It’s been awhile since I’ve done a politics post. It’s not because of lack of interest, but because of overexposure. We all stew in this ongoing disaster every day. It’s hard to add light rather than heat, and it’s hard to write or read about these things without a dangerous rise in blood pressure. But I know some of you are interested, so let’s review.

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Image from the incomparable Lil Friendys

Executive summary

What we’ve learned about the GOP is that it has only four values:

  • making the rich richer
  • making life harder for non-white people
  • government control over women’s reproduction
  • making sure crazy people can shoot up schools

That’s it. That’s modern conservatism. To facilitate these goals, conservatives will cozy up to Russia, elect harassers and child molesters, ignore corruption, steal elections, flirt with nuclear war, obstruct the FBI, run trillion-dollar deficits, and hurt their own voters. And lie about everything.

If you’re a consie yourself, you think ”I don’t support those things!“ But you do; you vote for them, you do nothing to stop them or express your supposed displeasure. That you thought you’d get something else, which hasn’t arrived for forty years, is no excuse.

Hating their own

The sad irony is conservatives’ disdain for their own voters. All this agitation and hatred, and for what? What did they actually do for the white people who voted for them who weren’t rich?

  • Tried to take away their health care.
  • Hoped to reduce their Social Security and Medicare. (Paul Ryan’s plan for 2019, thankfully scuttled now.)
  • Making imports more expensive, something that hits farmers especially hard.
  • Deporting their workers and loved ones. (“Oh, I thought they’d come down on those other immigrants!”)
  • At this moment: if they work for the government, taking away their salaries.

Nothing to bring back manufacturing. Nothing to address opioids. Nothing to fix their roads and bridges. Nothing to raise their wages or improve their communities. Not even a tax cut that actually helps them.

What happened to populism? Trump’s appeal as a candidate was in part due to his seeming to be different, and more moderate, than the other candidates. (Does anyone think Ted Cruz would be a better president?) It turns out that to rule, Trump threw out his populism to accommodate conservatives, and the GOP threw out its standards to accommodate him.

From a poli sci perspective, it would have been interesting if Trump had brought in some real populism. This might have actually broadened the appeal of the party, and offered a way out of its demographic dilemma. Why didn’t it happen? The best answer, I think, is that Trump reflects whoever he talked to last, and after the election he surrounded himself with conservatives.

The grift

Why are conservatives like this? There are some intriguing explanations: the tendency of authoritarians to demonize minorities and excuse any sin in their leaders; the fear that women and brown people will treat white men as they’ve been treated; the comfort of denying any attack on privilege by going on the attack; the Evangelical persecution complex combined with a deep desire to tell others what to do.

But perhaps the most compelling is that conservatism is a machine to hawk fear, and it’s hooked on its own supply. Look at who advertises on right-wing talk shows and radio shows: people selling gold, guns, shaky investment deals, unlikely medical notions. In a word, grifters. The purpose of the fear is just to sell crappy stuff that people wouldn’t buy without it.

More on this here and here.

How do you sell obviously shady things? You work up fear among already-anxious old people. You convince them that the “mainstream media” is hiding the truth which only you know. You work up conspiracy theories and create bogeymen. Media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones were all too happy to provide the alarmist background noise to enable the grift.

The grift goes back to the ’80s, but GOP leaders didn’t have to buy their own bullshit. That’s why Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could abuse each other all day and go drinking together at night. But somewhere between Gingrich and Trump, GOP leaders became believers. There’s no adults in the room any more— those people were forced out as RINOs. Trump is unusual for his rapid-fire lies, but he has an excuse for many of them: he believes whatever they spew out on Fox.

Lowlights

The last two years have been a slow-motion disaster. Something bad happens every week, though it may be buried by the toddler-in-chief’s latest tweet. Here’s a recap, which is by no means complete. It’s useful to compare it to what I predicted two years ago: almost none of this was unexpected.

  • The Muslim ban— an absurd and cruel response to an imaginary threat.
  • A war on immigrants, including legal ones. ICE has been given license to hassle anyone Hispanic, they built concentration camps and separated children from their parents, they’ve gone after law-abiding grandmothers and citizens, they can’t seem to keep the kids in their concentration camps alive. I read recently that they’re going after Vietnamese in California— the one group of immigrants that votes Republican.
  • White nationalists in the White House; praise for Nazis rallying and killing people. What’s most dispiriting is how hard it is to distinguish them from the rest of the staff. Who needs Steve Bannon when you have Mike Pence?
  • A huge tax cut for the rich, leading inevitably to trillion-dollar deficits. Note: corporations continued laying off workers and mostly used the tax cut to buy back stock.
  • Note Paul Ryan’s cynical hypocrisy: pretend that the tax cuts were revenue neutral, then when they weren’t, pretend that that justified cutting services.
  • Ongoing demonization of the press, predictably resulting in crazy people trying to kill journalists.
  • Gagging scientists and making public information harder to get.
  • A stupid and nasty ban on trans people in the military, currently held up in the courts.
  • Consorting with Russia during the election. A huge disinformation campaign against the FBI, of all people, simply to obstruct the investigation into this and into Trump’s finances.
  • Firing the FBI director; admitting on TV that this was done to obstruct justice.
  • Withdrawing from the Paris agreement, and of course doing nothing to avert climate change.
  • Undermining our alliances with NATO and South Korea.
  • Repudiating the treaty with Iran, so that Iran will feel free to develop nukes, and our credibility in any future negotiations (e.g. with North Korea) will be zero.
  • Pure chaos in Syria “policy”: escalating the war with direct attacks on Assad; alternately cooperating and obstructing Russia; announcing a complete pullout and then immediately walking it back.
  • Relaxing regulations on pollution, water purity, and coal production.
  • Months of federal inaction and denial following the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
  • Two bad Supreme Court picks.  As a bonus, one is a sexual harrasser.
  • Voter suppression on a wider scale— not just changing laws to make voting harder, but literally not counting Democratic votes.
  • Rewriting the rules for state government after losing governorships.
  • Slapping tariffs on our allies and on China, apparently under the impression that foreign countries, rather than US citizens, pay tariffs.
  • Total shutdown of any Middle East peace negotiations, and needless provocation of the Arab side by moving the embassy.
  • Threats of nuclear war against Korea— which turned into the spectacle of a third-rate dictator playing Trump like a violin.
  • Open corruption— e.g. foreign nations offering deals to Trump properties, or buying up space in Trump hotels.
  • Don’t forget that quietly, outside the news, the GOP is loading the courts with conservative judges.

The one big surprise was the incompetent failure to take away health care from tens of millions of people. Conservatism’s utter dishonesty was on full display here. If you really believe people don’t deserve government health care, then fucking say so. Run on a platform of “You should get sick and die because fuck you.” It’s honest and expresses your actual values! Do you think people just won’t notice if your RepublicanBrand™ law takes away their health care?

The apparent conservative talking point is that young healthy people shouldn’t have to pay for insurance. Of course, they’re still supposed to pay for RepublicanBrand™ wars and for Republican old people’s Social Security. But really, is the concept of insurance that hard to grasp? Those young people will be old one day! Or they’ll get cancer, or get hit by a car. But it’s hardly worth ranting about; the concern for young people is bogus. Consie pundits have health insurance and don’t give a fuck for people who don’t.

The ongoing comedy of the wall is another mild surprise. Mr. Art of the Deal could have had has stupid wall if he’d just protected children of illegal immigrants from being deported, but they’re brown people and had to be screwed over.

As I write, we’re in the middle of a government shutdown— putting thousands of government employees out of work, reducing airport security, trashing the national parks, evicting people from their homes— because Mr. Big Wall, having approved a deal, got criticized on Fox News. And the GOP plays along, conveniently forgetting that Congress can pass a law without the President’s signature.

Against all that

Against all this, there’s Trump’s unpopularity, culminating in a drubbing of the GOP in November. The Democrats flipped the House, gaining 40 seats. On the local level, they won 7 governorships, gained full control of 7 state legislatures, and broke Republican monopolies in 4 more. Turnout was 10% higher than in any recent midterm election, and higher than any of them in a century. There are more women in Congress than ever before— still barely a quarter of the seats, but that’s twice the level it was 20 years ago.

A lot of this was driven by activism that went back to the election, and involved the Democratic rediscovery of how to win elections: organize, communicate, fund-raise, find candidates, work locally, and wear out the shoe leather. For years, even as the Tea Party was taking over the GOP using these tactics, the left treated politics as a spectator sport, and didn’t bother to vote in the midterms, and wondered vaguely why the wrong people always won. (This was true even in the ’60s. In my review of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I noted that the Brothers are far more left-wing than today’s activists… but do jack shit about it.)

Already there’s a great new voice for liberalism– the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s managed to get people talking about two very Rooseveltian ideas: 1) a Green New Deal: actually doing something about global warming; 2) raising the tax rate for the ultra-rich to 70%, the rate we had under Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, she drives consies crazy, and they’re obsessed with her. Their biggest riposte so far: she danced as a college student!

Winning back the House was a key first step, but only a first step. The most important effect will be that the GOP can’t pursue the Ryan agenda; and next, that it can start holding the Administration responsible for its corruption.

What it can’t do, I hope everyone understands, is govern. It can pass bills, but on its own it can’t force the Senate to pass them, or Trump to sign them. What this means in practice is that very little will get done— mostly spending bills. And the easiest way to approach those, perhaps the only way, will be to more or less continue with existing spending levels.

Of course, the House can practice for 2021. By all means pass climate change or health care legislation and let the Senate go on record opposing it. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that this will impress the moderates who swing elections blue or red. The Republicans “repealed Obamacare” dozens of times as pure theater, and it didn’t matter to anyone except their base.

The House can impeach Trump. But remember your 1990s history: what this means, in effect, is that it can indict Trump, and he’d be tried by the Senate. You can do it as theater, as the ’90s GOP did to Clinton; or you can do it for real, as was going to happen to Nixon. The difference is getting the President’s party on board in the Senate.

The Senate has shown zero interest in turning on Trump. (Yes, a few senators defected on health care. But John McCain is dead, and we don’t need two or three senators defecting, we need 20.)

Don’t blame me for telling you this, but it’s been two years, and those 20 Senators know about everything Trump and the GOP have done, everything listed above and more. If a Democrat did the same things, they’d be all over him. But a Republican did, so: crickets. Remember what they care about: tax cuts, hurting brown people, abortion, guns. Opposing Trump isn’t on the list and it’s hard to see what would put it there.

I’m tempted to say more about what happens next, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I’ll just say:

  • It’s not going to be easy, because the GOP has thrown out so many norms in its embrace of Trump.
  • Don’t give up. The midterms show that Trump is not magic, and hurts his own party. Things have been this bad before. (Imagine a reactionary plutocrat being popular!  Well, look at the ’80s.)
  • The only thing that looks worse than Trumpism right now is both-sides-ism. It’s not 1992 any more and we do not need Republicanism Lite.
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I wanted to play this for years, and it’s finally available on PC. If you’ve been living under a rock since 2004, this is the one where you roll up objects into a big ball.

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And run into big poles, coming to a screeching halt

Your first question is undoubtedly, what’s a katamari?  Or a damacy, for that matter? The game’s title is 塊魂, better transliterated Katamari Tamashī. A katamari is a cluster, lump, or agglomeration; a tamashī is a spirit or soul. So, the spirit of agglomeration. Curiously, both words are native Japanese. If you read the words as Chinese they’d be kuài hún, which mean the same thing but are unrelated. Note the 鬼 guǐ ‘ghost’ grapheme in both characters which gives the title a nice visual pun. As the Chinese suggests, it’s a phonetic in the first word, a radical in the second.

(I should add: tamashī is what you’ll find in the dictionary, but the D in Damacy is not a mistake; it’s what’s actually pronounced, as this is a compound. It’s a sandhi thing.)

Curiously, 塊 seems to be a less common rendering of katamari; my two dictionaries list 固まリ instead. I assume 塊 was chosen for the visual pun. (Edit: Alert reader Yiuel Raumbesirc tells me that both renderings are used, and 塊 is used when the meaning is ‘an accumulation of stuff’.)

So, how’s the game? Most reviewers have said it’s delightful. And it is, though I’d say only about 80% so. The 20% is due to the strict time limits for each level, which probably mean that you’ll frustratingly fail a few levels before getting them. It’d be nice if you could have a Wimp Mode where you get 50% more time.

Oh, and in the “dumb things” department: the (relatively short) tutorial comes before you can change graphics settings. So you have to play it in windowed mode. Once you get to your home planet, go to the settings and you can play in full screen at high resolution.

Something that takes getting used to is the controls. You push the katamari around with two keys– WASD and IJKL.  This is slightly awkward, but that’s the point, really– it’s supposed to be awkward to roll this growing pile around a house, neighborhood, and eventually world. The ball also has momentum, so it’s sometimes a struggle to control it. Plus the camera only shows you the forward path; you can slowly and clumsily shift the camera by holding down just W (or just I).  There are supposedly burst and dash modes, but I never got them to work. (Literally: I press the keys and nothing happens.)

More importantly, when you run into things bigger than the ball, you stop and lose one or more items. This can make you curse, but it’s probably what makes this a game and not a walking simulator: you have to learn what you can and can’t pick up.  For most efficient rolling:

  • Learn to avoid what you can’t pick up yet.
  • Also avoid moving objects that are bigger than your ball.
  • Items you can pick up often come in arrays; take advantage of these pre-created paths and clusters.
  • Though the levels are free-form, they’re also graded in terms of object size. It pays to get all the stuff you can in one area before moving on.
  • On the other hand, don’t waste time with objects much smaller than your ball.
  • There are areas you can’t get to until your katamari is a certain size. For best results, be somewhat above that size.
  • You can pick up long thing objects (thermometers, axes, bottles) or flat objects (envelopes, cards) much earlier than more round objects. This seems to build up the ball faster.
  • Steps can stop you short. Sometimes you can get up if you have momentum.

As your ball gets bigger, you can roll over things with ease that used to be obstacles. The animate things cry out or scream as they’re rolled up, which would be disturbing if the art style weren’t so toylike.

The last level gives you a fair amount of time, and the sense of scale is breathtaking. Each map starts you off slightly larger, but you’re still picking up fruit and such things to start. But soon you’re picking up furniture, and then people, and then vehicles, and then buildings, and then entire cities.  It’s exhilarating when everything clicks and you’re constantly rewarded by a change in scale.

Katamari Damacy is a trifle– it took me under 10 hours to play– and maybe slightly overpriced at $30.  But it’s so completely original that I’m happy I got it over everything else on my wishlist. (Plus I’m having fun replaying levels to try to get a bigger katamari.)

The game has a lovely soundtrack, too– mostly bouncy J-Pop, but at least one bossa nova number.  (Bossa would be a good translation of katamari.)

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There’s a bonkers story to go along with the bonkers mechanic. The King of All Cosmos, in a drunken bender, has knocked all the stars and the moon out of the sky.  You are his son, far tinier but with the same odd taste in headgear, and you’re tasked with making katamaris which will become stars to replace the ones that were lost.

The main humor here is that King is a terrible father; he’s constantly berating you for your size and the smallness of your katamaris (if you merely make it the size he specified). On the other hand, he does give you presents, which he invariably loses, so you have to gather them up where they fell to earth.

He speaks in record scratches, which is amusing for about ten seconds; fortunately you can rush through his dialog with space bar, and skip it entirely with tab.

Credit where it’s due department: the game was designed by Keita Takahashi. There are several Katamari Damacy games, so perhaps we’ll see more of them released later.

One more note: an interesting design trick. Objects become more saturated in color as they join your ball. This probably subliminally reinforces your rolling, but also means that your ball stands out against the background.  (The world is still mighty colorful despite the subtle desaturation.)

Edit: I might be done, after about 28 hours. I replayed the whole game, then replayed individual levels to get better scores. Anyway, main point: it’s even more fun on a replay, since you know what you’re doing and what to avoid.

One extra control you’ll end up appreciating: press W + K to rotate the ball fast.

So Norman Gimbel just died.  I never heard of him either, but he wrote the English lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema”, so it’s a nice opportunity to compare lyrics and versions.

Here’s the classic Stan Getz / Astrud Gilberto version, and Gimbel’s lyrics:

Tall and tan and young
And lovely the girl from Ipanema
Goes walking and when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!
When she walks she’s like
A samba that swings so cool
And sways so gently that when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!

Oh, but he watches so sadly
How can he tell her he loves her
Yes, he would give his heart gladly
But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he

This is the quintessential bossa nova song, and it feels like the ’60s, which is a strange thing to feel these days. Things were, if anything, far worse worldwide, but there was a sense of optimism despite that– the sense that right now things were changing for the better. Bossa nova somehow evokes that: super cool, sweet, and tinged with sadness.

Bossa nova means “new bump”, but bossa here apparently means “knack, charm, allure”. As for Ipanema, it’s a beachfront neighborhood in Rio– still fashionable when I was there in the 1990s. In the 20th century, development and coolness spread from downtown southwestward: first Botafogo was the premier beach, then Copacabana, then Ipanema.

Here’s the Portuguese version, performed by the original composer, Tom Jobim, and the lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes:

The interesting thing is that the English lyrics aren’t a translation at all, not even loosely. The only thing the two songs have in common is the notion of a girl walking in Ipanema.

Olha que coisa mais linda
Look what a beautiful thing
Mais cheia de graça
So full of grace
É ela, menina
It’s her, the girl
Que vem e que passa
Who comes and passes by
Num doce balanço
with sweet swaying
A caminho do mar
On the way to the sea

Moça do corpo dourado
Girl with tanned body
Do sol de Ipanema
from the Ipanema sun
O seu balançado é mais que um poema
Her swaying is more than a poem
É a coisa mais linda que eu já vi passar
It’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw
Ah, por que estou tão sozinho?
Ah, why am I so alone?
Ah, por que tudo é tão triste?
Ah, why is everything so sad?
Ah, a beleza que existe
Ah, the beauty that exists
A beleza que não é só minha
The beauty which isn’t just for me
Que também passa sozinha
Which also passes alone
Ah, se ela soubesse
Ah, if she knew
Que quando ela passa
That when she passes by
O mundo inteirinho se enche de graça
The whole world is filled with grace
E fica mais lindo
And becomes more beautiful
Por causa do amor
Because of love

One more thing to note– Portuguese is rich in words for ‘young woman’– in this song alone we have garota, menina, moça.

Here’s another version I like, sung in English and some Portuguese by another Brazilian artist, Joyce:

Also worth noting: there was an actual girl from Ipanema– Helô Pinheiro, who was 17 when she apparently walked by Moraes, in 1962. Here she is on the beach:

helo-pinheiro

Pinheiro parlayed the fame from the song into a modeling and TV hosting career.

By the way, Moraes was 49 at the time, so, just as well he only sat and watched her.

In the Planet Construction Kit, I introduced some 3-D modeling programs, but that section is pretty outdated. What I recommend now (if you can’t afford a pro package) is Blender, which is free and full of features.  But like every other 3-D program, it’s complex and baffling and you can’t really figure it out just by messing with it.  So, I wrote a tutorial that gives the basics of Blender.

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It isn’t a full manual… that’d be a book in itself… but you can get pretty far with it.  If people like it, I could add more (I only barely cover UV maps and creating humanoids).

Happy modeling!

Connie-5I received my second proof, and my name is spelled correctly on both the cover and the title page, so I’ve approved it! The printers are standing by, ready to roll press for you, the reader.

Here’s my description page, and here’s the Amazon page. If you have no idea what syntax is, or what a syntax book is, start there.

If you’re an e-reader, you’ll have to wait a few days. The Kindle version takes some extra preparation, as all the nice Illustrator diagrams must be converted to the high-tech formats of the early 1990s, GIFs or JPEGs. I’ll mention it here when it’s done. (Oh wait. Another page says they accept PNGs. That’s late ’90s!)

Don’t be a drag who has a two-page syntax page in your grammar. All the cool kats will be tripping on the real syntax in this book.

 

I like reading Shamus Young on video games, but boy howdy do I disagree with his latest column. The issue is, should you be, and feel like you’re being, The Chosen One in games?

sr-main-personIdeally, the Chosen One actually glows

He’s talking about (just one aspect of) how Mass Effect Andromeda‘s story makes little sense.

In more recent BioWare games, the story has inverted all of this. The writer has adopted a parent / child relationship with the player character. The protagonist gets bossed around and you’re obliged to do what NPCs tell you to do, and the writer doesn’t even make much of an effort to get buy-in from the player. You can’t ask probing questions and the dialog doesn’t waste time justifying things to the player. At the same time the game patronizingly pretends like the player character is in charge. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Pathfinder. You’re the famous Messianic Commander Shepard. You’re so great. People look up to you. People love you. You’re special. You’re important. Now go do these missions and don’t ask any questions.

I haven’t played Andromeda, but I did play as Shepard, to say nothing of Batman, the Lone Wanderer, the Dragonborn, the Boss, Gordon Freeman, Jade, the Witcher, Empress Emily, Bayonetta, etc.  So the first thing I’d suggest is: these games are actually trying to tell you something important about being the Chosen One. It’s genuinely limiting. Being the special person who saves the world means that you don’t get to do whatever the hell you want. Being Batman isn’t dizzying freedom, it’s backbreaking responsibility. And yes, people will tell you what to do, because that’s what saving the world involves. You gotta go save it, and probably there’s only one way to do it. (Or two ways, one involving stealth, the other involving combat.)

(Also, I know he’s being sarcastic, but “people love you”? Are people fond of the one dude who can save the world? I’d say they’re far likely to be anxious, demanding, and irritable. They’re supposed to be saving the world, and here they are in my shop selling troll fat, or stealing calipers from my barrels, or reading people’s memoirs. I don’t want to see that, I want to see some world-saving.)

Shamus goes on to suggest a way to ‘fix’ this scene in Andromeda, and his way might well be better writing. But the reason his fix works is that it leads to the exact same results. That is, you’re still railroaded.  The cutscenes would set you up as Making Great Decisions, yes, but then you’d go and do the exact same things as when people were telling you what to do.

It can be fun when we do get to make overall decisions, but for obvious reasons this is a hard ask. It’s illuminating to fire up Fallout’s Creation Kits and examine how complicated a single quest is. 80% of players probably make the same main decisions, but you have to have options for the most absurd possible options. If decisions can have consequences later, you’re greatly multiplying the amount of work without increasing the amount of game players see.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s quite silly how games insist on setting up the player as the Chosen One. It’s the same sort of narrative escalation where every action movie has to be about the end of the world. Do that enough and the artificialness of the excitement becomes obvious. Corvo failing to protect the Empress once is a bad mistake; doing it twice implies that he’s just awful at his job.

Plus, you don’t have to be the Prophesied One! Maybe you’re just the security guy, as in Deus Ex. Or the guy with the really good wrench, as in Dead Space 1. Or a random survivor, as in Left 4 Dead.

Most intriguingly, you could be no more important than the NPCs. The best example of this is Stalker, where you are just one of many opportunists wandering the Zone. The first Borderlands managed this: the player character was just a treasure hunter, which is basically what the player was too. They ruined this in Borderlands 2 by making Vault Hunters some incredibly rare caste of superheroes.

Finally, the reason games often make stupid requests is, I think, a clue to how game development works.  You don’t have a writer sitting down, saying “The PC will now go fetch a doohingus”, and the quest department writes a Doohingus-Finding Quest. More likely, different teams have already created a bunch of levels, and the writer’s job is to come up with some insane story that requires traversing all of them. Like writing supervillains, it’s just not a job where every instance can make sense on its own terms. Sometimes they come up with a great reason why you have to traverse the sewer level next, sometimes they don’t.

Should you be able to push back at the writer’s lame suggestion? Maybe, but that’s part of why (say) Fallout always has a dialog option to insult the quest giver. It’s kind of juvenile. More effective is when the game itself lampshades the arbitrariness of the plot; the Saints Row games are notable for this. But that option is probably only available for comedy games.

I got nostalgic for this flick (タンポポ, 1985, dir. Jūzō Itami) after seeing a Mefi thread on it, so my wife and I watched it again. Not only does it hold up well, I think it’s just about a perfect movie.

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A recap, if you missed it: Two truck drivers, Gorō and Gun, get hungry for ramen, and stop at a hole-in-the-wall shop run by Tampopo, widow of the previous owner. They get into a fight with the thuggish customers and get beaten up. Tampopo takes care of Gorō, and asks him how the ramen was.  The answer is, not good.  It’s “sincere, but lacks character.” Tampopo is desperate to make the best possible ramen, and Gorō takes on the task of training her.

This turns out, like a video game quest, to involve an escalating series of complications: spying on other restaurants, strength training, and building an unlikely fraternity of counselors: the king of the hobos who knows all about broth; a rich man’s chauffeur who knows noodles; and finally the thuggish customer who was bothering Tampopo earlier: after a fistfight with Gorō he becomes a pal and offers to remodel the restaurant.

This sounds like a thin plot for a movie, and that’s the first joke. Yes, they’re treating this as an epic quest, with overtones of samurai movies and Westerns– Gorō even has the hat for it. And yes, it’s like finding the perfect barbecue or gyros: ramen is (or was at the time of the movie) unpretentious street food.

But people are passionate about food, and that’s really the theme of the movie. At one point Gorō  is building up Tampopo’s strength by having her run (while he rides a bicycle). We see a line of businessmen, and “for some reason” (as Itami says in the making-of documentary) the camera follows them. This turns into one of many vignettes about food. The businessmen go to a fancy French restaurant, and all the important people– who can’t read the menu– order the same thing. Only the youngest (it’s obviously his first such outing) consults with the waiter, and orders an excellently chosen gourmet meal with appropriate wine. The five others stare at him, completely red-faced.

Most of the vignettes revolve around a joke, but some are about sex: they center on a yakuza and his girlfriend, both dressed all in white, who use food as foreplay. The yakuza meets his comeuppance near the end of the film, and as he lies dying, confides to the crying girl a recipe for boar sausages he would have liked to share with her.

On a less intense level, the film shows a developing romance between Tampopo and Gorō . But Gorō moves on at the end.  He has to, as a Western hero or as a video game protagonist. The next quest awaits.

It’s hard to convey in words just how assured and controlled Itami’s film is. The tone could falter at any moment. We could lose interest in the vignettes; we could find the overall ramen quest silly; the actors could play it too seriously or too hammily. But it never does falter. At one point early in the movie an elderly man is teaching a young man how to eat ramen. He says, in the reverential tone of every martial arts master on film, “Caress the pork slices with your chopsticks.” It’s absurd, but it’s delivered completely straight, and it works. The film is about people who are passionate for food, to the point of being a little ridiculous. And it’s like, yeah, why shouldn’t we be both passionate and ridiculous about food?

The making-of documentary has a fascinating bit where Itami plays the final scene for us three times, with different choices for the music– not even choosing different music, just differing places to start. It’s a little lesson in rhythm and the emotional effect of music, and another demonstration of Itami’s attention to detail.

I don’t think you can watch this film without coming out hungry for ramen. Or the beautiful rice omelette that’s made at one point.  Or boar sausages.

There is way, way more to the movie than I could explain without going to film school. Apparently it’s full of homages to other movies, Japanese and Western. The choice of actors must be meaningful: Itami seems to have assembled every older character actor in Japan.

If there’s any very slight weakness in the film, it may be Tampopo herself. She’s the perfect martial arts student: quiet, but whip-smart, absorbing everything she sees in order to win the big boss battle at the end (in this case, the final ramen-tasting). There’s nothing wrong with her, but maybe that itself is something wrong. She isn’t really allowed to have any vices or make any mistakes. But perhaps that’s what the other characters and the vignettes are for. (And maybe our own convention that the hero has to be flawed needs to be challenged.)

Interesting factoid: the actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, was 40 when the movie was made. She was also Itami’s wife, and the son in the movie was their actual son.

From the Mefi thread, this appears to be a movie that only a minority of people have seen, but that almost everyone remembers with affection. So, enjoy, and then have a great meal.