Saturday, December 26, 2009

Introduction - Heisig, Movie Method, and my Movie Method Modifications

This site is dedicated to documenting my progress with learning Japanese Kanji writings, meanings and ON Yomi through Kanji Movie Method, which I was fortunate enough to come across about a week and a half ago. I had been working my way for the past month or so through the 2,049 Kanji in Heisig's Remembering the Kanji 1, with the goal of having the book completed before I leave in March (This is my second pass at the book, as the first time I got distracted halfway through and until Dec. 1 had barely looked at Kanji for close to four years).

When I first discovered Heisig's Remembering the Kanji, it seemed like a miracle solution that helped turn learning the Japanese Kanji from Sisyphean boulder up the hill to a pleasant, albeit long-term task. I recommend this book to anyone I know who is taking on the task of learning the Kanji, precisely because for those of us (like me) who lack a great visual memory but have a decent imagination, in short, it's a Godsend. (You can download the first 1/3 of his book here and read the introduction to get more about how this method works: . It's the little link on the bottom, next to the Adobe Acrobat icon).

But like many people who have worked with Heisig's method, there was the ever looming concern of what to do next. Specifically, once you have learned to read, write and associate one English meaning to the 2049 Japanese Kanji in the book (which includes the full JOYO set + some extras), how do you read them in Japanese? Most Kanji have a minimum of two readings, the KUN Yomi or Japanese reading, and the ON Yomi, or "Chinese" reading of the character.

In my experience, learning KUN Yomi readings have been relatively simple, as they are generally related directly to the word in Japanese that has the exact (or close to exact) meaning of the Kanji that I'd already associated with it. For example, 読む is the verb that means "to read" and the meaning associated with that Kanji through Heisig is "read," so no problem. Even when the Kun Yomi was somewhat different from the meaning of the character I'd associated through Heisig, getting the new KUN Yomi wasn't particularly difficult, again because it is usually close enough, and there are generally not so many KUN Yomi to a word anyway. For example, the Kanji Heisig gives the keyword "endure" is 忍, which has the Kun Yomi of しの --> 忍び which = Ninja (ON YOMI: 忍者). It's pretty straightforward (especially if you watch Naruto).

The ON Yomi are a horse of a different color. ON Yomi are generally used for Kanji compounds (though KUN are also used for these), and those compounds may have only vague associations to the meanings you've assigned to the keywords for each kanji, as well as pronunciations that are not connected to any specific "word" in Japanese. For example, the Kanji Compound 配管 (はいかん) has for the Kanji respectively the Heisig Keywords "Distribute" and "Pipe". The word means "Plumbing". Of course, you can remember that "distribute" =  はい and "Pipe" =  かん, well, sometimes, but imagine the grunt work you're doing when trying this with thousands of different combinations. Also, couldn't it be "distribute water" or "move pipe" or any number of other words? The potential for confusion is apparent. While through Heisig you've streamlined the work of learning the meanings and writings of the Kanji, you're still stuck doing that grunt work in a much less efficient way on the back end, when it comes to getting yourself fully literate. That's one of the primary critique of Heisig's method, and I think it's a valid one.

Here's where 's Movie Method comes in:

In short, in the same way that Heisig revolutionized the process of Kanji learning first by taking advantage of how Kanji are built from smaller components that also have (or can be assigned) meaning, and second by then utilizing the imaginative (as opposed to the purely visual) memory to dramatically improve memorization and ease of writing the Kanji, so does 's Movie Method reconceptualize how we go about learning the readings AT THE SAME TIME while working with Heisig's basic principles and components.

method is basically a memory palace like Kanjitown , but in place of static rooms or areas, uses a specific movie as the "location." You can read more on 's method as well as see some samples of how he and one other Kanji learner have approached it on his blog:

Below, I'm going to highlight some differences between how I'm approaching the Movie Method, with the hope that it will be useful to those who are using it and offer another perspective for those who are thinking about integrating the Movie Method as a part of their own Kanji study. It's in no way meant as a critique. In my short time with the Movie Method, I've found it to be excellent. Also, at the end, I've added some links to sites that I've found useful in studying the Kanji through Heisig and the Movie Method.

Two differences between Alyks's approach and mine:
  1. I use a combination of visual memory (watching and capturing a detailed memory of the scene, preferably with Kanji elements inserted, as describes) and pure story/mnemonic. I think has a much better visual memory than me. I've found over the course of the past week and a half that if there are a lot of random elements inserted arbitrarily into a scene, I'm likely to forget one or two, and furthermore, totally mix up the order of elements. So while I do my best to insert the elements into the scene as a I watch/remember it, I also am very careful to make up a mnemonic or story that fits those elements together, so that all are retained in order. I also try to make (if possible) my mnemonic as closely related to the scene or at least the movie as possible.

  2. In addition to movies, I also use TV shows, music videos, AMVs or youtube videos of random crap, so long as it is memorable. I have already used three AMVs, though I am careful not to use AMVs that use footage from series I plan to use for other ON Yomi sounds.
Examples: (note, spoilers for BSG miniseries and movies Equilibrium and Mean Girls below)

For ショウ, I am using Battlestar Galactica, the best darned SHOW on the Sci-Fi Channel, EVER.

All but nine of the elements from BSG came from the Miniseries. For the Kanji Heisig keywords as "Bell" 鐘, I used the scene after the first alert Claxton, where the bell sounds and Adama addresses the crew. I visualize the scene, and tried to incorporate the elements of a vase, computer and gold, but the main thing holding this one together is the mnemonic: "When the bell sounds on the BSG, Adama's golden words tell everyone to stand up and fight the computers." For "badge" 章 the mnemonic is even less connected, "In the Colonial Fleet (as opposed 'in the military' which this mnemonic originally was) people stand up early in the morning for their badges." This is juxtaposed against Adama's retirement speech, where his Viper wings are glinting in the light. As a note, all of my other scenes that include the Kanji 章as a primitive also are related to the Viper Pilot badge and Zach's story arc in the miniseries.
Sometimes a mnemonic is less useful, and the visual elements are more effective.
For example, in the movie Equilibrium (イ), for the Kanji Heisig assigns the meaning "shift", I used the scene where the vial of Prozium drops onto the floor. Preston's decision not to get a new vial causes a profound shift in the direction of his life (and the movie's plot). I imagine it falling to the floor, and it turning into wheat (it helps the vial is wheat colored), and then say "not in many, many evenings would we have imagined a guy like Preston do something like this...". I also picture two moons outside the window with clouds over them.
However, even when I am using totally visual elements, I usually try to put some story with them to chain them together.
For example, for "doubt" 疑, I've used the movie Mean Girls (ギ). I chose the scene where Kady sends herself a card from Regina (the Queen Bee). I have the room filled with animals instead of teens, and when the student comes in to deliver the invitation, he hands Kady a spoon and then darts everyone else in the neck. With a dart hanging from her neck, the other girl turns to Kady and says, with a PAST DUE stamp on her forehead (the chopseal) "Why didn't Regina send me a card?"And so the doubt is implanted.
And sometimes (as above with BSG badges) I just use a general mnemonic and visualize/watch the scene while saying it.
For example, for めん I've used the movie Men in Black. For the character 綿 assigned the meaning "cotton", I picked the scene where both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were standing with their suits, with Smith saying "I make this look good. 100% cotton." (I added the cotton part. For only three Kanji, I just used my memory of the film). Fitting the elements: cobwebs, towel and dove just wasn't working for me, so I invented the mnemonic, "Not too long ago, white folks would have kept men (めん)like Will Smith in the fields, picking threads of cotton for their towels." The words "Will Smith" reminds me it is in a Will Smith movie, Men clues me into the reading, at least enough to guide me into the right movie and scene. I am hoping this Kanji will be well affixed in my mind as めん before I get to 'I Am Legend' and "I Robot" but we'll see.
So far, the movie method is working great for me. I've done about 245 Kanji with this method, (650ish using straight Heisig from the beginning of the month, so some are repeats) since last Tuesday (about 10 days). This is about 30% slower than I was going with straight Heisig (I had been doing about 30/day, now it's about 20), mainly due to the fact that I have to pick movie and watch them (so tragic, I know). My retention is about 85-90%, though it has been improving since I've actively started adding stories to relate the primitive elements to the scenes (before that, it was around 60%) as well as well as pausing at the scenes which I'm using when watching the film/show/video. I expect the kanji with good mnemonics/stories are closer to 92-95%, which is only slightly worse than where I was with just RTK. I have also had the experience of not having the precise reading while looking at a Kanji, but knowing exactly how it is read (which is interesting).

With those caveats, my experience with the movie method has so far been a solid success. The major benefit is that I am now able to site read Kanji compounds without Furigana and get them right without ever having laid eyes on them or knowing what they mean outside of the meanings of the elements. (which is how I got plumbing...awesome!). This is allowing me to mine more adult manga and the one untranslated novel I've been hoarding for vocabulary, which is doubling my studying and giving me more confidence as I prepare to go to Japan. It's also very exciting to be able to read an ON Yomi kanji compound word and to realize after sounding it out that it is a word you already know. I've had that experience with 完全、将来、不思議、and a few others.

In short, I highly recommend the Kanji Movie Method. I've modified it for my own use, and probably you will have to make your own tweaks as well, but as a method, for me, it works! I'm feeling like I'm taking another significant step on the road to functional Japanese literacy! I'm going to use this blog to document how I'm using the movie method, upload stories related to various movies/tv/videos etc. and basically chart how this is working for me.

Some other great sites that are related to or useful in conjunction with the Movie Method:
  • Heisig's Remembering the Kanji, Book 1:
    --Where it really all began. I am eternally grateful to James Heisig for creating and publishing his method for Kanji learning. It totally changed my life. I also highly recommend owning it as you work with the Movie Method, as the spreadsheets alone weren't enough for me to fully use the movie method. For me, it is often very helpful to look at the primitive meanings Heisig assigns Kanji as well as how he orders them

  • ' Blog:
    --Origin of Movie Method. Site also has links to spreadsheet grouping Kanji by ON Yomi as well as all of the basic kanji elements.

  • The Movie Method in Action:
    --Another Kanji learner using the movie method, and the inspiration for me to make this site. His site is focused on using the Movie Method after you have completed RTK 1 (without learning the readings).

  • Kanji Koohii Heisig Flashcard and Community:
    --Excellent site for sharing stories and hints about the Kanji when using Heisig's method. I have two usernames for this site, one for those Kanji I've learned the movie method, and the other without. Though I have made the decision to use the movie method from here out, I've found the shared stories and interpretations of the Kanji by the other members, as well as the flashcard reviews to be very helpful. A timed review system optimized for long-term recall. For just doing the Kanji alone, I like this site better than Anki, though for compounds and vocabulary, I like Anki a lot.

  • Anki:
    --Online flashcard review system. Great for timed reviews and optimized for getting new material into the long-term memory.

  • Kanjitown:
    --Another popular memory palace for Kanji learning. Instead of using movies, you create an imagined town and group the mnemonics in different locations depending on their ON Yomi, usually through some form of story or chaining technique. I had some success with this the last time I did Heisig, though I think the Movie Method works better (at least with my tweaks).


  1. This is an amazing post. I'm doing a lot of research presently on adopting the movie method as I finish RTK1 to get some solid reading ability without the need for furigana. I'm really searching for a spreadsheet that has the RTK1 Kanji sorted by readings. Do you know where I could get that? I'd really appreciate it.

  2. Hello, still around and doing this?