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All About White Rice

If you’ve actually got a taste for Japanese-style short-grain white rice, here’s what years of experimentation have taught Akemi and I: Most of what you find in a US West Coast supermarket is junk.

The best readily-available rice on the West Coast is Lundberg Organic Sushi rice (also sold in bulk), but even that is only decent. If, however, you can find a well-stocked Asian market, Tamanishiki (comes in a yellow bag) is the best stuff—not going to stand up to the best stuff in Japan, but it’s even up to snuff by Japanese standards (H-mart, a Korean supermarket chain with locations all over the US, carries it, for example). It will also run you about $25 for a 15-pound bag, and is as far as I’ve seen the most expensive of the common high-end brands. You get what you pay for, I guess. (You can order a bag through Amazon, amusingly, although shipping will run you $17: Tamanishiki, 15 lbs.)

Also keep your eye out for “New Crop” stickers—the bag gets those when it’s fresh and starchier, which is to say better by Japanese standards.

If you’re looking for a step up even from that, I have seen, in San Francisco’s small Japanese district, several house-brand, small-bag organic versions of more common brands. That’s the only place I ever saw them, and I didn’t try one because they were twice the price of anything else and the penny pincher in the family vetoed it.

Rice quality is a touchy subject among Japanese and aficionados of Japanese food. Up through meeting Akemi, I was under the impression that rice was rice. It took a few years of demonstration otherwise before I eventually developed my taste to the point that not only was long-grain white rice entirely unpalatable (dry and bland) unless it’s being fried or otherwise seasoned, I could tell the difference between low, medium, and high-quality short-grain (aka Calrose), Japanese-style rice. Japanese people, of course, have been doing the same thing since birth, so their pickiness is that much worse. I’ve sampled a pretty wide range of quality, including the privilege of a small annual bag of fresh, hand-picked, farmers’ special straight from the fields in Japan, on account of there being some old-timer rice farmers in the extended family—now that is good stuff.

On the plus side, I can now properly appreciate a super-premium product like that on a more-than-conceptual level. On the minus, I can no longer stand “cheap” rice, into which category a surprising amount of Asian restaurant rice falls. Oh well; thus is the price of being a connoisseur/food snob.

Pro tips: The biggest sign of quality in white rice is how it tastes on the second day; the better the rice, the fresher it seems when reheated. Also, never refrigerate cooked rice—a chemical reaction occurs that turns it into a bowl of tiny rocks. Surprisingly, though, it will keep for at least a day, probably two or three, out of the fridge, so long as your house isn’t too warm; freezing it also works quite well. When reheating rice (particularly if it’s been frozen), sprinkle a bit of water on it, cover, and microwave—this basically re-cooks it to restore the texture to a pretty good approximation of when it was fresh. It won’t help much with refrigerated rice, but it’s better than throwing it out.

The easiest way to cook rice is to get a standalone electric rice cooker. The fanciest Japanese ones use all manner of crazy technology—fuzzy logic control schemes, inductive heating, triple-Teflon-coated bowls, and Lord knows what else—and of course have a price to match (not unusual to see them costing into the $200 range). That’s all fine and dandy, but really, the budget $20 crock-pot-style cookers at your local K-Mart will get the job done with a minimum of hassle. At worst they’re likely to burn a little of the rice to the bottom.

Any rice cooker will also come with a measuring cup and have markings on the side so that you can easily determine how much water to put in for a given number of cups of rice. This is probably obvious, but keep in mind that one dry cup of rice expands into a considerably larger amount of cooked rice—about three times as much. (Interestingly, “rice cooker cups” used when measuring dry rice are generally standardized at 180ml, which is smaller than both a US cup, which is 240ml, and a Japanese cup, which is 200ml; this is a leftover of an archaic unit of Japanese measurement, Gou. The only other thing now measured in that unit is sake. Fortunately, if the water level marks on a rice cooker are designed for these cups, it will always include a properly-sized measuring cup.)

A few cooking tips: While you don’t need to wash rice, the Japanese almost always do—at least two rinses in my family. With less-fresh rice—which is to say anything not labeled “New Crop”—it’ll come out better if you let it sit in the water for about 45 minutes before you start it cooking. You probably also want to add a little more water than the rice cooker tells you to, or it may be on the firm side.

Incidentally, don’t take this to mean we don’t appreciate brown rice. Whatever culinary purpose white rice serves, brown rice (which hasn’t had the outer shell removed) is drastically healthier than white. Indeed, you can very nearly live on brown rice, while white rice—as Japanese sailors discovered the hard way in centuries past—lacks several essential nutrients. Countless men in the Japanese Navy died from Beriberi, a neurological disease with a funny name that’s a lot better known in Japan than elsewhere for exactly this reason—it’s caused by thiamine deficiency, which could have been prevented by eating whole rice instead of processed white stuff. The funny name isn’t Japanese by the way—it’s called Kakke in Japanese.

In fact, if you make onigiri—rice balls—with a 50/50 mix of short grain brown rice and white rice, they have an appealingly firm texture and are, if anything, even tastier. At worst, they’re unquestionably healthier than straight white.

Dirty Pair TV: Good Stuff

When RightStuf announced their two Dirty Pair TV series box sets I pre-ordered mine pretty much that day.  The first one arrived recently, and I just got around to watching a bit. Man is that a fun show. When you see an action show with a date like 1985 on the box, you might expect something with less of the polished, frenetic spectacle of high-energy modern shows. You would be sorely mistaken in this case.

Seriously, the first episode starts off with zero backstory or lead-in—it hits the ground running at full speed, and does not stop until the credits roll. In terms of frantic, end-to-end, to-the-limit, extreme action, I would put that 25 minutes up against just about any episode, of any show, of any era, in any medium. Nor does it disappoint in the epic-scale collateral damage that earned the Dirty Pair their name, although only a little bit of it is their fault. Forget xXx—these girls were doing that stuff when Vin Diesel was still in high school.

Being a general fan of light, frantic, extreme action, I’ll close by quoting the immortal words of the Outpost.com spokesman: That’s good stuff.

Ghost Hound Notes

The packaging on Ghost Hound caught my eye, but I’ll confess that the main reason I bought it was to see how Sentai Filmworks’ did with its first blu-ray release.

The hook is pretty good—in a rural mountain town in the south of Japan 14-year-old Taro was kidnapped along with his sister about ten years ago; the kidnapper was killed in a car accident, and while he survived the ordeal she did not. He now leads a relatively normal life, but continues to be haunted by traumatic dreams of the experience; his mother appears to be in far worse shape mentally. Things start getting more interesting when he begins having out-of-body experiences while sleeping, and gets involved with two new kids at school, a chatty, annoying transfer student from out of town and a surly local boy whose family may have had some connection to Taro’s kidnapping.

It’s an interesting series; in the spirit of Serial Experiments Lain and Boogiepop Phantom, the pacing is methodic—glacial, really—the atmosphere is oppressive, the cinematography is disjointed and disorienting, and it’s loaded with philosophical commentary trying to juxtapose psychiatric research and assorted supernatural phenomenon.

On one hand, a lot of that works. Certainly creepy, you really don’t have much idea what’s happening until way into it, and the heavy discussions of psychiatric understanding are periodically interesting.

The soundscape in particular is incredible; a mixture of unintelligible radio chatter, electronic background noise, and everyday sounds distorted to the point they’re unrecognizable, it envelopes you and adds a creepy air to nearly everything. After the aggressive, jazzy opening (which I like a lot, though the accompanying visuals are random clips rather than something creative) the first episode doesn’t have so much as a note of music until halfway through, and then only atmospheric, abstract drum riffs. The rest of the series doesn’t have much more than that. The wistful end theme, however, is quite lovely.

That’s one reason I’m glad I got it on blu-ray; the DTS Master audio track is razor-sharp and makes incredible use of the 5.1 channel soundstage, with noises alternately quiet and oppressively loud, filling the room or swirling around you, and a tonal range from piercing electronic whines so high pitched they’re nearly inaudible to low-pitched hums and pounding heartbeat-like thuds that make full use of the subwoofer to vibrate your seat. I’d have loved a 6- or 7-channel surround track, but it’s still some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard.

At the same time, the whole thing seems to be fighting against its own visuals. The backgrounds are loosely-painted but very pretty and do a wonderful job of capturing the small-mountain-town flavor (reminded me a lot of my in-laws’ worn, lived-in hometown, though it’s a completely different part of Japan). The character art, however, is quite flat and simple, which does give a touch of innocence to the junior-high characters but also seems weirdly conventional for a series that’s otherwise so avant-garde. It’s much worse once the supernatural stuff kicks in—a whole lot of astral projection, which at first looks, frankly, goofy. It improves somewhat later on, but only to the point it’s not actively shooting down the mood—nowhere near helping.

It’s almost like the art director or whoever else had a hand in the visual design had no experience on edgy projects like this, and was running entirely on shounen action experience. If you just describe them, it sounds ok: “When they first start astral projecting, their bodies look like transparent infants or embryos, since they are new to the experience.” In practice, however, the effect is more comical than anything—nowhere near creepy or atmospheric enough to match everything else.

I do like the character designs, though; the kids are wide-eyed and look like kids, while the adults have a lot of personality and some very distinctive, often way-creepy looks. Also very lanky physiques, which contrasts with the stocky kids. (An aside, Akemi is a big fan of scary-eyed Makoto’s look.)

The psychological stuff is rather long-winded, to put it mildly—come prepared for lectures in introductory psychology/philosophy/parapsychology. On the plus side, it does mention a few lesser-known therapy techniques, several of which I happened to have run across during counseling for an extended illness—TFT, EMDR, and a couple other things rang a bell. Not things I ever expected to turn up in anime, that’s for sure, and the presentation is fairly realistic.

Ghost Hound also takes a really, really long time to get anywhere—the first couple episodes are glacial, and nothing really starts moving in earnest until the series is two thirds over. It’s not budget-induced—it seems to have all the money necessary—it’s just slow. To a point I can accept that as setting the mood, but at some point it started feeling like it it was meandering for no particular reason.

The end is also weird, in that it’s not weird. On the contrary, the last few episodes almost completely make sense, and it drops a lot of the artistry for a relatively straightforward presentation. This had me torn; on one hand I liked that it actually made sense. Even more so in that it didn’t explain everything—some stuff was just not meant for mortal man to know—but it all fits together in a sort of disorganized, somewhat surprising way. It doesn’t fully follow up on several plot threads, but most of the main emotional stuff is addressed clearly. It’s also nice that stuff does finally start popping loose emotionally—it all finally hits the fan around episode 18—so there’s some meaty, teary drama if you sit through enough dead-eyed stares and subtle implications.

On the flip side, the end was somewhat abrupt and a little too cleanly happy—almost weirdly so, although the underlying theme is about moving on after past tragedy, so it kind of makes sense. I like that it was satisfying, but it painted a much-too-happy face on a few of the secondary, really ugly relationship things that just would not resolve so tidily. Still, two out of three main characters work, so that’s not too bad. I was also disappointed that it pretty much dropped the bizarre soundscape for those last few episodes.

Somewhat ironically, one of the most memorable features about the show will go completely unnoticed by most English-speaking viewers: Being set in a mountain village on the southern island Kyuushuu, all the locals—which is to say most of the characters in the show—have very strong accents. Strong enough that I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but according to Akemi accurate so far as she could tell, and it sounded good to my ear. This lent a tremendous amount of flavor to nearly all the dialogue, and gave the whole thing a very unusual feel on top of everything else going on, but Sentai Filmworks’ subtitles make no effort whatsoever to capture this, so I’d guess most people watching outside Japan will be missing this entirely.  Too bad.

Speaking of the subtitles, they’re mostly pretty good, although sadly they played somewhat loose with the names—they didn’t use Japanese suffixes, and on top of it tended to substitute first names rather than the more nuanced mix you get depending on relationship. This was particularly unfortunate a few times when the suffix and/or particular name that was being used signaled something about the relationship.

The other memorable point for me was the characters; they look like a pretty generic set of anime kids—the chatty, annoying one, the normal, meek one, and the brooding, angry one. However, they all have family problems ranging from major to extreme (divorce, kidnapping, suicide) that explain why they’re like that, and give a much stronger emotional hook to them. There are also lots of adults, who are not incompetent—indeed, while the kids’ astral projection abilities mean there’s some stuff only they can do, they also can’t get much done without the adults, and they do eventually start explaining what all is going on. Oh, and I also liked that the adults initially assume that the supernatural stuff the kids are explaining are psychological problems, until it starts to become clear that there’s more going on.

Two other notes that are full-on spoilers:  One, the therapist who shows up in the first episode is about as creepy as it is possible for a psychologist to be. Like, serial killer, I’m going to dissect your brain, or eat your psyche creepy. And yet, he’s not evil. His reason for being there turns out to be somewhat self-serving, but he’s never anything but a helpful doctor, and it turns out he starts freaking out when supernatural stuff happens to him. And then, he goes and approaches it from an analytical standpoint—“Ok, paranormal stuff is happening. Am I suffering from delusions or is there something more going on, and if so, what is it.” My personal favorite character, which I would never have seen coming. There’s also a generic background kid who joins the central trio of friends who I assumed was either doomed or going to get ignored, but he sticks around to the end and stays directly involved.

The other is that I really, really liked the big, apocalyptic-looking semi-supernatural showdown at the end. There’s a cult, a bunch of mystic wanderers, organized crime, corporate espionage, science experiments gone horribly wrong, at least one deity floating around, and a cursed/holy mountain. However, it only looks apocalyptic. So far as is clear nothing really disastrous was going to happen, and most of the really spectacular looking wrath-of-god stuff is caused outright by the main characters and, frankly, isn’t at all wrath of god, just flashy. So far as I can tell, the world was not going to come to an end either way even if the main characters had not intervened, it just would have messed up the lives of some people and maybe gotten a few killed. Maybe. They explicitly mention synchronicity—that when a bunch of crazy stuff overlaps, we want to believe it’s all part of some grand plan or conspiracy, but a lot of the time it’s just a coincidence—like here. Not all a coincidence, and maybe there was a bit of grand plan to it, but mostly just a big, disorganized mess.

That, if nothing else, was not where I expected the metaphysics to go. And really, any head-trip show like this that doesn’t go all abstract, head-trip, Eva-mental-breakdown at the end gets a lot of points in my book, even if it was a little disappointingly conventional.