster film? No. Even how the rest of the party discovers he is dead is cruel and unfulfilling: his skull and dog tags are vomited up by the monster that ate him.
  • The last of the unnecessary, cruel deaths is that of Bill Randa. I know many people will disagree with me in that his death was unnecessary or cruel. From a story point that is probably true. His death was, in some ways, meant to be a comedy death. His camera flash starts going off randomly while he is standing still taking photos. He pauses, realizes what is going on, goes “oh shit,” and is gobbled up. As he is being swallowed you see his flash going off, over and over again, as he is being digested and the rest of the party is trying to kill the monster. My problem here is first, watching the flash go off over and over again giving the illusion that he is still alive while being digested. Secondly, this is the only character in the entire film that wants to see this world and prove he is not crazy. He wants to learn and explore. He needs to get off the island to believably build Monarch to what it will become. The Monarch person who does live, does not present himself with enough confidence, wide eyed wonder, desire, and drive to lead Monarch to what we will see in Godzilla 2014.

One last thing to note before I wrap this up, the CG in the film at times breaks the believability. A traditional rubber suit and animatronics would have worked better for the handful of close-up sequences between Mason and Kong. The worst offender of this was the night scene, a scene which is traditionally flattering in films of this genre. Kong looked good until they composited him face to face with any of the characters. Again, there is also the death of Victor Nieves, which looks bad to the point of almost hand drawn animation.

Looking at this film, I wonder what genre it is supposed to be? Is it survival horror? A classic Giant Monster movie? A Sci-fi film? A disaster film? A classic horror film? An action adventure film? A war movie? It needed to pick one. The collection of sub plots gave the film a disjointed feeling, making me wonder where it was going and why. This made all the characters forgettable in the long run and you could have easily substituted Godzilla in for Kong and no one would have been the wiser. I think if it picked one or two sub-plots it would have helped this film be something special, memorable, beyond being a prequel for Godzilla 2014 and a setup for Godzilla 2 and Godzilla vs. Kong.

Overall: 3rd Gear

Daigaku Z: Storm Warning

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

It’s been a bit of a rough week for the OTDT crew, and while I would love to dish about everything that’s going on, unfortunately I’m not at liberty to discuss a significant part of it. Rather than just leave you hanging with that news, what I can say to put you all at ease is that we are doing everything within our power to ensure that this is as bad as it gets. It’s all upside from here. We hope.

The situation is not what I want to talk about, but rather a common symptom of having to deal with the world’s stresses while going through college: the problem of panic. The first time I went through college, those four years were some of the strangest of my life in terms of life upheaval. And yes, I count coming out as not nearly as chaotic as my first trip. A lot happened throughout the span from ’98 to ’02, not least of which was 9/11.

College is a time of foreshortened adolescence: we still have some of the supports that we did during our standard schooling, but we are edging our way into the world and facing all that it can bring to bear against us. In times of peace it’s a scary prospect. We have not seen times of peace for a very long time. More than that, we are facing an untenable situation when we get out– the Economic Policy Institute estimates that for those of us who graduated this past spring, over 7% of us face total unemployment while an additional 15% face underemployment (working while not being able to find a job in our fields, or not being able to find a full-time job). That’s a 1-in-5 chance that your college degree is of little to no help in finding work. No wonder people stress out.

So it’s probably no surprise that stress is a major factor in dealing with college life. The pressures of both our present and our future– balancing study with work in internships or self-directed projects– drain our capacity to handle them faster than we can restore them. As a matter of fact, restoration is often completely disregarded when planning things out; sleep is the most obvious sacrifice, but even hobbies and down-time get dropped from the schedule when things get busy. My freshman semester at school was a nightmare, as I had the brilliant idea to not bring any of my game consoles. This led to soul-destroying Sunday afternoons, when all of my work was done and I had pent-up stress.

Pitt is moving into its mid-term week now, and so there are a lot of students freaking out over the possibility of blowing out their entire semester’s grades on one bad performance. I’d be lying if I said I was free of stress about my own exams starting tomorrow. But the thing to remember is that at the end of the day, the time that you spend relaxing and resting is just as important as the time you spend studying and cramming. Americans in particular are conditioned to feel guilty about spending time “non-productively”. This is something that needs to be fixed, but not today. Today, it’s Netflix and chilled drinks.

Daigaku Z: Better Living Through Saccharine

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

The mid-semester break was good for me for a number of reasons, most of them having to do with sitting on my butt and playing video games. That’s not to say that that’s all I’ve done since the last column, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a significant portion. In any event, video games came up on more than one occasion during the break, and all of them were quite beneficial.

If you follow our podcast (which is currently on its season break), you’ll remember that I was a particularly vociferous advocate of the game Puyo Puyo Tetris. Sadly it has no chance of release in North America now, due to it being two years old and on what is now last-generation hardware. But that did not stop me from acquiring it for the PS3, and it is a purchase I have not regretted in the slightest. Besides the fact that it combines two of my favorite falling-object puzzle games, it continues the Madou Monogatari series– which, in all honesty, I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of; its only appearance in NA was as the last localized Puyo Puyo game, Puyo Pop Fever (back in 2004!). Needless to say, it is entirely in Japanese.

Part of my degree track involves putting together what is called a “Capstone Project”, a final summation of what I have learned as a student. That project is at least a year off from now, but as soon as I heard that I would have to do it, my mind went immediately to Puyo Puyo Tetris. I decided then and there that I was going to localize Puyo Puyo Tetris for my Capstone Project. It was an ambitious project, but if nothing else has become evident to me it is that I am ambitious to a fault. I’m telling you folks this now to let you know that it’s on my slate, but also because my final project for Aspects of Japanese– as in this semester– is going to be a localization of a five-minute segment of the game’s story mode. I’ll post a link to it in December once it’s complete.

But before you think I’m not ready to take on such a project, I have to tell you about another incident that happened this past week. My predilection for all things cute is well-known, and as a result the game Love Live! School Idol Festival wound up on my radar from more than one source. Its premise is simple: it’s a free-to-play music game set in the world of Love Live, where you tap to the beat of the sugary pop stylings of  μ’s (Muse), the idol group of the series. However, while the pertinent game text is in English, the voice acting is entirely in Japanese.

Japanese which, to my great astonishment, I actually understood the first few times I heard it. Granted, trying to puzzle through song lyrics while maintaining a competent performance is hard even for native speakers, but then again this game’s music is entirely from μ’s back catalog, so those tracks are available online. That’s beside the point. What I understood was the little incidental remarks, like “Please wait a little, okay?” while game data was downloading, and “Not bad!” during the level-up screen. Stuff that wasn’t captioned.

I’m starting to feel quite a bit more confident in my ability to do this language thing. So… game on.

Daigaku Z: This Is (not) A Drill

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

The Thursday shooting on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon is the latest tragedy of a type that is far too commonly in the news. Of the twenty school shootings thus far in 2015, Umpqua was the most lethal, with ten fatalities. It is also the most deadly school shooting incident since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.

That paragraph is sickening to write, and even more sickening to have to write in such a banal, matter-of-fact tone. I can only imagine the utter disbelief that someone from outside the United States reading it might be enduring right now. “Z,” they might say, “surely this kind of horrific violence cannot possibly be as commonplace as your opening has implied it to be. You have to be exaggerating for effect. This cannot be how the young people of America learn– under fire.”

I so very much wish it wasn’t that bad. But at the same time I cannot help but feel lucky that it is not as bad as it is in other parts of the world. It was only three years ago– on October 9th, 2012– that Malala Yousafzai was shot on her school bus simply for attempting to go to school in Taliban-controlled Pakistan. Millions of children the world over who would want to learn are instead pressed into service in sweatshops– or armies. It’s tempting to paint American schools as something more akin to Battle Royale. But it would be a lie. The truth is scary enough.

I don’t need to look too far from home to get a taste of the fear that’s becoming routine in education. Again, in that apocalyptic-in-retrospect year of 2012, the University of Pittsburgh endured 160 bomb threats over two months (mid-February through April). There were no injuries or violence as a result of the threats, but 136 evacuations were enough turmoil that it was a significant disruption to classes. It cast a long shadow over the University, even today.

Thursday morning, during Japanese language recitation, the fire alarm went off in our quadrant of the Cathedral of Learning. We were confused, but somewhat relieved that our phones had not gone off with a shelter-in-place order. While we stood outside, Ninomiya-sensei idly mused about the bomb threats of the past, and we were all notably more uneasy until we went back into the classroom minutes later. There was no explanation. It was, we all guessed, probably just a drill.

Thursday morning. And Thursday afternoon. But the night never ends.

Daigaku Z: Under The Weather

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

Illness is something that every college student has to deal with at some point. It can be extremely scary to be sick and away from home for the first time. In my case, however, it’s repeatedly been noted that this isn’t my first rodeo, so you’d think I’d be able to handle it better. As you have no doubt guessed, however, that hasn’t been the case this past week.

The reason that fall is the worst season for getting sick, oddly enough, is primarily related to school. After the summer vacations and travels, a lot of people from a lot of different places are all congregating in a small area. Immunities gained are not universal. That little cold that someone picked up on the flight back from home can do a real number on people. It’s con plague on an academically large scale.

There’s also the fact that, as the summer season ends and autumn begins, temperatures vary wildly on a day-to-day basis. The mornings are chilly and damp, but bringing a jacket or dressing warmly are bad ideas because the sun heats the day up back to uncomfortable levels by noon. It’s hard to gauge effectively because the weather can be very volatile, even without rain or wind factored into the mix. And so, people get sicker faster.

So it’s probably for the best that we’re about to learn all of the vocabulary and grammar needed to explain exactly where it hurts.

Daigaku Z: Life In The Slow Lane

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

We’re moving into Week 4 of the semester, and looking at how grades have shaken out between the same material’s time frame from the Accelerated Program, I have to say that things are progressing much better. Having a scientific background, though, I am not entirely sure as to why that is. Having a writing background, too, means I’m probably going to meander for a few paragraphs before I get to the real point.

The most obvious answer could be that I’ve experienced this material before. After all, we’re still working on telephone etiquette, and re-cementing the use of the extended predicate; more than that, though, the use of cause-and-effect language like kara and no de is finally clicking within my understanding. But I’ve been sadly not as dedicated to my studies throughout July and August as I expected I would be, and the material was mostly gone from me by the time the fall semester started again.

The material itself hasn’t changed, either. What has changed is the pace– from a certain point of view. During the Accelerated Program course, we had four hours of interactive work to every one hour of lecture; the standard pace is five hours of exercise to two hours of lecture. A minor difference in the ratio, granted, but the span of time encompassing the two cycles– a day and a week, respectively– makes a world of difference. There’s also the fact that the time in between sessions is dramatically different, as well; from an hour of preparation time to almost 24 hours (not counting weekends).

As we’re all well aware, I’m not exactly your typical collegian. I was the first time around, but now I fall squarely into the “non-traditional” sector. But even though my first year back was a rather smashing success, I quickly learned that my limits for capability were not where they had been fifteen years ago. I had to drop a course my first semester back because I didn’t think I could perform up to my usual standards in it. My struggle over the summer was due in no small part to that same sentiment, and to say that I had reservations about blaming it entirely on the pace would have been accurate.

But if nothing else, these first three weeks back have proven to me that taking my time is exactly what I needed in order to get back on track. Having time to absorb the material and understand it has been vital and necessary for retaining it, which may seem obvious or counter-intuitive, but it does work. Most everyone in school now is starting to notice the gold paint flaking off the new school year. That’s perfectly fine. But don’t give up. Just take your time.

Legends Never Die

Editorial note: this was intended to be released on the 13th of July, but due to a technical error was not. It is presented now as it was originally intended. Thank you for your understanding.

The news has been passed around by now. Mr. Satoru Iwata, President and CEO of Nintendo, dead at 55 of cancer. It’s certainly sobering news, and it’s definitely a shock to the system of anyone who grew up playing the games he put his passion into– Balloon Fight, the Kirby series, even Pokemon. In the days to come we will be hearing the stories anew: how he ascended to leadership of HAL Laboratories when it was on its last legs, how he single-handedly reverse-engineered the Pokemon Red and Green battle system for use in Pokemon Stadium, how he rolled up his sleeves and did debug work for Super Smash Bros. Melee. His victories live on in our victories in the games he left for us.

But in the past few years so many of the heroes of our childhoods have passed away. In 2013, Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo during the years when it transitioned from a hanafuda manufacturer to a video game juggernaut. In 2010, Satoshi Kon, visionary director of films such as Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers. In 2014, Robin Williams, comedian and geek supreme. Just this past January, Chikao Otsuka, a prolific voice actor and father of the equally-renowned Akio Otsuka. And in June, Christopher Lee, Renaissance man who acted, sang, and defended the world on- and off-screen as a Hammer horror hero and a World War II veteran. The list goes on. And so must we.

That’s probably the hardest thing for our generation to realize in the coming months and years. People who we grew up with as the creators and producers of our favorite media are just as mortal as we are. Eventually, they will be gone, and we will be the ones people look up to as the heroes of their childhoods. It’s not boasting to say that– it’s in fact heart-rending. Because the things that guided us when we were young are now relegated to history, and we must guide those who will surpass us.

For my part, death has always been in the back of my mind, ever since I was very young. I lost my grandfather when I was four, and I only have very faint memories of his time with me. It is the inevitable karmic bill for having a large family; funerals become depressingly commonplace. Earlier this year, the OTDT family lost one of its own, as well; Kyle Honsberger, a long-time listener and friend of the show, passed away in March. The sting of that loss is magnified in that he was not of the generation that taught us. He was of the generation that we were supposed to teach. Death is tragic; death before one’s full life is spent is unbearable.

In the end, though, we must carry on. Those who we lost still live on in the memories we share and the legends we pass down. In a sense, they are immortalized, eternally safeguarded in film, in sound, in silicon and in the world. From a humble hanafuda card to the massive complexity of a virtual universe, from the instantaneous processing of a computer instruction to the millennia of history on the silver screen, in small ways and in great, they are not gone forever. Those who taught us can still teach others. That is the gift of our generation, the blessing that they bestowed upon us: we kept their words safe, that they may keep others safe.

We have made of them legends. And legends never die.

Daigaku Z: Ainu You Are But What Am I?

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

One of the major themes that should have been obvious in this column by now is the fact that regardless of our individual circumstances, none of us are ever truly alone. We exist on this planet as a part of something greater, interconnected in ways we never understand or even notice. Faced with this fact, I have ever asserted that hate is an irrational choice: that in denying someone else their fundamental rights to existence and happiness we rob those same things from ourselves, as well. Xenophobia can be deadly if not countered by discovery.

Nowhere else in my studies has this ever been hammered home as hard as it was this past week, where in the starting lessons of Aspects of the Japanese Language we discussed and examined the Ainu language and its relation to ancient Japanese. This lesson, which started off rather clinical, quickly became heart-wrenching when it was revealed that the Ainu language is moribund– not yet dead, but in a terminal state nonetheless. When the last few native Ainu speakers die, which will be soon, the language will be effectively extinct in its original state. See, despite efforts to learn the language, anyone speaking it as an acquired language (that is, not their first language) will inject accents and mutations from their native language.

As time goes on, these mutations will add up, until the language would be completely unintelligible to the people who spoke it as their birth-tongue. It’s like that scene in Stargate where Dr. Jackson’s attempts to speak ancient Egyptian to the people on the other side of the gate come across as comically awful. And actually, we see that in a more real-world circumstance. After all, what the Vatican speaks as Latin has become Italian outside of the Holy See.

With the Ainu, however, the situation is a bit more troublesome. Japan has a notorious history of attempting to forcibly assimilate Ainu into Japanese culture, not entirely dissimilar from the United States’ treatment of its native populations. There is a strange self-exoticization effect going on with the Japanese and the Ainu; the culture is appreciated and highly valued, but the people born into it are increasingly forced to abandon that culture. There are exceptions, of course– a group known as the Ainu Rebels sought to preserve some Ainu traditional dance and song while also modernizing it– but it is a losing battle.

I want to stress that this problem could have been avoided, but now cannot be un-done. We cannot restore the Ainu culture to its former glory, just as the Seneca Nation cannot be brought back to its dominance of the Northeast. The sins of humanity are indelibly carved into our history. But what we can do is to prevent it in the future. Already we are seeing historical sites and artifacts destroyed by fanatics and madmen intent on not creating nations, but rather on brutish domination.

We must preserve our past, because without it we have no future.

Daigaku Z: Aletheia

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

Welcome back to the second year. I feel I owe you all an apology for dropping off the face of the earth so suddenly after the third week of the summer, but unfortunately a rather dramatic health issue forced my hand into doing something I would not have preferred to do. Thus, I had to withdraw from the accelerated program. I would really rather not dwell on why that is, and I trust I will not be pressed for further information on it. Besides, everyone who needs to know, already knows.

So here we are again, at the beginning of a fresh year in college. Things are certainly different for me this time: for one thing, I’m already out, and I no longer have to fear the secret of my gender being a Damoclean blade over my head. Also, I know where the better food is on campus, and I have been able to give directions when asked. Those last two are in my opinion better indicators of my comfort at being back at my second alma mater– at least, for all intents and purposes.

The first time I was in college, at Gannon University in Erie, I was not what one could consider an extrovert. I still am not, of course, but compared to my current demeanor it is night and day. In 1999, I did not have any great swelling of emotion upon returning to classes; seeing my friends was good, yes, but it was hardly what I had been looking forward to all summer. The start of the semester was a rather ordinary affair, and I didn’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other.

This past week, though, I have looked forward to seeing again every one of my friends, all those who I met for the first time last year and spent a summer away from. I met up with one of them on Monday, explicitly to catch up ahead of when we would be meeting in the next day’s class anyway; on Tuesday I found even more of the people I had been looking to reconnect with. It wasn’t something I had really thought too much about during the break, but as August ended and the first bells approached it was such a strong feeling.

It’s easy to think that college is the first time that we are “on our own”. Several of our safety nets are stripped from us as we leave home and move into our dorms. But what we learn at university isn’t limited to just the facts and methods of our trades. College’s lessons, like most schooling, are as much social as they are academic. We learn how to do our jobs in the wider world, but we also learn to build our own safety nets. We create the web that catches us by making connections to others– and to ourselves.

The Japanese word for coming to a place, kuru (来る), is different from the word for returning home, kaeru (帰る). 15 years ago, it felt more like I was coming to Erie. This week, though, I was home again. ただいま.

Daigaku Z: A Change Is Gonna Come

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

先週は、ちょっとわるかった。でも、今週は大丈夫だと思います。もっと勉強したい。それから、Let’s Daigaku Z!

We had our first “mid-term” this past week, and the results were not pretty. For any of us. Of the six of us who started this journey, all are still with us, but I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been serious talk from more than one of us about cutting bait and trying again at the normal pace. This mid-term came after two and a half weeks, where in the normal flow of things it would be closer to six weeks in. Given that we’re all pretty much the same in terms of wanting to do better regardless of how well we actually did, the stress levels on Thursday morning were through the roof.

The biggest problem for us isn’t the material, but ironically the breakneck pace at which it’s being presented. We’re scarcely able to get one lesson through our heads before we’re pushed on to the next one. In the case of the very lengthy Core Conversations that we have to memorize and recite flawlessly, we sometimes stumble more than is really good for us. The real crux of the issue isn’t that we’re not learning… it’s that we’re not learning the way the book– and by extension, the faculty– expects us to.

Jorden and Noda’s instructional series, Japanese the Spoken Language (and the accompanying The Written Language), are based around an almost automatic learning mechanism: reciting conversations so that even if we don’t understand the grammar underlying the syllables we’re speaking, sheer muscle memory will ensure we say something at least coherent. In the 1990s, when the books were written, that might have worked out. But our teachers are giving us enough exceptions and changes to lead us to believe that the language has evolved in the intervening 25 years– subtly, of course, but enough that there will be some funny looks from anyone we speak to once we get off the plane in Narita.

The issue, then, isn’t that we’re not picking up on the phrases we’re given, it’s that all of us– each of the six class members, without exception– are more interested in the mechanics of why what we say is wrong, and not merely that it is wrong. We are highly analytical minds, to a fault in this case, and as a result being told “that’s later on” or “it just is that way” frustrates us to no end. After three weeks, we’ve come to understand that how we learn isn’t likely to happen in the normal course of this program. If we want the meat, we’re gonna have to hunt it ourselves. And that means putting even more time into this study than we already devote.

I mentioned last year that studying was something I found particularly difficult to do when self-directed. It’s looking increasingly like I will have to get over that pretty damn quick.

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