Book review: 愚者のエンドロール (Fools’ Staff Roll)

I guess I never wrote a review for 氷菓. It’s been so long at this point that I can’t imagine what I would say if I tried to write about it in retrospect, but I’ve always felt disappointed about how it turned out. The anime is one of my all time favorites, and a big part of my motivation for reading it in the first place (as my first-ever Japanese novel) was the idea that I would catch up with the end of the show and be able to see the rest of the story, but I didn’t enjoy myself at all and pretty much gave up on the idea.

That was two years ago (almost to the day, come to think of it), and I’ve often wondered if the reason I had a bad time was just because I was new to reading and everything was a struggle back then. While this always felt somewhat unlikely (after all, I thoroughly enjoyed my second-ever novel, 夜市 despite surely being at nearly the same skill level), it’s something that I would think about from time to time and feel kind of insecure about.

Well, having now finished the second book in the series, I feel pretty vindicated. While I did warm up to it around the second half, it was only barely enough to bump it up from a two- to a three-star rating, and all of my gripes with the writing style and characterization are unchanged. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that the reason I bounced off 氷菓 is because I didn’t like it, not because I wasn’t good enough to read it.

In terms of the actual story, what is there to say? The actual mystery is not really very interesting. This is the volume where える gets drunk on whiskey chocolates, which is a scene I liked in the anime, and it was just as funny here. There were some entertaining sections presented as chatroom logs, which featured some neat wordplay (I was tickled that える’s chat name was just “L”) and 変換ミス jokes.

I also listened to the audiobook throughout the whole process as part of my readalong experiment, and the narrator (土師 亜文) was quite good. She made several small tweaks to the dialogue to convey nuances in the text that would be lost with a straight read, and her delivery and characterization was great. It seems she’s the narrator for the whole series, so if I do decide to continue in the future it’ll be nice to have the consistency.

I’ll probably give the next volume a try at some point in the near future to see if the upwards trajectory continues. My ideal outcome is that book 4 (the last one covered by the anime) is good enough that I’ll be excited to keep going. We’ll see if that happens.

My rating system

Whenever I read something (novels, manga, etc; really anything that I track in Calibre), I always rank it on a five-star scale to indicate that I’m done with it. I know some people like to use half-stars or even hundred-point scales and I’ve always found that to be too granular for something which is ultimately not really all that objective or scientific.

The main purpose of this scale is to help me a way to help me decide whether to continue a series, recommend it to friends, etc. I’m posting it here so I can link to it in other posts where it might be relevant.

Without further ado…

Continue reading →

Book review: 青春ブタ野郎はロジカルウィッチの夢を見ない (Rascal does not dream of logical witch)

The 青春ブタ野郎 series really is my sweet spot, I feel. I was looking for something easy to try out a new experiment with, and I probably couldn’t have picked a better book.

As the anime covers the first four books in the series and this is only number three, this was still review to a certain extent. As usual though, there were some things the show skipped over, such as expanding on the reasons why Futaba (or anyone) might be compelled to post risque photos on social media. I find the social commentary in this series to be handled very well, and I always like the moments where Sakuta suddenly shifts out of his normal jokester persona when it’s obvious that the time has come for him to be serious and supportive. The other thing I was struck by is how the book makes it very obvious that Kunimi is aware of Futaba’s feelings for him. It seemed kind of ambiguous in the anime and I wonder why they made that choice. While it’s possible that they felt it was too difficult to convey in action as opposed to narration, the anime demonstrates on multiple occasions that it’s capable of portraying subtle character acting.

The aforementioned “experiment” that I tried with this book was to listen to an audiobook while reading along. My Japanese reading speed has been slowly improving lately (as evidenced by the fact that I’m ahead of pace to read one volume of manga per day), but I still have a ways to go if I want to even get close to my English reading speed. The plan here was to force myself to read more quickly by introducing a pace-making element (the narrator of the book) which I would have to stay on track with or risk getting left behind. This worked amazingly well and I’ll have to write a dedicated post about it once I’ve tried it on a few more books. The actress (藤野 彩水) did an excellent job and I was shocked and disappointed to see that she hasn’t done any other audiobook work.

Still very much enjoying this series and will be reading more (especially considering how much fun the readalong method is) in the near future.

My Japanese Journey (so far)

It’s been quite some time since I started learning Japanese, and as time goes on it gets harder and harder to remember the specific details. It definitely hasn’t been easy and I want to make a record of some of the things that went wrong along the way. This will be a “living document” of sorts, and I’ll be adding to it as I continue learning.

Continue reading →

How I fixed my listening comprehension

I used to have a really hard time understanding spoken Japanese, despite being (at the time) fairly comfortable with reading. I remember thinking I could improve by watching anime with Japanese subtitles, but if there was any benefit it must have been pretty minimal, and I realized eventually that I was just giving myself more practice reading, but when I tried watching without any subtitles at all, I just got frustrated and confused.

Fortunately I happened to hear about Subs2SRS around that time, which is a really cool tool that turns videos into flashcards by reading subtitle files. I didn’t exactly want to add a whole new SRS routine into my study routine, so I came up with a low-impact method that helped me out a lot in just a short amount of time.

#1: Pick the show you’re going to watch

You’re going to want to pick something that’s around your reading level. The goal is to bring your listening up to parity with your reading level, and you don’t want to be spending too much time puzzling out the text on each card when you check your results.

It’s also worth mentioning that anything that helps ease the process is good. For example: you could watch a show you’ve seen before with English subtitles, so you have an idea of what’s going on and don’t get totally lost, or you could watch an anime that was based on a manga you’ve already read.

The most important thing is that the show you watch should be interesting. You’re going to have a hard time staying engaged with something you’re watching just because you heard it was easy. Pick something you actually want to watch and don’t worry too much about it.

#2: Find (or make) a flashcard deck for it

This can be a bit tricky but it’s not that bad. In many cases the hardest part is just sourcing Japanese subtitles. Once you have all the necessary files, you can download Subs2SRS here. The manual should have everything you need in order to make your decks. Alternately, you can download a bunch of premade anime decks from here.

Whether you download or make your own, I really recommend you keep your card format as simple as possible. On the front, an image with an auto-play audio clip; on the back, the Japanese text line. You don’t need any special formatting or processing to make this work. It’s a pretty simple process, so don’t waste time trying to make the perfect card template.

#3: Watch an episode of your show

Nothing too special here. Watch an episode start to end without pausing to look up words or grammar. It’s okay if you feel overwhelmed at first; we’ll be reviewing this material later. Just try to pay attention for stuff you do understand.

When you watch anime with English subtitles, your brain has no reason to try and understand the spoken Japanese in the background, and as a result you’ll never develop that skill no matter how many hours you put in. The simple act of moving outside your comfort zone can shift you into almost a kind of survival mode, where you’re forced to start understanding the material just because you’re suddenly out of your depth.

#4: Study the material

The next step is to go through all the cards that correspond to the episode you just watched. Repeat the following steps for each line:

  • Listen to the audio clip, using the image on the front to remind you of context
  • If you understand it, suspend it immediately, otherwise flip the card
  • Compare the sentence on the back to the audio clip you just heard
  • Replay the audio as you read the sentence. Try to identify areas that are difficult for you, such as slurred sounds or fast speech. At this point, feel free to look up words or grammar that you didn’t understand on your first watch.
  • Pass the card

Repeat this process for each card until you reach the end of the episode. It’s a good idea to set your new card limit to something very high (or use the custom study option) so you can get through them all in one go. Don’t worry about overloading yourself with reviews; more on this in the next section.

It’s fine to watch a few episodes back to back and then go through all the cards afterwards, but I do recommend that you do the watching and reviewing on the same day. Without the context in your short-term memory, you might have trouble understanding certain lines that wouldn’t normally give you trouble.

#5: Review

For typical anki flashcards, I’m a firm proponent of “always review every card you have due”, but if you’re blazing through hundreds of cards per episode, you’ll probably have a hard time sticking to a regimen like that.

Here’s what I suggest instead:

  • In your deck options under “Lapses”, set your “New Interval” to 40%, so pressing “Again” won’t reset your card all the way to zero
  • Do as many reviews per day as you want to, but never zero
  • Press “again” if you feel like seeing the card soon would be helpful, otherwise press “good”
  • If you ever feel like you’ve got a good grasp on a card, suspend it
  • Use a card retirement addon to set your cards to automatically suspend themselves when they reach a certain interval (I used three months)

If you’re the kind of person that like keeping anki decks around forever, resist that urge in this case. The point of this method is to give you a way to smoothly and easily quiz yourself on audio cues. It’s not to serve as a brain backup or keep you fresh on rare vocab. The end goal for a deck using this method is for you to complete it and never touch it again. By suspending cards that you’ve mastered, you essentially give the deck itself an expiration date.

#6: Be free

Don’t feel like you have to do this for every show you ever watch. This method is ultimately just a way to give yourself a little kick into gear. If you ever catch yourself thinking “I could probably learn more by watching another show instead of revisiting this one”, follow that instinct! The ultimate goal is to leave flashcards and tools behind and make the language your own.

Thinking about the old internet

I used to be a huge fan of Spiderman when I was a kid. The Sam Raimi movie was my first introduction to the character, as well as one of my first exposures to what comic books could be (the DVD release came with a digital copy of Spider Man Blue #1 and Black Cat #1, both of which were quite a shock to the system). My family never got the newspaper, but when we would visit my grandparents I would always have a drawer full of comic pages waiting for me (my grandma, bless her heart, would collect them and set them aside) and I would spend hours cutting out the Spiderman strips and pasting them into a handmade paper album. Maybe it was just a combination of my general attraction to comic books and the fact that Spiderman was the only example that was remotely accessible, but the mythos had its hooks in deep for quite some time.

I had a favorite website around this time. I can’t remember for the life of me how I found it in the first place, but I still remember the url offhand — “alaph.com/spiderman”, aka “Eric’s Spiderman Homepage“, as preserved by the miraculous Internet Archive. It wasn’t even a dedicated site — the actual homepage appears to be some kind of ecommerce site or consultancy business — just a subdomain that some guy decided to devote to writing about his interests.

I think about Eric’s site from time to time but it really came back to me recently thanks to Wordle. It’s currently somewhat of a sensation, which is in no small part due to the clever way in which it displays your result when you solve a puzzle, which starts off inscrutable and quickly strikes home once you play it for the first time.

Something I found fascinating about Wordle is that it in less than a year since its launch, it had managed to become a daily routine for a huge number of people worldwide. Less than a week after I personally found it, @wordlestats was reporting 80k players, and two months later that number is over 300k. In an internet which has become so commodified and platform-driven, it’s amazing to see a subdomain on some random guy’s homepage become so huge.

Of course, as I write this, the link above will instead redirect to the New York Times, who purchased Wordle for a “low-seven-figure sum” and no doubt plan to monetize it or at the very least leverage it to attract a new audience to their other word games. The creator says it’s a perfect fit, and I have to say: props to him for getting his payout. But I feel a bit disappointed that this is the way things have gone. Wordle was a small independent website that managed to permeate the zeitgeist for a few months before being gobbled up by a big company and consolidated. The fact that the thousands-long word list had to be audited to remove potentially offensive words is just the icing on the cake.

There’s a lot of buzz these days about how “decentralization is the future”, which is one of those statements where I agree with all the words but not what people mean when they say it. This kind of line is always tied up with the push for Web 3, which is of course in reference to the distributed redundancy features built into blockchain applications. There might be some use case for a massively redundant database (blockchain or otherwise), but just because something is widely distributed around the world doesn’t make the internet more open or more interesting. In fact, the distributed nature of Blockchain is, is for my money, the single least interesting and desirable type of decentralization.

I’m certainly no hardline social media zealot (I spend a lot of time on Discord and stay somewhat active on Twitter), but the universal move towards centralized platforms doesn’t strike me as such a great thing. I’d like to see more Wordles and Eric’s Spiderman Homepages out there. I have a few blogs and webcomics I check daily and I wish that list was longer. Keeping a blog is a lot of fun, even if nobody reads it. It’s nice to be in charge of when your website theme changes and it’s empowering to know that you retain full ownership of everything you post.

The old internet was weird and interesting. I wish it would come back for real this time.

Blog update

For the past nearly three years (thanks to the magic of backdating) I’ve averaged more than one post per week due to my Japanese reading reports, but since I don’t post about other stuff nearly as often, they’ve ended up taking over the entire feed. I’ve been thinking of posting more regularly, so starting today my reading reports will be filtered from the main page. They’ll still be available from the link above or through the category in the navigation bar.

2021 in Japanese

Another year has come and gone, and I’ve managed to stay consistent with my Japanese pursuits throughout. If I were to measure my progress in terms of pure vocabulary count or new grammar discovered, this year would definitely not as dramatic as the last (let alone the one before that), but I feel good about how things have turned out.

Continue reading →

Book review: 青春ブタ野郎はプチデビル後輩の夢を見ない (Rascal does not dream of Petite Devil Kouhai)

Finishing off the year on a high note. I really liked this one; just like with the previous volume, the book is only an improvement coming from the (excellent) anime. Granted, when I recently rewatched the series, I was watching without subtitles and my comprehension is still not perfect by any means, but there were some things which I’m pretty sure were simply not included (it seemed like any non-dialogue exposition stood a high chance of not making the cut).

Anyway, I was excited to read this one in particular because Tomoe is my favorite of the girls so far and I was excited to see her again. While the show does a good job of demonstrating her struggles and motivations, I do feel like it did a poor job of explaining why Sakuta would go along with her goofy pretend-boyfriend scheme, but just the simple explanation that she reminded him of the days when his sister was having trouble at school did the trick.

The rest of the book was nice. Sakuta doesn’t have the same chemistry with Tomoe as he does with Mai (okay, he really doesn’t have any chemistry with her and I get that that’s the whole point) but their dynamic is fun and I like the way he gently bullies her into esteeming herself the way she deserves. I also like that Sakuta involves Mai in the whole affair from the beginning as opposed to trying to pull it off without involving her. Another nice bonus in the book that I think they skipped in the anime: making it obvious that Yuuma is aware of Rio’s feelings for him, but pretends to not notice due to the fact that he already has a girlfriend. It makes his character a bit more interesting coming into the next arc.

I’m not sure when I’ll pick up the next book but I definitely will be continuing the series. I read this one pretty slowly so my memory of the whole thing is not super strong but I enjoyed myself all throughout it and I’m still looking forward to reading beyond the end of the adapted material.

Book review: 南の子供が夜いくところ (Where the Southern Children go at Night)

My 11th book of the year was supposed to be 蒲団, but I decided to drop it partway through chapter two. I would like to get into 文豪 at some point, but the difficulty was just high enough to make reading it feel like a chore. Since it was getting close to Halloween, I decided to pick up another 恒川光太郎 book, and as luck would have it, Amazon was running a sale on the kindle versions for two that I hadn’t read.

I liked this one a lot. While my opinion of 雷の季節の終わりに has improved in hindsight, I still remember having trouble with the pacing and feeling that the author’s strengths were possibly not on full display with the long-form story format vs the short-story anthology style that introduced me to his work. This one, however, is an interesting mix of the two; each chapter has its own complete story, but they all focus on the same area and feature recurring characters.

The variety is pretty remarkable, honestly — the first chapter simply introduces a couple of key characters and establishes the island group where the whole book takes place, but the next chapter is written in the style of a series of interviews and notes by a visiting journalist; another, in first-person, is the eyewitness testimony of a mysterious death; yet another is the historical account of a former pirate who settled in the islands when he retired. It’s fun to keep an eye out for the common elements as you try to figure out where and when each story is taking place in relation to the others.

Something else that all the stories have in common is the blurring of lines between reality and dream. You can usually guess when something is really happening, but you can never be totally sure, and the sudden jolt that comes when the penny drops is excellent.

As always, I can only recommend this author to people who can read Japanese, which is too bad. I feel like this book in particular would make a great anime in the right hands, but I suspect the chance of that is even lower than the chance of it getting picked up for translation eleven years after its publication. Oh well.