Hasekura Isuna’s works are always a treat. A golden ratio of dabbling in economics, power structures, and faith. So why has it taken me three years after the translation came out to have finally read it? Two words: Sekai Project. You can read my old blogs regarding that if you want. I’m simply glad that my feelings on the matter have finally settled down. Plus I had actual reasons to delve into the next Hasekura work. Real life reasons, such as thinking about buying an apartment. Every so often, friends and pety conformists alike send me a kind reminder to slowly start thinking about these things. The plan would be to find a nice apartment and commit to an expensive, decade-long loan to pay it off, just like every other family upstart does it. But I ask myself, would this be the correct decision to take at this point in time, given that a recession is likely just around the corner? Other questions pop up as well, like how much responsibility do I have to bear for other people’s poor attitudes towards money? And, just how selfish can I be in life in general?
I didn’t expect this episode of World End Economica to give me answers to any of my questions, but I did expect reading Hasekura to put me in the right frame of mind for making big financial decisions. I’m happy to report that it did just that.
Haru was born on the Lunar surface, and initially felt very little attachment to the tribulations of the first wave of immigrants from Earth, his parents included. His unchained spirit helped him grow as an investor, but when he suffered a crippling loss against Mr Barton, the ruthless investor, he became a burden to the community that first came to rely on his expertise and capital. But, it was wrong of him to think of himself as their burden. You give some, you get some – that’s simply how communities work.
Real estate had been a major theme in previous episodes as well. The third episode starts off by introducing us to a housing project which Haru and the standing President of the Lunar society, Mr Gazzanica, have developed to further their goals. The fate of this project quickly becomes dependent on market movements. As Haru discovers, the commodities market may be experiencing a bubble, driven by the popular frenzy over clever financial instruments like Asset-Backed Securities. Throw in a hoard of greedy debt financiers, and the market becomes ripe for a downturn. While most bought into Lunar real estate and the accompanying financial instruments with blind optimism, a handful of pessimistic short-sellers saw the eventual market decline as an opportunity for unimaginable profits. Our protagonist was of course one to take advantage of the situation, his decisions ultimately leading to him being able to reconnect with his long lost love.
When it comes to the story, I want to be critical of two aspects. First off, Hagana’s state of mind.
After the first episode, while we had some basis to suspect Hagana was working for Barton, we knew she couldn’t have been in an enviable situation. We learn that the securities market debacle was being deliberately amplified by Hagana’s own hand in the market and her influence over leading financial institutions. The short story is that her employer, the largest corporation in existence, had trusted her brilliance and over-invested into toxic assets. What they weren’t privy to though was that Hagana wanted to see the world burn.
As reckless as it sounds, I absolutely sympathized with her situation. Eight years of resentment and loneliness can conceivably drive a person to such destructive behavior. That being said, given the terrible state of mind that she was in, I found it incredulous how swiftly Haru had reconciled with her. Haru may have convinced me with his solution to the predicament in which the market found itself, but when it comes to fixing people, I don’t think it should be too hard to imagine that even if you manage to find the right words for a person contemplating self-harm, they wouldn’t become well again just like that. We’re talking about destructive brain chemistry being at work long-term, after all.
For whatever reason, the Japanese media that I follow almost always seem to dumb down any discussions of mental illness. Hasekura’s work is just another example of that, one from a long series of shoddy portrayals of dealing with mental illnesses. Which is why I believe poor attitudes toward mental health are rampant in Japanese culture in general. A counterpoint to this observation in this particular case might be that Hasekura wanted to write more on the matter, he just kind of lost interest in Hagana midway. I suspect that Hasekura initially planned to spend more time developing the chapter in which Haru and Hagana reunite. Remember, the room Hagana was staying in had the rent paid for three months in advance. Using that time frame for Hagana’s non-instant recovery might have led to a more convincing portrayal of her inner struggles. Instead we got a few choice words, a hug, and that was the end of her years long turmoil.
The second thing to be critical of is the sci-fi aspect.
In the first episode, the winning strategy developed by Haru, Hagana and Serrault was a market sentiment analysis tool. Basically, it predicted market sentiment captured from various communication channels. As I see it, sentiment analysis must have been an incredible buzz word in our world at the time of the release of the first episode. The year was 2011, social networks everywhere had been experiencing incredible growth, and with them a growing appetite to apply cool new natural language processing methods to their data streams. To more tech-savvy investors, I suspect that sentiment analysis must have looked like the holy grail. In reality today, sentiment analysis produces but a handful of useful market indices that get added to a large ensemble of existing indices. I liked that Hasekura used an underdeveloped technology from the real world and fleshed out its potential in fiction. For the time when the first episode was published, that choice put the novel solidly in the genre of hard sci-fi.
Chris’ copula, however, didn’t seem that impressive to me. From what I read of it on Wikipedia it is a pretty straight-forward method. On the other hand, Hagana had expensive market simulations running in off-site computer clusters. She likened her work to weather simulations, which sounds cool and all, but for my taste the concept was poorly explored. The computer nerds of the world could only interpret her explanation as “I use big computer, I smart oracle.” In the case of sentiment analysis, I was able to imagine how one would go about solving the problem in the real world, because there was precedent for the solution, but a “weather simulator” just seems like a lazy substitute for a future technology that could have been explored far more intricately if given proper conditions and time.
Nevertheless, as far as the atmosphere goes, the third episode was a fantastic financial thriller, perhaps the best out of the three episodes in that regard. Much of the beginning focused on Haru’s fears of slowing down, of growing old, of getting grounded and bogged down by all the commitments and responsibilities that he had toward his family and his home, the Lunar surface.
In the latter part, however, another theme gradually fleshes itself out. This read is about the benefits of having an optimistic outlook on life. After learning of the mess Hagana had cooked up, there was no solid, rational reason for anyone, especially Haru to remain on the Lunar surface and risk going down with the ship, as he chose to do. Smart people would try to cut their losses and move on, he feared. Even Barton, Mr rationality incarnate, was about to board the orbital elevator. Haru had nothing but a hunch that the people who had invested their everything into the Lunar surface also wanted the Lunar surface to succeed – because it was a special case. Haru’s proposal hinged on the premise that investors would ignore all rational thought and let themselves lose to their optimism bias. Biases are dangerous, yet his argument made sense, so much so that in the end Barton agreed to his scheme.
Hagana had a far less optimistic perspective to Haru’s. She didn’t need a lecture to know that the world was a horrible, depressing place. She not only knew that a black swan event was on schedule, she helped create it herself. And so we arrive to the conclusion that pessimism can be just as deadly as blind optimism. The message is fine, I like it. All the same, I’d prefer if the Japanese stop trivializing mental illness issues. Hagana wasn’t merely pessimistic, she was in the middle of an episode. Love may be the strongest unrestricted spell in existence, but it surely comes off as lazy writing whenever it’s used to lighten up the heavier aspects of a fictional character.