Hannibal Missouri – A Ghost Town?

It’s not a ghost town yet but it’s getting there. I spent a day in Hannibal, Missouri. I’m a high school English teacher and just couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the home of the American author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Mid-July I expected the streets of Hannibal to be teeming with sightseers anxious to catch a glimpse of the spot on the Mississippi River where Twain’s hero Huck Finn set sail on his raft . I thought folks would be lined up in droves to tour the Clemens homestead and visit the caves where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn had so many adventures. But on a steamy summer afternoon I browsed in solitary pleasure through shops replete with Twain novels, biographies and souvenirs. A Japanese tourist and a father and son from England were the only other people visiting Becky Thatcher’s cottage with me. A boy and girl dressed up like Tom Sawyer and his girlfriend Becky looked bored as they waited for tourists to show up and pay $7 to have their picture taken with the famous literary couple. Horse drawn carriages toured the city carting only a few passengers each. I attended an excellent one-man show put on by actor Richard Garey. Standing on a stage crammed with Twain memorabilia, Garey did a lively and educational re-creation of one of Twain’s lectures and story telling presentations. Mark Twain traveled across the United States entertaining crowds of people in the late 1800’s Unfortunately only eight of us were in attendance at the show Garey staged in Hannibal on a July night.

Don’t get me wrong. Hannibal, Missouri is charming. It’s just that the whole place appears to be a little ‘down on its luck.’ We stopped at two bed and breakfast establishments that looked lovely and appealing in the brochures we’d picked up. The doors were locked, the paint peeling and the yards overgrown. The high school English teacher who supplemented his income by running the book store at the Mark Twain museum had plenty of time to ‘talk shop’ with me since I was his only customer. We wanted to try a local Hannibal restaurant for supper, but by seven o’clock many were closed, and others I have to admit looked just a little on the seedy side. We finally settled on Lula Belles, a former bordello turned now into a respectable eatery. It was founded by an enterprising madam from Chicago at the turn of the century. The food was hardly gourmet, but the portions were plentiful and the service friendly. You couldn’t help remembering however that it used to be a centre for gambling and prostitution and was frequently raided by the police. Did the ‘ladies of the evening’ who made their living there a hundred years ago still haunt the place one wondered?

Literary tourism appears to be flourishing. People are flocking to the sites mentioned in the popular book the Da Vinci Code. The Prince Edward Island tourist industry thrives on the Anne of Green Gables books authored by Lucy Maud Montgomery. So what’s the problem in Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for Twain’s novels? I checked some traveler review web sites which mentioned several reasons for Hannibal’s decline including lack of advertising, limited hours of operation and an almost cynical attitude amongst residents about their famous home town author.

I enjoyed Hannibal, Missouri and was glad I had visited. Hopefully the town will be able to make the necessary changes to attract more tourists. Otherwise it might become a place inhabited only by the ghosts of Mark Twain and the interesting cast of characters he created in his memorable novels.

The Girls of Harajuku, Japan

For the Virgin traveller in Japan, Harajuku is one of those ‘must see’ places on the Japan tourist circuit. Without a doubt the most famous street of Harajuku’s is Takeshita. It is highly doubtful that you will see such a place back home – taking into consideration that I am originally from a place of 3,000 people and sheep outnumber humans by 1000:1 it holds especially true for me.

So who are these infamous Harajuku Girls?

Harajuku gyaru (girl) is the phrase most commonly used to identify girls who hang around Tokyo’s Harajuku district. And of the many varied sites, definitely some of the more eye-catching are the lithe figures of the girls that flank the streets there. A word of warning though, “All that glitters is not gold” and all that looks like a girl is often not either.

You will find the fashion styles not only diverse but in some cases exceedingly bizarre. I often notice myself mentally ‘high fiving’ the girls for their courage and complete lack of self-consciousness. Here are a few of the genres that I have been privileged to see in my trips down those lanes: Gothic Lolita, Gothic Maid, Wamono, Decora, Second-Hand Fashion, and Cyber Fashion (which tends to feature goggles, masks, leather and latex.) In one of my more memorable trips I even saw several girls wearing fake blood and bandages.

What possesses these girls to dress in such an outrageous (and often provocative) way you ask yourself…

A number of of them are evidently doing their best to imitate rock bands such as Japan X (this band almost deserves a post of it’s own.) If we put on our social anthropology coats and glasses (or goggles if you want to get into the swing of it) and burrow deeper we can appreciate that for many others this is a form of escapism. At the peril of over-generalizing I have observed Japan to be a very homogeneous society and this weekly indulgence allows them to briefly escape the majority of the rules of Japanese society. It gives them individuality not as certainly apparent while wearing their usual school uniforms or workplace costume. And perhaps at the heart it gives these wonderful ladies an outlet to express, often in very sexual ways (with ripped stockings, garters, and mini-skirts, etc), the oppression of the Japanese female in their predominantly male dominated society.

I have created the opportunity to talk to quite a a small number of of these girls over the years to try and grasp what makes them ‘tick’ and found the Harajuku Girls, underneath all the make-up and bling, to be like the girl next door – tremendously polite, gracious and warm-hearted.

The Basics of Anime-From A-Z

Anime – Anime is the affectionately shortened name for animation in Japan. It’s written in Katakana, as a derivative of English and general refers to any animation conceived and drawn in Japan. There is however a certain style and method to anime that can be recognized the world over as unique to Japanese animation. The simple, exaggerated character features and surprisingly detailed settings along with the actual thematic content, usually a coming of age story of some sort. Some character’s development through a series of trials via uniquely Japanese morals of perseverance and strength.

Baka – Japanese slang for stupid. It’s affectionately used to describe every goofball, oddball, and erstwhile character in an anime. Usually applied by a female toward a male, it’s best defined as the catch all insult for a nerdy, insecure male (and sometimes female) who accordingly does something stupid. Hence, Baka.

Cosplay – The unique and overwhelming practice by anime fans the world over of dressing as their favorite anime and video game characters for the sake of meeting up with other extreme fans and comparing their realism. Because anime is drawn (mostly) to scale, and the clothing is generally brightly colored and completely impractical, characters are easily recognized on those who have a particular talent in this arena. Expos are held for cosplayers annually, as well as contests. It’s something of an underground phenomenon in the culture that’s become much less underground in recent years.

Doujinshi – The Japanese word for fan created manga based on existing characters. Pretty much the anime equivalent of the Star Wars novels. There’s a huge market for these fan created fictions in Japan, and because of the massive pool of talent they’re often of equal or greater quality than the source material. Seems like a good way to go. Keep your future employees on the outside, drawing for free.

Ecchi – A Japanese word that roughly translates to ‘pervert’. Basically it’s used to describe all those school girl animes in which the skirts stop about two inches above their panty line, and yet somehow magically stay on. It’s not quite the caliber of Hentai as it tries not to be pornographic, but the fan service and suggestive themes quotient are fairly off the map.

Fan – For American anime connoisseurs especially, the fan is one of the only ways to get access to some anime, and until recently pretty much the only way. Fan stands for Fansubbing (the fan produced subtitling of shows ripped straight from Japanese television ), Fandubbing (the slightly less done, and often much funnier dubbing of the same material by fans), Fanfiction (the written form of Doujinshi, often involving a whole lot of Ecchi), and Fan Service (in which a show will purposely do something over the top or suggestive because they know that’s what their fans are looking for). The fan is what floats the market for anime, especially in America where until very recently the market was mostly a blackmarket.

Gundam – One of the original fathers of anime. Around for 25 or more years now, Gundam has produced more than 25 series and movies since it debuted in 1979, and continues to be one of the most popular series on each every year, with an exponential growth of productions of late. The show was one of the pioneers of the giant mech anime and an underground favorite in America for years….and it makes for some pretty funny cosplayers.

Hentai – And of course, with any art form, when you have a large enough fan base, someone perverts it. Pornographic anime has something that normal pornography does not though, lots of creepy weird tentacles and occasionally a plot. Yes, in line with many of Japan’s finer arts, Hentai does try occasionally to inject a bit of intelligence into their mindless sex. And the production quality tends to be higher even than normal productions. Speaks to the nature of porn, I guess. It runs the industry.

Idol – The idol mentality runs the Japanese pop culture sphere. Their singers are everywhere, their movie stars are singers, their movie-star-singers are tv hosts. Their movie-star-singer-tv-hosts are voice actors. It’s all cyclical and it means mass exposure in a crowded country of a 140 million. And it leaks over in the shows they make, and the mass production of the shows (usually one a week every week until the show’s done…for some shows that’s years) and the production values all speak to this.

Jump – Shonen Jump is the monthly manga publication in Japan that broke some of the biggest names in anime. Dragonball, Naruto, One Piece, Kenshin and so on. The super popular children oriented anime that rules the charts comes out of this little gem repeatedly. And now it’s here in the US. Power in circulation.

Kawaii – Japanese adjective for cute. And that’s how you describe half of what they produce. Super cute, to the point of nausea at times. The ability to turn the ugliest, most disturbing things into cute and cuddly mascots is a distinctly Japanese ability. Just look at half of the Pokemon. Butt ugly, but cute nonetheless.

Love Hina – Love Hina didn’t invent it, but it did it best – the dorm fantasy anime that is. And it is its own subgenre now. A dorky young male who has no luck with the ladies finds himself thrown into a situation where he’s surrounded by women daily, who ultimately assault him and make his life a living hell, at the same time as falling in love with him. Ecchi moments abound and often our altruistic hero ends up with a bloody nose on the rocks outside of a hotspring somewhere.

Manga – Ah yes, the birthparent of the whole thing. Manga is the comic book, hand drawn formula for the whole craze. Started as an offshoot of the woodprint art forms of the 19th century and earlier, Manga took compelling stories and serialized them into fun, easy to read comic books. Not to say that the Supermans and Detective Comics of America didn’t help this fad along.

Neon Genesis Evangelion – A derivative of the giant mech anime, Evangelion broke into new legions of fans by being what some anime had dared before, but few had fully succeeded at – mature and intelligent. A common enough theme these days, Evangelion managed to take biblical, complicated social, and personal themes and craft them into an often times funny, apocalyptic epic 24 episode series and 2 films.

Otaku – in what is actually an insult in Japan, translating roughly as ‘you’…but more commonly known as ‘no-life geek who spends all his time building GUNDAM models…’ The definition is slightly less caustic on our side of the Pacific, generally referring to someone who merely enjoys the depths of Japanese pop culture, watches anime after school, and draws characters from their favorite shows on their notebooks. More of a clique in school than a mock-worthy subculture. But, that is quickly changing of course, as the anime arena is growing so rapidly here in the states.

Pokemon – Pokemon is the new generation of child-oriented anime born of marketing necessity, used to sell video games, video games used to sell the show. It’s been on for almost 10 years now, and still new episodes pop up. If the Japanese do anything right, it’s sell stuff, and Pokemon continues to sell, actually marketing to an entirely new generation of kids these days.

Queen Emeraldas – I’m copping out a bit here because Q as we all know is the crappiest letter in the alphabet to do an ABC list with. Queen Emeraldas is a good anime though. An OAV produced in 1998 as an offshoot of the Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 series, Queen Emeraldas continues the story of a popular character that if you haven’t seen either of the previous shows will make no sense to you.

Rurouni Kenshin – Kenshin is the epic tale of a wandering samurai in the Meiji era of Japan known as Kenshin. He finds a small martial arts school in the new capital and after saving the young heir he stays with her and undertakes various quests to help the government which he helped to form a few years earlier survive. He’s an incredibly badass swordsman and attracts a nice little entourage of characters. I don’t know if it’s the most important thing in the world in terms of anime, but it’s one of my favorite shows, so it’s on the list.

Shoujo – The term used to describe anime targeted to young girls. All the Sailormoons and Cardcaptor Sakuras out there fit here. It’s actually a nice niche to have and does extremely well here as well as Japan. It’s a testament to the popularity of a sub culture when it actually takes the time to stop drawing violent battles between half witted males to appeal to young girls as well.

Tezuka Osamu – The Walt Disney of anime, Dr. Tezuka created Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion, Metropolis and countless more anime classics that more or less established the art form. He’s the guy you want to look at whenever you ask, “who’s responsible for all this?”

Urusei Yatsura – A monstrously popular 1970s and 80s franchise spanning almost 200 episodes, 10 movies and a handful of OVAs. It’s pretty much about a group of “obnoxious aliens” (the actual translation) that invade and goof up earth. They’re all girls, and were a part of the beginnings of what made Love Hina happen, a lecherous teenage boy surrounded by strange, sexy women. Yup, they sure know how to make shows over there.

Voice acting – Come on. It is animation right? Unlike the US animation sector, Japan’s voice acting pool is vast and actually talented. US companies use the same people over and over and pay them peanuts, and they generally suck at what they do. In Japan, the respect from doing what they do is that much more pronounced…and they don’t suck.

Wings of Honneamise – Another landmark anime, this is the first film produced by super studio Gainax (the guys who did Evangelion among others). It’s essentially a science fiction, military fantasy with some twists to history and technology. One of my favorite examples of how anime bends the genres in which it operates as well. It’s out there and that’s why we love it.

X – Yup, just X. From Clamp, a group of female artists whose fan base (and quality of workmanship) is obscene, X is one of their earlier films, later made into a series. The style is best described as Shoujo without the service to only girls.

Yaoi – The slightly homosexual version of Ecchi, Yaoi is usually a homoerotic fan service of male characters in typical situations acting sexually ambiguous and often getting rather close to each other. When out put is so great, you can expect anything right, and the chic-gay of Yaoi is immensely popular in Japan.

Z, Dragon Ball – I cheated again, so what. Dragon ball Z was one of the key reasons that anime spread to the mainstream here in the states after all, with a couple hundred episodes and memorably long (and I mean looooong) fights, Dragon ball Z captured the fan base of all the young violence prone kids nationwide and kept them enthralled into their 20s (yeah, yeah…quit looking at me).

And there you have it. 26 keys to understand the anime sub culture, a veritable A-Z of what you need to know…minus Q and Z.