May 28, 2004
This is a simple game that is played with the animal flashcards that are intended to be used in the kids classes. The deck is shuffled, the cards are dealt and the terms 'high-stakes', 'fold' and 'hold 'em' are taught, more for the instructor's amusement than anything else. (Anyone who has lived in Japan for any period of time will know that there is no need to teach Japanese people the word 'gambler'.) Each student lays down an animal, and then a battle ensues in which students attempt to 'knockout' the other students' animals by playing cards from their hand and making comparisons in which their animal is superior to that of their opponent. ("My monkey is smarter than your mouse," etc.) In the game's debut, Chisato (a housewife) and Chieko (a thirteen year old girl) savaged each others' forces, leaving the witless Morihisa (god knows what he does for a living) largely unscathed. It was looking like a serious tactical error when Chieko was left with only a rabbit to face Morihisa, who was showing a horse and had, let's face it, already done seven lessons on how to make comparisons whereas she was on her first, but Morihisa, frozen, was unable to generate a comparison in which the horse trumped the rabbit and could only watch as his entire kingdom was laid to waste by the rabbit.
THE WORLD FAMOUS ANIMAL TOURNAMENT
One thing I like very much about Japanese people is that they can always be counted on to have an opinion about animals. Now, I'm fairly confident that any of my friends could produce a top-five-animals list in fairly short order, but the average man-on-the-street back in the USA has, I suspect, not given very much thought to the subject, which is very stupid not to have done. At the beginning of the class, students are asked to list their top five animals. (Nobody has trouble doing this.) Then they are taught how to make similes ('_ is as [adj.] as _' or '_ is not as [adj.] as _'), and while they are doing a silent reading exercise, I use the top five lists to seed the tournament. Snakes, wolves and pirahnas get automatic bids because they are featured in the text lesson I use to give the exercise an air of scholastic legitimacy, and also because every great competition needs villains as well as heroes, teams you root for as well as teams you root against. All of the #1 animals from the students' lists make the tournament, and so do animals featured on more than one list. Then, after some educational mumbo-jumbo, we are ready to play. Comparisons must be made, each series is best-of-three; the rest is up to chance.
For two consecutive tournaments, Dogs came in as the consensus top-ranked species, and for two consecutive tournaments, Dogs made first-round exits. Their collapse in the first tournament remains the most shocking. Though hardly a small-species team, Birds had shown very little support prior to the match, earning a bid only because I had spent a while explaining the differences between parrots and parakeets and I needed a low-ranked team to fill out the lower end of the bracket. (The seeding procedures weren't completely finalized at that point.) In the end, Dogs' inability to fly cost them greatly. Birds' triumph was short-lived, as they got swept by Goldfish in the next round. But for a while, they were the toast of the Animal Tournament.
Dogs would suffer another upset loss to Pirahnas in the Animal Tournament II before finally righting the ship and reaching the finals against Cats in Animal Tournament III, going on to topple Cinderella-story Koalas in Animal Tournament IV. "I fucking hate Dogs," said Andrew, a fellow teacher. "They're the Manchester United of Animal Tournament."
Pirahnas are the Gonzaga of Animal Tournament. They never, ever appear on anyone's top five lists, yet tournament after tournament, thanks largely to the sharpness of their teeth and their swimming ability, they upset a larger-species competitor and go on an improbable run that stops just short of the trophy. In Animal Tournament II, the class wiseacre decided that he was backing Pirahnas all the way, and his aggressive approach stunned the rest of the class; before they had really begun to get comfortable with the target structure, he'd led Pirahnas to an upset of heavily-favored Dogs. (Dogs vs. Pirahnas is one of the great rivalries of Animal Tournament. They played twice more after that first matchup, with Dogs winning the next two.) By the time the next round began, the rest of the class was a little more prepared to back their own animals. Pirahnas took the first comparison, but Cats roared back to seize the second. The wiseacre was ready and spoke quickly, making a comparison on the grounds of 'cool'...but he made a key mistake in sentence structure and put the pirahnas first in the sentence, so it came out 'Pirahnas are not as cool as Cats.' He realized what he'd done and howled. The class cheered. Cats went on to lose in the finals to Goldfish.
I double-checked the seeding because it looked too good to be true: a possible semi-finals matchup between Monkeys and Elephants. It had the potential to be the greatest non-championship series in Animal Tournament history. I began to think about inviting other classes in to watch. But anything is possible on paper; five minutes later, Wolves had upset Monkeys and Pirahnas had, for the second tournament in a row, swept the Elephants. The students seemed to realize they had fucked up when the semi-finals rolled around and we were looking at Wolves against Pirahnas. Nice one. Television ratings went through the floor. Elephants, the Kevin Garnett of Animal Tournament, have yet to get out of the first round.
"I think there's something dodgy in the seeding there," said one of my fellow teachers, studying a bracket. "Monkeys got a pretty cushy first-round matchup, considering Dogs were the #1 seed and they had to play Pirahnas." The league office denied all knowledge of wrong-doing.
I: Cats (d Goldfish)
II: Goldfish (d Cats)
III: Cats (d Dogs)
IV: Dogs (d Koalas)
V: Wolves (d Horses)
VI: Dogs (d Dolphins)
VII: Tigers (d Fish)
Of course, you read all of that and you narrow your eyes. "He is dodging the question," you mutter. "Still I do not know where he has been for the last month. He must account for a number of things, and he has not done so. Curse his evasiveness; I will demand answers."
"Holy shit!" you cry, seizing your computer monitor. "Is that a statue of two monkeys dressed as samurais?! And one of them has a bandage on his leg, presumably from a battle of some kind?! I cannot believe I have seen this! Having done so, how am I supposed to write this report for work? Thanks for blowing my mind, you damn webpage guy!!
Last Friday was the one-year anniversary of my landing in Japan, so I decided to celebrate by going to the zoo. (Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo.) The Kyoto Zoo is notoriously depressing, so I decided to take the train up to to the atmospheric urban decay of Osaka and its Tenno-ji Zoo. It was, as the following image proves, a fine decision:
The zoo itself is in an oddly exhilirating state of disrepair. The animals have been finding food somehow, but the staff appear to have fucked off at some point in the late 1960s. (It's not hard to guess where they might have gone: the zoo is next to the Shin-Sekai district, which is full of low-rent porn theaters, pachinko halls and gloriously seedy shogi parlors.) The Western concepts of 'urban planning' don't exist as we know them in Japan, leading to bizarre sights like this:
The rhinos have very easy access to the highway, which is exactly what you'd want them to have, I suppose. There were a fine bunch of monkeys and penguins at Tenno-ji, and those are the cornerstones of any zoo, as far as I am concerned. (I'm not going to walk away disappointed as long as there are some monkeys and some penguins; it is a good rule to live by, really.) The hippo was underwater the whole time I was there, but they did have this helpful display that explained the ecosystem that forms around hippos:
So, that's how that works. It was a very nice day. Later, I went to Kairyukan, the Osaka Aquarium, which was all right. Unlike Tenno-ji, the owners had spent more on building it than the spare change they had in their pockets at the moment when one of them said, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to own an aquarium," so there was a fairly different ambiance. The highlight, predictably enough, was in Ecuadorian rain forest exhibit. It was intended to display some turtles and other fish, but the overly-thorough designers had evidently gotten a bulk discount on organisms typically found in the area:
The three resident squirrel monkeys were avoiding the water, pausing in their leaps to give occasional utterly-confounded looks downward. ("Look, I'm sure they know there's been a mistake. Probably some fish wound up at the zoo and they'll be sending a car for us any minute now.) In any event, for those of us who were not squirrel monkeys, that was also a pleasant day. I sat and stared for a while:
I almost had something. Oof! For a minute there, I nearly lost myself.