Fatalism in the Face of Melodrama: Tokyo Story

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Madame De… a melodrama that, by its treatment became almost a black comedy and much more watchable than one would expect from the subject matter.

Now it’s the turn of Tokyo Story which proves that melodrama can be made palatable in different ways, too. This one may be even more brilliant.

What the French film does by being humorous and worldly, the Japanese film does with a fatalism that flies in the teeth of the topic and even–to a certain degree–of the characters themselves. And like the French film, which gives a glimpse into the sardonic national character, this one also lifts one of the cultural veils and shows westerners the power of acceptance.

Briefly, the film is about an older couple who visit their children living in Tokyo and find them to be both too busy and too modern and cynical to spare time for their parents. This is a trip they’ve been waiting a lifetime to take, but it is clear that it’s special only to them and the one loyal character in the movie: their widowed daughter-in-law (seen in the pic above).

Then the mother dies.

But it avoids becoming overly emotional and unwatchable (think of a random 1970s melodrama where someone dies of cancer) because of the fatalistic acceptance that things are as they are and that one should be thankful for the little things that are good instead of hurting because of things that aren’t.

The couple’s genuine acceptance of life if a message that not only gets them through disappointment and tragedy but also stands as a strong rebuke to the wonderful film Ikiru in which precisely such acceptance is pointed to as the source of many national ills. The sympathetically-portrayed daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story is proof that the director was aware of this, even if the focus was elsewhere.

As always, when two diametrically opposed points of view collide, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact Tokyo Story shows a side of the Japanese character in a way that makes it possible for a Western audience to understand. And that is a wonderful thing.

And, as always, a shout-out to Kyōko Kagawa, who is still with us. If you’re reading, thank you for being part of this wonderful film!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose fascination with the human psyche follows him across genres. While his more commercial work has well-drawn characters, it is in his literary fiction where he explores this facet most deeply. Love and Death shows how real people act in those moments that define their lives. You can check it out here.

Timelessness, Thy Name is Classic and Sportscar

As you already know, I read old car magazines and write about them here when not complaining about the writing world or reviewing SF and Fantasy (and other) books. Each magazine has a personal style, a feeling you get when reading the thing.

So when I picked up the very first issue of Classic and Sportscar (it was originally published as Old Motor, and I hope to review some of those magazines in the future, too), I expected the April 1982 Edition to continue some of the trends I love from the modern editions of this magazine, namely spectacularly clean design, tight editing and a wonderful, lush feel – I honestly believe the modern C&SC is the world’s most beautiful and luxurious magazine.

I was quite surprised to find that wasn’t the case in April 1982. The first thing that jumps out is that there is a lot less color than in the spectacular modern editions, but I suppose in the austere conditions in England in the early ’80s, you couldn’t expect much. The editing was… let’s just say I spotted a few errors that would not be there today.

But it still felt like C&SC. The quirkiness of the writing was evident (perhaps even moreso than today… it’s a sad state of affairs when British eccentricity begins to fall by the wayside), of course, but that wasn’t it. Only as I sat down to write this piece did I realize what it is: updated with color pics and better design, the entire issue, except for the time-based club events pages, could be published today and no one would be the wiser. Just update the values and the names of the specialists that deal with keeping each kind of car on the road and presto, a 2021 edition of C&SC.

This is amazing to me, immersed as I’ve been in the perusal of old Road & Tracks. The American mags just ooze seventies (I wanted to say charm, but the seventies had no charm) essence while this magazine is timeless. The subject matter helps, of course: classic cars are not built in the period in which they are written about, so it should make little difference if you’re writing in 1982 or 2002 or 2022.

But that’s not all. It’s a question of the culture outside the magazine permeating into the writing of one while being blocked from the other. The writing, the colors, the ads are all less period-influenced in the British mag than they are in the US one. In C&SC‘s case, even the ads seem a little less period garish (one of the wonders of old R&Ts are the cigarette ads, so 70s it hurts).

That’s a pretty special quality, and a key ingredient for one of the world’s best magazines. In fact all the ingredients were there… the overall quality just needed to be tweaked a little to achieve the spectacular results you can find on the newsstand today.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster novel entitled Test Site Horror. If international intrigue, nonstop action and genetically-modified creatures are something you enjoy, then by all means check it out, here.

Oh Captain! My Captain, Patience and Fortitude

We read only a little poetry here so it may sadden readers to learn that I’ve never read Leaves of Grass cover to cover, it will probably not surprise you. This state of affairs may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t read plenty of Walt Whitman’s work over the years. In fact, I’ve probably read Leaves of Grass in its entirety at some point or another… just not consecutively in book form the way it was published.

So when I was in New York in Early June, 2019, I went to the exposition of Whitman’s life, work and influence at the New York Public Library.

Now I’d like to take a second to talk about NYPL’s exhibitions. They are wonderful, the place where they are held is just the right size to cover a specialized topic, and I’ll likely walk into the one held at any given moment even if its subject matter isn’t particularly interesting to me (they are free, so you only spend the time you invest). When it’s something like Whitman, though, it’s doubly nice.

On my way out, I grab the booklet you can take and toss it into my to-be-read pile (currently standing at about 90 books and magazines, not counting the separate pile of Road & Tracks from the 70s and 80s), where it eventually cycles through.

In this case, reading it helped fix what I’d seen in the exhibition in my memory and help me remember stuff I might otherwise have forgotten.

Of those little details, the one that interested me most as a writer was that Whitman released Blades of Grass in one form (which flopped, though it was well received by some critics) and then went on adding to it in subsequent editions. That seems strange to me… I always try to get my publishers the best possible version of my work, complete enough that adding to it would only be an exercise in padding. But it definitely worked for Whitman, who eventually turned the book into one of the most influential collections of poetry in history. Unlike other literary giants from America like Poe or Melville, Whitman became a giant in his own lifetime.

No writer could ever ask for more.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in a strange little book called Love and Death in which the characters from one of the linked stories influence the lives of every other character, usually without knowing it. You can check it out here.

Hearing the Footsteps: Japanese Cars Poised to Take Over the US

Road & Track has always been a magazine for enthusiasts. That means it focuses mostly on cars people who like to drive would find interesting. There are certain corollaries to that, one of them being that the cars they write about might not be large-volume items (the cover of the July 1976 issue below is a good example… very few people buy two-door sports cars). So I’m assuming, with the aid of being more than forty years in the future, that Detroit wasn’t paying too much attention to what Road & Track was telling them.

That was a mistake.

You see, in the mid-1970s one of the thing that R&T found interesting were small cars with good fuel economy, forward-looking engineering and fun handling (to be fair, everything was fun compared to most of the American cars on the road back then).

Detroit, of course, believed that some small cars would be sold, but that people still wanted slightly larger cars. Again, a mistake.

All you need to see the writing on the wall is to read the caption above the picture of the first Honda Accors sold in America. It simply asks: Best Buy in the US?

Though I’ll be the first to admit that, as a child in the early 1980s, I found accords and other Japanese cars to be kind of crappy (but then again, I loved the TR7 as a child, so I might be a bad benchmark. Plus, my dad drove Audis, so my tastes were skewed in that direction), but that was likely because I didn’t have to buy or drive my own cars back then. The truth was that, when each Accord was built, it was better than anything in its price class, and better than a lot of cars more expensive that it was, too. And better than a lot of bigger cars.

That last sentence is what ended up transforming Detroit’s Big Three from a dominant force to just another group of companies competing for the automotive market in the US. Detroit’s big cars just weren’t as good as Japan’s compacts. And they were more expensive, guzzled gas and took up more space.

Worse still, it wasn’t just Honda. Toyota and Nissan were on the same path, and even Mazda was involved in the invasion.

As an exercise to the reader, have a look at the two covers pictured. Count how many references to American cars are made, and how many to foreign ones.

As a final data point, I’ll reveal that the American cars are only there because of two recent racing conversions made of those cars. Very cool stuff, but not exactly the kind of thing you can sell in the millions of units.

If you ever wondered why the US auto market no longer belongs to Ford, GM and Chrysler (and why Chrysler now belongs to Fiat), you have your answer in these two covers. This is where it all started.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans genres from highbrow literary to creature feature. His latest book is a monster novel entitled Test Site Horror, which follows the adventures of a Russian Special Forces soldier as he tries to keep his team and the civilians in his charge from getting killed by genetically-modified dinosaurs. What’s not to like? You can check it out here.

Even the Emasculated Version Beats the Hays Code

I gripe about the Hays Code a lot here on Classically Educated, and with good reason. The Code was the dumbest thing ever. While I understand that the movie industry adopted it in order to avoid government censorship from a prudish, adolescent nation, the sheer cowardice involved is staggering. I think a lot of the US tendency to act like children even today (the current “social discourse” with its childlike black-and-white extremes is clearly a fight between groups of coddled adolescents who grew old but never grew up. Cancel culture is another excellent example of people who never outgrew their teen immaturity and need for extreme definitions and inability to see grays or comprehend context) probably stems at least partly from this act of cowardice from the media.

But sometimes, a film comes along that, even though it had to appease BOTH the code and the Army, is still suitable for adults. Such a film is From Here to Eternity.

It’s wonderful to see a film from the 1950s has so much adultery in it without moralizing whether it’s good or bad and with at least one of the adulturers going scot-free at the end of it; even if he didn’t manage to keep the girl, it’s nice that nothing bad happened to Burt Lancaster’s character. I was sure he’d get killed by the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Briefly, the story follows the careers of two soldiers–one a man who refused to bend to the pressure of his superiors and one who bedded his CO’s wife, and both are portrayed sympathetically (which, especially in the second case was specifically against the Code).

Of course, the novel didn’t make it to the screen even remotely unscathed. One of the bad guys had to be punished, references to homosexuality were suppressed and a prostitute was changed to a “hostess”. But the lack of judgment passed against what in the 1950s would have been immorality bordering on the criminal (and actually prosecuted if you went far enough) was more than enough to set this film apart. It thumbs its nose at the censors.

Numerous Oscar nominations followed, a sign that someone other than me thinks the Code was stupid. More importantly, though, the Code was cracking… and From Here to Eternity was one of the first hairline chinks in the armor. The sixties, and their utter demolition of the childish morality of the fifties were, after all, just around the corner.

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction quite clearly has no regard for the Hays Code, artificial moralities or any other consideration except how realistic characters would react in specific situations. His literary collection Love and Death, a series of linked short stories that tell a single long tale about multiple characters unaware of how they’re interacting, can be purchased at Amazon.

The Lost Fleet, or why Bookstores are the Best Place to Buy Books

Times change. Nowadays, people looking for something new to read will most likely browse on Amazon, maybe follow a “recommended for you” link or two in order to track down something they could love.

In the SFF genre world, times also change, even more than in the rest of the literary world. It used to be that you could pretty much trust the Hugo and Nebula awards to point you in the direction of some interesting, entertaining work. It’s likely this would have been work by an author whose short fiction you were already familiar with, but it was a trustworthy recommendation.

These awards are no longer a good guideline, unfortunately. They’ve become politicized. The Hugos, in particular are a hollow shell of themselves. There was a controversy a few years back which, by laying bare all the problems with the award, essentially caused the people who remained to become radicalized to the effect that, today, the Hugo is more a “rightthink” award than anything remotely literary or SFF-related. It’s gotten so bad that the last time I was a voter (in 2019), I hit no-award on nearly all the categories except where Peadar O’Guilin and Aliette de Bodard were involved. It was really that bad.

The Nebulas are not quite as rotten, but they’re not entirely free of the taint either.

So what is an SFF reader looking to avoid preachy message fiction and rediscover the fun in the genre to do?

The answer is, of course, “go to a bookstore!”

And that is exactly what I did. Browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I looked around the science fiction section until I found a book, first in a series, that, apart from looking technological, actually looked fun. The book I grabbed was The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell.

Now, we’re talking. A naval officer is rescued from a survival pod in which he’s been stuck for a hundred years… and put into command of a space fleet. During the war that developed while he was in hibernation, his people have turned him into the most important hero of their people.

But that comes at a cost. The fleet he commands is wounded, outgunned and trapped deep behind enemy lines. The navy he awakes to is completely different from the one he knew.

And not everyone is happy to be under the command of someone so out of touch.

This book is sheer brilliance. Fast-paced and fun as hell, it’s the perfect antidote to the plodding moralistic boredom of the more critically acclaimed SFF we’re saddled with today. It’s not as deep or complex as Alastair Reynolds, but it isn’t meant to be, and it doesn’t need to be. But it does prove that character development and good writing can be present without turning the book into a stagnant snoozer. There’s a reason this one is part of a New York Times bestselling series.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer whose own military science fiction novel is entitled Incursion. It, too deals with a galaxy-spanning war in which a desperate but necessary suicide mission suddenly becomes more complicated than anyone bargained for. You can check it out here.

My ISDC Participation

Back in 2018, I sent a story entitled Acid Test to the Jim Baen Memorial Award contest. It was awarded second place (it was later published under a different title, and you can read it here), and with that, I was invited to the awards ceremony held during the International Space Development Conference in June 2019 in Washington DC. This is also how I ended up with my latest few copies of Ad Astra.

I had no idea what to expect as a conference VIP, so I kind of drifted around with the three other science fiction writers at the event, chatting, talking to other people, and even sitting in on some of the sessions (there were usually several conference rooms occupied at once, and they were all packed). The session I sat in on was one where they were talking about the differences between the philosophies of government space programs and the private sector, effectively (if not sexily) illustrated by an example using a valve purchase process. (Essentially, the private sector can do things cheaper because they allow themselves to iterate faster and give their suppliers less restrictive contracts, as well as being more open to innovation).

One of the most surreal moments of my participation came during the prize-giving lunch session. The keynote speaker (whose name I won’t mention), essentially said that one could achieve immortality by creating something she called a mind clone, basically letting your electronics gather all they can about your preferences, actions, habits and activities and making that data available for upload. That way, she argued, you would live on in an AI indistinguishable from your own self.

Now, I have given this a certain amount of thought, and I utterly disagree with this particular position. My own take is that immortality MUST imply a continuation of consciousness, so this doesn’t count. But more important than my own opinion is the realization that being a futurist must be full of this kind of skepticism. To have any shot of being a true visionary, it’s not enough to extrapolate current trends. Anyone can do that. You need to imagine the things that are going to come out of left field and catch everyone by surprise.

Her prediction most certainly does… even if it’s wrong.

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer. His novel Outside looks at the lines between artificial and natural consciousness, and at what happens when they blur too much for comfort. You can check it out here.

The Year of Rush

It’s not often that anything I write about outside the 1001 movies list has wide appeal, much less is something related to a blockbuster movie. But now that I’ve gotten to the 1976 Road & Tracks, I can finally link it to a big film.

You see, 1976 was the year of Rush.

So, it’s fitting that the May 1976 edition has a cover photo showing a Ferrari Formula One car, if not the one that Lauda drove in ’76, at least one that he’d driven earlier. Of course, the race coverage in this one and the June 1976 edition had no idea of the drama that was about to unfold during the season, and Rob Walker limited himself to noting how well the Ferrari steamroller, world champions in ’75 were performing in the new season.

Aligned with the Rush theme of hedonism, the joy of living and the acceptance as risk as a part of life, the June issue was full of convertibles, which is R&T’s way of thumbing its nose at the social engineers of the day, as convertibles were disappearing because many considered them unsafe. Fortunately, the misguided jackasses trying to save us from ourselves didn’t win that battle – you can still buy a convertible in a showroom today.

And the more I spend time in the 70s with these mags, the more I realize that people in that decade were much more concerned with having fun than we are. Now before you tell me that the economy today and yadda yadda yadda, remember that the 1970s were a time of rampant inflation and economic woe (and stupid legislation like the 55 mph speed limit). And yet people were out to enjoy life.

You can see it in the race reports, in the way cars were styled and in the irreverent tone of some of the articles, but mostly, you can see it in the ads. This was a time before people were supposed to hide their preferences, before the mass oppression of society got into everyone’s life. So yeah, cigarette ads on every other page showing people outdoors or living risky lifestyles (race drivers, hang gliding). Bikini-clad models selling carpets, ads for catamarans, weird Dodge Van customizing kits for sale from Dodge itself. Everyone wore bushy mustaches.

Even if the mustaches aren’t your thing, you end up with an image of the seventies being a hedonistic age, and like all hedonistic ages, a good one. It’s hard for me to say this, as I’ve always thought it was a decade that should have been erased from history (and disco, hedonistic or not, definitely should be deleted from the record forever), but I’ve come to understand that the people from back then could teach our dour, moralistic society a thing or two about relaxing and just having a good time.

That sociological trip through the decade might be the best part of reading these old magazines… even though I also love the car stuff.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is entitled Test Site Horror. It follows a Russian Special Forces soldier trying to keep an alluring journalist alive after she bites off a story much too big to chew. Fast-paced and exciting, you can check it out here.

The Prefect and Reynolds’ Depth of Character

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite writers working in science fiction today. A little of this has to do with the fact that he writes deep-space tech/idea/adventure-based books that have zero message about utterly trite current politics (see here for more on that). I can read a thick Reynolds book–despite the fact that these are dense, idea and tech-heavy works–in a few days, while most other SF books (and seemingly everything on the last few Hugo ballots) leave me scratching my head and asking myself what kind of reader would enjoy this.

To me, the genre in recent years seems more about showing off political credentials and virtue signaling than any attempt to engage the reader or entertain (which seems weird for a genre like science fiction). Of course, I assume that there are people out there with very different taste from mine, and I further assume that they have to be selling this stuff to someone, or they’ll soon go out of business.

Fortunately Reynolds hasn’t fallen victim to the trend, which is probably why he sells so many books.

The Prefect is a typical Reynolds offering, which is a good thing. This one follows the adventures of two members of the Glitter Band’s police and compliance arm, called Prefects. One is an experienced member of the corps, while the other is a rookie attempting to live down her father’s disgrace.

By focusing so closely on two specific characters in such a large book, Reynolds moves away from the more sprawling style of Revelation Space. Those who criticized his early work as not sufficiently character-based will like this direction while those who enjoyed the mighty Revelation Space books won’t be too annoyed, as it still works.

As always with Reynolds there is a dark edge underlying the marvels he describes, and while most of society is living the dream, we never really get to see it because his characters run head first into that darkness. In that sense it has seriously developed noir sensibilities. Only a tiny fraction of LA in the 1940s was committing murders and blackmail… but that’s the only side you see in noir. Likewise, Reynolds’ universe is one of endless wonders… but you only get to look at the seedy underbelly and the gritty working-class tech people that make it function.

It definitely works. Reynolds’ fiction is worth reading every single time… even if you need to read something light (Wodehouse is ideal) afterwards.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who often works with space opera. The well-received Siege is an example on a massive scale, with a galactic war between the tribes of humanity as the backdrop. He follows a doomed group of baseline humans as they prepare for their last stand. You can check it out here.

Scale Auto Again

A year ago, I looked at the scale model hobby in general, via (as usual) a look at a publication in the field. Seeing how many car magazines I read, you should probably not be surprised that the main magazine for my own modeling is Scale Auto Modeler (even though I do sometimes build planes, just because I like planes).

The June 2019 issue of the magazine is a special one because it’s an anniversary edition in which the editors look at models with a 1979 (year of the first issue) theme. This, of course, is fun, and it’s something one can do with the basic kits (as seen on the jeep on the cover) that depict cars that existed in that year, or go a little more advanced and modify a kit of a different car year to make it appear like a car from 1979 (as the Corvette conversion in there).

My favorite part of scale modeler is actually a column that appears every month entitled “bench Racer” in which a specific race car is built from components meant to either build a different version of a similar car, or a slot car body or something completely different. In this particular issue, we get part 1 of a conversion of a ford into an SS1100 jaguar racer… which is interesting indeed.

The other part I love is the contest section where photos of kits presented at different contests are showcased. Again, this is specific to me, as I don’t necessarily build kits to obsess over details and expand my knowledge of swear words in every language (although building them allows one to do both) but to look at them once done. The contest page allows me to look at pretty kits that other people have gone nuts over.

So reading one of these is a lovely break from more weighty literature… even if it does cause one to suddenly need to find one’s kit in progress and try to advance, thereby learning new Anglo Saxon words when balked…

Still enjoyed it, though.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collection Pale Reflection might be the ideal introduction to his writing. It’s both idea- and character-driven and explores the similarities between people that can only be seen when they get into weird situations. You can check it out here.