The streets of Japan have no shortage of interesting sights. Standing at one of Tokyo’s bustling intersections, sharp-eyed visitors might spot something unusual about the traffic signals hanging above, which feature green lights with a noticeably blue tinge—so much so that illustrated Japanese road safety guides use distinctively blue “green” lights. This is no illusion. Blue and green—a combination known alternatively as “grue” or "bleen”—traffic signals in Japan are the result of a mix of linguistics, international law and a dash of passive-aggressive policy by the Japanese government.
It is a near universal constant when driving: red means stop, and green means go. So fundamental is this dynamic that it is codified in international law under the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which has been ratified by 74 countries. Why, then, does Japan—not a signatory to the Convention—seem to buck the trend with its blue/green traffic signals?
Historically, there has been significant overlap in the Japanese language as it pertains to green (midori) and blue (ao). In that regard, blue—one of the four traditional colors originally established in the Japanese language along with red, black and white—historically encompassed items that other cultures would describe as green—creating the concept of “grue,” the portmanteau of blue and green first coined by philosopher Nelson Goodman in 1955. Indeed, a distinct word for green is a relatively recent development in Japanese, only coming into existence in the late Heian Period (794-1185). This continues to manifest itself in several ways in Japanese.
As in many languages, green in Japanese can be used in reference to something new or inexperienced. Whereas in English a rookie employee might be referred to as being “green,” in Japanese they are aonisai, meaning a “blue two-year old.” Elsewhere, a visitor to Japan might be tempted to try the exotic sounding ao-ringo—“blue apple,” only to perhaps be disappointed at finding out it refers to a regular green Granny Smith apple. Dozens of other examples exist in relation to nature, food and animals.
Traffic lights are treated similarly. In official literature and conversation, the “green” traffic light is referenced as ao, rather than midori. Even dating back to when traffic lights were first introduced in Japan in the 1930s—a time when traffic signals employed a distinctly green light—common practice was to make reference to “blue” lights. In modern times, Japanese traffic law requires those seeking a driver’s license to pass an eye exam specifying, among other things, the ability to distinguish between red, yellow and blue.
In the intervening years, this system of officially referring to green lights as blue put the Japanese government in a difficult position. Linguists took issue with the continued use of ao for what was a distinctly green color, and the country faced pressure to comply with international traffic customs regarding traffic lights.
Ultimately, a novel solution was employed. In 1973, the government mandated through a cabinet order that traffic lights use the bluest shade of green possible—still technically green, but noticeably blue enough to justifiably continue using the ao nomenclature. While modern Japanese allows for a clear delineation between blue and green, the concept of blue still encompassing shades of green still remains firmly rooted in Japanese culture and language.
“Grue” traffic lights remain a common sight in cities across Japan. While some newer traffic signals come equipped with bright green LEDs—still referred to as blue—the familiar blue-green lights can still be found without much effort—representing a nod to the evolution of the Japanese language.
There's apparently an episode of "Detective Conan" where the solution to the mystery hinges on the witness, being an elderly woman, describing someone as wearing a "blue" (ao) coat, which confuses the younger detectives (except for the master sleuth), as they thought of that color as green (midori)
Washington, D.C., won't see a total solar eclipse on August 21 (residents will get upwards of 80 percent coverage), but there's another incredible natural phenomenon that could help make up for it. Three corpse flowers are expected to bloom at the United States Botanic Garden, stinking up its conservatory sometime between August 17 and 23.
Corpse flowers are native to Indonesia and known for their pungent smell that's reminiscent of rotting garbage, as well as their infrequent blooms. The strange plant, also called the titan arum, can grow up to 12 feet tall, so its blooms (technically inflorescences, or flower clusters) are quite the spectacle. The three plants at the Botanic Garden started out between two and three feet in height, but are growing quickly as they approach opening. The flower on the far left in the Botanic Garden's live stream, below, was 36 inches tall on August 6. By August 10, it had already shot up to 54 inches.
The Botanic Garden says this is likely the first time three corpse flowers at one institution have bloomed at once in North America. Chicago's Botanic Garden had two bloom back in June, and the New York Botanic Garden and the United States Botanic Garden had one bloom each last summer. There are a few possible explanations for why all these corpse flowers appear to be blooming around the same time, but the eclipse isn't one of them. The partial occlusion of the sun over D.C. is just a coincidence, but together they might make quite the natural show for the nation's capital.
Most days in 1892, ticketholders at Manhattan's Carnegie Music Hall enjoyed programs of standard entertainment: the New York Philharmonic; a famous speaker; a ragtime show. But starting in February, every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, they got something a little different. As soon as the theater's lights went down, the sun came up again, rising over an onstage lake that rippled just like the real thing. Next, the moon began to rise next to the sun, and gradually, dramatically obscured it. This was Scene #1 of A Trip to the Moon—a perfect rendition of the total solar eclipse of 1887, yanked through time and space and reconstructed inside the theater.
"Audiences had, in a sense, seen it all," writes the media scholar Artemis Willis. But when curtain lifted on A Trip to the Moon's first scene, "their cynicism yielded to wonder." Over the next 90 minutes, viewers were treated to a number of rare and, at the time, impossible sights: lunar landscapes, cosmic nebulae, the earth as viewed from the moon, and more, all produced through an alchemy of stagecraft, lighting, and special effects. By the time they rose from their seats, Willis argues, they had absorbed not only facts and figures, but a whole new way of looking at space.
As Willis details in a recent paper about the show, A Trip to the Moon was first dreamed up in 1889, at the Urania Institute in Berlin. Unlike most observatories at the time, which had their hands full catering to experts, the Institute focused on curious laypeople—what one admirer, the astronomer Edward Holden, described as "that very large and intelligent section of the public which is intensely interested in the results of astronomical observation… but does not care at all for the small details which the special student must attend to."
As part of these efforts, the Institute put together a number of stage presentations, which taught attendees about everything from the geological birth of Earth to the tides and currents of the Arctic Ocean. The shows proved extremely popular, and when word of them reached Andrew Carnegie, he decided to bring one or two over to New York City and stage them in his brand new Music Hall. "Mr. Carnegie's idea is to discover whether there is real demand for such institutes in America, and to assist in founding them, if there is," wrote Holden.
The Berlin version of the show was already a multimedia marvel, but for its own trip to the Music Hall—about seven times the size of the theater at the Urania Institute—A Trip to the Moon got even more gussied up. Larger versions of the set pieces were painted in Berlin and shipped over, and the staging took full advantage of the Music Hall's recent renovations, during which the venue had been outfitted with electrical wiring and lighting.
Every scene involved what Willis calls an "electro-mechanical-theatrical tableau," in which stage lights waxed, waned, and changed colors, magic lanterns projected scenes onto set pieces, and backstage crew members put various props through complex paces. Plus, it was all accurate: "Each move of the moon was charted to accurately reflect the phenomena, and then choreographed behind the scenes," says Willis. "It would be really difficult to pull off such a performance today."
For example, the climactic "Scene #6: Solar Eclipse as Seen from the Moon," involved three celestial bodies, each differently positioned, and all interacting with one another. As illustrated at the top of this article, the moon—the scene's vantage point—was represented by a painted canvas, lit from underneath by electric footlights. The sun was a lightbox sewn into a black drop cloth (which also had holes pricked in, for stars), and the earth was a phosphorescent disk with a ring of red gelatin around it. In the scene, the sun slowly crosses behind the earth, backlighting the gelatin and suffusing the stage with a red glow. The footlights below the canvas then gradually change to red, "transferring" the light of the eclipse to the moon's surface.
A Trip to the Moon premiered on February 10, 1892, to an intrigued audience. But after a week and a half of lukewarm reviews, the production took the step that, in Willis's view, really put it over the top: it went in for a script rewrite. The original narration, written by the Urania Institute's Max Wilhelm Meyer and performed by a wide-eyed actor, "was sort of clunky and romantic," Willis says. "The New York press picked up on that right away."
As one New York Times critic wrote, the "Wagnerian drama" didn't play well with this particular audience: "The lecture is heralded as gravely as if it were a new religion just discovered," they wrote. "The audience is edified so gradually that there is more awe than comfort in it."
The producers went out looking for a script doctor, and settled on Garrett P. Serviss, an astronomy columnist for the New York Sun. Over the course of nine days, Serviss rewrote the narration completely; when the show re-opened, he had taken on hosting duties as well. The result was a Trip to the Moon that, a happier Times critic wrote, was led "by someone who knew the way." Where Meyer had spun grandiose tales, Serviss provided plainspoken explanations, grounded in facts. For example, during Scene #6, Serviss laid out exactly what was going on:
"Such an eclipse would present phenomena far different from those which we behold during a solar eclipse upon the earth. The most remarkable difference would be that arising from the fact that the earth is enveloped in air. The atmosphere of the earth, owing to its refractive property, acts like a lens surrounding the terrestrial globe, and bends the sunlight around its edge.
So, when the sun disappears behind the earth as seen from the moon, a brilliant circle of light girds the earth, and this light… produces a considerable illumination on the moon. The color of the luminous ring encircling the earth, under these circumstances, will be that of the sunrise and sunset sky, because the light has to penetrate the dust and vapor floating in the air, and the red rays most easily accomplish the passage."
Compare this, Willis says, to Meyer's version of the scene, in which the Earth is referred to as "the moon's astral mother," and its light as "the only agency of communication that is still left to her," sent through space "a last greeting to her only daughter, lost so early in death."
A hobbyist astronomer himself, Serviss also made sure to foreground the concerns of actual experts. "He would try to find ways to help his audiences imagine our relation to the cosmos as investigators of it," says Willis. "[He was] encouraging a kind of mind travel, [as with the] 'Spaceship of the Imagination'"—a device Carl Sagan used, in his seminal television show Cosmos, to represent the possibilities of scientific inquiry.
ATrip to the Moon played at the Music Hall for just over two years, and then did a short tour of the East Coast. Its creators went on to successful careers: Serviss began lecturing full-time (and later established himself as a prolific science fiction author), and the show's lighting designer, J. Carl Mayrhofer, started his own company.
But in Willis's reading, the show left another legacy: the ability for ordinary people to look at the heavens with something more than slack-jawed awe. Where earlier astronomical entertainments, including Meyer's original A Trip to the Moon, leaned into astronomy's reputation as "the sublime science"—full of proof of God's limitless power, and humanity's infinite smallness—A Trip to the Moon replaced some of that void-staring with curiosity. "It didn't just say, 'This is God's great work, be afraid of it,'" says Willis. "It described the phenomena in terms that produced wonder."
"The information was as new as possible, and the technology was as new as possible," she says. "That's where I think wonder was produced: in the space between the actual lunar phenomena, and the enactment of them." As with an eclipse, in which the juxtaposition of the sun and the moon makes each more magnificent, A Trip to the Moon made knowledge and its representation dance around each other, equal at last.
A row of silos on Granville Island is among the most photographed things in Vancouver. The six towers, each 70 feet tall, were once a dull gray, but now feature a colorful crew of giants. Half of them face the boats on False Creek, and the other three look inward, towards the Ocean Concrete plant.
The silos are the work of Brazilian twins Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo, known collectively as OSGEMEOS (Portuguese for THETWINS). The duo has been graffitiing since 1987. Their work has had a profound influence on Brazilian graffiti and spans the globe, with pieces in Asia, Europe, and North and South Americas.
In 2014 the Vancouver Biennale commissioned the twins to bring their ongoing mural series “Giants” to British Columbia. OSGEMEOS chose the silos on Granville Island to add depth to the two-dimensional pieces they normally create. Ocean Concrete has a long history of community participation and happily offered a medium for what was at the time the biggest public mural of their career.
Initial estimates were set around $50,000, which included cleaning the grime from the silos and supplying 90 gallons of paint for the undercoat. The twins went through 1,400 cans of spray paint, and the final bill ended up at $180,000, some of which was crowdsourced during the project.
Giants was part of the Biennale’s Open Air Museum, which curates international art in the city’s public spaces. None of it is intended to be permanent though; after two years the pieces are taken down or painted over to make room for new projects, unless a donor intervenes. As was the case with previous Open Air artist Yue Minjun’s “A-maze-ing Laughter.” The city was so distraught over the thought of losing the 14 laughing men statues that Lululemon founder Chip Wilson and his wife Shannon bought the piece and donated it to the city.
The fate of OSGEMEOS Giants is still uncertain. They’re a beloved addition to the Vancouver skyline, but it costs about $17,000 a year to maintain them, and someone will have to step up, just as Chip and Shannon Wilson did for “A-maze-ing Laughter,” if they’re to remain.
In 1882, in the southeast Australian state of Victoria, repeated attacks on the general public were carried out by a figure known only as the “Wizard Bombardier.”
This individual was known for wearing an ostentatious outfit of white robes and a sugarloaf hat. The Wizard’s strategy involved disorienting people with loud screams before hurling stones and other sorts of missiles at them. Then the ghoulish individual made a quick dash and was gone.
Attacks like these, in which pranksters disguised as ghosts would wreak havoc, came to be known as “ghost hoaxing.” There were many cases and perpetrators in Australia from the late 19th century to the First World War—to the point that rewards were offered for the apprehension of ghost hoaxers.
In this era, Australia was the perfect location for villains and rogues who wished to imitate apparitions for their own ends. Dr David Waldron, author of “ Playing the Ghost: Ghost Hoaxing and Supernaturalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Victoria,” says that the lack of professionalised police meant that Australia had a particular “lawlessness.” An abundance of leisure time and a lack of affordable entertainment options created an environment ideal for ghost hoaxers who often used their own theatrics to entertain themselves.
Technology helped make the ghost pranksters look more spooky. As Waldron writes, the recent invention of phosphorescent paint meant that individuals could glow in the dark as they menaced others, which made their outfits all the more believable and gave the hoaxers an otherworldly appearance. Ghost hoaxers sometimes fashioned elaborate disguises—in 1895, one prankster created a costume to resemble a knight and emblazoned the phrase “prepare to meet thy doom” on his armor. To ratchet up the threat factor, this “knight” also threatened people with decapitation.
Australia during this period was very concerned about the threat of “larrikins,” who were rowdy youths out to cause mischief. Some of these larrikins regarded ghost costumes as suitable devices with which to commit crime and violence. A sort of urban warfare was fought, with ghost hoaxers on one side and, on the other, vigilantes and armed guards who were determined to shoot these pranksters with buckshot to end their mischief.
Waldron has identified that despite the ghost pranks being associated with the working class, once the ghosts were apprehended, “many if not most of those arrested” were in fact “school teachers and clerks and the like and a small number of middle-class women.”
One unexpected ghost hoaxer was Herbert Patrick McLennan, who in 1904 equipped himself with a glowing outfit that included a top hat, frock coat, and boots. Most menacingly, McLennan carried a cat o’nine tails whip and used it to assault women he encountered. When a bounty of £5 was placed on McLennan, he proceeded to declare war on the authorities, threatening to shoot anyone who came after him in a letter addressed to local leaders, in which he referred to himself as “the ghost.” When McLennan was arrested, however, it was discovered that he was a powerful and influential clerk and public speaker. McLennan was sent to jail, but he was soon back out again.
Some ghost pranksters made their own custom disguises, such as wearing a coffin strapped to their backs so as to give the appearance of having risen from the dead, as in one case in 1895. A female ghost hoaxer even incorporated music by playing a guitar while she skulked around near a hotel, according to reports in 1880 and 1889.
One theme common to ghost hoaxers was the use of pre-existing superstitions and locations that were regarded as haunted. Ghost hoaxers often occupied sites that were already associated with death, such as cemeteries, in order to double down on fear. Some hoaxers even painted a skull and crossbones in a particular location to create fear before they arrived wearing claws and animal skins to wreak havoc.
To the wider community, ghost hoaxers presented a threat not just through fear but also via crime and violence, such as indecent exposure, sexual assault, or even just stealing eggs. Not all citizens were prepared to stay helpless in the face of this threat. In 1896, ex-soldier called Charles Horman seemed to be a one-man army against the ghost impersonators. He opened fire with a shotgun on one youth who was pretending to be a ghost, while using a cane to attack another hoaxer who was assaulting a woman.
Parents whose children had been physically attacked by ghost pranksters also took the law into their own hands. One woman, Mrs Date, unleashed her pit bull on a ghost hoaxer who had assaulted her daughter. In 1913 a mob of vigilantes chased after and beat a man wearing a glowing ghost outfit who had terrified an old man.
Eventually the phenomenon of the ghost hoaxers disappeared, hastened by the arrival of World War I, which took the lives of over 60,000 Australian soldiers. As Waldron says, the war showed that there were “far bigger issues at stake and the symbolism of death becoming less amusing.” With human mortality no longer a premise for pranks, ghost hoaxing lost its spirit for good.
A man sits in his living room, quietly watching a Disney show on television in the 1960s. Suddenly, the devil, dressed in a red onesie and sporting a forked tail, pops up behind the man: now he’s watching a burlesque routine—a woman dancing in a bikini. After her pasties bobble back and forth, the man watching gets visibly uncomfortable and turns to devil. “I wanted to watch a Walt Disney show!” shouts the man. “I didn’t even care when you dug graves in my backyard, but this is enough!”
So goes part of the plot of the 1964 movie, My Tale is Hot. It’s one of many similar films of the time, and the story of a man being pranked by the devil is wholly secondary to the main focus of the movie: gratuitous nudity. My Tale is Hot is a sexploitation film—a type of B-movie which alludes to sex and nudity as a selling point, though the content is not necessarily explicitly pornographic and actual sex may or may not be shown. These films, many of which were made in the 1950s through the 1970s on a very low budget in many different countries, feature sin, vulgar images, and extremely tenuous plots. The acting is sometimes so bad it’s good. Sexploitation films, needless to say, have a cult following.
Sexploitative and pornographic films have been around since the 1910s, but a new spin on the genre emerged in the 1950s and '60s with supernatural elements. Technology allowed for more home-taught directors, like Russ Meyer, who became popular for his campy humor and big-breasted stars in titles he directed, like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Mondo Topless and The Immoral Mr. Teas. Some actors and actresses who got their start in cult and fringe films, including sexploitation pictures, continued to hone their skills and appear almost exclusively on the cult circuit.
Since 1930 in the U.S., cinema was largely regulated by the Hays Code, a non-legally binding yet influential industry standard that banned “lustful kissing” and nudity, among other things. While films were considered art under the First Amendment by the late 1950s in the United States, sexploitation filmmakers were creatively attempting to skirt commercially regulated cinema in a just-barely legal way. Many got away with their content because of their obscurity; often these films were not shown in regular theaters and were not advertised to the larger public.
Among these nude films, the devil was often a character or plot device amid excuses to get the female protagonist naked. In My Tale is Hot, Lucifer learns of the “most faithful husband alive,” which, of course, incites the devil to convert this man to a life of sin. “I’m not getting any converts like I used to, not a good man gone wrong in months,” says the devil, who sits with his devil-wife and their naked, silver-painted attending ladies, who are used as furniture. Lucifer’s wife dares him to try to convert the world’s best husband, and oh does Lucifer try. The plot, to say the least, is rather loose. From then on out increasingly more of the movie is devoted to naked women, women in lingerie, and the eventual corruption of the husband.
There were many kinds of plots for sexploitation films, from sexy female aliens on Venus to erotic adventures in Siberia; many hundreds of these fly-by-night projects were made. Prior to the late 1960s, these movies were often shown in portable movie theaters that hit the road with their traveling sin-filled stories, according to James Traub’s bookThe Devil's Playground. The movies also found a home in city spaces, which gave way to 1970s grindhouse theaters that often welcomed exploitation films and porn. Traub writes that “video peeps” became one of the most popular ways to view these movies in the 1960s, which entailed theaters and shops in cities like New York building booths for private viewings. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanded the First Amendment in 1952 to consider even explicit films an art. This made all films fully legal to make and show, though state and local ordinances could still regulate where and when people saw risqué films. As a result, the genre continued to grow.
Since the devil himself represents sin, movies including the devil may also let the viewer poke fun at the idea that he or is about to be part of that sin as a voyeur partaking in the appeal of cheap thrills. Of course, some fans love sexploitation films specifically because of their campy nature; one of the titles in the genre is The Horrible Sexy Vampire.
Sexploitation films seem “to promise so much, and yet can never live up to the images they suggest to the imagination,” wrote Jeffrey Sconce in Sleaze Artists. “What film, after all, could live up to the mental theater evoked by the words Nude for Satan?” Salacious photos and paintings on movie posters “translate in theater into brief and badly exposed moments of nudity,” Sconce wrote, but that’s also what made them conform to legal and social standards, and not always exactly porn per se. Sconce added that generally all films that exploit the body “remain so central to trash film culture. Nowhere is the gap dividing internal fantasy from public representation so profound.”
At some points, the line between sexploitation and sexually exploitative horror movies blurred: sexploitation movies sometimes mirrored popular horror cinema and adopted aspects of popular movie plots, especially those that had to do with Lucifer. The movie Satan’s Slave from 1976, for example, is supposedly about a girl caught up in her uncle’s devil cult and the dead returning to haunt her as a result—which, of course, involves her being tied up naked. The Toy Box, a horror-murder sex-filled movie from 1971, adds gratuitous violence and cannibalism into the mix.
And, of course, some rode the coattails of more popular, major devil-centric movies. “Several sexploitation films released during this period evoked violent and sexual transgressions featured in The Exorcist,” wrote Christopher Olson and CarrieLynn Reinhard in Possessed Women, Haunted States. Such films were sometimes given multiple titles and originally were imported from other countries, including one film marketed as Possessed by the Devil, Beyond the Darkness, and Devil’s Female.
The devil and sex continued to appear together in sexploitation and B-movies for decades, and the sexploitation genre remains alive with titles like the 2008 film Zombie Strippers to assault any fine film sensibilities you might have. If you’re intrigued—and if the poor acting and wonky plots don’t get in your way, remember that you have a long line of old-time dirty filmmakers to thank.