A Jaded Monarch

The Jade Emperor is a significant character in Journey to the West, in which Sun Wukong challenges his rule over the universe for no real reason other than because he wanted recognition. He’s more or less the head of the Chinese pantheon, but this pantheon does not appear to have ever been organized as well as, say, the Greco-Roman. The Emperor originated in folk religion, but came to be officially worshipped by the state around the eleventh century. Chosen to be ruler of the heavens because of his beneficent nature, he spent millions of years cultivating the Tao before taking his throne. Some myths say that his father was Emperor of Heaven before him, while others claim that he was an earthly ruler who was elevated to godhood. One famous story has it that he defeated a monster that was ravaging the heavens because, although they had both cultivated great wisdom and knowledge, the Emperor’s motives were altruistic. It would be nice if battles actually worked that way here on Earth.

His birthday is celebrated on the ninth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar, and the Qixi Festival on the seventh day of the seventh month is said to be the one day of the year when his daughter Zhinü is allowed to reunite with her human lover Niu Lang. Interestingly, there’s a parallel with the selkie legend in this story, in that Niu Lang steals Zhinü’s imperial robe so that she is unable to return to Heaven. The lovers are associated with the stars Vega and Altair, which are separated by the Milky Way.

The Jade Emperor already has a chosen successor, who is known as the Heavenly Master of the Dawn of Jade of the Golden Door, who’s presumably achieved sufficient merit simply by remembering his entire title.

The common idea is that the Jade Emperor’s court mirrors that of a mortal Chinese emperor, being quite bureaucratic and full of officials who were elevated to their positions. Humans can gain positions among the gods through good deeds or mastery of the Way, which is pretty tempting, although I’m not sure all of us would want to live in Heaven that’s so full of paperwork. I wonder if they’ve managed to transfer any of this to celestial computers, and I hope that hasn’t put the minor gods out of business. Then again, maybe imperial layoffs are the reason why Journey to the West was so full of immortals coming down to Earth to stir up trouble. And since I like to bring Oz into just about everything, the court of Tititi-Hoochoo in Tik-Tok of Oz might well have been inspired by that of the Jade Emperor, although the jade one probably doesn’t have the title of Private Citizen.

Posted in Characters, Chinese, L. Frank Baum, Mythology, Oz, Oz Authors, Religion, Taoism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Am Groot

Guardians of the Galaxy – While I’ve never been someone who followed comics, there have been some pretty good comic-based movies released recently, and I tend to be on the hunt for more. When I found this one featured a raccoon and a tree in space, I was pretty much sold on it. It took me a while to get around to seeing it, but I’m glad I was able to watch it in a theater. As far as the source material goes, the title was originally used for a comic series in the 1960s, but has more recently been revived with a new set of heroes, and it’s the later incarnation on which the movie is based. The members were all previously existing Marvel characters who presumably showed promise, but who just weren’t making it on their own. Groot was actually originally an alien invader who had a vocabulary of more than just three words, but was retconned into being a noble sentient tree from Planet X.

Rocket Raccoon, named after the Beatles song “Rocky Raccoon” and called that in his first appearance, is a bad-ass, wisecracking, genetically modified raccoon.

The leader of the team is Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (at least to himself), whose first name makes me wonder why there would be two Marvel heroes called Peter. The very beginning of the movie shows him watching his mother die of cancer. The feel-good film of the summer, ladies and gentlemen! On the same day, he’s abducted by alien thieves under the leadership of Yondu Udonta, who based on his voice is presumably from Space Louisiana.

Twenty-six years later, Quill is seen on a planet said to be uninhabited despite the fact that several animals seem to be native to it, trying to retrieve a mystical orb for money. The villains of the film, the genocidal maniac Ronan and the god-like being Thanos, desire the orb for its power.

Gamora, a green-skinned adoptive daughter of Thanos who deflects, also wants the orb; and Rocket and Groot are seeking Quill for the price on his head.

When all four of them are thrown into prison, they form an alliance that’s uneasy at first, but gradually grows into a genuine friendship. Also joining the team is a huge, vengeful, heavily tattooed guy named Kratos…er, I mean, Drax the Destroyer.

What follows is an adventure full of action, humor, and sympathetic characterizations. Most of the Guardians are self-centered jerks at first, but they come to learn what’s truly important in life, only in a way that’s much less sappy than I just made it sound. Most of the characters also bring their own sorts of humor, most of Drax’s coming from the fact that he doesn’t understand the concept of metaphor. Considering this, I thought they missed a beat when Quill was giving his pep talk and said that it was their chance to “give a shit,” with no confused response from Drax. One thing I did wonder was why the galaxy seems to be populated almost entirely by humanoids. It’s not like they were severely limited by the effects budget like with early Star Trek. The characters came from comics, where the artists could draw literally anything; and the way Rocket and Groot were rendered made it clear that they could make realistic inhuman characters. Maybe it just comes back to the common idea that humans can better identify with characters who are mostly human themselves.

Apparently they were considering not even putting Rocket in the movie, and I’m hoping that the film’s success will mean more non-human heroes in the future. There were several aliens who were mostly distinguished from Earth people by having blue skin, yet they presumably weren’t all the same species. If the movie is sticking with what Wikipedia says about the characters, Ronan and Kruath are Kree from the Large Magellanic Cloud, Yondu a Centaurian, and Nebula a Luphomoid. To sum it up, you don’t have to be from the galaxy to enjoy this film.

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Flying Down to Sanrio

What, Hello Kitty isn’t a cat? Instead, she’s a little English girl who looks like a cat. I have to wonder what kind of interbreeding went on in her family. Actually, according to the Wikipedia article, a Sanrio spokesperson later revised that to say that she’s a gijinka, basically an anthropomorphic animal. I’ve written before about how such animal-people belong in a confusing category, where we can’t be entirely sure what they are. The design of the character is apparently based on the Japanese bobtail cat, even though she lives in the suburbs of London.

Her full name is Kitty White, daughter of George and Mary White. She has a twin sister named Mimmy and a pet Persian cat named Charmmy Kitty.

And if you think an anthropomorphic cat having a real cat as a pet is weird, don’t forget that Minnie Mouse had one as well. The reason given for why she doesn’t have a mouth is that she “speaks from the heart.” Wait, does that mean she’s telepathic? I assume she did have a voice in the animated series. Also, without a mouth, how does she eat cookies and pie?

Hello Kitty and some of the other Sanrio characters originated in the 1970s as cute characters for rubber sandals, and now they adorn everything from purses to electric guitars to microwaves to sex toys and guns. My wife is a fan, and we’ve been to both the Sanrio store in Times Square and the one in King of Prussia several times. It does seem that they’re very much weighted toward Hello Kitty. I know she’s the most popular, but it’s not like when you go into a Disney Store you see nothing but Mickey Mouse. I can understand not always wanting to get the most popular character. When I get Super Mario Bros. merchandise, I try to focus on characters other than Mario himself.

Beth has had several Chococat purses, and I thought the sleeping cat Nemukko Nyago was cute. Unlike Kitty and Chococat, Nyago appears to be an actual cat instead of a human-like one.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to be marketed anymore. Badtz-Maru, the tough-guy penguin with a pet alligator, has been consistently popular, possibly because he’s one of the few characters they try to market to boys.

I kind of like Kuromi, introduced as the nemesis of the rabbit character My Melody, who has a look that’s both tough and cute at the same time.

There are some human or humanoid characters as well, like the Little Twin Stars who have been around almost as long as Kitty herself.

There are several characters that show up occasionally that I’m not really sure are part of the same universe, like the Shinkansen bullet train and the Dokidoki Yummychums.

Oddly, the train and the hamburger DO have mouths, even though many of the animals don’t. Go figure.

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Willy-Nilly Silly Old Bear

Winnie the Pooh – Looking at the list, I think I might have gotten the order a bit mixed up. I thought for sure this came out before Tangled, but I guess not. Oh, well. The Bear of Very Little Brain has actually been mentioned recently, as it was one hundred years ago this past Sunday that a Canadian soldier adopted an orphaned bear cub, whom he named Winnipeg after his hometown.

He later brought the bear to England, where Christopher Robin Milne saw her in the London Zoo and named his teddy bear partially after the real bear’s nickname Winnie. He could have a girl’s name despite being a boy because he was Winnie-ther-Pooh. I’ve wondered for a while now if that was Christopher’s idea or his father’s play on gendered articles; “ther” is quite similar to the German masculine der.

Anyway, Disney has adapted the Pooh franchise many times, using animation, puppets, and even live actors in costumes. There have been several animated Pooh films, although most of them were made by the lower-budget Toon Disney division. This 2011 release was the second produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, and hence counts as the fifty-first movie in the Animated Classics series. As of now, it’s the last of the series to use traditional animation. Also, unlike a lot of Disney’s Pooh features, this one takes its main plot points from A.A. Milne’s original stories. Most of it is a combination of the one about Eeyore losing his tail with the one where the characters mistake a note from Christopher Robin as being about a creature called a Backson, although the bit about Pooh falling into a pit intended as a trap for something else comes from the Heffalump story. Even at a running time of about an hour (the official running time is a minute shorter than Dumbo, but still longer than Saludos Amigos), however, that leaves more for a lot of extra material. Some of it revolves around the characters’ attempts to find a replacement tail for Eeyore, which produces several gags. Pooh’s continual search for honey is also a constant in his stories. By the way, if Pooh is stuffed with fluff, as the theme song tells us and the animation makes clear, where does the honey GO when he eats it?

There are a few jokes taken directly from Milne, like Pooh thinking Owl is sneezing when he says “issue”; but most of the humor is original. The sequence with the various plays on the word “knot” seemed quite vaudevillian, and it was clever that they recognized Owl could fly out of the pit but no one ever thought of it. It’s like Roger Rabbit said: he couldn’t get out at ANY time, only when it was funny. And who would have expected a Pooh feature to adapt a joke from The Simpsons? Okay, maybe it wasn’t original with that show either, but tell me that you didn’t think of the episode “Flaming Moe’s” when Pooh imagined that everyone was saying “honey” for every other word.

There are some fantasy sequences that allow experimentation with the animation: Pooh performing a Busby Berkeley routine in a giant honey pot, a bit looking like it was drawn with chalk during the Backson song, and the rough drawings of Rabbit being rewarded with money and girls for rescuing Pooh.

The Backson resembles the My Pet Monster toys from the 1980s, and I think there’s a hint of Looney Tunes to him as well. In the post-credits sequence, he’s voiced by folksy television reporter Huell Howser, who died last year. I did find a few things a little off, like Pooh exposing Piglet to bees in an attempt to obtain honey, Rabbit hitting Pooh in frustration, and Roo referring to Piglet as “the pig”; but these were minor. And would honey really be a desirable prize to anyone but Pooh himself?

Most of the voices were pretty good imitations of the originals, although Craig Ferguson’s Owl took some getting used to. And Christopher Robin was not only made more English, but was the only one to undergo a significant redesign.

John Cleese appeared as the narrator, and in the grand tradition of Disney’s Pooh, frequently interacts with the characters, often prodding Pooh into moving the plot along. Along the same lines, there’s a sequence where the characters use the text to escape a pit.

Interestingly, Disney’s original character Gopher didn’t appear at all, but I don’t think he would have added anything anyway. There’s a new semi-character in the form of an extremely resilient red balloon that everyone treats like a living thing, and while balloons do show up in a few of Milne’s Pooh stories, I have to wonder what the purpose of this one really was.

As a fan of Zooey Deschanel’s musical career, I appreciate that she sang a few songs. In general, it very much called to mind the earliest Disney Pooh cartoons, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. From what I recall, it didn’t last at the box office for that long, although that was partially because of bad timing. It came out the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Hopefully it’s performed better on video. By the way, the disc we received from Netflix was terribly scratched. What do people DO with those DVDs?

Posted in Cartoons, Music, Revisiting Disney, VoVat Goes to the Movies, Winnie-the-Pooh | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’ll Drink to That

It might be interesting to make a list of all the food and drink in which characters in the Oz books partake, but I’m not going to do that just now. I do, however, want to mention a few drinks that show up in the series. One is lacasa, described in The Road to Oz as “a sort of nectar famous in Oz and nicer to drink than soda-water or lemonade.” For being so famous, however, we never see it mentioned again in the main series. There are quite a few mentions of lemonade, reportedly one of L. Frank Baum’s favorite drinks. It’s one of mine as well, although I’ve had to cut down a bit recently. For instance, a dinner pail from a tree in the Land of Ev contained a small tank of lemonade, it rains lemonade in Mo (I have to suspect that can get really sticky), and the characters in Merry Go Round come across lemonade brooks. In Forbidden Fountain, Emeralda Ozgood accidentally makes limeade with the Water of Oblivion.

Root beer, said to be the national drink of the Nome Kingdom, shows up a few times as well.

So do milk, coffee, tea, and cocoa. I believe it was Ruth Plumly Thompson who first mentioned Ozade, which is referred to in a few of her books, but she never specifically says what it is. When Singra gives Trot a magic potion in Wicked Witch, she claims that it’s Ozade. I’ve heard that, when Ozade is served at Oz conventions in the Great Outside World, it’s usually limeade. I’ve seen it suggested that Ozade and lacasa could be the same thing, but I prefer to think of them as different. And in Giant Horse, the Wizard of Oz drinks something called emeralade. In Wonder City, the Emerald City has a quite popular public soda fountain.

Speaking of soda, is there any connection between Sprite having a “lymon” taste and Baum’s first name? Probably not. Dick Martin’s Cut and Assemble the Emerald City of Oz has one of its buildings advertising Oza-Cola. I can’t recall this soda appearing anywhere else, and a Google search just brings up results pertaining to a Coca-Cola executive named Rohan Oza. One kind of beverage we don’t see much in the series is the alcoholic sort, probably due to the time in which most of them were written. One non-canonical book, Jeff Freedman’s Magic Dishpan, has a stream of wine that becomes grape juice when drunk by someone underage. A cute idea, but I have to wonder what the legal drinking age is in fairyland.

Posted in Dick Martin, Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Food, John R. Neill, L. Frank Baum, Oz, Oz Authors, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Ruth Plumly Thompson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

What Oz, What Was, and What Could Have Been

Was, by Geoff Ryman – My friend Tavie lent me this book because of the Oz connection. It’s weird how she’ll read books related to Oz, but not the actual Oz books. Anyway, in one of the first issues of The Baum Bugle I ever received, there were two reviews of this that were basically polar opposites, with one reviewer loving the book and the other hating it. I thought it was a pretty good read, but it was very dark. It presents the real Dorothy as an abused girl. Uncle Henry rapes her, and Aunt Em kills Toto. As a result, she becomes a bully at school. When L. Frank Baum serves as her substitute teacher for a little while, he resolves to give her the life he wished she had. Historically, Baum’s presence as a teacher in Kansas is quite unlikely, as he received little formal education and was not known to have spent much time in the state. In a more modern setting, an actor named Jonathan who has had an Oz obsession with childhood is dying of AIDS, and is determined to track down the story’s background before he goes. I was reading the end of this while in the doctor’s office today, and I have to say that’s probably not the best place to be seeing symptoms of AIDS described. There are also a few chapters about Judy Garland and her family, and while they fit the tone and structure of the book, I don’t feel they add that much to the narrative. Overall, it’s a call not to forget childhood, and a defense of escaping into fantasy. I have to wonder if Ryman, who mixes elements from Baum with MGM (for instance, Uncle Henry’s last name is Gulch, but there’s no indication as to how that would influence the movie script when Baum didn’t do anything with it), was familiar with Oz books beyond the first one. He might well have at least read Ozma of Oz, since he makes a mention of Ev, suggesting that “Öz Ev” is Turkish for “real home.” No idea whether there’s any truth to that, but a Google Search does reveal that there’s a restaurant with that name in Ankara.

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The Monk and the Monkey

Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu – This classic of Chinese literature, first published in the sixteenth century, is quite loosely based on the real-life pilgrimage of the seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang from China to India to retrieve scriptures. Many legends developed regarding this journey, the most famous being that he was accompanied by several supernatural disciples who had to atone for their sins. The novel focuses not on the monk himself, who’s presented as a paragon of virtue but quite naive, but more on the disciples, particularly the Monkey King Sun Wu-k’ung.

Indeed, there are seven chapters of his adventures before the monk is even introduced. He’s a comic relief character, but also someone who undergoes character growth. He’s a mischievous trickster, and I have to suspect part of his appeal is that he totally goes against the desire for order that we usually think of when considering China, causing chaos just because he thinks it’s fun and in order to obtain recognition. Placated somewhat when he receives the grand-sounding but meaningless title of Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, he eventually rebels openly against the supernatural authorities. He resists all efforts to subdue him until the original Buddha traps him in a mountain for 500 years. Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, frees him and allows him to accompany the monk, here called Tripitaka (Sanzang in some translations). He provides brain, brawn, and magical power along the way, but retains some of his mischievous spirit.

The second disciple is Chu Pa-chieh, a pig-demon driven by gluttony, laziness, and lust. A celestial general in his past life, he was transformed to his current grotesque form as punishment for trying to sexually harass Chang’e. He’s also a fighter and a magician, and at first he tends to try to sabotage Wu-k’ung, but they later learn to work together.

The third companion is known as Sha Monk, a sand-demon from the Flowing-Sand River, and is much less developed than the first two.

There’s also a dragon who, after devouring Tripitaka’s horse, is turned into a horse himself. The journey to India takes fourteen years, which is more or less accurate to the historical Xuanzang’s pilgrimage. It only took him about a year to reach India, however; the extra time was spent studying with various Buddhist masters in the area. In the story, it takes all this time just to get to India, suggesting they took directions from Moses. At the end, it’s revealed that they covered a total of 108,000 miles, which means they must have taken the most circuitous route possible. The plot largely consists of the obstacles the travelers come across on their journey, often in the form of demons living in mountain caves who want to eat Tripitaka’s flesh in order to expand their own lifetimes. They play tricks that the monk frequently falls for, and Wu-k’ung has to bail him out. It gets pretty formulaic after a while, although there are multiple variations on the theme.

The story is interesting from a religious and mythological standpoint, presenting a world presided over by many different deities. While promoting Buddhism, other belief systems are acknowledged as well. Wu-k’ung gains his abilities through Taoism, but is unable to overcome the nastier aspects of his character. It’s only when he embraces Buddhism that he achieves the merit he’s always desired. The ruler of Heaven is the Jade Emperor, and Lao-Tzu himself features as a prominent immortal, but it’s the Buddha who appears to be the most powerful. There are appearances by many different mythological figures, including the Moon Rabbit I wrote about before and the dragons who rule the oceans.

Picture by Kuren
This edition was published in four volumes, and while I have to wonder why the library system wouldn’t let me request individual volumes online, that doesn’t relate to the work itself. While it gets slow in spots, overall I quite liked it. It helps if you have an interest in mythology, I suppose.

Picture by Darth Design

Posted in Book Reviews, Buddhism, China, Chinese, History, India, Magic, Monsters, Mythology, Religion, Taoism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment