How can we decide who plays the hero?

From Bond to the Bard, researchers in Japan and the UK are shifting thinking around the legends of stage and screen.

So Daniel Craig has sipped his last vodka martini in the forthcoming 25th James Bond adventure and the franchise producers must cast the actor who will step into his shoes. They have narrowed the field down to three candidates – Tom Hiddleston, James Norton or Idris Elba – and turn to social media for help in making their final decision. Using powerful language analysis software, they analyse the Twitter feeds of millions of movie fans around the world to build a picture of the perfect Bond and the best actor that fits the description.

Corpus linguistics - analysing the debate

Maybe not such a fanciful notion, as researchers at Waseda University, in Tokyo, and the University of Birmingham have already used corpus linguistics – the scientific study of language – to analyse differences in perception between actors such as Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle, and the characters they portray in Trainspotting T2.

“Corpus linguistics gives us the tools to understand and analyse patterns of language use; a scientific approach that we are applying in a number of areas,” explained Professor Laurence Anthony, from the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda. “Our work on Trainspotting T2 is an example of this methodology – taking online discussion about a subject and using specialised software to create a body of language which we can then systematically explore."

“We chose to look at Trainspotting T2, but the same techniques could apply to Doctor Who or James Bond. We already know some of the characteristics that Bond represents – suave, sophisticated and tough – but fans probably have a much more complete image that we can learn about and use to determine which actors would make a good 007.”

Prof. Anthony, who gained his PhD in Applied Linguistics at Birmingham, has developed a range of corpus linguistics software tools. In a different project, he is working closely with Dr Paul Thompson, Deputy Director at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Corpus Research, on apps for helping university English teachers and learners to create their own corpora of academic research articles. 

Understanding the mechanics of academic writing

“We’re currently working on an app designed to help teachers, learners and researchers to build large collections of written text in different disciplines,” commented Dr. Thompson. “They can then use this data to analyse and understand how to write successfully in their target fields. We’re also looking at setting up a major project with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and Fudan University, in China, to examine how student writing develops across the span of an undergraduate programme.” 

The software they are developing allows researchers to download hundreds of journal articles on a particular subject – for example, spatial landscape ecology – and within a matter of minutes be ready to start analysing the language in these works.

“The partnership between Waseda and Birmingham provides the perfect opportunity for us to advance our understanding of corpus linguistics whilst supporting the research of colleagues in Japan and the UK across a range of fields,” commented Prof. Anthony. “Our two Universities share broad areas of similar interest, but also bring fresh perspectives to the research table.”

Shakespeare in Japan - a study of performance

Whilst the partnership in corpus linguistics encompasses modern movies and academic texts, Dr. Rosalind Fielding’s research connection with Waseda draws on a much older tradition of entertainment, as she has recently completed her PhD on the subject of contemporary Japanese performances of Shakespeare’s plays.

After ‘falling in love with Japanese Shakespeare during her undergraduate course in Japanese Studies, Dr. Fielding decided on the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute as the place to continue her relationship with the playwright. The partnership with Waseda gave her a unique opportunity to delve more deeply into her chosen field; the founder of the university’s department of literature Professor Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) was the first person to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Japanese. 

She came to Tokyo in September 2016 – originally intending to stay only three months – but became a visiting research fellow in March 2017; securing 12 months of research support and access to a comprehensive network of support in Japanese academia and theatre. She also began working with Waseda expert Professor Tetsuhito Motoyama and is writing a book with him and Fumiaki Konno, at Meiji University, about contemporary Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare.

Broadening the research network

“Waseda is a great place to study Shakespeare and together with the Shakespeare Institute we have the perfect combination for researching contemporary Japanese adaptations of his works,” said Dr. Fielding. “Shakespeare is hugely popular in Japan and working with Waseda has broadened my research network and given me access to great opportunities to work closely with contemporary Japanese theatre companies and life-defining moments.

“Completing my Doctorate has involved much Skyping and supervisions in Stratford and Tokyo with Professor Michael Dobson, who is a world-renowned scholar of Shakespeare and Director of the Shakespeare Institute. Without that Waseda connection, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take part in 2017’s memorial symposium for the theatre director Yukio Ninagawa, whose work formed a huge part of my PhD thesis.”

Dr Fielding added that her research focussed on how the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011 has influenced contemporary Japanese productions of Shakespeare; spending over half of her PhD time in Japan provided three major case studies for her research that she would otherwise not have seen.

The Waseda-Birmingham partnership has also resulted in Dr Fielding working with many of her theatre heroes, including legendary Japanese actor Mansai Nomura, who will orchestrate the opening and closing ceremonies for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Nomura, who is a renowned actor in Kyogen, a comedic theatre genre, was a special guest at Waseda’s ‘University of Birmingham Day’ Shakespeare symposium in November 2018.

“In the future, I’m hoping to balance academic work with theatrical experience; publishing my thesis as a monograph, completing the book and continuing to work with Professor Motoyama at Waseda,” Dr. Fielding continued. “The Waseda-Birmingham partnership has provided wonderful opportunities to develop my research career. It has helped me to gain a wider international outlook on my own research and a fresh perspective on my studies that would have been impossible had I stayed in the UK.”

Defining the Waseda difference

The strategic research partnership between Birmingham and Waseda started formally in 2016 and builds on collaboration dating from 2000. Prof. Anthony, Dr. Thompson and Dr. Fielding are just three academics benefiting from the collaboration which draws in other research areas such as robotics, atmospheric environmental science, urban studies, language education and creative writing, as well as corpus linguistics and Shakespeare studies. But what’s the Waseda difference?

“There is a strength and depth to this tremendous collaboration which comes from researchers meeting like-minded people and finding common research interests with complementary approaches,” commented University of Birmingham Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) Professor Robin Mason. 

“This is allied to a shared strategic vision that shapes an extraordinary partnership made possible through trust and understanding developed over 18 years. There are things that we cannot achieve as individual universities, but together we can grow and achieve our research goals. The UK is one of Japan’s top research partners and we believe our partnership is a real exemplar of how collaboration between British and Japanese universities can work.”



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