Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Old Ichi-Ni

I generally like the kind of person I am today, and if I rejected the close associations I held during my formative years with comic books, console video games, and cartoons then my parthenon would just be non as it would have no pillars to hold up the heavy ceiling of adulthood.

Since returning to school and taking my studies seriously, I thought that I all but abandoned my nerdy past by diving headlong into literature and the wonder of language. Slowly, however, things start creeping back and I noticed things that, despite having a fine layer of dust over the exposed areas, are quite spectacular. With my mind now being focused through a more tempered lens--thanks to the churning of age and gaining less of a newborn-closed-eye consciousness--I'm appreciating all the things I had left behind with a glee that makes me realize many are still quite relevant to an adult mind and could actually be more intellectually potent than previously expected.

So, let's talk about anime. In regards to this enlightening rediscovery I've been experiencing, the realm of Japanese animation is a genre that has shifted most during travel. I think with anime it was the chase for home-copied tapes of guerilla-translated shows and movies you could only find for sale only at comic book conventions and independent comic book stores that got me going originally since there was hardly a diverse catalogue commercially available. Getting a hold of anime at that time could be comparable to, and this is only speculation, big game hunting. You know the score is out there, but the hunt itself is as taxing and demanding as any organized sport.

The problem I eventually found was that most anime is shit. Sure, we'll hold Transformers and Voltron off to one side for nostalgia, but face it: those shows were terrible, especially the latter. For many elitists in my anime-chasing days, the idea was that because this content came from Japan (considered by lesser nerds such as myself to be a veritable Oz or Never-Neverland where pain dies and dreams explode out of Fuji), and also because many of these cartoons carried very mature subject matter, this somehow made every shard of anime above and beyond any American cream ever produced or to ever be produced. But I took a step back and saw that many of the movies were just violent with a more demanding plot to be found in Die Hard: With A Vengeance. Most of it was weird without being artistic, disgusting without being relevant, or nudity for the sake of, um, looking at gigantic, shiny boobs.

A golden few stuck, though, and some are still balancing on Judgement's scales.

There have been two movies based on the series of novels titled Vampire Hunter D, all of which have been written by one Hideyuki Kikuchi. In terms of being a good movie, the second--and most recent--film, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, is the better of the two, but the first, simply titled Vampire Hunter D, is iconic in its placement among early anime in the United States.

Until recently, these novels were unreleased in the states in nearly any form. But hardcore anime fanboys/girls (referred to with the Japanese pejorative term, otaku) whined and someone answered, bringing the Vampire Hunter D novels stateside in a result which has proven, to me at least, that it's both for better and for worse.

I picked up the first book with the intention of bringing closure to having art books full of illustrations by Japanese illustrator Yoshitaka Amano that were made for the VHD novels without this California kid having any idea of their context to the greater story. Now I would finally be able to make sense of all these beautiful drawings and paintings that have influenced me since my teenage epoch. And while that dream did get removed from my things-to-do list, I quickly realized that this psychological peace came with a backswing.

Otakus are vehement in their love for all things Japanese, some seem to be willing to give themselves over to indentured servitude than recognize any other type of art form. With that in mind, I think that otakus (not just necessarily VHD fans, whom I would like to believe can be a relatively rational bunch, I'm speaking instead of the real wackos) really, really wanted to read these books in as pure a form as possible, and translator Kevin Leahy was willing to do that. As a result, these extremists can walk around and basically say, "I read 吸血鬼ハンターD" and not, "I just read the recent translation of the Vampire Hunter D novels."

has a certain stigma attached to it that frightens otakus as they have frequently been 'betrayed' by terribly re-written translations of anime that actually do stray from the show's or movie's original storyline (according to friends of mine, the earliest and most well-known case of this Frankensteinian butchery is the Robotech series). From the way the VHD novel read, it seemed that it was quite a literal translation due to severely questionable stylistic choices. The largest spurs that stuck out to me were constant re-explanations by the omniscient narrator of events previously explicated through dialogue or subtler narration. There were also a lot of exclamations made by this non-obtrusive narrator that broke that fourth wall between reader and escapist fantasy, similar to the "Oh! My swineherd!" outbursts made by Homer in his The Odyssey.

But I'm taking for granted that Kikuchi is considered a reasonably good writer in Japan, and it's easy to guess that due to his incredible success (though, I will admit, success does not always translate to actually being good at something). Because of that, I am willing to assume that his style is actually quite amenable to the Japanese language, more than to English. When literally translated into English with no regard to its stylistic practices, it just comes off as bad writing and that frightens me.


Because as I read this fascinating story hidden behind poor style and shaky grammar, I was suddenly burdened with the mental image of all the extremist otakus rushing to their computers, eager to write their fan fiction in the same exact way they just read Kikuchi.

According to Wikipedia, Kikuchi is comparable "to both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft," to which Kikuchi owes more to the latter. He's gone to college and has made a successful living at writing. That is, he has studied literature and writing and he knows how to use the Japanese language most effectively for his horror-fantasy novels. The first VHD book alone is littered with clever allusions to myths, legends, and customs from all over the world and throughout its history. As a creator, I'm sure Kikuchi would rather have his work figuratively translated instead of literally, in order to convey the art he has created as much as possible in the English language.

But then there's the problem: I loved the book. I couldn't put it down. I think this is more due to Kikuchi's talent than Leahy's, who adds insult to the previous injury by throwing in a right hook that I wasn't expecting since he happens to need a copy-editor STAT. Within this book I have never seen so many published grammatical mistakes that could have and should have been easily caught and repaired. Missing quotation marks, possessive apostrophes, and--my favorite--a completely wrong word. Occurring at one particularly dramatic point, a character refers to another as the "lord of the manner." I slapped my forehead and started to cry.

That Leahy used the completely wrong spelling, an error that denies the line and the scene any dramatic value, is something that should not have been missed by, at least, an editor or publisher, much less a writer who, presumably, went over the manuscript more than once. Sure, it's an honest mistake, but how forgiving should the consumer be to a cutthroat industry (the same type of people that decided to put out a William Hung album) These books are going on sale and will be found at bookstores nationwide. An error like that is embarrassing, but not enough to make me stop reading, and I bet publishers DH Press and Digital Manga Publishing are counting on forgiving souls much kinder than I to continue buying their books, despite being a flawed product. As two small publishing houses trying to establish a reputation, it's sad to see that they let a major release go out with smears.

I would like to see these stories done right and my only wish is that Kikuchi or Amano don't know enough English to see the linguistic butchery that's been accomplished with this first book...but, goddammit, if I haven't purchased the second one already.


andy said...

For the record, Comrade, Robotech did something unique that few have really given credit for. The original intent was to translate and export Macross to the United States as a straight to video style show. Then somebody sold Harmony Gold on the notion of the children's animated series. All they needed were a few more episodes. A few other properties got mixed in the bunch and *POOF* out comes Robotech. The unique characteristic is that elements from three unrelated Anime series have been fused into one cohesive (although slightly disconnected) story. That's where the magic lies, my friend. It would be like somebody taking Star Trek: The Original Series, Lost in Space, and Land of the Lost and turning it into one cohesive television series. That is what is so amazing. Sure, their translation had issues, but at the time it ranked as impressive compared to what little else there was. Don't discredit the Robotech!

I always thought the video game company Working Designs deserved a lot of credit for trying to translate companies with a certain amount of culturalization, so it made sense to Americans instead of just being vaguely foreign like some Anime tends to be. It seems much cooler that way than some alternatives, such as the ever popular, "You have no chance to survive make your time."

DCVB said...

Hey, hold on. I wasn't bashing Robotech, just using it as a point to talk about bastardized English translations of Japanese animations. And if the bastardized translation ends up being good, then so be it! No problem there, and no offense meant towards Robotech. So, please...don't shoot four-thousand missles at me.

On a brighter note, I think I should sue my tatoo-ist. That thing on my arm looks like Mr. Hankey got the bends.

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