Japanese Language


We all know about the Pirates vs. Ninjas meme, but what happens when the ninjas are pirates? That’s what happened with last year’s incarnation of the Super Sentai, Kaizoku Sentai Goukaiger (Pirate Warriors Goukaiger). So the Super Sentai are the original form of what becomes the Power Rangers in the US, before they strip out all the scenes with Japanese actors and re-do it all with American (or more recently, New Zealand) actors just keeping the fighting scenes. So ever since Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger was re-broadcast as the original Power Rangers in 1993, the Power Rangers have always been Ninja-based. They had ninja zords, ninja powers, ninja this and ninja that. In the original Japanese the yearly incarnation wasn’t always so ninja-centric, only Kakuranger in 1994 and Hurricanger in 2002 were specifically ninja-based. Others have been police/detective based, car based, Kung Fu based, and even Samurai based.

However last year’s incarnation was absolutely based around pirates. Here’s the intro if you’re interested. Although Power Rangers have been brought to the US since 1993, in Japan it’s been going since 1975-76, and for the 35th anniversary of the Super Sentai Toei Studios decided to do something special: the gimmick is that the ‘Pirate Rangers’ have stolen the powers of all the previous Rangers, and can call upon their powers during battles. This basically means lots of nostalgia for adults that grew up watching the show, as well as numerous cameos from actors and actresses from former years of the show.

Even though I only knew incarnations from 1992 and onward, it was interesting – and at times appalling – to see the real old-school characters. Probably the most bizarre was Battle Fever J from 1979. Partly inspired by Marvel character Captain America, and partly inspired by the disco craze of the late 1970’s, Battle Fever J had 5 heroes: Battle Japan, Battle France, Battle Cossack (Soviet Union), Battle Kenya and Miss America. It pretty much has to be seen to be believed. Also keep in mind that this came right after the Japanese Spiderman (which btw, can be watched in its entirety on the Marvel website), of which the most normal reaction for Americans seeing it for the first time is this:
spit take
Also in Battle Fever J, it’s painfully obvious that during the fighting scenes that Miss America is being played by a guy. Well, I guess it’s just following a long tradition of Japanese theater. (On the other hand, in Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, which became the original Power Rangers, the Yellow Ranger was actually a guy. I wonder what Thuy Trang felt about that?)

So that was a little strange, but I also got so see a bit of some of the really good Super Sentai that have never been translated into English. Specifically, Jetman was the year before Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, but is regarded by many as the best of all of them in terms of story. Ryoko and I in fact watched all of it and it was a lot of fun to watch, though much of it hasn’t aged well to tell the truth. Also the original Time Rangers from 2000 is a favorite of many, which in a way is unfortunate because that became Power Rangers: Time Force which was frankly pretty crappy.

If you’re interested in watching Gokaiger, the entire series (with English subtitles), can be torrented here.

In my never ending quest to understand a little more of the Japanese language (and never succeeding because I never invest enough time in it), one thing that consistently frustrates me is old and ancient script. In the title wrote Chinese/Japanese because 1.) The Japanese kanji come from Chinese as everyone knows, and 2.) For many centuries after writing was first introduced to Japan from China, all writing in Japan was done in Chinese. In Japanese this is called kobun (古文, lit. old writing), and as Westerners we may think of it as analogous to medieval and renaissance Europe where all scholarly work was done in Latin, regardless of whatever language you might actually be speaking (i.e. Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin).

I have no hope of reading this ancient Japanese/Chinese, but that’s actually not what I’m referring to. I’m instead talking about the old way to write the characters. Just like how vocabulary and grammar for a language evolve and change over time, so did the way of writing the characters. In this picture from Wikipedia you can see the evolution of the character for tiger.

So even if I’m not trying to read ancient Japanese or Chinese texts, the old style of writing still shows up fairly frequently (similar to how old Gothic and Latin scripts and such still get used in English), but they can be nearly impossible to read, even if you can read the modern form of the character! One place they show up fairly often is in seals. In Japanese legal documents, instead of signing with a signature, you place a red stamp with your official seal (think of royalty using their signet ring to seal letters and documents). In order to prevent forgery, ideally your seal is hand made by a licensed seal craftsman so that it is unique, and then the seal itself is registered in your name at the government offices. The characters often used on these seals are called seal script, and it is the style that evolved during the Qin dynasty of ancient China. Some examples of seals using the seal script I got on google search are here, here, here, and some here.

For example, here are two seal script characters:

If I hadn’t looked up these specific two characters, I would have no chance in reading them even though their modern forms are characters I am very familiar with. In fact, the modern form of these two characters is:

Which is in fact the name of my blog, moroha.

So the question is, where did I look these up? Japanese dictionaries invariably never have them, but I did find a Chinese/English language site that has them. Just put the kanji you want to look up in the blank and click the button that says Etymology, and it will give you the modern character in both traditional and simplified Chinese, in addition to all known variants of seal script, bronze script, and oracle bone script (the really old stuff). As long as you’re using unicode the characters are interchangeable, so you can still do the input in Japanese.

For some real craziness, check out all the old variations for the character of horse, one of the oldest. All this craziness about having many different ways to write the same character was one thing that the 1st emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, tried to do away with when he standardized the writing system for all of China.

Any geek that grew up in the 80’s or 90’s probably remembers the X-men cartoon that was on during the 90’s. The animation wasn’t all that great, but it was still entertaining for this teenager at the time. The intro here may bring back a few memories:

I just saw something that blew my mind though. In a rare exception to the norm, the X-men cartoon was ported and re-dubbed for a Japanese release. Here is the Japanese intro:

First of all, that heavy guitar J-pop totally reminds me of the theme to Fist of the North Star, which I have blogged about before, even starting with “Shock!” which is all too similar to Fist of the North Star’s “You are shock!”. There are also some weird inconsistencies like Magneto summoning the Brood, Cable in power armor, etc., but I’m not familiar enough with the Marvel universe to comment on them.

I can however, comment on the lyrics for the theme song. According to Wikipedia, the song is ライジング (Rising), by the Japanese band アンビエンス (Ambiance). Here are the lyrics and my attempted translation in parenthesis:

Shock! 嘘で固めたナイフ切り付け (Shock! Cut with the knife hardened by lies)
Shock! 夢を飲み込み街は輝く (Shock! Catch the dream as the city shines)
争いや憎しみで その身削られてゆく (The conflict and hatred cut away at you)
真夜中襲いくる 人知れぬまま (They attack unseen in the night)
Break Out!
ライムライト 光るざわめき (Commotion in the limelight)
リアルタイム 濡れた幻 (Real-time wet illusion)
Cry for the moon

The translation is quite hard (for me, at least) because as often happens in song lyrics and poetry in general is that many particles (similar to prepositions, they identify the part of speech the word or phrase is) are completely omitted, so I have to guess what the relationship is between the different words. Those last two lines are the hardest, as they don’t make any sense to me, especially the 濡れた幻 (wet illusion). What in the world is that supposed to mean?

Although, that “Cry for the moon” at the end is pretty awesome.