Saturday, August 27, 2016

"You Are My Quest" - Kubo and the Two Strings

This is the film that I'd mentioned seeing with my friend Irene last week. The last movie we went to see together was Big Hero 6, another animated film that boasts obvious Japanese influences and a teen or pre-teen Asian boy as the lead character. Unfortunately Kubo (produced by Laika, the innovative smaller-scale production company that gave us Coraline) hasn't received the same hype as BH6 did, but it is no less worthy of favorable buzz. If not a blockbuster turnout, this film at least deserves a sizable viewership of people who will take it to heart.

Seen Sunday, August 21st: Kubo and The Two Strings

Kubo is a young but intuitive boy who makes origami figures come to life with the power of his mind and his shamisen-playing skills. He's the primary caretaker of his mom, who suffered a brain injury while braving storms and high seas fleeing from her father and sisters who want to destroy her son. It is revealed that Kubo's mom is actually the daughter of the otherworldly Moon King, and she broke rank when she decided to marry and have a child with a human, a samurai. Their familial past catches up with them and Kubo ends up parentless, but he's then accompanied by a stern talking snow monkey and a scatterbrained beetle man on a quest to find the magic sword, breastplate, and helmet that will help him defeat his family's cruel intentions for good.

What I really like about this film: Everything. I know I tend to say this about every film that I happen to thoroughly enjoy, but there's literally nothing I don't appreciate about this film. Simpler but intricate lighting, painting, stop motion and puppet animation methods were used to create a stunningly folkloric aesthetic with modern appeal. The Edo era Japanese-ness of the fantasy setting was clear without the film having to spell out that, "This is supposed to be Japan!". The shamisen being played in the score was prevalent and poppin'. And what the title of the movie represents in relation to the plot is so satisfyingly clever! I won't ruin anything, but basically Kubo is a lot less alone than what he's led to believe. Prepare to at least tear up a time or two.

Always looking for a reflective moral or lesson, I find it both inspiring and humbling to see the tremendous respect that the film places on memories, stories, spirits, and humanity. Memories give us strength and power and keep us safe. Stories shape our character and help us live on in the hearts of others.The question of "Why be mortal when you could be immortal?" or, "What's so good about human beings, anyway?" is raised a couple times, and eventually the conclusion is reached that the various oddities and shortcomings of the people who create said stories and memories, as well as the bonds formed between people living and no-longer-living, are what make humanity valuable.

What I don't like about this film: This is just a little thing that I was unclear about, as I understand neither the full implications of traumatic brain injury nor the intentions of the filmmakers. Kubo's mom sits up in a comatose state from sun up to sundown, has a few lucid hours at nightfall, and then slips away again just before bedtime. I wondered why this was. Irene and I supposed that since she is the Moon King's daughter, perhaps her consciousness and powers are only awakened at night? I honestly still have no clue. But other than that, the inconsistencies in this film are few and far between.

Would I recommend it?: YES! Yesyesyesyesyes! Go for the fantasy and adventure, stay for the emotional hardship and healing. At least that's what I did, and you see what my reaction's been!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Scripture & Lyrics

"Open wide your mouth and I will fill it." -Psalm 81:10 (NIV)


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Things People Give Me #27

This past Sunday I spent the day visiting my good college friend Irene in her hometown. I hadn't seen her in a year since the last time I visited after I'd graduated undergrad, and now not only has she graduated as well but she's also on her way to the Bay Area to pursue a PhD!

Our only plans were to go see Kubo and the Two Strings (marvelous film, by the way! review coming soon!), leaving the rest of the day pretty open to do whatever else. But we ended up spending most of the day at her house. As I often am, I was deeply impressed by her and her family's kindness, and was especially astonished by her mom's hospitality! Irene's mom was making lunch for us when I arrived, and I sat at the table together with her and her parents conversing and enjoying haemul pajeon, Taiwanese tempura, miso soup, and a medley including potatoes, mushrooms, mini sausages, green beans, and onions (forgive me if this dish has a name that I'm unaware of).

When Irene and I returned from viewing Kubo at a nearby cinema, we spent a couple hours chatting, drinking lots of tea and water (I was and still am having sinus and throat issues), and baking and eating Korean sesame bread. Then her brother came home with his girlfriend and Irene's mom made dinner for the whole family and two guests, a meal which included fried rice and homemade sweet potato and satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) chips.

It truly was the best day. Just three days prior I'd met up with another college friend who's about to move far away and embark on an new journey of her own, and Sunday was another day that made me recognize how many brilliant and compassionate human beings I have in my life. A simple, uncomplicated day full of candid conversation, laughter, food, and small gestures that reminded me, Hey, there are some extraordinarily kind people out there. And I'm blessed to know some of them personally.

To top it all off, Irene gave me a few souvenirs from her two months of traveling around Asia this summer! She wrote me a lovely note (if you don't know already, Irene is good for a well-written, thoughtful and sincere note), and included with it some Japanese candy, a sage seed, and a cute little ram-shaped ceramic pot to plant it in. "It's good to have something to take care of", she explained. She's very much into the outdoors, vegetables, herbs, gardening and the like, so it was a very Irene-like gift to give. And I appreciate it so much!

Thank you Irene and family for your warmth and top-notch hospitality. You are phenomenal people and deserve nothing but all the best things. And good luck in grad school, Li-chan! I'm sure that you'll love the Bay and that eventually it'll love you back!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Make It L.A.S.T. (part 2)

Picking up where the last post left off, here's the other half of my notes from the workshop. I didn't and still don't wholeheartedly agree with the rep's insistence on apologizing to customers. (As one of the managers back at the bookstore used to tell me, "This is our house", and I'm especially not going to grovel for a customer if I didn't do anything wrong. Yes, customers are people but so are we, and another human being is just another human being). But again, I don't work directly with clients, and that in addition to my being somewhat jaded from having worked retail probably makes it easier for me to be less perturbed about it than my colleagues can afford to be. That said, I also understand the importance of doing what's necessary to foster and maintain good professional relationships. So I'll let it slide. 
  • Appropriate responses (cont'd):
    • Be the bridge! Even if you're the intermediary, give customer something concrete to hold onto/look forward to
    • Willingness, cooperation, understanding (method + result; put these in, get these same things out)
    • Don't break up the unity of the team by making "they"/"them" (one of your associates) the bad guy
      • Ask questions, confirm and communicate "our" goals
    • Use "stumped under pressure to get answers" situations as learning opportunities 
  • Handling difficult people: Dos and Don'ts
    • Don't over-promise. You want to under-promise, over-deliver
    • Let them finish! When you interrupt an angry person, all they'll do is start over!
    • Don't panic! (Confidence! They don't need to know that you're lost or unsure)
    • Having a difference of opinion is okay, but handle it with mutual respect
    • Keep asking questions until you're confident and comfortable that you understand what they need and know how to respond
    • Neutralize a situation by repeating back (paraphrasing) and summarizing what they've said
      • The line between understanding and condescending is very thin
    • You can't know how to make it right until they tell you, so ask how you can help them!
    • Preparation; roleplay; skill practice
    • Assume the problem can be solved
    • Use simple language/ avoid jargon
  • Making relationships last
    • L (isten) - A (pologize) - S (olve) - T (hank)
    • Don't make assumptions, even if you've heard it all before
    • Apologizing for a mistake doesn't have to mean that you're taking personal responsibility; it's about covering for the team and making customer feel valued
    • Find something to thank them for!
      • Apologizing may be a weakness in certain cultures, but every culture appreciates "thank you"
  • Personal action plan (commitment for the next 21-30 days):
    • Manage annoyances due to interruptions/misunderstandings with patience + positivity
    • Don't make assumptions, and if you do, don't act based on them
    • Re-route your thinking instead of shutting down

Make It L.A.S.T. (part 1)

A few weeks ago, a representative from Michigan Business Consultants came to my workplace to present Module I of a five-module workshop series about delivering quality customer service. This module was titled: "Managing Difficult People and Situations". Honestly when it started I'd buckled myself in to be bored because 1) professional development blahdeblah whompwhompwhomp, 2) it was three hours long, first thing in the morning, and 3) as a back-end middle person of sorts, I don't actually interact with any clients so I'd assumed none of the content would be relevant to me. But it was actually quite fascinating! Beyond customer service itself, the workshop emphasized ways to communicate clearly and solve problems effectively, which I think is applicable to anyone in any situation. So, for anyone who happens to be interested in professional development or conflict resolution, check out the first half of my notes:

  • Small ideas make big things happen
  • We make things harder than they need to be and force our intentions on others for lack of creativity and our negative assessment of the situation
  • When customers complain, it's an opportunity to examine where we miss the mark, show that we recognize this, and re-establish trust (complaints are a gift!)
    • Need to figure out what people want in order to remedy perceived indifference
  • If you exceed a customer's level of expected service (consistently and with all customers), it bodes well for everyone involved
    • Customers expect "FedEx fast and Disney friendly"
  • Customer rage
    • People want (varied): apologies, explanations, repairs/fixes, monetary refund, free products/service in the future, a "thank you for your business", to be treated with dignity... and the vast majority don't receive any of this
    • It's more about service/perception than about money
  • "What can I do to make this right?" = the golden question
  • Pygmalion effect (self-fulfilling prophecy)
    • Since it won't go away or fix itself and you can't run from it, what can you do to improve the situation and make it bearable?
    • Attitude + approach!
  • Follow through! Follow up!
  • Effective listening allows you to understand what's needed and show that you care (through action!)
  • Appropriate responses: what to say and how to say it
    • What's the impression left on the listener? How does it make them feelwhat's a possible alternative response?
    • People don't care and don't want to know what you can't do
    • "It's our policy" = "There's no hope for you"
      • Policies keep us safe and manage risk (they exist for a reason!), but sometimes breaking them is a matter of service
      • Maybe make an allowance once, but explain why the policy's in place so that this won't happen again
      • But don't let customers take advantage of you! Set boundaries, stand firm, be assertive. (Tools that can help you face any situation)
Read part 2 HERE. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Scripture & Lyrics

"Tell him: 'One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.'" -1 Kings 20:11 (NIV)


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 14

The summer 2016 broadcast season is well underway in Japan (with considerably more interesting options than previous seasons, if I might add)! I've already started watching most of my selections for the summer, but before too much time gets away from me I want to write about the two dramas I watched during the spring. I watched most of 'Love Song' with Japanese subs, and I watched 'Kyou wa Kaisha wo Yasumimasu' with English subs.

ラヴソング (Love Song) - Fuji TV/2016

Sano Sakura (Fujiwara Sakura) is a 20-something mechanic who's stuttered her whole life, which has often made communicating with people difficult and stressful. For fear of being humiliated and misunderstood, she generally avoids social interaction except for with co-workers, her boss, and her two best friends, both of whom are her roommates and grew up in the same orphanage as she did. When one of her best friends who's been like a protective sister to her announces that she's pregnant, engaged, and moving out, Sakura realizes that she can't rely on her friend to communicate with the world for her anymore. She becomes determined to gain greater control over her speech impediment not only so that she can participate in everyday conversations and function independently, but also so that she'll be able to successfully deliver the wedding speech that her friend has asked her to give. 

That's where Kamishiro Kohei (Fukuyama Masaharu, 'Galileo') comes in. The in-house therapist at Sakura's automotive company was previously the guitarist and songwriter for a one-hit wonder of a band 20 years ago, but their career fizzled out when the lead singer (also Kohei's girlfriend at the time) passed away. Sakura resembles his late girlfriend in age, singing voice, budding artistry, and purity of heart, and what starts as music therapy to overcome her stuttering evolves into his attempt to help her establish a music career out of guilt for having failed to help his former girlfriend see the success she deserved. Sakura doesn't know that part at first, though.

And of course, since Sakura's a young woman and they spend a lot of time together and share mutual passions, because Kohei's always concerned with her progress and well-being, and because he's a grown man with grown man charm (no matter how inadvertent), the line between patient and therapist/mentee and mentor gets blurred and she falls in one-sided love with him. Most of the plot seems like it will trace Sakura's unlikely journey from obscurity to stardom, which somewhat parallels the actress's own journey. (Fujiwara Sakura was an experienced but still growing indie singer before being selected from hundreds of girls to lead this highly-anticipated hit show, co-starring with Fukuyama Masaharu, Japan's younger and musically-inclined equivalent to George Clooney). A cute, humble, young woman mechanic with a stutter becoming a successful singer-songwriter and overnight sensation? That's a fascinating story that I would've liked to see played out! But during the last couple episodes the plot instead focused on the necessity for Sakura to separate herself from her complicated feelings toward Kohei, and rather use what he's taught her to find her own voice and establish her own path in life. I'm not sure if this was the plan from the beginning or if the direction of the show was re-written during production, but considering the pressure young women often feel to depend on or acquiesce to older men in order to make it in entertainment, I appreciate how the show ended more than I might have otherwise.

きょうは会社を休みます (Kyou wa kaisha wo yasumimasu/Today I'm Taking a Day Off) - NTV/2014

As a stand-in to bide the time between finishing 'Love Song' and waiting for the summer season to start, I picked this drama because I came across its theme song through an old J-pop countdown on YouTube, and it was jammin'! "Fall" by Makihara Noriyuki. Give it a listen and thank me later! This show is up there with 'Hanasaki Mai ga Damatteinai' on my list of Dramas That Were Extremely Popular for Reasons That are Beyond Me. Like 'Hanasaki Mai', 'Kyou wa Kaisha' was met with considerably high ratings, and I don't quite get it. I think my confusion comes from the fact that the show's premise isn't as big of a deal here in the States as it is in Japan. A reserved office worker has her first relationship at age 30 with a co-worker 10 years her junior, and she makes everything a big deal as they figure themselves out together.

Aoishi Hanae (Ayase Haruka) is a meek and straight-laced woman who's never had a boyfriend nor taken a day off work until her 30th birthday. On that day, her 21-year-old co-worker Tanokura Yuto (Fukushi Sota, 'Starman', 'Koinaka') expresses interest in her and they end up sleeping together. The next morning she's so freaked about what they've done and what it might mean that she takes a day off to cool her head (and avoid the walk of shame to the office). From there, Hanae and Yuto begin a secret relationship that is very earnest, adorable and loving (and kind of hot for them and some viewers, I guess; you know, forbidden May-December office romance and all). But it's also rife with awkward moments and misunderstandings because of differences in their age, dating history, and life goals. At the same time, the 40-something new CEO of their office's business partner also takes interest in Hanae. Sometimes he's tolerable because he offers her work and relationship advice, but most of the time he's terrible because he's always butting in to tell both Hanae and Yuto that he's the better man for her.

I suppose this show's appeal comes from the role reversal. A man taking up with a younger woman is pretty common and almost expected, given how often women's value is measured by their physical beauty, ability to reproduce, and willingness to attend to men's whims, all of which are conventionally associated with youth. But a woman dating a younger man is more unusual, unwise, somewhat taboo or even scandalous. What will you do in the future? How will he provide for you as a husband? What do you even have in common? How will your family ever approve? Thankfully, almost everyone around Hanae gives her space to decide for herself, and no one makes her feel like a deviant for her choices. Overall 'Kyou wa Kaisha' is an easygoing show with enough conflict to keep it from being boring. A very pleasant show with no frills that you can get through easily.

The winner this time is 'Love Song' without a doubt. It gives attention to a common disability, it displays the healing and collaborative power of music, it's been Fujiwara Sakura's big break, and her cover of Peter, Paul and Mary's "500 Miles" ("500 マイル") is one of those folksy insert/theme songs that tugs at my nostalgic heart. Job well done to everyone involved with this show.

One's best thing.

At the end of Toni Morrison's Beloved, widow and former slave Sethe mourns the loss of of her youngest child nearly two decades after her daughter's passing, and soon after her daughter's ghost has disappeared after re-entering her life for a time. Having lost her daughter twice at this point, she is overcome with guilt and states that she has lost her best thing.

Sometimes I think about Madison being gone and feel like I've lost my best thing too. It's like I was only flirting with loneliness before, but now I really know what it means. And nothing seems to make as much sense as it used to. Loss is the worst and grief, I suppose, is a necessary hassle.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

BOOKS! (The Dinner)

Oh do I love when an author pulls a well-timed and carefully orchestrated switcheroo! They lead you to believe their book is about a familiar and palatable subject, when actually it's about a much deeper, more obscure, and more complicated issue (Song of the Exile). Or in this Dutch novel's case, they shroud you in so much mundane banter and comical cynicism that you're almost willing to overlook the underlying darkness until - surprise! - said darkness envelops the entire plot. Another novel that I didn't expect to enjoy but which proved me wrong.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

In Amsterdam, four members of the same family meet for dinner at an upscale restaurant. The dinner party consists of brothers Paul (a former teacher and pretty average guy) and Serge (a popular politician vying to be prime minister of the Netherlands), and their respective wives Claire and Babette. Divided into courses ("Aperatif", "Appetizer", "Main Course", "Dessert" and "Digestif"), the entire novel takes place in Paul's head as he narrates in past tense the play-by-play of what happens at the dinner. All the while he also alternates between various prior events or personal frustrations that reveal not only his own personality, but the dynamics and tensions of the entire family.

Before dessert, most of the novel is actually quite funny. Paul takes his time snarking about how full of crap his uppity brother and all the other perceived morons and posers around him are, and I kind of love it. A lot. To witness someone being so internally straightforward about their disdain for a fraudulent relative is perhaps way more amusing than it should be. I caught myself almost wishing that I had a sibling so I could relate. He plays it cool during dinner (as he does in most situations), but on the inside he's seething, pinpointing the hypocrisy in everything and wanting nothing more than to see phony and unintelligent people fall apart in the most public, uncomfortable, ugly and disastrous way possible. Paul is angry and arrogant, but he's also incredibly troubled and insecure. Which means that when the time comes for someone to actually tear everything apart, it's no colossal surprise that Paul isn't the one to do it.

Eventually dessert arrives, as does the real reason for this meeting. Each couple has a teenage son, and these two cousins apparently record themselves terrorizing homeless people for fun. One of their escapades became a national scandal, as they were caught on security camera abusing a homeless woman and setting her on fire. Fortunately for them no one recognized them in the footage except for their parents, which begs the question now: to publicly out their sons or to continue to hide the truth? Herman Koch sets us up to at first understand both couples as relatively reasonable, mild-mannered, intelligent, and cultured people. But when they have to face a real problem such as this which necessitates definitive action, action borne out of accountability and personal sacrifice, their facade cracks. And so then readers get some shocking insight on the dreadful extremes to which some people will resort in order to cover up for their children, especially if they have the money, social standing, or complexion for the protection to do so.

And Koch is brilliant because he gives us so many clues! In the moment you know you're reading something important but maybe don't know how it'll be pertinent to the major conflict at hand until everything unravels at the end. One clue, which will later provide some commentary on this family's horribly bizarre and self-serving behavior, is Paul's argument about the nature of innocence. Once a history teacher, he essentially got fired for supposing that not all victims in WW2 were innocent. While they certainly did not deserve to be victimized the way they were, that's not to say they were wholly innocent, good, or even likeable people before that point. And perhaps there were people who'd known them who were secretly happy or relieved to see them gone. This sounds extremely callous when speaking in regard to casualties of WW2, but would people care as much if a victim were, say, a homeless person sleeping in a public place where they didn't belong? Or a haughty politician who puts on airs and assumes he has an election in the bag? Or a teenager who blackmails his adopted brother and cousins? Or a convicted murderer or rapist who just got released and may possibly commit again? Or a murder or rape suspect who may not have even stood trial yet?

As upright as Paul, his wife, his brother, and his sister-in-law purport to be, they betray their true selves by making arbitrary and subjective distinctions between who's civilized and who's uncivilized in a modern society, and the value that they attribute to certain people's lives differs vastly. They make allowances for their children, while at the same time supporting execution (with or without trial) for the so-called "real" criminals, the "worst kind of human beings". That their kids killed a homeless woman who was in their way is viewed as evidence of immaturity, not criminality. If violence is used to serve their own interests it's fine, but when used by others in any other instance, it's unacceptable.

Ultimately it's decided that what happens within the family stays within the family. However, in this sense it's not about the family as a whole but rather about the security of one couple and their kids. The other couple is discarded and the things they value are sacrificed as it suits the definitive actor in this situation, which probably won't be who you think it is. Let's just say the ending is too good, but in a really sickening and almost unfathomably conniving way. Definitely read The Dinner if you're into satire, a little dark comedy, debates on social issues, and family dysfunction!

Favorite quotes:
"It was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up. The café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that's too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air... we've all been taught to say that we think it's terrible. But a world without disasters and violencebe it the violence of nature or that of muscle and bloodwould be the truly unbearable thing" (183-84).

"Without my wife I would have been nowhere; you hear sentimental men say that sometimes'helpless' is what they often call themselves. And indeed, all they mean is that their wives have been there to clean up after them all their lives and have kept bringing them cups of coffee at every hour of the day. I wouldn't go that far: without Claire I wouldn't have been nowhere, but I would have been somewhere else" (248).