Author: Richard Carroll

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Over the past year, I’ve read through a lot of academic analyses of anime and anime fandom, some on my own out of curiosity and others for academic purposes (yes, really). The overall state of academia in the anime studies field is pretty similar to what you’d find elsewhere, that is, abysmal and embarrassing. I’d say that Bl. John Henry Newman wouldn’t be impressed, but then, neither would anyone who isn’t fully embedded in the university system. Most readers probably don’t need a lot of examples, but I’ll provide a couple selections anyway just because they’re so bad they’re actually pretty funny. This is from Steven Brown, in Tokyo Cyberpunk, discussing Ghost in the Shell.

One might wonder whether such transnational hybridity and geographic indeterminacy reinforces rather than resists the dreams of the techno-orientalists by offering an illusion of Asia or Japan, such as is critiqued by Ueno Toshiya in his influential essay “Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism.” According to Ueno, Japanese animation functions “as a cultural and ideological apparatus to cover and disavow the reality of global capitalism,” which he sees as inextricably linked to the exploitation of labor forces in Asia in a post-Fordist economy. In response, [GITS director] Oshii has suggested that he is not interested in representing real nations such as Japan so much as he is in exploring the liminality of borderlines.

Here’s Samantha Close, from an article called “Fannish Masculinities in Transition in Anime Music Video Fandom.”

Politically engaged scholarship often interrogates the experiences of groups without privilege. But in order for social change to happen, privileged identities must also be reworked. An analysis of anime fandom in the early 2000s shows that fan works, such as fan video and cosplay performances, concretize masculinities that are both transgressive and desperately seeking normative confirmation. By means of queer and masculinity theory, I argue that fandom is a uniquely generative space for reworking masculinity. This will only remain true, however, if it can hold onto its subversive practices in a time of increasing mainstream attention.

Fortunately, the field isn’t a total loss. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, isn’t bad. It’s a collection of essays by various authors and so the quality certainly varies from one piece to the next, but some of the entries are legitimately interesting, about anime but also Japanese science fiction generally since the book also includes SF works in film and literature. If you have any interest in Japanese SF, I can give it a genuine recommendation, especially if you can get it used or at a library. The Anime Machine, by Thomas Lamarre, also has some good material for those interested in animation as animation, and Anime: A History, by Jonathan Clements, is often recommended and looks promising, though I haven’t had a chance to read it myself.

Another legitimately good book, and the one I want to focus on today, is Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, by Azuma Hiroki, originally published in 2001 and translated for the English edition in 2009.…

Read More Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”

Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 and was another member of the Tribe of Ben. I normally like to write a little about our friends’ “day jobs,” but unfortunately Randolph died young, at twenty-nine years old in 1635. Fortunately, he did see a good deal of success in his own lifetime primarily as a dramatist but also as a poet, as one would expect of a friend of Ben Jonson and his circle, and many expected him to eventually become poet laureate. His short life had its other excitements, though; my personal favourite poem of his is “Upon the Loss of his Little Finger,” which loss occurred during a fight in a tavern.

Those interested in American history may be interested to know that he also has a tangential connection to our country as the uncle of William Randolph, the influential Virginian colonist.

In any case, like some other poems of this era we’ve covered I don’t think “Upon his Picture” requires a great deal of explanation. It’s just solid, classic English poetry:

When age hath made me what I am not now,
And every wrinkle tells me where the plow
Of time hath furrowed; when an ice shall flow
Through every vein, and all my head wear snow;
When death displays his coldness in my cheek,
And I myself in my own picture seek,
Not finding what I am, but what I was,
In doubt which to believe, this or my glass:
Yet though I alter, this remains the same
As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame
And first complexion; here will still be seen
Blood on the cheek, and down upon the chin;
Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye,
The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye.
Behold what frailty we in man may see,
Whose shadow is less given to change than he!

The main, ironic thrust of the poem is clear enough.

The first half of the poem feels very cold, with its “snow,” “ice,” “coldness,” and “glass” (specifically meaning a mirror, in this case). I would’ve expected to see more warm imagery in the second half for contrast, but he doesn’t do that. Even the imagery he does use isn’t very vivid; “blood on the cheek,” “smooth brow,” “lively eye,” “ruddy lip,” and “hair of youthful dye.”

Whether this is a weakness per se, I’m not sure. It does make the picture, the imitation of his younger self, less of a focus than the narrator’s older self.

Of course, there’s also the notable irony to this poem aside from the contrast between his mirror and his painting. Randolph here speaks speculatively of “When age hath made me what I am not now,” but unfortunately he did not live to see old age, a great loss to his friends and to the world of English poetry.…

Read More Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”

“A City for Sale” – Sallust’s Histories

Note: I’m continuing to repost my old Thermidor articles; this one was originally published on February 19, 2018. As usual, I’ve done only minimal editing.


When sorting through works from the Classical world, we can divide them into three broad categories of history, philosophy, and literature. The value of the latter two are plain enough; early philosophers raised questions of eternal relevance and laid the foundation for those who came later, and for the poets and dramatists, true beauty is timeless. What, though, of history? After all, history’s primary purpose is to tell us “what happened,” and we can usually get this more easily from modern historians, who can review not only the ancient historians’ works, but data from other historical documents, archaeology, etc. Obviously, if you are a historian you’ll need these early sources, but what about the lay reader?

There are, I think, three things that make ancient historians worth reading for an educated layman. First, they do cover the basic, surface-level “what happened” aspect of history. Their work is often criticised for inaccuracy, and sometimes with reason, but despite their shortcomings, biases, and lack of modern methodology, it’s worth remembering that these were intelligent men and in some cases were well aware of their own difficulties. Herodotus, for example, emphasises several times that he can only relate to the audience what he has heard, and sometimes expresses doubt about the version of events he’s been given. Plutarch says at the beginning of his biography of Theseus that, “after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” Similarly, Livy, in the preface to Ab Urbe Condita, refers to “The traditions which have come down to us of what happened before the building of the city [of Rome], or before its building was contemplated,” which are “suitable rather to the fictions of poetry than to the genuine records of history.” Both Plutarch and Livy, then, are well aware that the events they describe of ancient history are dubious in many places and alert their readers to the fact, but ultimately decide that giving a highly uncertain account is better than no account at all.

Read More “A City for Sale” – Sallust’s Histories

Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on January 18, 2018.


Having covered some of the great Greek poets, including Hesiod and Sappho, it’s time to move on to some of the Romans. With the Greeks, I tried to approach their literature roughly in chronological order, but here I’ll begin in the late Republic with Catullus. He’s among the Classical world’s most popular poets, at least among those who don’t have the mixed blessing of being frequently assigned to bored high schoolers like Homer, and perhaps the best way to introduce Catullus and see why is to jump right into one of his poems:

Furius and Aurelius, Catullus’ comrades,
Whether he’ll push on to furthest India
Where the shore is pounded by far-resounding
Eoan rollers,

To Hyrcania or effeminate Arabia,
The Sacians or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
Or those levels to which the seven-double
Nilus gives colour,

Or make his way across the towering Alps
To visit the memorials of great Caesar,
The Gallic Rhine, those horrible woad-painted
And world’s-end Britons –

All this, whatever the will of Heaven above
May bring, ready as you are to brave together,
Simply deliver to my girl a brief dis-
courteous message:

Farewell and long life with her adulterers,
Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds,
Loving none truly but again and again
Rupturing all’s groins;

And let her not as before expect my love,
Which by her fault has fallen like a flower
On the meadow’s margin after a passing
Ploughshare has touched it.

There’s a certain gravity or stateliness we tend to associate with just about anything written in Latin, and understandably so. Most of the books that have come down to us comprise the Roman highlight reel of Caesar and Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and so on. As Latin passed out of common usage it was taken up by Medieval and Renaissance scholars, who generally used it for serious topics of philosophy, science, history, and the like.

Read More Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

New at American Sun: The Things They Carried

If you have a good memory, you may recall that I published a review of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried over at Thermidor Magazine on July 27, 2017. With Thermidor in the same condition as Old Howard, I’ve been republishing my old articles here, but for this one I’m making an exception – you can find it over at The American Sun. I think it was one of my best reviews from last year, so please give it a read, then give The Things They Carried a read.

By the way, several former Thermidor contributors were involved in starting The American Sun just a few months ago, so they’ve republished a few things lost in Thermidor’s closure. It’s off to a good start, and if you enjoyed Thermidor you’ll probably enjoy this new project, as well.

As for me, I’ll certainly follow them, but for the time being I only plan to contribute sporadically. I don’t have the time to commit to frequent contributions, since I’ve had a tough time keeping my own blog going, but I do want to help them out so I’ll be sending any future reviews that seem up their alley their way, as I did here.…

Read More New at American Sun: The Things They Carried

Eighteenth Friend: Thomas Campion, “Rose-Cheeked Laura”

Today we’ll meet Mr. Thomas Campion, who was born in London in 1567 and lived to 1620. Yes, once again, there was just something about this era in English literature where it seems like every single Englishman couldn’t help but write fine poetry. Mr. Campion’s day job was physician, but he was also a songwriter and musical and literary theorist in addition to being a poet.

A few of our friends, like John Crowe Ransom, did write literary theory but we haven’t covered this much yet, so I think it may be interesting to spend a few moments looking at Mr. Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Don’t worry, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty since even I find this type of thing a bit dry (see Aristotle). For most of the pamphlet he discusses the types of poetic metre and which are most apt for use in English, but he opens with an extended criticism of rhymed poetry.…

Read More Eighteenth Friend: Thomas Campion, “Rose-Cheeked Laura”

The Everlasting Empire

Note: This is another repost from Thermidor Magazine, originally published on December 20, 2017. As usual, it is republished here with minimal editing.


When looking at an outline of Chinese history, one of the most striking things is the longevity of China’s imperial structure, lasting from the unification of China in 221 B.C. all the way to A.D. 1912. As far as I’m aware, the only Western state to even approach this record is the Roman Empire, beginning (to use one common starting date) in 27 B.C. and not fully collapsing until 1453. Now, China was obviously not a serene empire, as dynasties certainly did rise and fall, sometimes with anarchic periods in between these the collapse of one and rise of the next. Nonetheless, each succeeding dynasty adopted the basic structure and governing ideology of its predecessor. Not until the Twentieth Century was the imperial structure  fully destroyed and left behind. How was this possible?

That’s the question Yuri Pines seeks to answer in The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy. To start, he argues that China could  easily have broken into many smaller states, as happened in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He points out that during the Warring States period, which lasted 453-221 B.C., the various Chinese states were not only politically disunited but had shifted away from each other culturally, as well. At this stage China resembled post-Roman Europe, where political divisions solidified into permanent cultural division and eventually into nation states. One easy, and at one time common, answer to why this worked out differently in China is geographic, but Pines rejects this explanation. “The Chinese terrain,” he says, “crisscrossed by mountain ranges […] and huge rivers, was as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any other part of the world, with many regions […] easily defensible against outsiders’ attacks.”

Demographics also fail to provide a satisfactory answer to Chinese unity. Pines explains, “[N]ot only did ethnic minorities continuously occupy important pockets within so-called China proper, but also the core ‘Han’ population remained highly diverse in terms of spoken language, customs, modes of life, and even religious beliefs and pantheon.” He concludes that the answer, then, is largely ideological.

Read More The Everlasting Empire

Seventeenth Friend: A. E. Housman, “Here Dead Lie We”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Alfred Edward Housman, a popular English poet and a staple of English literature classes, so I assume that most folks are at least aware of him. He was born in 1859 and attended Oxford, but failed his final exam due to emotional turmoil, apparently due in part to struggling with homosexual desires. So, he spent ten years (1882-92) working as a clerk at the Patent Office while spending his free time studying and writing articles about Latin literature. Today that would’ve been the end of it since he didn’t have any official credentials, but those articles did gain scholarly attention and he was hired as a professor of Latin at University College, London, and later at Cambridge. His largest contribution to the Classics from there was in editing and annotating a still respected edition of Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica. He passed away in 1936.

Now, let’s set aside his academic career and look at his poetry. Most of his work is in a traditional English style, with regular metres and conservative rhyme schemes. They’re also on the pessimistic side, as in his most famous poems, “To an Athlete Dying Young” and “When I was One-and-Twenty.” One might worry that a Latinist writing in a conservative style would produce overly formal poems, but Mr. Housman is popular for good reason. His style is approachable even for general audiences and his themes are easy to relate to. For example, take a look at “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Anyone old enough to have been through high school will likely have known local athletes celebrated for their accomplishments, which are often soon forgotten, and those middle aged and older will have seen even famous professional athletes whom they admired when growing up now obscure and growing old. We can imagine how this may feel for the athlete itself, and it’s natural to wonder if, perhaps, it’s better in a way to die while still at the height of fame and renown.

Of course, when we’re young we assume, without much thought, that the good times will last forever. Early death is also the theme of this poem, “Here Dead Lie We,” which is a war poem:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

This is very short, but there a few things going on. Honour is important, and it’s extremely important to young men. The first two lines, then, might have us expecting either a patriotic work lauding them for their sacrifice, or to mourn their early deaths for something ambiguous like shame and honour, for what Wilfred Own called “that old lie,” “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (from Horace, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).

The next two lines, though, are more ambiguous than that. “Life […] is nothing much to lose.” It’s not? Even if we consider it less important than shame and honour, the reason we praise men who risk their lives, even setting aside public holidays like Veterans Day, is because life is a great deal to lose. So, did the speakers not sacrifice much after all?

Maybe, but the last line takes a very subjective turn. “But young men think it is, and we were young.” The weight of sacrifice, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder.…

Read More Seventeenth Friend: A. E. Housman, “Here Dead Lie We”

Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry

Note: This is republished from Thermidor Magazine, where it was originally posted on November 19, 2017.


When looking across the Western literary canon, it quickly appears that writing is, in a sense, a man’s game. Take a list of recommended authors from before the era of political correctness, and one generally finds only a few women represented. To take a convenient example, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s list of essential authors from the first appendix to How to Read a Book (which includes fiction and non-fiction) has only one female author, with Jane Austen standing alone to represent her entire sex. Now, that doesn’t particularly bother me; I don’t believe that we should grade on a curve so that we can include mediocrities like Maya Angelou or Rupi Kaur on “great authors” lists. There are, however, a handful of women who even a vile Reactionary like myself will gladly give credit to. Besides Austen, works by Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others all have a space on my bookshelf.

By far the longest-standing of all of these, though, is Sappho, widely respected among the ancient Greeks themselves and ever since. When discussing her poetry, though, we quickly run into two problems. First, a minor one, is that we don’t know much for certain about her. She’s hardly unique in this, as the lives of Homer and Hesiod are also largely mysterious. For Sappho, we know that she lived on Lesbos in the early Sixth Century B.C. There are also many stories about her that may or may not be true; translator Mary Barnard’s biographical note in her edition of Sappho’s poems lists some of these:

That she was born in Mitylene, or in Eresus on the same island;
That her birth date was about 612 B.C., or earlier, or later;
That her father’s name was Scamandronymous, or Eurygus, or Simon, or Eunominus, or Euarchus, or Ecrytus, or Semus;
That her mother’s name was Cleis;
That she married a merchant of Andros, named Cercolas, and had a daughter Cleis; or, contrariwise, that Cercolas is a fictitious name, and that Cleis was not her daughter;
That Sappho herself was a prostitute; that she was not;
That, maddened by her hopeless love for Phaon, a ferryman, she threw herself from the Leucadian cliffs […]; or, contrariwise, that she died at home in bed, tended by her daughter, Cleis […];
That the girls whose names are mentioned in the poems – Anactoria, Atthis, Gongyla, Hero, Timas – were her pupils, and participants with her in the religious exercises of kallichoron Mitylene (Mitylene of the beautiful dances); or, conversely, that they were no such thing.

How much of this is true? The name “Cercolas” is almost certainly fake, the prostitution charge can safely be discarded, and the story about Phaon is also unlikely. Some of this information came via Athenian comedians, which is like writing a biography of American presidents based on Saturday Night Live skits, others are possibly legendary accretions. There is a story that she was exiled to Syracuse, which is interesting because it would indicate an involvement in political life. Also, whether she was indeed a priestess, and what her relationship was to the other people mentioned in her work, does influence how we interpret some of her poems.…

Read More Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry

The Wicker Man

It’s Halloween night (well, in my time zone, which is the only one that matters anyway), and when I think of Halloween, I think of Christopher Lee. I imagine that most readers will be aware that he made his name at Hammer Studios, starring in films like their Dracula series or Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and though I certainly think he was great as both Rasputin and the second-most famous Dracula (following, of course, Bela Lugosi), the film that comes to my mind first is also the one that he considered to be best he’d ever been in, The Wicker Man.

Now, The Wicker Man appears, in my observation, to be fairly well-known among horror fans, but is semi-obscure to wider audiences and what name recognition it does have comes partly from the botched remake. With that in mind, I’ll begin by offering a few observations on the film as a whole with minimal spoilers, then move into more specific remarks. I’m doing that because this is a movie where it is best to go in without knowing the ending, which has two aspects. One is the resolution to the fate of the missing girl the protagonist is searching for, and the other is the very end. Even if you already know one, I’d recommend watching the film anyway without spoiling the other.

So, the premise of this film is a classic mystery setup. Scottish Police Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) has received a message from the isolated island of Summerisle, stating that a girl by the name of Rowan Morrison has been missing for several months. When he arrives and begins asking the locals about the situation, he quickly finds two things. One is that, though everyone he speaks to claims not to know her, it’s soon apparent that the locals and Lord Summerisle (played by Lee), leader of the island, know more than they’re letting on. Though The Wicker Man is typically classified as a horror movie, most of it is more like a mystery or detective story; the horror elements, for the most part, are only clear in the last 1/4 or so.

Read More The Wicker Man