On the excellent rec of [personal profile] egelantier, who has a better (non-spoilery) intro with photos., I recently watched a 54-episode Chinese historical drama, Nirvana in Fire (Lang Ya Bang). It was awesome.

The plot is very complex, but it's basically the wuxia version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Twelve years before the story begins, the crown prince, his general, and the general's military genius teenage prodigy son, Lin Shu, went to fight on the emperor's behalf. Something went horribly wrong, and they were falsely accused of starting a rebellion. The paranoid emperor had them all killed, along with their 70,000-man army. Now it's a completely taboo topic which no one even dares to mention to the emperor.

But Lin Shu is not dead! Exactly. Due to a near-death experience, he survived at the cost of his martial arts skills, his physical strength and health, and his entire previous body and face. No longer the strong warrior he was, he is now completely unrecognizable, an extremely beautiful but physically weak strategist dying of magical consumption. Going by the name of Mei Changsu (also Mr. Su), he returns to the capital to clear the name of the supposed rebels, bring down the two princes currently maneuvering for the throne, institute his own former best friend (the disfavored Prince Jing) as the crown prince, and restore justice, set up good rule, and get revenge.

He does this by means of incredibly intricate plotting and the power of the sarcastic eyebrow lift. Here is a typical moment: Mei Changsu is smarter than you.

Mei Changsu/Lin Shu is a fascinating character whose motivations are slowly revealed over the course of the story. I don't want to spoil what's going on with him other than what I already said (and some of it is a matter of interpretation) but in addition to being really fun to watch (his body language is amazing), there's a lot more to him than the perfect genius who immediately meets the eye. If you're interested in issues of identity, I'll just say that there's a lot to enjoy in that direction. His refusal to tell almost anybody - including his former best friend - who he really is, even if they guess and confront him, starts out seeming to have legit plot reasons, but ends up clearly being much more about his psychology. It's frustrating to watch at times, but also really interesting and uncompromising.

On a less elevated level, his illness provides an immense amount of satisfying hurt-comfort carried to sometimes hilarious extremes, as literally everyone in his vicinity gets sucked into worrying about his health, helping him walk, providing him with fur cloaks and fluffy blankets because as apparently everyone knows and is very very concerned about, his health is very delicate and he cannot take the cold. (At one point he actually has an enemy providing him with fluffy blankets.) Also, he has really beautiful hands and a great array of sarcastic/cranky/smug glances.

But this is really an ensemble story, and it has a huge array of fascinating characters, all with their own motivations and stories. Just a few of my favorites were Consort Jing, Prince Jing's 50-something mother, who has spent nearly her entire life locked in the palace but slowly reveals a talent for intrigue which is the match of Mei Changsu's own and probably better in some ways; a pair of very different warrior women, one a general and one a sort of ninja detective, who served together in the army and whom I shipped; Mei Changsu's teenage bodyguard Fei Liu, who is developmentally disabled but great at kung fu, and has a really sweet relatationship with Mei Changsu which gets more and more heartbreaking as his death gets more imminent and Fei Liu can't accept or even really understand it; the antagonist Prince Yu, who is not a nice guy at all but has understandable motivations and solid, loving relationships with his equally scheming mother and concubine/strategic advisor; Mei Changsu's kung fu doctor buddy who turns up in the last five episodes and completely steals the show.

I could go on and on. I had to stop myself or I'd name twenty favorites. In general, I liked the large number of badass middle-aged moms and the multiple interesting and important mother-son relationships, which made a nice change from western media's ubiquitous daddy issues. Though there are also a lot of daddy issues. The emperor is terrible but a really great character and gave one of my favorite performances. He's responsible for all his own woes and a lot of everyone else's too, but if I had to sit there and watch all that scheming, I'd probably start throwing paperweights too.

The story is structured as a lot of careful set-up and dramatic or funny character bits (punctuated by kung fu battles - I swear, there must have been some contractual thing saying that no more than five episodes could go by without an attack by flying ninjas) building to spectacular pay-offs; the pay-offs are sprinkled throughout the story, but more frequent in the second half. I thought it got better and better as it went along, so if you're potentially interested, I would keep going for a while even if it's confusing/slow at first.

I think everyone who might possibly have any interest should watch it so I can talk about some spoilery aspects. The first episode was really confusing and the series picked up a lot as it went along and I started figuring out who everyone was (and stopped thinking stuff like, "Is that the favored prince, the disfavored prince, or the non-prince dude whose status I'm uncertain of, and is he talking to his girlfriend, his advisor, or his sister?" It doesn't help that a lot of people have multiple names.

Maybe you could start with episode two. I think most of what happens in episode one just sets up some stuff. Skip this paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled, read it if you might skip episode one. There are two contenders for the throne, the Crown Prince (a total tool) and Prince Yu, and that younger Prince Jing is not considered a contender. Mei Changsu is associated with Langya Hall (a sort of martial arts and strategy consulting firm)which puts out the Langya List (a sort of Forbes List of great martial artists, strategists, and rich people), and comes to the capital under the easily broken identity of "Mr. Su." (Most people investigate him, quickly find that he's really Mei Changsu, the brilliant strategist ("The Divine Talent"), and don't think to look farther.) As Lin Shu (aka Xiao Shu), he was engaged to the general and princess Nihuang, and was best friends with Prince Jing (Jingyan).

The only person who knows that Mr. Su/Mei Changsu is actually Lin Shu is General Meng, who helps him find an appropriate mansion and build a secret passageway so Mei Changsu can meet with Prince Jing (aka Jingyan). This leads to this hilarious exchange:

General Meng: "The passage is ready. Now you may have your secret midnight rendezvous with Prince Jing."

Mei Changsu: "Could you try phrasing that differently?"

(If you legit ship them, there is plenty to support that and it's really angsty and epic. I had what seems to be a minority ship, which was Mei Changsu/Lin Chen, the late-appearing doctor buddy who is the one person who actually calls him on all his asshole behavior and is the only person other than Fei Liu who ever gets him to smile. I liked his relationship with Nihuang, his ex-fiancee, but I couldn't ship it because even though she does extract a few hugs from him, they are hilariously awkward. He pats her on the back like he has no idea what he's supposed to do in such a bizarre situation. That had to be deliberate, because he otherwise uses his hands so beautifully that they sometimes distracted me from reading the subtitles. And while I'm on shipping, Nihuang and Xia Dong would do a lot better with each other.)

If I have sold you on starting, I suggest using the handy photographic character guide and some patience. The show is really rewarding once you get your bearings.

Watch on Viki

Watch on Youtube

Character guide with photos.

Has anyone seen this? I would love to discuss some spoilery aspects, but only if you've seen the whole thing.
This novel alternates "Now" and "Then" sections. In "Then," teenage Cass bicycles across America with her best friend's ashes. In "Now," she has returned from her trip and is facing everything she tried to flee via road trip: high school, her friend's death, and the bully who called her a dyke in front of the entire school and now has inexplicably been given the starring role in Cass's he dead best friend's musical, Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad.

A sweet, poignant high school lesbian romance and coming-of-age story which also partakes of one of my least-favorite YA genres (my dead best friend) and one of my most-favorite (backstage drama). The former is well-done and non-moralistic; the latter is totally sweet. (Especially the excerpted song lyrics.) The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and the climax to the "Then" section, in particular, was beautifully orchestrated and moving.

One of my favorite things about the whole book is that Cass, the heroine, is a Quaker, which affects her worldview in interesting, believable ways. I also liked that her parents are supportive and she doesn't rebel against them and her culture just because she's a teenager in a YA novel.

The main flaw was that many of the supporting characters were thin. While I believed in her theatre pals as a group, as individuals, there was not much to them. For instance, all we ever learn about Lissa is her ethnicity, that she's quiet, and that she's a vegetarian. Also, some of the dialogue would have been unusually self-aware and emotionally sophisticated coming from twenty-somethings, let alone supposedly socially awkward teenagers.

Overall, however, I liked this a lot. I leave you with these main selling points: 1. Teen lesbians. 2. Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad: The Musical.

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend (Only $6.80 on Amazon.)
The package sent to Rachel Ninja Brown, from [livejournal.com profile] telophase, contained a romance in which the hero is secretly a unicorn. Thank you! Maybe.

The actual contents of the other packages were:

1. Elk, venison, and buffalo jerky, from [livejournal.com profile] telophase. OM NOM NOM.
2. A romance novel in which the hero is an angel and the heroine is a tentacled mermaid, from [livejournal.com profile] oyceter.
3. A VB Rose pencil case and a Temari figurine, from [livejournal.com profile] octopedingenue.
4. An anthology of Armenian authors and another about Desi New Yorkers, from [livejournal.com profile] madam_silvertip.

Thank you very much, O angels of the postal service!

Things which I did not get, but would be very pleased if someone were to send them:

1. Three Norse sagas.
2. Books on Indian regional cooking and everyday life in Heian Japan.
3. A plushie “more special” Sasuke, if such a thing exists. (Probably.)
4. Shuriken

Things which I hope I never receive:

1. A head.
2. The oracular penis novel (explained in the same link as the unicorn dude novel)
3. Venom cock.

Things which, as far as I know, do not exist (but which I’d love to get if they do):

1. A romance about banshees.
2. A romance in which the hero is secretly a book in the heroine’s library.
3. A romance in which the heroine is an angel and the hero is a mermaid with tentacles. (I already read the one in which the hero is a non-tentacled merman and the heroine is a psychic violinist.)

Things whose receipt would bring me a mix of delight and horror:

1. A romance about Vikings. Somehow I suspect the heroines would be nowhere near as wonderfully terrifying as they are in the sagas! Though it would totally make my day, or possibly make me vomit, if the euphemism for male equipment was “halberd.”

Things which I sent to someone else:

1. A Naruto tie-in ninja energy drink, to [livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks.

And now for the winner!

This was quite a difficult challenge. Only two contestants got more answers right than wrong (both by one.) The lucky winners, who may now prompt me to write them a piece of original or fanfic flash fiction, are [livejournal.com profile] tool_of_satan and [livejournal.com profile] suileach!
rachelmanija: (Bleach: Parakeet of DOOM)
( Apr. 24th, 2009 01:27 pm)
I will write a flashfic, original or fanfic, to a prompt of the choice of the person or people who get the most correct and fewest incorrect guesses. People who actually sent me one or more of these items are disqualified, but should fill out the poll anyway!

[Poll #1389415]
I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, ever since I pulled it off a dusty Little Tokyo shelf and bought it for a quarter, but it’s hard to do it justice.

The cover features an embossed black-clad ninja against a black background, with only his (rather Caucasian-looking, and light brown) eyes and katana visible. The title is in red. Above the title, in white underlined caps, it says The incredible true story! Below the title, also in white caps: In the quiet of a whisper, come the deadly soldiers of the dark.

Here’s the back cover: The amazing true story! From the ancient world of the Shogun to the modern terrors of Shibumi, here are the ninja and their arts of sudden death!

The overleaf claims that modern ninja are even better fighters than the old ones, because they have access to a wider range of techniques.

The book begins at a modern seminar on ninjutsu, taught by modern ninjutsu master Stephen K. Hayes. Hayes asks everyone what would make them willing to kill someone. Most give idealistic reasons; one says he’d do it for profit.

What we had seen impressed us. What we had heard in those last moments from those who attended from all parts of the country (we have no idea how many of them were truly ninja) was an introduction to the diversity of ninja thought—a microcosm of ninja philosophy.

Weiss and Philbin backtrack to do a decent, albeit totally lacking in citations, history of the ninja. Having cunningly laid down their four-page groundwork of history mixed with historical speculation, they promptly begin erecting an edifice of crazy (albeit rather touchingly enthusiastic) fantasy.

During World War II, for example, the Japanese high command had ninja-trained troops deployed to assassinate General Douglas MacArthur if and when the opportunity arose.

I confess, I would love to see a movie or manga about that.

But the ninja did not fail very often. Information on their specific World War II activities is scant, but according to Ron Duncan, a ninja practitioner living in New York, there were many strange incidents which had a ninjaesque quality…

But do not think that the ninja are a thing of the past!

In 1948, some ninja switched sides, or at least became employed by the CIA, says Duncan. … “As far as I know, there are still ninja in the CIA.”

He recounts the assault on the Iranian embassy by the SAS to rescue hostages: …the core members are in black, only their eyes showing through the hoods covering their heads. In short, they were in the uniform of the ninja.

“They were ninja,” says Duncan. “Absolutely.”

But wait! There is even more compelling evidence for the existence of modern ninja!

Someone told us that he was in Kyushu two summers ago and went into a room where there were five or six businessmen standing around talking. “It was only later,” he says, “That I learned they were all ninja.”

The rest of the book recounts ninja folklore, stories about ninja, and ninja techniques, interspersed with photos of black-clad guys sneaking around and climbing trees. The jaw-dropping chapter “I Am Ninja!” is about a boy ninja who gets revenge on an enemy by having sex with an insane prostitute and so infecting himself with a fatal venereal disease, and then presenting himself to his enemy as a catamite. But he rejoices at the success of his plan, even though it gets him tortured to death.

After all… he is ninja!
In the last month I read a Laura Kinsale romance novel, THE SHADOW AND THE STAR, in which the romantic lead is a blonde ninja from Hawaii, and a middle-grade adventure novel, BLUE FINGERS, in which the main character is a Japanese farm boy who becomes a ninja.

Both are well-researched when it comes to martial arts, although both take the entirely forgivable liberty of portraying legend as fact within their novels, but both also picked up a curious misconception which I think they thought really was a fact. It's one that I've come across a number of times before in books which are otherwise fairly accurate when it comes to martial arts, but were written by people who had done the research but don't train.

It's that yell. You know the one. "Haaaiiiii-yah!" "EEEEEEEEEE!" "Ai-soh!" "HUH!"

It's called a kiai. Technically, it's not a yell (which comes from the throat) but a... whatever it is that comes from the diaphragm, the place you're taught to project from if you've ever studied acting or public speaking. There's a lot of ideas about why we kiai-- to psych ourselves, to express our spirit, to scare our opponents, to empty the breath from our lungs and tighten our bellies so it won't hurt if we get smacked-- but there are several things the kiai is not.

It is not something that you practice as a separate technique, or at least I've never seen anyone doing so. You kiai as you execute another technique, like a punch or kick. You don't go to the dojo and stand still while practicing your kiai.

More importantly, it is not a magic psychic ki attack. I assume writers are getting the idea that it is from the common translation, which is "spirit shout." But you cannot stand still and yell at your opponent and have your vocally projected ki knock them flying. At least, if anyone can do that, I would really like to see it.

Also, a "silent kiai" is expelling your breath with the same feeling but without the yell, and is generally done when you're trying to train without disturbing the neighbors. It is not a magic psychic ki attack where you silently project your ki at someone and make them drop dead.

So if you write a book with a magic psychic ki attack, please do not call it a kiai. The kiai is something else. (In karate, anyway. If there are magic ki-projecting kiais in aikido, I'm sure my readers who study it will let me know.)

Also, it's fine to write a novel, which is generally understood to be fiction, in which ninjas dislocate every bone in their bodies as children so that later in life they can dislocate them at will in order to fit into tight spaces and cast funny-looking shadows. However, you should not have an afterword which states that ninjas really did this, or at least not without citing a source for it. An explanation of how this practice would do anything other than weakening every joint in your body and causing them to spontaneously dislocate at inconvenient times would also be good.

This has been your Public Service Ninja Announcement for the day. Thank you.


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