Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Literary Robot

Soseki android unveiled to rekindle interest in late author

The Japan Times  by Tomoko Otake  Staff Writer  Dec 8, 2016

Fusanosuke Natsume (left), grandson of literary giant Natsume Soseki, and Hiroshi Ishiguro (right), a robotics researcher at Osaka University, unveil their Soseki android at Nishogakusha University in Tokyo on Thursday. | SATOKO KAWASAKI 

 “Hello. Excuse me for remaining seated. It’s been nearly 100 years, hasn’t it?”

So said an android version of literary giant Natsume Soseki in a calm voice when it was unveiled to the media in Tokyo on Thursday.

The robot, dressed in a light brown tweed suit and leather shoes and sporting the writer’s trademark mustache, is the work of Nishogakusha University in Tokyo, which collaborated with robotics researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University.

The researchers hope the seated 130-cm figure, based on Soseki’s appearance at age 45, will not only revive the memory of the author who died on Dec. 9, 1916, but also ignite literary interest in him among young students.

This year marks the centennial of the death of the novelist, who studied Chinese literature at the private university in Tokyo in 1881.

“Soseki is known today as a literary giant, but his image has changed in the course of history,” Fusanosuke Natsume, Soseki’s grandson and a manga critic involved in the project, told a news conference at the university. Fusanosuke’s voice was used to artificially re-create his grandfather’s.

“I’m curious to know how the future image of Soseki will change through this android,” he said.

To make the android appear as real and lifelike as possible, the researchers scanned the novelist’s death mask to create a 3-D image of his face. The mask is owned by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which published “Kokoro” and other works of fiction that Soseki penned for the daily.

Ishiguro, who is famous for creating an android of himself, said the challenge was how to fill the gap between the image, which had sunken cheeks, and the face everyone is familiar with that appears on the old version of the ¥1,000 bill.

“People’s faces change daily, including ours. So our goal was to re-create Soseki as a whole being, not just through his face, but also through his way of talking and gestures.”

The robotic replica will give lectures and recite Soseki’s works in the classroom. The university also plans to research how students react to the android as part of its wider research into how robots can co-exist with humans, Nishogakusha University Dean Junko Sugahara said.

In a demonstration session, the “special professor” recited parts of his lesser known work “Ten Dreaming Nights,” released in 1908. It also “chatted” according to a pre-programmed script with a moderator on stage, speaking and moving as if alive.

Asked to laugh in front of the audience, he replied with a barely noticeable smile that “it’s hard to laugh without listening to a rakugo (comic storyteller’s) story.”

Soseki Natsume - February 9, 1867 – December 9, 1916
If you haven't read any of Soseki's books, you are missing out.  My favorite, "I Am a Cat" is reviewed here by Amazon reviewer  Maren Robinson on May 12, 2004

I picked up I AM A CAT while browsing one day and almost put it back because I didn't feel like reading a book of its heft (it's over 600 pages) at that moment. But I read the first few pages and realized I had a gem and finished the book in a couple of weeks. The first person (cat) voice of the narrative is inspired. As other reviews have said, Soseki Natsume offers an amusing commentary human nature particularly of academics and hypochondriacs. However, he also offers a closely observed and humorous commentary on cat behavior that can come only from living in close proximity to a cat. Moments when the cat describes his shock on seeing his first human with it's horribly bald face, or his attempt to keep his dignity after finding the theft and eating of a sticky rice ball more difficult than he anticipated are priceless for their humor and vivid description. It is true, however, that as the book progresses the cat's stories become increasingly focused on the humans around him.

I am not in a position to offer an opinion on the translation, however, this book was my introduction to Soseki and I have since read several of his other works in various translations and find this book to be consistent with the style, tone and humor of that emerges from other translations of his writings.

I also found I AM A CAT highly readable. It was originally published serially over many years, and the short vignettes it offers allow one to pick it up and put it down without losing the thread of an overarching story. Additionally, the format of many short stories allows some to be more humorous and other to be more philosophical even poignant and in the best of the stories all three at once. It is a highly imaginative, thoughtful and funny set of stories about human foibles. 
My second favorite is "Botchan".  Another Amazon Review:

By Justin Curry on April 14, 2013

Botchan is perhaps best classified as a bildungsroman and there is no surprise that it is compared to Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye in the introduction. However, do not expect the same sort of powerful emotional insight of JD Salinger's classic. The comparison with Huck Finn does seem more accurate as the story consists of a series of misadventures that are partly provoked by the bizarre and mildly humorous actions of the main character.

The main character, who is called "Botchan" (a Japanese nickname for "boy" that is explained in greater detail in the introduction) by an overly-affectionate house maid while growing up, is a somewhat block-headed 22 year old that has started as a mathematics teacher in a rural town. His early life and the sequence of events that leads him to this career seem haphazard and a product of his own apathy, like a pinball careening through a machine, powerless to alter its path. One cannot help but feel like some determinism pushes him through the story and one wonders why his attempts at gaining control are so clumsy and poorly executed. Botchan is never the subject of our sympathy or our scorn, but is a source of bemusement. The story is certainly a quick read (145 pages in 12.25pt font) as Soseki does a good job keeping the forces behind Botchan's trials and tribulations just out of reach.

The story, which does not seem very deep on a first pass, does offer a lot for reflection and would probably be fun for discussion. Just as an eastern reader might benefit from reading Huckleberry Finn, the western reader might be intrigued by the regional and classist stereotypes that are applied throughout the story. Botchan, being born and raised in Tokyo, has a serious chip on his shoulder and might be comparable to a young New Yorker who is sent to a rural southern town to teach. However, these comparisons only go so far, and the reader interested in understanding what 1900 Japan might've been like will enjoy picking out the details on their own.

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