Henka in Sumo

Benjamin Morris has written a fascinating article about sumo history on FiveThirtyEight. There’s lots of interesting things in there, including the dominance of foreign sumotori and perhaps the cautionary tale for any nation: if you set the immigration bar too high, then the only people you let in are going to be good enough to beat you. No Japanese tournaments won by a Japanese wrestler for a decade? Oof, that’s gotta hurt.


Action-packed sumo illustration from the Fudebakudo book.
Now read the article instead.

But what especially caught my eye is the discussion at the end about henka. In sumo this is basically abruptly getting out of the way so that the other guy (and for now, yes, it will be the other guy not the other girl) throws himself out of the ring for you. This movement is very much in line with teachings of aikido (it’s effectively what the basic step called tenkan seeks to accomplish, albeit sumo somehow gets it to work without a compliant uke) and as we know aikido presents itself as a moral and spiritual art. Getting out of the way is a good, noble thing. Got it.

But in sumo, getting out of the way is dishonourable. It’s what you do if you’re not good enough to deal with that other guy by staying in the way, see? Unfortunately for sumo, because you’re not supposed to do it, it works far better than would be the case if your honourable opponent trusts you not to try it on. So it really works (and Morris’s excellent article makes a case for a success rate approaching 92%), and will continue to work while it’s considered naughty. Fudebakudo-approved behaviour!

Lovely analysis and data visualisations over there too. Bravo Mr Morris!

The Concuspidor: twenty years old

By now (July 2015), the Concuspidor can start celebrating having completed his second decade on the web. More accurately, at the very end of June 1995 the first instalment of the story The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things was published online. The story progressed in weekly instalments from that point on until its conclusion six months later, just before Christmas 1995.

The Concuspidor

The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things complete with authentic 1990s-style JPEG compression artefacts

It was the first story to be told in this particular way, and I believe the first web comic in the UK to be produced and delivered solely online. At the time, it was deliberately exploiting image caching (because download speeds were so slow as to be the limiting factor back then). Your browser downloaded the illustration but then reused it because, as you clicked on the characters in the screen, subsequent requests were just pulling down comparatively small HTML pages containing the text. Nerdy historians can read more about this over on the Concuspidor history page, and there’s more information in the Concuspidor FAQ.

“the higher above the world you are, the freer your shadow is to wander”
— from the Box of Answers (in Phlegm)

The Concuspidor got a little attention at the time, including some positive reviews in the computer (offline) press. He’s been online ever since, together with his put-upon sidekick Cog, and their unexplained companion Phlegm the Pelican (who is integral to both the plot and the Answers-to-Everything reveal gag later in the story). In 2012 I added JavaScript to deliver the story in popups because it seems to make it easier to read. But other than that it remains fundamentally unchanged, a snapshot of a project delivered for the early web. As it happens, the broad-hatted buffoon served Beholder well because his presence online led to creation of the flagship puzzle Planetarium, which continues to delight and absorb a select band of patient readers to this day.

“castles built in air must address the problem of waste disposal responsibly”
— from the Box of Answers (in Phlegm)

The Concuspidor’s story contains many explicit elements of computer culture, which made sense at the time because the readership was inevitably dominated by people who were online because they were interested in computers, or were connected through the universities. In twenty years that’s changed drastically: now it would be odd to expect readers to recognise wordplay on the Asking (ASCII) character set, or security on Eunuch’s (Unix) platforms. On the other hand, now that the web has become ubiquitous in so many lives, perhaps what should seem odd is that most people using it really do know next to nothing about how the internet works.

The Concuspidor's portrait

With that in mind, it’s worth reflecting on how prescient The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things was. The premise of the technology it describes is that users ask questions that all feed to the Grand Wizard of Many Things, who fields those requests by dipping into his Box of Answers and sending responses back. Could it be that the Grand Wizard of Many Things is indeed Google? Remember this was back before Google existed, when search engines still really cared about taxonomies, and long before the idea that people would commonly navigate the web by asking questions in the browser itself. Even fibre optics are not quite so far from the mirrors and pipes that make the Concuspidor’s “information sewer pipeway” work.

So three cheers for that prince of rakes and chancers the Concuspidor, who put Beholder online and who remains here twenty years later, long after more lavish or costly projects have arisen and faded away.

Once upon a time I read Wolves in the Walls

Around ten years ago, maybe a little less, I went into a school to talk to the children about fairy tales, to read them Neil Gaiman’s Wolves in the Walls, and to test out their reaction to the folk-talesy (very) short stories that I had written to preface each of the Knot-Shop Man books.

Actually the children were aged around 8, which is younger than the Knot-Shop Man audience I was writing for*. And if you’ve read any of those five stories (oddly I can’t remember if we did The Girl & the Wolf, which from what follows seems likely) you’ll know they are a bit askew, and not happy: more folktale faerie than Disney fairy, certainly.

The astonishing thing to me, knowing these little people were much too young to be cynical, or alert to metaphor or aphorism or whatever it is I might think is really going on in those stories, was that they liked them. In fact, they were hushed throughout each reading and some of them loved them, when we talked about them afterwards. The Poet & the Princess, which is a literally (yes) disheartening story, was the one they liked the most, and it was at that point I remember thinking, wow, there’s something going on here because I had not thought an 8-year-old would like something quite this bleak, this finger-wagging, this unworldly.**

Anyway, as part of that morning, we talked about wolves, and I invited the children to describe wolves and their characteristics. As expected, what I got back was the thumpingly bad press our fairytales have given wolves, even though — by their own admission — only one or two children in the room could claim to have ever encountered one, and that of course was in a zoo (television, we all agreed, did not count). But when I asked, “who here is afraid of wolves?” maybe only the most timid six of the twenty-four children put their hands up.

At which point I paraphrased Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves and re-framed the question: “Well, what if I told you there were two kinds of wolves? There are wolves that are hairy on the outside, and when they eat you go to heaven. But then” — and here of course I got louder, and a bit taller — “there are the wolves that are hairy on the inside, and when they clamp their jaws on you they drag you down with them to Hell! NOW WHO’S SCARED OF WOLVES?” Every single child in the room shot their hand into the air, and thus I had primed them for a wide-eyed, breath-holding, lip-biting sitting of The Wolves in the Walls.

It’s one of my favourite children’s books for a number of reasons, mainly (of course) the excellent reversal it contains (read it; I won’t spoil it). But also the presentation withstands detailed scrutiny: for the observant, Dave McKean’s illustrations are strictly disciplined, with the world, the people, and the wolves each rendered with a different technique. So there’s a lot to investigate with a classroom of interested youngsters — not just the story, but the way those two collaborators (Gaiman and McKean) have chosen to present it.

The other thing I did in that session — separate from the wolves — was to look at the “pattern of three” in fairytales. Of course the children can easily provide examples once you’ve asked them to think about it: why not the four little pigs? Who ever thinks about only making two wishes? And so on (naturally, Lucy in Wolves in the Walls warns the members of her family three times). One of my favourite examples of this threesiness is from Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which includes the line, “She cried and she cried and she cried until she cried a hole in her heart.” It’s a simple sentence that young children can easily understand, but they can also recognise that nobody normally talks like this — it’s a pattern reserved for the poetic world of storytelling.

So as an exercise, I asked the children to write sentences in this form. They wrote them down and read them out, and we had a lot of fun. “He laughed and laughed and laughed until his head fell off!” (the whole class laughs for that one). “She ran and ran and ran until she got home” (OK, that works). And lots more. Then, in the corner, the teacher whose class I had commandeered put her hand on a little boy’s shoulder and said, “Henry has written one.” I remember he had used a pencil, where his more confident classmates had been using pens. He quietly read out:

“He lived and lived and lived until he died.”

Henry, I hope you’re out there somewhere now, writing, because when you were eight you were already hitting the target.


* For common-sense anti-child-patronising reasons, I’m wary of “reading ages”, but nominally The Knot-Shop Man was written for children a few years older than that.

** Which is of course yet another reason to oppose putting age suitability on books, although that’s not my point here.

Short story: La Séptima Bala

I’m pleased to finally announce the release of La Séptima Bala, an online short story, with gorgeous illustrations by my collaborator René, and told with a subtle bit of enforced interaction. Read it at www.beholder.co.uk/bala.

La Septima Bala

Early morning: the girl who knew the secret of the seventh bullet meditates on a rooftop. From La Séptima Bala.

We did the final artistic push on this at the end of 2014 (René and I live on different continents, so getting together to make art requires extra effort). All the line art in the project is René’s, but we went through to-and-fro refinement on pretty much every aspect that ends up in front of your eyes. We worked together physically on colouring the illustrations, which took much longer than most people who knew what we were up to seemed to expect. Perhaps by the end of this paragraph you’ll have formed your own opinion as to why this might be. Anyway… the story is set in the north of Mexico and we were extraordinarily careful both about how this informs the palette we used and how it runs through the development of the story. It turns out that “working together” means having long and bitter debates about details concerning, but not limited to, the butterfly (who knew that monarch butterflies‘ wing colours differ depending on whether they are migrating or not?), the snake, the snail, the sky, the ground, the architecture, the clothes, the history of the Mexican revolution, the quality of the tattoos of people walking past where we were sitting, the drinks we were having, the difficulty of finding power sockets in coffee shops, the dreadful mess Peter Jackson made of telling The Hobbit story… well pretty much everything really. We had, obviously, a wonderful time.

Here’s a little montage of René drawing and colouring. All the action took place in various coffee shops around Bangkok (mostly Rama IX), although René doesn’t drink coffee. If you look carefully you’ll see he’s actually sipping a glass of water (that’s pretty much all I allowed him, frankly) while the foo-foo drink in front of him is in fact my “fusion” iced chocco-tea with whipped cream and caramel. Yeah, I know; totally classy, me. (When I write, I drink black coffee, as dark as sin and as bitter as my heart; or neat single malt — honestly! this is true! — but, uh, not when I am colouring-in).

montage of artist at work

Brother-in-pens René at work (although, note that “work” here means not getting paid). I wasn’t goofing around not contributing, oh no… I was taking these pictures to document the process of making La Séptima Bala.

Some thankyous are in order to others who helped too, including those who joined in the “user testing” phase. I’m grateful to everyone who took the trouble to give me feedback (especially regarding some subtle parts of the click-to-progress mechanism, which inevitably resulted in material changes). Lots of people contributed to other things too, but I’ll call out just a few by name.

  • There’s one tiny bit of Japanese script in the whole project, but Masayo-chan not only drew my attention to the mistake in it, but also pointed out that I had subsequently “corrected” it using a character that wasn’t written that way in the early 1900s where the story is set (I direct interested readers to educate themselves, as I had to, on the topic of Japanese script reform).
  • Jed generously spent hours chasing issues with sound and JavaScript while I was with him in Glasgow.
  • Matthew cut straight to the problem I was having with preloading and made some common-sense suggestions about the underlying tech.
  • Myf drew my attention to the project’s Mexican illustrator’s woeful understanding of snail anatomy, which I corrected myself because sometimes when you need a job doing properly, etc., etc..
  • Abi’s laserbeam proofreading eyes cauterised errors that I’d been looking past for months.

Finally, as usual for online Beholder projects, you can visit the site without being pestered by adverts and wotnot thanks to the ongoing presence of the server, which is powered by the generosity of sysadmin Mark (and JBB’s fat pipe).

La Séptima Bala has been a lot of work for what is actually just one page on the web. Please read it at www.beholder.co.uk/bala. I hope you enjoy it as much we we enjoyed making it together.

2015 Beholder news: Planetarium update

It’s been quiet in the blog here. 2014 was a busy year for the things which prevent me doing Beholder projects (of which Fudebakudo, of course, is one). But I managed to spend most of December working on a forthcoming project with René (my brother-in-pens), which we’re hoping to release on the Beholder site in a month or two. It’s an interactive short story with René’s gorgeous illustrations and has a slight Fudebakudo flavour to it.

Planetarium mathemagician

The mathemagician holds up a crystal sphere in Planetarium, because… well, because he does.

In the meantime — before we put that project live and announce it on this blog — I’ve also been working on updating the Beholder online puzzle story, Planetarium. Those changes went live today. If you’ve looked at Planetarium before you’ll see the illustrations are bigger and a little brighter than before, and it now uses the main Beholder site’s “responsive” layout (plays nicely on your mobile phone).

Japanese rescue knotting

Exploding Pen (the shadowy global publishing empire behind Fudebakudo) has an overlapping interest in slightly bizarre Japanese arts (see: Fudebakudo) and knots (see: The Knot-Shop Man). So here you go: some impressive Japanese-style urgent knot-tying.

Japanese rescue knotting

Make a loop. Then the bowline bunny comes out of the hole, hops round the tree, back down the… nah, forget it. Just do what these guys do.

The Fudebakublog is late to the party with this video, I know, but a hat-tip to WTFJapanSeriously for the link.

Fudebakudo mug is broken

mug with broken handle

Avoid the obvious pun opportunities (gettting a handle, mug) and instead focus on the nice background shot of a T-shirt. The camera did. Whoops.

NoooooOOOO! This morning a falling spice jar broke the handle off my favourite mug. Let this serve as a reminder to us all of the impermanent nature of this world.

Japanese Pepsi advert is… well it has swords in it

Obviously, there’s only one drink the serious martial artist should be drinking. Well, apart from Japanese tea. Or the blood of vanquished enemies. Or Lucozade’s Way of Life drink. Or the fermented mare’s milk, kumis, that kept the thirsty Mongol warriors on top form through all that conquering. Anyway, apart from all those, I was thinking — of course — of Steven Seagal’s “Lightning Bolt” energy drink. The domain for that (lightningdrink.com) seems to have mercifully timed out, but there’s still his staggeringly queasy (warning: Mr Seagal — or his advertisement’s production crew’s director — has opted to objectify women in this piece) advert on Youtube for it. In the hands of a less unnerving or inappropriate person, that could safely be dismissed as a parody but, alas, with llama-Steven-sensei at the helm it was surely never less earnestly intended than any of the big man’s other appeals to our credulity. He’s been a secret agent for the White House, don’t you know? Or was it the Kremlin? A puppy, you say? No, no — never mind.

The point is, having said all that, PepsiCo’s watery potion “Pepsi Nex Zero” may very well be a new contender. Pepsi does have a track record for selling its drinks via the visual medium of martial arts: their high-production value Shaolin advert being an exemplar of martially artistic commercials. Their slappy-handy Mountain Dew one is another splendid effort.

But it was time to post to the Fudebakublog again because PepsiCo Japan are rolling out an especially bonkers advertising campaign which has desert ninjas and feathers and stuff in it. And which makes no sense at all (apart from the bit where the soaked ninja dries himself by the fire by holding his arms apart — that makes sense). But then I don’t drink Pepsi myself, so maybe if I did it would all fall together, and just seeing a great big, uh, barbecue troll and, um, a sword guy, and some other sword guy… and a horse… would make me realise I need to buy more of the stuff. I think it’s best not to try to understand any of what they’re showing you, but just, well, roll with it. Because whatever it is, it is awesome, as @Brian_Ashcraft, author of the post on Kotaku (where I encountered this) rightly says.

It starts with episode zero, which is probably because it’s got zero sugar in it, but in fact slyly appeals to my nerdy sense of correctness by acknowledging that counting is about offsets not fingers:

Forever Challenge: Episode Zero

Desert: check. Feathers: check. Winged cloak: check. But Priscilla lacked swords. And Balrogzillas. Watch episode zero.

But you’ll want to know what happens next. Obviously. So, onwards to episode one:

Forever Challenge: Episode Zero

Now that is good drying technique. Watch episode one.

To be fair to PepsiCo Japan, who, bless their fizzy socks, have gone to the considerable effort of making this marvellous thing, I feel I ought to link to their official site. Presumably there you’ll be able to watch the story of Forever Challenge unfold, like a rebellious origami water bomb. With Pepsi in it.

OK, here’s a bonus “making of” link. This is clearly PepsiCo’s private Burning Man — these people must be having a great time. Also, the animal-costume in the boat at the end is just enough Where the Wild Things Are Max-y to be fabulous and discombobulating in equal measure. I hope they run to 100 episodes.

Musashi looks at the peony

A couple of friends (Myf and Jed) have been sharing their illustration chops with me recently, so I thought it was about time I dug this painting out.

It’s a rendition of Miyamoto Musashi scowling at a flower, and it was done as a token of support for the opening of the new Heijoshin dojo in Brownhills, UK, in 2011. If all went to plan, the painting should be hanging up in the toilet there now. My admiration for Heijoshin (who practice the esoteric art of iaido, as well as kenjutsu and jodo) goes back to the maelstrom of cultural absurdity that was Seni 2003, where the Fudebakudo book launched, and where I first met Scott and some of his students.

Musashi looks at the peony

Musashi and the cut peony stem (informed, to some extent, by Musashi’s self-portrait). The man was accomplished with brushes as well as swords, which the Heijoshin logo recalls by referencing his famous Shrike on a dead branch.

Of course, the painting is a deliberately ludicrous representation of a clearly fictitious event, but nonetheless one that many people who have been hit on the head by a few too many wooden swords think is true. It’s true to the spirit of Fudebakudo, because Miyamoto Musashi was indisputably a real person — arguably Japan’s most famous swordsman if not, perhaps, the best — and the lineage of the sword arts in Japan is traceable, so his influence is genuine.

Naturally, there’s a lot of bullshit too. The Fudebakudo book childishly contains — without explanation — two entirely different accounts of how Musashi founded the nito-ryu school of sword fighting, to slyly point out how easy it is to make this silly and contradictory stuff up.

Anyway, the fictitious story of Musashi and the peony is originally from the novel Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa (yes, I had to put the word “fictitious” in italics there, because lots of martial artists get confused about that point). I’ve actually not read the book: I remember being told a version of the story over twenty-five years ago by the bombastic, unique and ultimately (in my opinion) wrong martial artist Gerd Kroell who was, at the time, studying sword from a credible source. Gerd died in 2001, but he told the tale so well, here’s his version, from memory; this is the Musashi I illustrated, above.

So, as you know, Musashi was travelling all over Japan, looking for teachers who were good enough to learn sword-fighting from. Any he found he would challenge to a duel. As his fearsome reputation spread, it got harder to find any who would accept the challenge. Either they hid, or else they didn’t and he killed them. Either way, it meant there was nothing he could learn from them, so he would move on, increasingly frustrated at the woeful state of expertise of the so-called masters.

At some point he made his way to yet another castle where he’d heard the lord had a reputation as a skilled swordsman. He strode up to the castle gates, and as he did so they slowly, but firmly, shut. He banged on them with his fist demanding to be let in.

“I challenge the so-called master here to a duel!” he shouted.

A long pause. Then a quiet voice from the other side of the gate. “No. Go away.”

“I demand a duel,” yelled Musashi, pounding on the gate. “Don’t you know who I am? I am Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman in Japan! I demand your master meets me in combat!”

Silence. Then, “The master knows who you are. Go away.”

“Why won’t he face me? Is he yet another coward and charlatan?”

Again, an infuriating pause. [I remember Gerd pulling faces as Musashi here, clenching his fists in frustration; he loved to tell this tale] “No, he just doesn’t think you are ready to learn from him yet.”

Of course Musashi exploded in rage on hearing this, and pounded and shouted and stomped some more.

Then, when he was running out of steam, the gate opened a tiny bit. A hand extended out, and gave the bewildered Musashi a single, cut flower: a peony. As soon as he took it, the hand retracted and the gates quickly shut.

Musashi yelled and spluttered some more. “What!? What is this? I am a warrior, not a florist! What the hell is the meaning of this? You try to insult me by giving me a flower? Preposterous! I demand a duel! Not petals!” And off he went again, stomping up and down in front of the castle gate, ranting and cursing.

Eventually he had to calm down of course, and that’s when he looked properly at the flower. He looked at where the stem had been cut. Then he saw what he had, in his anger, missed, and he suddenly understood. That cut was impeccable, clean, exquisitely precise.

So he knelt down before the castle gates and bowed:

“I humbly ask that I might become a student of this castle’s masterful lord.”

Well, that’s the story as I recall it was told to me, anyway.

Video of French MMA Paraisy, and Cuban trapeze

There’s an unusually artistic view of MMA, without any fighting, in this short film portrait of French fighter Norman Paraisy:

I wrote about the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts about five years ago; I still maintain there’s a big difference in the reasons most people watch it and the reasons the serious people really do it.

For another implicit study of athletic dedication, see the music video below. OK, so these are Cuban trapeze artists, not martial artists. I include it here because, credit to director Tom Haines, I promise this is the most beautifully shot piece about a niggling leg injury you will ever see.