Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why I Like Japanese Samurai Movies

Last time I briefly went over a little bit of my involvement in martial arts which was intended to lead into this blog entry. Again, ever since I can remember (seems like I always say that), I have watched martial arts movies. I remember watching these guys when I was younger: GORANGER. I owned the Green Ranger metal figure/doll. Then Bruce Lee and badly dubbed kung fu movies. Then the ninja craze of the 1980's. While I have watched a lot of Hong Kong movies I do not enjoy those as much as the Japanese samurai movies.

It turns out that many of the old samurai movies tended to be influenced by the western. The gunfighter would be replaced by a master swordsmen in a poor town. While that is one of the reasons one can see why I might like them it is not the primary reason. Early on in my martial arts training I started losing interest in kung fu movies because they lacked the realism my training was emphasizing. Some fights in a kung fu movie may go ten minutes a real world street fight usually lasts only a few seconds. The choreography is more more "dance like" in these movies.

On the other hand, the Japanese swordfighting movie (chambara) tend to have a more realistic approach where getting the proper distances and angles of attack are usually more important. The thing is to spot some of this you do have to have some training to see some of the fine tuning that is done. There are a few things to keep in mind about this though. One, in these movies, no one is truely trying to kill each other. In a sense everything you see is fantasy. Two, the "swords" used are not real heavy swords. Three, almost all the actors have been told what to do by some professional martial artist who choreographs the fight scenes for them. In fact, sometimes the "bad guy" in the story is a much better martial artist in the real world than the star of the movie, but the "bad guy" must die for the sake of the story.

Sometimes I have seen people say some movie has really great sword fighting scenes. I then watch the movie and can tell the person probably has never trained, and probably never even touched a sword before. Usually what happens is the criteria used by the average fan is much different than I would use for judging a fight scene. There are a lot of variables here, but let me mention one or two. The average fan, without training, might be really impressed with some flashy tricky technique. I was told once that a certain actor was the most exciting swordfighter. The problem there is that what is "exciting" to him is not as impressive to me; if I were to counter with some one who uses more practical efficicent techniques the person would consider them "boring." Again, a lot of this has to do with training and what you are watching for. Another example is one who is impressed with bigger movements as opposed to more tight and compact movements. This may not seem like much, but it is the difference between watching a lop sided basketball game and nailbitting close game. The thing to keep in mind though is not every single fight scene is done at the highest level filled with substance. Still, I have found these movies to be a lot closer, in my mind, to what I had trained.

The Jidegeki (Japanese period film) is filmed with Japnese history and culture. I enjoy this aspect as well. Part of the thing with me is while growing up I lived in a area dominated by Chinese and Japanese kids. I was the "minority" white kid I guess you could say for the first 10 years of my life. I was exposed to a lot of different ideas, but a lot of my friends would always have me involved in what their families were doing. Martial arts and movies were all apart of this. I am not going to spend much time going over the various background issues regarding Japanese history and the samurai at this point, but let me just point to this link for good background reading:

Midnight Eye Samurai Cinema 101

Eventually I did get some exposure to Akira Kurosawa and something known as Shogun Assassin. Little by little I would see some Japanese movies, but during the time I was growing up they were not easy to find. Now with that said, in the Los Angeles area some episodic tv shows were on the air on the local cable channels. It was not until the last 1980's to early 1990's that some vhs movies started to hit the market that I started to see more. Then about the mid-1990's a lot more was released with english subtitles. It is amazing though that so much that was next to impossible to find about 10 years ago is easy to find today. A lot of people new to the genre (the last 8 years or so) do not really appreciate what is out there now as compared to what we had to wait around for during the 80's and 90's.

My favorite companies that put out some of the classics with english subtitles are Animeigo and Criterion. Those are companies that buy the rights and subtitle the movies. As I just mentioned, the situation is a lot better today than it was 10-20 years ago when a lot of these movies were so rare. During those years up to today, Merlin of Samuraidvd.com has doing fan subtitles that are sold on his site. Merlin is very knowledgeable, great to deal with, and is probably the most honest person that I have dealt with in the past in trying to purchase movies that have not had official releases with english subtitles. His prices are usually a lot higher due to the amount of money and time it takes to put up english subtitles from scratch. Almost anything you find on his site is worth watching. I will say this though, I do not care for some of the external sites on his page that he links too. More on this in my next paragraph. If you have a fast connection, can use bittorrent, and can keep a ratio (follow the rules!) then I recommend the Asian Dvd Club. A lot of the old samurai movies are uploaded there that do not have official releases; a lot of these tend to be classics that have played on tv with english subtitles. You can download whole dvd's of movies for the cost of bandwidth. I use it like I would Netflix. Netflix is good to for some of the official english subtitle releases as well. I would say there is probably about a few hundred movies you can get from these sources. The funny thing is if someone says they have a collection of 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 of these movies I would tell them they just got started. There are tons out there, but not all of the are english subtitled.

Now let me end this entry by saying this was blog entry I have wanted to do for a long time, but dreaded writing this for a few reasons that I will go into now. I used to correspond with a bunch online and trade movies via snailmail for a long period of over 10 years. Long story short, the personalities involved got really strange as time went gone on. What used to be a friendly thing turned into a greedy battle over movies. Since some of these movies have been really hard to find, can be quite rare, there is a market for selling them as bootlegs. Over the years I have never seen so much dishonestly, psychological disorders, and criminal behavior just to make a quick buck. It got to the point that I decided to back off on this hobby. Believe me, I could tell you some of the most wild stories regarding this.

So, from time to time, I will write about some of my favorite samurai movies, but I am not as inspired to talk about them online as I once was. I do have some insights and original research I have done over the years that I want to get "out there." However, this blog will not be loaded with Jidegeki blog entries. I will keep them for special moments.

The Midnight Eye article is a good introduction. Let me mention a few others. Galloway's book is a good popular level book on the subject. Silver's book, which did have a recent update, is more of a scholarly approach to it. The emphasis on cinematography and camera angles tends to put most people off. I like that sort of thing, but Galloway should be first. There are a few old articles I like too, but maybe I will list those some other time.

This Wikipedia article is okay for a start:

Samurai Cinema

Galloway, Patrick. Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2005.

Silver, Alain. The Samurai Film. New York: Overlook Press, 1977.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Martial Arts and Me

This is the start of a few blogs I am going to do in order to introduce my interest in Japanese movies. I have been slow about bringing this about, and I will explain the reasons for this as I go along. It is NOT something that I will constantly have blogs about, but once in a while I will bring it up.

Ever since I can remember I have had some exposure to fighting arts. Be it TV and movies, relatives, boxing, etc. As I kid it would be and on and off things since school and sports were priorities. There did come a time though that I spent about a decade training at least 2-6 days a week. It was only a few years ago that I stopped training.

In all honesty, I was not the type of guy that would get into fights when I was growing up. If anything, If I were to get picked on I would just laugh it off and walk or run away. Usually, fighting would just seem to cause more trouble. I still believe that today, but I might stand my ground a bit more if pushed into an ugly situation. These days it is much easier for participants to end up in a court of law with lawsuits or criminal sentences over a simple altercation. Unless your life is truly threatened then it is not worth it.

My main interest in martial arts was the self-defense part of it. I was not into the sport fighting aspect of it. I watch a lot of mixed martial arts (MMA) and boxing, but those have rules. A big part of self-defense is learning how to defend against the sucker punch. The may seem like an easy thing to avoid, but when a person is having "words" with you in a confrontation there are certain things that need to be done to have the advantage. This is not something that professional fighting arts really train for. When I see people talking about "street fighting" sometimes I think they have this idea of two people putting up their arms and closing the distance like a boxer would. That is not what I am talking about when I refer to "street fighting" because that can be avoided by walking or running away.

I am not going to go into all the details of what I know about fighting and all the training I did. I have seen too much gloating on the internet about which martial art or artist is better than another and that is not the purpose of this. Nor will I go into any "ugly" fighting situations I have been in. Most soldiers who have been in war will not talk about their accomplishments gleefully. I feel the same way about this. Especially, apart from the grace of God, one could be in the wrong place at the wrong time or situations where some "luck" was involved. I consider myself "retired" from training, but it is always possible I could start up again in the future. I just do not see the need for it right now. I spent a lots and lots of years on techniques regarding punching, kicking, throws, seizing and locking techniques that I am content with what I know and there are other things I want to spend my time on. Honestly, I can defend myself, but I am probably a be a bit rusty on the fine tuning of some of the techniques I used to do.

I think there is a myth in the mind of the average person that someone who has trained in a martial art or has a black belt is invincible against those who have no training or little training. The same punch that knocks out the average Joe can do the same damage against black belt Joe. There are certain scientific ideas that apply to everyone regarding this. The difference between average Joe and Black Belt Joe is the awareness of these ideas.

As I said, I am not going to mention the necessary details of fighting since I believe you really can not get that online or in print. It has to be done in the studio or dojo environment. I will say this, learning proper distances between you and the other person is key. I would say a good percentage of ugly confrontations can be avoided by just learning how to walk away. I have had a bunch of situations where a confrontation had happened and I just started walking away. The funny thing is people seem to get really brave when you are 50-100 feet away. I have been called all sorts of names at that distance and, sometimes, how they want me to come back. Funny, they were not acting that way when I was 5 feet away from them face to face.
This takes proper experience, but if a person has to take a step to reach you with one of his hands (extend your right arm, but also rotate your shoulder forward in a motion like going across your chest) then you have your safety distance. Nothing will happen until you or he take that step to close the distance. Once that step happens then you need to do something. If you are within that step range then your hands really have to already be up to block or attack.

If one has a good grasp of the above concept then a good portion of fights can be avoided. The knowledge of it helps even if the fight does go down. In my own experience, if the best the guy has for you is a bunch of words then you win and he has lost. You just have to learn to walk away.

The point of this blog entry is just to give a little background so I can make the connection to some of the martial arts movies I enjoy. I probably will not say much more about this unless it is related to the movies. In the next blog I will talk about my favorite asian genre: the samurai movie!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Iron Man Cave Location

(GPS: N36 30.990 W117 49.580)

The Iron Man dvd will be out on September 30. I recently visited the "cave" location. The shots in the scene are very quick, and I really did not have much to work with. Let me tell you the story...

This is one I have wanted to check out for a while now. I drove by at the end of July, but the road to Cerro Gordo was closed since work was being done on it. That was a bit frustrating and is one of the possible problems I have encountered with my location hunts. There are so many things that can go wrong, and the thought, "I have to come back here again," is not one I like.

On the way home a few weeks ago I drove back to Keeler, CA which is near Lone Pine, but on the other side of Owens (Dry) Lake. The road to Cerro Gordo (N36 29.180 W117 52.010) is where I pulled off at. The signs say you need a 4-wheel drive, but to get to the area I went to, which is into the canyon, looks like you can get by on a 2-wheel drive. Again, the sign said the road was closed. I thought about it and just decided to hike up the road and see if I would be forced to turn around.

Now hiking to this location was not too pleasant. Had I not been in good shape from a bunch of hikes I might have decided to turn around. In fact, I did turn around.

Finding this area was not easy. I thought I would just have to enter the canyon area, but they went much deeper than I thought they did to film this sequence. As I mentioned above, after walking more than an hour to this point at a very fast rate and taking sips out of my only drink (a gatorade bottle) I decided to turn around. The sun had just come up from the east side into the canyon. I could not see very well in trying to compare the few pictures I had with the landscape around me. I did not have the time to stick around, and it was starting to get warmer in what would end up being a very hot day. I was disappointed in that I thought for sure I would find this area.

Then, on the way down, I noticed a few rock formations that had been in my mind's eye. I got my pictures and started comparing them. I found it was one of the places that I had passed on the way up. It was definately not the way I visualized it. The area where the cave was located is more on the eastern side rather than on the western side. The bad news is, like I mentioned in the video, is that it was 9 a.m., the sun had just come up over the east side, and the conditions for video and pictures were terrible. So, I realized that I would have to come again someday, but I tried to make the most of the situation with what I could. I held my picture folder in one hand to block out the sun while I took a few pictures and video. Some of the pictures:

The cave entrance you see is not part of the natural environment and is the cave they "inserted" for the movie. I had hoped that the rock between the red and green ones I circled would be there, but that was part of the cave set. So, without the cave, I really had little to go on in trying to reproduce this shot. One thing I always do is try to look for rock formations that are unique. I found only two "major ones." You may have to click both pictures see them in a bigger format to see this.
The cave would have been just on the other side of the road. Those rocks seem to have been bulldozed over in front of where the cave was after the filming of the movie. I assume they cleared out the road a bit. If and when I go back, I will probably move to the right of this picture a bit. This was the only angle I could get at the time, without having spots on my picture, due to the way the sun was shining down on me. Now looking back down to the western side:
These were the rocks I saw that I knew I had the right place. This area below is where the firefight took place:
It is interesting that the road is on a slope so they were not filming everything on a level road. At least that is the way the road is when I was there.

Someday I will head back and take pictures and video later in the day. The pictures are good enough for now. BTW, I have never been to Cerro Gordo. It is privately owned, but you can visit there. Some interesting mining history and a few movies have had scenes there. I do not have a real desire to go there, but you never know. Refer to the following link for more info:

Cerro Gordo Official Site

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Silent Places

Readers of this blog will know that I like to use the word silent and silence to describe what I like about the outdoors. I use those words rather vaguely because, although I think we all have an idea in our heads what is meant by those words, there is a mystical element to the way I use them in this blog. Meaning, I like to keep a mystery on somethings and not just clearly spell them out at every point.

Of course, tons of people, in the literary world, have done the exact same thing. I was recently e-mailed the following short article:

The World's Quietest Places by E. Readicker-Henderson.

Read the article, but I think most of what is said is common sense from our experiences. If you live in the big city it becomes much more obvious that quiet places are much more sacred. The article notes that it is not "absolute silence" we are trying to achieve in our quest for quiet places.

It is interesting to note that even in the most quiet places there probably are sounds that do not register to the human ear; sort of like blowing on a silent dog whistle. Even still, in most outdoor places that are quiet it is good to slow down, take in the air, and just listen to what you can hear. Recently, I was in the middle of a forest and my hiking friend was mentioning that it was pure silence there. Nothing. Sometimes at a quiet place you might hear the wind moving through, but not this time. It was absolutely silent.

A few weeks ago I was on my favorite exercise hike in the Eastern Sierra I usually do every few days during the summer and other times of the year when it is not snowed in. I consider the whole hike a quiet place. Although, it is usually not absolutely silent since up higher I occasionally encounter some wind and some wildlife making some sounds at some point. I rarely see other humans on this trail.

I have shown parts of this trail in my videos before. This is a nice view looking down on the lakes with some nice silence. Here is the video:

It's a Beautiful Morning Too

In any case, it is good to have these meditative moments where you can slow down. Being in the big city as much as I am I really look forward to these types of times. The longer I am at the silent places the more culture shock I get when I get back to city traffic. It does take me some time to recover and speed myself up again.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Naked Gun Terrorist Headquarters Location

(N34 10.925 W118 16.605)

Here is the location of where the diabolical plot discussed takes place in "Beirut, Lebanon."

Here we are twenty years later. Some Palm trees, but lots of other trees have grown in.
This was originally the home of Leslie Brand and it was called Miradero ("A high place overlooking a wide view"). In the late 50's, the mansion was turned into a public library. I did a quick library search and it looks like they have a copy of The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad on reserve. Here is what was funny to me about this. I remember seeing this movie the day it came out in 1988 with a bunch of friends and laughing our brains out. Ten years later I was here at Brand Park with some relatives. The park was being used to take pictures of young models that day. I remembered coming here and walking on the nature trail that day. There was a huge rattlesnake lying across the trail rattling so I turned around.

Now, although I remember that day rather well, I did not make the connection between Brand Park and The Naked Gun movie. In fact, it was not until after videoing and taking pictures on this recent trip to Brand Park where after walking around a bit I realized, "Hey, I have been here before!"

There is more to the park than the library you see above. Please refer to the links on this site for more on Brand Park, the Teahouse, and the Doctor's House. I am sure you can find more if you google "Brand Park in Glendale".

One of these days I need to re-hike that nature trail since I did not get very far because of that snake! :)

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Illusion of the All Knowing Google Search Engine

Some months back in April I wrote a few long blogs on my concerns about the issues of our sources of online knowledge. My main concern is that a lot of information found on the internet can be rather trivial, people are cramming their minds with this information, and, thus, become rather trivial in their knowledge. Someone who surfs the web for knowledge may think they are knowledgeable on subjects may turn out to either know little at all or have a bunch of bad information in their mind. With all the websites, blogs, message boards, chat rooms, etc., not too mention all the cable channels and other non-internet things, information has exploded that it is impossible to keep up with everything. The days are long gone where one could read the daily newspaper, possibly watch a few channels of television, and then go on with your day somewhat informed about the world. My conclusion is that we have to find ways to keep things in balance with what is important to us because there is not enough time to read everything. Still, there is a temptation to look for short cuts.

Recently, I received my monthly newsletter from an old friend J.P. Holding of Tektonics.org. J.P. spends a lot of time in the areas of issues within the scholarly realm of Christianity and the Bible with his emphasis on apologetics. As a sidenote, somewhere on his site is a essay we co-wrote years ago. An essay he recently wrote titled, Does Google Make Uss Stoopid: On Search Engines and Modern Ignorance, comes to some of the same ideas and conclusions that I have felt for quite some time. I have not talked to Holding about these issues, but it does not surprise me since we both encountered some of these issues in the past in dealing with research. He in turn quotes an article recently written by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic Monthly called, Is Google Making Us Stupid? which is a good read too.

Basically, what both Holding and Carr are saying, and what I have said on here in different ways, is that Google and search engines are a good thing, but do not exhaust all knowledge on any subject. Holding writes, "I have used Google to find quotes many times, or to make it easier to locate something. But the error lies in thinking that ALL research is able to be done this way."

Some people may think the internet is reaching the level of omniscience, but we are far from that and it will not happen. The problem is people thinking it is. I mentioned recently when I was talking about the upcoming release of dvd's and that, at the time, I did not have a "link" for what I had learned outside of the internet. Another example is I was once challenged online when I was told, outside of the internet, that a book would be released a year later. Of course, I was asked for a link and the implication was that if I did not have a link then it must not be so. Of course, challenging blind assertions is one thing, but trying to explain that something exists outside ones area of knowledge is another. One last example is something I noticed last month on a message board. Someone was trying to get a book, but could not find it online other than on a few used books sites that were selling it for an overpriced few hundred dollars. He kept complaining that he could not find any copy of it. Then he was told that he could get it from the publisher, but since the publisher did not have it to order online it was troubling to him. I think he actually did order it from the publisher, but felt he was ordering it "blind" which is rather strange to me. Some people, based on the way technology is now, have a hard time understanding that some things exist outside the internet. That is a rather strange statement for me to make, but in some ways the internet is making people mentally challenged and has become a crutch.

The problem both Holding and Carr point out, again me too on here sometimes, is that people are looking for short cuts in research and knowledge. This is understandable because there is only so much time in a day and it is hard to keep up. Holding writes, "For our purposes, the critical point is that accuracy and truth are regularly being sacrificed on the altars of efficiency and the saving of time." I have said in the past that much of the internet, search engines and online dictionaries, are like the fast food approach to information. These tools are good and helpful for a start, but too much reliance on them is not a good thing. What is worse is if one lets these tools do one's thinking for him or her.

I am reminded of one exchange I was reading online regarding an issue in philosophy. The exchange went a few messages. It became apparent that one of the two people, who I will call David, who was arguing back and forth had the upper hand. The next message that showed up from who I will call Jack, who was not doing so well, took a few quoted paragraphs from an online essay written by another person. All Jack had done was do a quick search and found a response that supported his position. I was not convinced that Jack had any real grasp of what that article said.

So, again, Google and other online tools are really great tools to use, but should only be a part of one's overall quest for knowledge. I have to admit that I do end up doing a lot of skimming of online articles that Holding and Carr refer to as a problem that the internet has created for people. Of course, if the online article is something I really care about I will devour every word. The difference for me is that I can not read books online like I can with a paper book in my hands. I do not look forward to the day where books are replaced by electronic devices. Remember, the ways of the old media and knowledge are still important and are still the basis for the new types of media.