Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune

Tsushima, Yuko (1983 [1978]), Child of Fortune, Kodansha
[Translated from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt]
ISBN 4-7700-1524-0

yukoSometimes accidents have interesting results: the only reason I heard from Yuko Tsushima in the first place is Jake Waalk’s essay on this blog. You can (and should) read it here. And so, almost by accident, I picked up her novel Child of Fortune, but really, if you’ll permit me the terrible joke, it was my ‘fortune’ that I did so. This novel is not like any other novel you’ve read. I know I say that a lot and maybe I’m just very discerning about the books I pick, but it is true in this case. Not, however, very obviously so, I have to add. Yuko Tsushima’s novel about a middle aged woman’s coming to terms with her daughter, her pregnancy and the men in her life contains many beats we expect of novels of this kind, particularly those published in the late 1970s, as Tsushima’s was. I don’t know the cultural context well, but Geraldine Harcourt’s introduction clarifies some points about it. Yet even so, the book’s effect and strengths are not dependent on being weighed against tradition and context. The book holds up fairly well on its own. It’s a truly terrific novel about physicality and the needs of a woman who is trying to navigate closeness, about motherhood and adulthood at the same time. More importantly, Tsushima writes extremely well, both in the way the novel is structured and narrated, as well as on a line by line basis. The latter effect may not be remarkable if you pick any line from a random page, but as you continue to read on, pretty much every time, you’ll notice small shifts in emphasis. Three, four sentences on, there’s invariable something that will set you back on your heels lightly. I could truly quote progression after progression from the book. This is of course not solely or entirely something that can be chalked up to Tsushima. Clearly, Geraldine Harcourt’s translation (without being credited anywhere on the cover, of course) is extraordinarily successful here. I cannot possibly judge how close she came to being faithful about the Japanese original text, but Tsushima’s novel is a celebrated, prize-winning novel in Japan, and it is truly excellent in English, so at least that has been preserved. What’s more, the text may sound a bit odd here and there, but it always feels like something belonging to the text itself. The novel never reads translated, it is a rich and full text as it is, without needing the sometimes condescending praise afforded to translations. It does not appear to be in print, which is a damn shame. You should read it and it should definitely be in print. Damn it, this should be taught in writing classes. I am not exaggerating. I’ve just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s celebrated debut novel and I’ll be damned if she couldn’t stand to read some Tsushima with attention and a notepad. As should we all. Child of Fortune isn’t flashy. Nobody dies, nobody is tied up in the attic, no great discoveries are made. It is a small narrative of a woman’s life for a few weeks and months. Yet the execution, and conception, of this unremarkable-seeming story are stellar.

Child of Fortune is, on the surface, fairly simple. It starts with Koko, a single mother, who teaches the piano and is not happy with who she is, and not on the best of terms with her daughter, who primarily stays with her aunt. The pressures of loneliness, of economic problems as well as the vicissitudes of keeping a daughter in middle school happy and in (fashionable) clothes are all taking a toll on Koko. Things come up in her life, and then go away again and at the end, she is, apparently, in the same situation: single, on difficult terms with her daughter, and in financial trouble. Through it all, Koko mostly maintains a placid emotional state, with a few exceptions here and there and so one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens in this book. Instead, what we find is a quiet revolution, a woman standing up for herself, even if she does it only internally, a woman stepping away from social pressures for a quick, ludic moment. Tsushima did not inscribe a future for Koko into the text, but the final moment, involving an invocation of play and childhood serves to inject a moment of deviance, of deviation into the text and the structures it struggles with. Koko rejects the “featureless but comfortable place known as ‘common sense’,” but the novel is not a triumphant resolution (or indeed a dark one). It feels more as if Tsushima has constructed a discourse on an ethics of self care in the novel and how the physical autonomy of women (or of that specific woman) plays into that. I could say it’s a discourse about self care in general, and certainly, parts of it read true to me, as a profoundly failed man in his 30s, but Tsushima’s novel is centered around pregnancy. The pregnancy is the disruptive event, the thing that triggers the ending, that threatens to change all her relationships: with family, her ex-husband and with her current lover. Remarkably, it doesn’t appear as if Tsushima works from any obvious literary patterns, this is not a play on a tradition, or anything. The novel reads like a genuine literary encounter with the phenomenon of pregnancy in a woman in her mid-to-late 30s, working through it. I do not mean to suggest meandering. Tsushima isn’t making up her mind as she develops her character. No, the thinking underlies the whole structure of the book. Every part of the narrative is tightly strapped onto the engine of the author’s thinking about pregnancy, common sense and physicality. Her protagonist, Koko, apparently, at first, a cog in the engine of common sense society, turns out to be more of a moving part, shifting slowly against a stiff background. The interior voice, both worried and aloof, both confused and surprised, plays a major role in this, as does the frequently surprising language. Tsushima manages to bridge the divide between a cerebral, intellectual novel – and a moving, immersive one, with admirable ease.

Now, all this said, I can hear the objections. After all, the 20th century has seen a vast array of novels about womanhood in a modern age come forth, many of them among the best books published in the past century. Jelinek, Elsner, Drabble, Jong, Lessing, I mean it’s an endless list of excellence. So what’s different here? The difference is that with Tsushima one has the feeling that a writer is finding new expressions for a situation, without relying on darkness, the grotesque or working within the contradictions of language. It is a subtle work that we are presented here, with contradictions, gently worked. One is Koko’s interest in sex. She “dwelled so fixedly on the existence of men,” and that “greedy desire of hers had indeed been there since childhood, differing little from an adult’s.” She loves her daughter and yet she “could never guarantee that she wouldn’t abandon her in some remote place if that were the only way she could have Doi.” Koko labels it selfishness, but selfishness, in the same chapter, also leads her to resolve to clear up a relationship. Koko’s appetite appears clear, “the molten lava of her sexuality,” but Tsushima shows us the complexities of that. She may have an affair with a weak, “plump,” boyish man, reminiscent of, for example, the husband in Gisela Elsner’s fiery feminist novel Die Zähmung, but eschews the simple rhetorical angles of this. Instead, she insists on her physicality being “misunderstood.” Men too often draw her into sex, and Koko wants to escape the limits of those relationships. Indeed, when she, somewhat by accident, seduces the eventual cause of her pregnancy, she finds it “hard to suppress a deep disappointment with [his] arousal – as deep as her joy at coming into contact with a human body.” Koko is both interested and disinterested in sex. The main problem with it, for her, is the way sex implies a certain sequence of events. She likes closeness, intimacy – mere fucking is not what she is looking for. She wants to break with the way things go, usually. It’s interesting – almost as if the novel itself interrogated this sequentiality of human relationships, without overtly breaking with it to the point of modernist collages or postmodernist fragments. The fragments are still there, but they are embedded in the expectations of how to write these characters. I found a brief 1984 review of the novel in WLT, where the reviewer expresses some irritation at the inconsistent characterization and the author’s insistence on not embedding the characterization in a normal narrative. This irritation is clearly something created by the author – much as Koko turns out to be a bit of an irritation to the people around her, the novel provides its own -subtle- thorn in the unprepared reader’s side. The untroubled, unhurried tone of the novel, which avoids (sometimes narrowly) cascades of obsession or anger contributes to this, even as it describes the protagonist being “shaken” by one revelation about herself or another.

Georges Bataille’s theory of religion starts on an interesting premise. It’s a comparison of humans with animals – or animality. Animals, Bataille writes, are in the world like water in water. Completely contingent, and nothing to shake them from it. Humans have tools. The profane, simple tool introduces exteriority into a world of contingency. In some ways, it strikes me as if Tsushima has examined the ties that bind female experience to the workings of the world and suggested a way, a tool of introducing exteriority, of prying someone loose. Why, she asks, do some people go on living despite an utter lack of a “compelling reason” to do so. Koko, looking at herself, cannot find “a single redeeming feature” and yet she’s shaken to discover “that the will to live is still there.” Maybe that is the theme of the book: finding, if not a compelling, then an acceptable reason to continue to live. The point is not political – it’s personal. Yet it is also about female experience in a world with sometimes cruel expectations of women, so it’s also political. Child of Fortune isn’t a long book, but it is very good. It contains its own contradictions, it is well narrated and paced. It contains, finally, some hope that there is a way to go forward.

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Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat

Hiraide, Takashi (2014), The Guest Cat, Picador
[Translated by Eric Selland]
ISBN 978-1-4472-7940-2

guest cat coverFor my birthday a year and a half ago, my sister brought me a cat, as, I suspect, a therapy animal/companion. I love cats, and my sister was right to suspect that my cat would keep the specter of suicide mostly away from my door. This year, she bought me a bunch of books, some of them cat themed. I’m saying this to explain that I have an obvious affinity to cats. My family has always had a cat and I genuinely missed having one around. I love cats. So when I come across a book that speaks to its author’s deep appreciation of feline companions, I’m already halfway convinced of the book’s quality. By cat-themed books I mean books about people who have cats. There are obviously also books about cats, written from a cat’s perspective, a genre that has some important forebears. I (badly) reviewed one of them here, ETA Hoffman”s Tomcat Murr. Many entries in this genre, somehow, have turned to the genre of the mystery novel, from Rita Mae Brown’s post-Rubyfruit Jungle work to the German novel Felidae (which I advise against buying because its author has turned into a deplorable creature and there’s no point in lining his pockets further. Get it from a library. It’s enjoyable, I think). But none of that here. This is about animals as companions. In these situations, animals often serve as agents of disorder, of emotional or empathetical destabilization of order or just as unreadable creatures beyond the reach of rational analysis. The raven in Charles Dickens’ severely underrated early novel Barnaby Rudge, companion to the simple minded eponymous hero of the novel, serves such a purpose, for example. In a way, its first appearance in Dickens’ novel is a culmination of several figures of incomprehension. That encounter with animals is something that we know from writers all over literary history, in the past century most powerfully expressed by poets like Elizabeth Bishop or James Dickey, but pets have a whole additional significance. More than Bishop’s gentle-but-threatening moose, pets are already connected to a domestic sphere. They are part of the machine of urban structure and architecture. They help us read and sometimes push against needs and asks.

guest cat toskaI say all this because that is exactly, I think, the role played by “Chibi,” the cat from Takashi Hiraide’s novel. Hiraide is a poet and the spare but efficient way the book is structured suggests the assured hand of a writer used to play tennis with a net, to paraphrase Frost. Chibi is a “guest cat” not in a semi-permanent sense, like a cat left behind with a cat sitter or a friend. Chibi is a frequent visitor rather than a guest, really. Her home is in the same neighborhood but she has taken a liking to the protagonists of the novel and spends quite a bit of time at their house. Her movements are not restricted, and her relationship to the protagonists is one largely of autonomy. The book charts the relationship of the protagonists to the cat from its beginnings to the end, telling a story of a middle aged man diverging from what appeared his set path in life to make small but important changes. The whole story is set to the backdrop of the country itself going through changes. Chibi, the curious cat, with her roaming ways, serves, if not as a catalyst, then as a figure of independence and divergence, helping the protagonists make sense of their changing lives. This “cat ownership […] on an ad hoc basis” is written without any tired insights into the mind of a cat. In fact, the cat’s itinerant ways and her unclear attachment to the protagonists allows Hiraide to situate the book between urban stories of pet ownership and the tales of encounters with wildlife, except: there are no epiphanies here. There is half a revelation in the final pages of the book, but it is one of contextualization, of understanding human agency and the restrictions they place on the freedom of animals among us. I have mentioned my limitations with regards to Asian literatures before here and here, but it never feels so acute as here where I’m left to speculate about the literary and cultural reception of Romanticism, particularly of the Wordsworthian kind, in Japan. Is the retreat from epiphany a choice by Hiraide, emphasizing the austerity and materialism of the novel, or is this typical of late-20th century literary writing in Japanese?

jito itoThe only non-fairy-tale book I have on my shelf to compare is a brief manga by Junji Ito. Now, if you are a reader of this blog, you may recognize the name from some intense praise I offered for his work a while ago. Junji Ito is one of the best and most accomplished writers of horror comics I have ever read. His work may sometimes seem too direct and unsubtle, but for me at least, it has its desired impact of scaring me or at least appearing sufficiently creepy. This comic book, published by Kodansha Comics in a translation by Stephen Paul, as Yon & Mu, is basically a memoir of acquiring cats. Junji Ito offers his usual approach of injecting every frame with some modicum of dread, fueled in this case by his lack of appreciation for cats. So when his wife forces two cats on him, he indulges in sharing the dread they invoke in him. This dread is clearly played for laughs. In a way, the whole book is a kind of deconstruction of Ito’s poetics, with every sweaty forehead and grimacing face showing us how much the effect of his more serious books depends on audience collaboration. At the same time, some of the ‘serious’ dread carries over, emphasizing an incipient metaphysical dimension to the story and cat ownership in general. The book may seem loose, but if we look close, it ticks a lot of boxes relevant to the genre. We get a kind of vision, but they do not carry the weight either of classical or of modern epiphanies, so, as a way to gauge a cultural environment for an understanding of Takashi Hiraide’s novel(la), it’s not greatly of help. Let me, however, recommend the book, and, while I’m recommending cat related comics, let me additionally recommend the adorable manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, published by Vertical in a translation by Ed Chavez. It is written to reflect the pet’s perspective, so it doesn’t fit my thoughts on The Guest Cat, but it is just the most adorable comic you’ll read in a long time. Ah, and for a final recommendation to close out this paragraph, you should read Grant Morrison’s comic We3, a contemporary take on Richard Adams’ classic 1970s novel The Plague Dogs. Morrison mimicks many of the conventions of animal-perspective storytelling, but undercuts them by exploring questions of speech and technology, autonomy and language. It’s a story of three pets fleeing the laboratory that planned on turning them into cyborg killing machines. Donna Haraway’s work has surely contributed to Morrison’s thinking here.

window kitteh

Technology, interestingly, plays no role in The Guest Cat despite its setting in the 1980s. In fact, the book is set precisely at the end of the Showa period, which ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Human artifacts here are more of the wood and concrete kind. The book begins with the protagonists, a married couple, moving into a house. Hiraide spends an enormous amount of time explaining to his readers the exact layout of the neighborhood, how the house, which is itself a kind of guest house, relates not just to the lerger mansion on the same grounds but also to the neighboring houses and the street. The relationship between all these places, these narrowly defined small territories is almost geometrically exact – in fact, due to the odd angling of the house vis-à-vis the street, a trick of the light sends the image of approaching passengers through a knothole in a perfectly positioned tree onto a wall in the protagonists’ house. This sense of proportions and of the interaction of light an architecture is reminiscent both of the work of Gaston Bachelard and, particularly, Junichiro Tanizaki’s brief essay In Praise of Shadows, In it, the famous (and excellent) novelist describes the role of darkness and light in aesthetics, but he particularly discusses effects of shadow and reflection in architecture. One of his observations, of light reflecting an image onto a wall, off some gold leaves in a decoration, comes remarkably close to the appreciation of light in Hiraide’s novel(la). It’s interesting that The Guest Cat would be interested in light and its effects on rooms, and Tanizaki interested in darkness and shadows, particularly, because both books have a sense of the nostalgic about them. Tanizaki ends his essay with a lament on the advent of electrical light and the resultant omnipresence of light, whereas Hiraide constructs the strangest little simple abode that appears almost like an ancient object to which modern humans brought stoves and computers and the like.

we3 chis homeAfter about 1,500 words of talk, I am not sure I conveyed to you that, with all this, The Guest Cat is a very good book. It sidesteps easy sentimentalism without losing emotional resonance. It creates multiple layers of significance by superimposing people and events on certain roles and things. One example is the way the author blends the Emperor’s death with the much smaller death of his landlord. The writing is not always disciplined, sometimes the author indulges in speculations about the cat’s presence in their lives that drag on for a bit. Like many men, the author likes to hear himself talk and he cannot always control the detrimental effects this has. This isn’t helped by the patchy language that sometimes slips awkwardly between registers, something that I tend to lay at the feet of the translator. Yet all of this is nitpicking. The writing is usually elegant, and the author modulates the architecture of his novel very well. While the aforementioned memoir by Junji Ito is exclusively of interest to people who love/have cats, The Guest Cat does not rely on shared affinities. It is a very nice book. It never attempts to go beyond its small confines of offering a small episode in the life of a writer, despite its reach into the larger fabric of the historical moment. Like a poem, then, say, one of Mary Oliver’s small ones or, more accurately, the luminous work of Wisława Szymborska, who populated several of her poems with cats, declaring once that “D[ying]—you can’t do that to a cat.” Hiraide does not have Szymborska’s precision, but that would be a tall order anyway. Yet with her, he shares a sense of how cats interact with spaces, with things and routines, how cats resist – and attach themselves to their human companions. It is something that rings very true to me, which returns us to the bias I admitted to in the first sentences of this review.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog or my cat, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer

Takagi, Akimitsu (1999 [1965]), The Informer, Soho Press
]Trans. Sadako Mizuguchi]
ISBN 1-56947-243-2

takagiWhen I started this book I was not aware that The Informer is a very traditional crime novel. I somehow ended up reading it on a recommendation and not until about halfway through the novel did I notice what I was reading. That’s not just because I am slow of mind: the book’s devotion to the genre of the mystery novel doesn’t really surface until about halfway through. The first half of the novel could be part of all kinds of books; there is a distinct sense of gears being shifted after a crucial part of the plot is reached. Another thing I didn’t know until I typed in the bibliographic info on the top right of this review is the age of the book. 1965 was a long time ago, and usually, crime novels which are this old tend to be pretty obviously old. When I reviewed Ed McBain’s 1956 novel Cop Hater, its age was part of the reason this book was maybe less impressive for me than for its readers back in the 1950s. Slang, references and badly aged forensic methodology all dragged on the book. This is not the case here, and I suspect that it is the Japanese culture and my lack of in-depth knowledge of history and culture of post-war Japan that made me overlook the book’s true age. Another factor may be the fact that the book’s allegiance, despite its contemporary setting, is not to modern police procedurals but to the classic detective novel, in particular to the Father Brown stories of GK Chesterton. There is a real police investigation, a noir web of intrigue, sex, murder and desperation – but the basic beats of the novel don’t depend on any of that. Ultimately, this is what makes the book, despite its very slow beginning, such a satisfying read, if you like this sort of thing. Takagi is very transparently not interested in murder or the way we discover the identity of murderers, but in ideas of love and loyalty, of guilt and, Chesterton’s primary theme, of deception and faith.

I will admit: as a reader who lacks the necessary background, many of the topical references that the book’s first half leans so heavily on, are completely lost to me. There is a weight, a historical and moral weight, accorded to the way economical concerns invade the moral fiber of Japanese society. The first half of the book introduces the protagonist, who, after a momentous stock crash, has lost everything and is now working a small job for a small salary, barely making do. The description of the greed of brokers that precipitated this crash should be eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the debates and explanations of our own stock crash about a decade ago. And then, as now, failure and disaster does not cure people of greed, and it doesn’t take very long for our protagonist, whose voice is full of self pity, and extremely hard to bear, to get ensnared in another scheme, this time he’s trying to do some industrial espionage (with risky brokering on the side). This whole plot develops very slowly, with additional lanes opened for a few tense sexual encounters. Our protagonist, despite not being necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer and monumentally unsuccessful as a business man, has a surprising talent with making women fall in love with him, but as the plot thickens, it starts to look as if he’s juggling too many balls at the same time until a murder makes his life crumble all around him. This is basically the first half of the novel which we experience exclusively from the protagonist’s point of view and it could have been part of a novel of Japanese society, of the Franzen/Trollope variety, or it could have led into a very dark noir kind of novel. Instead, as a police inspector and two prosecutors enter the fray, the novel suddenly splinters into a multitude of voices and points of view, and, very quickly, we find ourselves in a very classic detective novel, interrupted only by the occasional chapters from the protagonist’s point of view which offer some continuity with the first half.

It may not be clear from my dubious skills of describing novels, but the second half of the book is much better, much more enjoyable than the first half. The undertaking of mirroring the developments in postwar Japanese society and the devastation these developments have wrought in the soul of one hapless, greedy Japanese man takes genuine literary skill – a skill the author does not, I think, possess, although the spotty translation, which sometimes reaches for strange locutions and idioms, certainly does not help matters. There are a few extraordinary observations, the most intriguing one involving the way selling massaging tools can help a stock broker get the inside track on a company’s financial health. The picture painted is of a whole set of defeated, tired managers, overwhelmed by the financial crisis, whose wish for comfort is a sign of having given up on success. In this one observation, Takagi manages both to sum up the joyless business landscape after a period of financial devastation – and also offer a remarkably uncritical condemnation of what his character calls “laziness.” Success in business and a longing for comfort do not fit. You have to choose one or the other, which is a pretty harsh assessment, all things considered. Mostly, however, the book’s topical criticism does not make for exciting reading. By contrast, the book’s taut handling of the murder intrigue, with its twists and turns, hiding and exposing just the right amount of information, is truly well done. As readers, we follow the author wherever he leads us, and even if we guess the final reveal fairly early, this does not make the book any less suspenseful. It took me a long time to get through the first half of the novel, with its tedious descriptions and its exploration of the uneventful inner life of a man who doesn’t have much of an inner life, while I just flew through the book’s second half. Moreover, for having such a dull male protagonist, the book’s second half offers us a broad range of female characters, who are either smarter, or more compassionate, more moral or more clever than many of the book’s male characters.

The book’s concern with femininity, and its contradictory treatment of its women is, finally, another reason to give it a whirl. Early in the novel, a character says “I don’t know if it’s good or wicked of me, acting like this. If we were in some other country, it probably wouldn’t look so bad, but here in Japan it must seem terrible, especially to older people. Poor me – I might yet be labeled a bad woman….” The wicked thing she does it be more active, lively, act out her thoughts, push people to do a thing she believes is right. Another character similarly knows that society judges her for sleeping with a man before marriage, living alone. And a third character is driven to suicide by a situation that wouldn’t be as oppressive if social pressure wasn’t as high. That death is a double edged sword, however. It is never quite clear whether the novel approves of the free thinking some of its female characters exhibit. Some characters are undercut in hindsight, some are killed, as of to punish them, some are just miserable. The most consistent moral throughline of the book still leads through its male characters, and all final insights and beneficial actions are undertaken by men, as well. And yet, the social situation of a generation that is not entirely pre/mid-war and not entirely post-war (“Your generation […] doesn’t belong anywhere.” a character explains) is mirrored in the author’s own inconclusive way of seeing female freedoms and male traditions. The novel appears to be critical of a certain brand of free thinking, but at the same time, it displays an awareness for the profoundly unfair way, for example, marriage, love and sex plays out for men and women. Women are practically sold into marriages whereas men have close to absolute freedom.

You’ll notice that I have, in discussing the social criticism, barely mentioned the Japanese setting. In part, this is because, as I noted earlier, I am profoundly ignorant of it. But I could have connected some of it to books I already reviewed like Ayako. However, the social conservatism of it doesn’t strike me as any different from the social conservatism of, say, American or German novels published in the early 1960s, and I am wary of overly exoticizing the novel when it doesn’t really need it. There are aspects to it that strike me as mostly or completely uniquely Japanese, such as the company structure, the deference for hierarchy and age, and some discussions of honor (for example, the protagonist wasn’t fired from his company, he resigned as a matter of honor because he caused too many losses to the company), but none of them are really central for the novel. I keep bringing up Chesterton, without managing to offer evidence without spoiling the book, but for me, this reference settled early in the second half and never really left my brain. Mostly, think, it’s the underlying deception that precipitates all the book’s murder and mayhem. The nature of the deception is, I think, a cruel kind of evil, but it isn’t some vague perversion or, conversely, some metaphysical evil. It’s the awfulness of human beings, the things human beings will do to each other for money or revenge. Chesterton’s Father Brown would look at these deceptions with a kind of sad resignation, clear-eyed, but sad. I think that is how we leave the novel, and its final revelations, as well. Not shocked or thrilled or titillated, but disappointed in the things people do to each other and a bit sad. “Every friendship, however genuine it might seem, must have a shady side to it,” a character says at the end. One wishes, ultimately, that Takagi was a better writer and Mizuguchi was a better translator, but the book’s core is solid and the book succeeds despite everything.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Mispraising Murakami (guest post by Jake Waalk)

[So I asked a friend and frightfully brilliant writer and reader Jake Waalk to write a post on Murakami. I cannot read him in Japanese, and while I have some opinions of his work (none charitable), they are all based on flawed translations. I don’t really know his work not the contexts in which it should be read. Since Nobel season is coming up, however, I am anticipating the same, mildly exasperating hyperbole about his work. I do not even remotely have the competence to argue this point, however. Jake Waalk does. This essay is not about Murakami’s work as it is about the way we read and praise Murakami in the West. Please enjoy this essay.]

10423647_10204438039891693_2575797347110217778_nSo I had the honor of being asked to write a piece on Haruki Murakami, perhaps given the lead up to the Nobel Prize for Literature and the continued buzz around his name. Murakami’s fans are numerous in the West, as evidenced by the huge sections of his books in U.S. bookstores, an almost unheard of saturation of a translated author in the famously insular American literary scene. Japanese literature particular has always been a fringe even in the small malnourished country that is translation in United States. The tendencies in the Japanese literary culture towards ambiguousness and moral ambivalence have also meant that traditionally, Japan has been an exceptionally poor fit for the aggressively idealistic American culture. While I speak mainly with experience over the United States, Murakami’s fans have increased in Europe as well, and as such the task has fallen on me too offer up a little context on the author from, to help out my friend, mediocre poet and blogger shigekuni. The purpose in writing this brief essay is not so much to deconstruct or breakdown Murakami’s literary merit—something I am not well enough versed in his work to do anyway—but is rather to address certain issues surrounding the author’s popularity and to address his place in contemporary Japanese literature.

I start then, with a parable, albeit an imperfect one, but I ask readers please go along with me for a minute. I will use an American example: imagine going abroad and visiting bookstores, talking to readers, and the only thing anyone ever talks about is Dave Eggers. At all the bookstores Eggers’ books fill up entire shelves in translation, with only one or two other books by an American author at all, one lesser Faulkner and maybe a late Hemingway, crammed beside everything Dave Eggers’ has ever written. Eggers remains virtually the only living American author anyone in this imaginary place has ever read and will talk about. I have just outlined the experience of Japanese people with Haruki Murakami. None of this was to disparage Dave Eggers, a solid writer who has done much to invigorate the American literary scene and support the genre of the short story writer. I chose Eggers name because he is a relatively well-known middling author in the realm of living writers in that country, though one with a solid cult following and perhaps more recognized by the group of readers that also read Murakami.

The parable works, because regardless of how surprising his Western fans may find this, Haruki Murakami is a middling author in Japan, one with a mixed relationship to the country’s literary establishment, which has more often than not passed him up for major awards and rarely ranks him at the top echelon of living writers. Murakami’s Japanese critics make many claims against him; his writing is boring and simplistic in its use much kanji (Chinese characters) or that he fails to use kanji with the level of cleverness and wordplay expected of an author skilled in the use of the Japanese language as a literary tool. Murakami also comes under criticism for his political apathy, his lack of much of a moral vision one way or another, and many perceive his surreal or playful themes to be childish or the products of a shallow worldview (though it cannot be said that Murakami has no defenders in the Japanese literary community, they are just definitively in the minority). Ostensibly, the hope of the parable was to highlight a certain oddness, and even condescension present in Murakami’s popularity abroad, especially since almost no Murakami reader I have ever spoken to has read anything else of Japan’s vibrant and extraordinarily diverse modern literary heritage, from Natsume Soseki to Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Kawabata Yasunari, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobo Abe to name just a few older writers, all dead save the Nobel Prize laureate Oe (yes, for all the complaining about Murakami not having won, there is currently a living Japanese laureate whom virtually no one in the U.S. has read). And it’s not a matter of translation; all of the above authors have been well-translated into English, just good luck finding them in a bookstore, though you will find a good half-dozen Murakami books.

Modern Japanese literature is another topic—and one where I think context is most needed and most lacking among Western readers. For example, Haruki Murakami is, in my opinion, not even the best living Japanese writer named Murakami, an honor which goes to Ryu Murakami, an author about the same age, who has won virtually all of Japan’s most prestigious prizes: The Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, the Naoki Prize, two Noma awards—Ryu Murakami is both a popular writer and critically acclaimed, with several of his key works like the fantastic Coin-Locker Babies in English and yet little-known and little-read. Ryu Murakami has written about a range of contemporary issues in Japan from compensated dating, to hikikomori (shut-ins) and his work is imbued with a gritty violence and social critique of Japanese society, with an entire body of work seemingly centered around very relevant cultural issues (he’s also something of a celebrity and like Haruki has deep ties and interests in music as well as literature).

Ryu Murakami aside, contemporary Japanese literature has many other immensely talented and respected authors, including many prominent female writers. There is Yuko Tsushima, the daughter of the famous author Osamu Dazai (who committed suicide with his lover in 1948). Tsushima’s novel Laughing Wolf is available in English and offers a very unique take to a young girl’s empowerment through her elopement with the older boy she develops an interest in. The novel, which cannot be reviewed here, makes skillful literary use of The Jungle Book to create a strange relationship between young girl and older boy, that of brother and sister. It is a relationship based on a rejection of ties to the broader world of humans, forged by an affinity and connection with death: the suicide of the girl’s father, which the boy witnessed as a small homeless child. The novel is phenomenal, and Tsushima has been a consistent literary presence for decades, yet is almost untranslated into English. There is Ogawa Yoko whom I have not read, but who has won most of the Japan’s most prestigious literary awards and is often talked up as one Japan’s premier authors, by no less than Kenzaburo Oe for example. Another that I have actually read is Kaori Ekuni, a bestseller with some serious critical gravitas, whose Twinkle, Twinkle was a light, but funny and interesting love triangle between a woman who didn’t want an actual marriage, a gay doctor needing an out for his family and work, and his long-time lover. There is even the bubbly and decidedly more lightweight Banana Yoshimoto. Other names that have come in inquiring about leading Japanese authors beyond my reading are Toshiyuki Horie, and several Japanese people I have spoken to think Yasutaka Tsutsui might be the most important living sci-fi author in the world right now. Another author completely unavailable in English but quite influential in Japan is Noboru Tsujihara [note: after I posted Jake’s essay, @maorthofer corrected this on Twitter: “Tsujihara not untranslated @thamesriverwpc did Jasmine in 2012″], and the not quite-so-undertranslated Genichiro Takahashi has published many influential works and developed a strong literary reputation.

The list-making serves a very important purpose, as part of the reason I have been asked to write this essay is to explain my experiences with Japanese people and talking about Haruki Murakami, and to bring in any other anecdotal experiences I’ve already since I started living in Japan (to teach English through the JET program). I don’t particularly like anecdotes, so I am going to rush through them without lingering on anything for too long. When I did a presentation (in Japanese) for JAPN102, I chose to do it on literature and explicitly left out Haruki Murakami. When the class started discussing it, the Japanese teacher (a fortyish, well-educated woman from Tokyo), stood up and with her typical laconic bluntness said that Haruki Murakami wasn’t very important, and that I had specifically chosen (Soseki, Yasunari, Mishima, and Oe), others very important to Japanese literature and read by most Japanese in high school literature classes. When it came time to apply to JET, I mentioned some of the same authors again and highlighted my larger interest in Japanese literature and its culture as a reason for wanting to work and study further in Japan. For the JET program, the second stage entails a three person interview with the [American] program coordinator at what Consulate-General you apply for, a JET alumni, and a Consulate-General employee who is Japanese.

The Japanese Consulate-General official on my committee brought up my list and mentioned that most American’s only talk about Haruki Murakami and asked me why I thought he had not won the Nobel Prize. I gave an honest answer that Murakami did seem to embody the sort of politics and zeitgeist the committee often prefers in its picks, and I noted that he also lacks the profile in his home country that most Prize winners generally have. The answer noticeably impressed the official (and by noticeably I mean he complimented me on it), and I ended up getting the spot. In Japan, one of our prefectural supervisors turned out to have studied literature in college and we ended up talking about writers. He was ecstatic that I had heard of Kenzaburo Oe, and his English grew excited and a little fragmented as he tried to talk about a complicated subject such as Oe, saying “What he does, is genius. He is a genius. Very difficult to read, even for Japanese.” He seemed to have little interest in Haruki Murakami, and at point said Murakami wasn’t a particularly important writer. My school principal and district superintendent were also impressed that I liked Oe, who engenders a lot of respect even from some political conservatives. Both talked about books with me as best as I could manage with my limited Japanese, without ever mentioning Haruki Murakami.

Anecdotal evidence is just that, subjective and underwhelming and I would never try to position it as a powerful argument by itself, which is why I have also tried to contextualize Haruki Murakami first. However, I must also say that there has been a remarkably consistent response to Haruki Murakami by Japanese people across most of my experiences, particularly among those well-educated and having had experience traveling or living abroad. Hence my parable about Dave Eggers, with which I hoped to offer American readers a way of identifying with the sentiment of these Japanese, to offer a way to understand that sense of disconnect, oddity, and perplexion that most Japanese greet Haruki Murakami’s broad popularity in the West while almost all other Japanese writers languish unread and unknown.

This is a problem that Haruki Murakami himself recognizes, and he has been involved in projects to introduce Americans to other Japanese writers, but there is undeniably something about him as a writer that, despite a huge popular following in Japan (if only more literary and profound authors solid out million round printings in a few weeks in the United States, where almost no one seems to read outside the endless formulaic drudgery of writers like James Patterson and book club novels) has usually left him on the outside of intellectual and critical respect in Japan. Murakami himself said it in an interview, “I’m kind of an ugly duckling. Always the duckling, never the swan.” Murakami divides, and his type of very simple style with clear and minimalist sentences defies the standards of Japanese literature, where inventiveness, word play, and complexity aren’t just valued, they are considered the evidence of linguistic competence and a writer’s style. Murakami can come off as calomel to many readers and critics in Japan, and as I cannot personally weigh in on that matter with any depth, I will only reiterate that given how Japanese works as a language, this is a fair criticism.

Murakami is not, as John Wray laughably describes him in an interview for The Paris Review, “arguably the most experimental Japanese novelist to have been translated into English.” To Wray I say, read Kobo Abe, several times a serious contender for the Nobel Prize, who wrote truly bizarre, surrealistic fiction like The Woman in the Dunes or Kangaroo Notebook. Read Kenzaburo Oe, who is, in his own fashion, incredibly unique and experimental in the complex ways he twists and contorts Japanese, and his characters, who eventually morph into all-grown-up post-atomic bomb Huck Finns. The hagiography of Murakami by well-read critics who nonetheless know next to nothing about Japanese criticism is a pet-peeve of mine, and yet a recurrent theme for Murakami. The issue is that a reader can think that “the meaning of those symbols remains hermetic to the last” (Wray) or could take the position that they are nice emotive symbols used by a creative mind, but without having any meaning at all, being purely a sort of flash, glib manipulation sans a mature ideology or social commentary behind them (I am paraphrasing a central line of criticism of Murakami in Japan). And I suspect the reason for his popularity has to do more with Wray’s very next comment, highlighting Murakami’s numerous Western pop culture influences. Haruki Murakami, rather than breaking the rule of American literature’s insularity, merely proves it, because it seems that an essential part of his appeal lies in the unique appropriations of and applications of Western pop culture that make his work accessible and which follow certain in vogue stylistic conventions. All the while Murakami admittedly reads little of Japanese literature, and has a huge disconnect from the country’s extremely rich literary heritage—a disconnect which in Oe’s work is violent, deeply personal, and a matter of schism and betrayal while remaining ever present, just bubbling beneath the page just as his Nobel lecture inverted and built off Kawabata’s Nobel lecture. In Murakami this disconnect is merely a sign of disinterest.

I am not however making a final critical judgment of Murakami himself. I have only read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and I was modestly impressed by it. My critical judgment is of Murakami’s popularity in the West, and I am more interested in indicting certain aspects of the American literary community that inflate Murakami into the greatest and most unique bit of literature to ever come out of Japan while lacking appropriate knowledge and background to make that kind of value judgment. The endless times I say I love Japanese literature and am then asked about Murakami have come to annoy even me, and while I won’t use a meaningless strawman word like hipster, I can identify a big source of Murakami’s popularity is in white, educated, urban demographics, particularly younger people—what might be called the yuppie community. My indictment is more a matter of how vapid the culture of this community—one of the best educated and most culturally invested, often in admirable ways, areas of American society. For all its pretensions towards originality, novelty, and multiculturalism this community has an incredibly narrow and often discriminatory sense of aesthetics. Murakami’s popularity seems to speak to how this group gravitates to translated authors with similar styles and references to the American authors they read, and a rather self-serving appropriation rather than an open-minded exploration of global cultures and new perspectives.

Even so I can’t help but cautiously hope Haruki Murakami’s popularity in the West does good things. That even in small ways it internationalizes; leads people to other Japanese writers; that its use of surrealism and genre components helps break down rigid barriers on what constitutes “literature” and that it does help blur the line between popular fiction and the literary (a division already often blurred in Japan). Bob Duggan has one of the most balanced responses to Murakami, calling him the “Thelonious Monk of Fiction” and Nathaniel Rich has written one of the few, thorough critical responses to Murakami in America, published in The Atlantic, outlining the numerous lines of tropes, clichés, and simplistic themes repeated throughout Murakami’s novels and takes aim even Murakami’s skill with language and his “ultimately inconsequential” plots and “robotic” dialogue, though Rich like me, still takes something interesting from Murakami, and like Nathaniel Rich I will say there are some interesting aspects to Murakami’s writing even with the spotty skill—mainly a sense that Murakami is a formulaic genre fiction writer writing alone in a unique personal genre of his own invention.

In Japan, Murakami remains a second-string literary figure—something he thinks would be unchanged by a Nobel Prize—but his fan base is avid, and his writings, replete with aimless loneliness, alienation and desire, speak to a broad experience of complicated and stressful postmodernity in Japan (as do numerous other authors, some like Ryu Murakami doing it better and with greater creativity and linguistic competence than Haruki Murakami). As such there really is no middle ground; you are either a fan, hate him, or utterly ambivalent. From personal experience, I would say ambivalence is most common. There are other more worthy candidates from Japan for the Nobel Prize for Literature (the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa for instance), but Murakami remains a perennial favorite, perhaps buoyed by the often liberal English translations and the sense that he represents a novel style of writing. I feel that Haruki Murakami is a lightweight contender, and would have the least gravitas of any winner since the baffling selection of Orhan Pamuk in 2006, and many of his Western fans would do good to explore a world of Japanese literature that is so much deeper, stranger, and more complex than Haruki Murakami.

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Jake Waalk is currently living in Shinano, Nagano, where Kobayashi Issa was born and died. You can reach Jake via email (jawaalk[at]gmail.com) or in the comment section of this post. I suppose you can also hunt him down on facebook. He’s an excellent human being and a brilliant reader. ISBN.

Osamu Tezuka: Ayako

Osamu Tezuka (2010), Ayako, Vertical
ISBN 978-1934287514
[Translated by Mari Morimoto]

DSC_0553So, it turns out just because you like a book very much, that does not necessarily make it particularly easy to talk about. Most recently, for me, this was the case with Osamu Tezuka’s fantastic comic Ayako, which was published in one massive gorgeous volume in Mari Morimoto’s translation by Vertical. Over the course of 800 dense black-and-white pages, it tells a disturbing and suspenseful story set in postwar Japan and it manages to be several kinds of books at once: a sharp narrative of how the defeat in the Second World War affected Japan on a social, political and cultural level, a dark horror tale of a village committing a terrible, prolonged crime, a revelatory take on actual political/criminal mysteries of the day and the biography of a young woman, who comes to represent both the promise of the coming modern age, and the darkness lurking within. All of this written and drawn by perhaps the foremost manga artist/writer, several of whose books have become permanent fixtures in the evolving canon of Japanese comics culture. He has written comic books for both children and adults. Ayako is written in the Seinen manga genre, mangas targeted at a 18-30 year old audience. Have I possibly overstated the magnificence of the book? That might well be true, but I still recommend this book highly to anyone even remotely interested in reading comics. I just lack a certain vocabulary and context to discuss the book properly, not being very well versed in either postwar Japanese society & culture or Japanese comics in particular, although I have read a few (and even reviewed one or two here). So overall I am not 100% sure how to explain to you that this is a fantastic book, but if you trust my opinion on comics at all, go get this one. Ayako feels significant historically, but mostly it is a tumultuous, engrossing read that spans decades, and contains so many lives, so many ideas and appeals to my love for both historical narratives and a certain, slow burning kind of sense of terror.

DSC_0557   The book, initially set in 1949, starts out as a kind of seedy postwar narrative that reminded me so much of Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man that I suspect it was an influence on the book somehow. The man this part of the book focuses on is called Jiro Tenge, who returns from the war and he is shown to be enmeshed in a web of espionage that survived the end of the war and left him indebted to several unpleasant figures. If we compare his story with the movie, somehow he ends up being both Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. He is this book’s most complicated character, battling various moralities and his eventual demise is foreshadowed by the noir structure of his storyline. Tezuka makes sure we see little of what is happening, he insists on literally not giving us the whole picture, telling the beginning of Jiro’s postwar spy career in fragments: we see feet and shadows and eyes, and fleeting fragments of dialog. The major motivation for Jiro’s actions, his spying for the United States in the war, basically committing treason, is hinted at, but there is no flashback, no explanation for how he came to be a spy, we just know he is now, and he can’t turn his back on the network that survived the war and quickly became enmeshed with the mob. As in Italy, the immediate postwar period and American occupation was an immense boon to the local mafia, which thrived on the enforced secrecy and black markets. In this way, Tezuka transcends narratives like The Third Man by showing us how closely crime and politics were interlaced, and not in a simple way either. It’s not just corrupt politicians, it’s a country being forced at gunpoint to enter a different kind of modernity, a country forced to accept the dictates of another and individuals within that country torn between different loyalties. Think Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass (which, by the way, if you haven’t read yet, you should, along with everything else by Koeppen that has been translated into your language. The English translation of Pigeons on the Grass has been done by David Ward and published by Holmes & Meier), atmospherically, if that makes sense to you. Jiro re-enters society burdened by feelings of guilt and by the silence enforced upon him. This is the moral thread from which his whole moral fabric eventually unravels. And here is one of the difficulties in reading this book for me. I am a German reading it in 2013. It was written in the 1970s for a Japanese audience. For me, someone turning on the murderous Japanese emperor is “a good guy”. But for 1970s Japan, that was not as simple. His moral ambivalence, his guilt had to have been palpable to the book’s original audience, and while to me it is a tale of a good man going bad, for a Japanese audience Jiro had to have been at least ambivalent to begin with.

DSC_0555As for the other main characters, Tezuka offers no such ambivalence. They are either clearly good, or clearly evil. But in a way this is because they live in a different setting. Jiro comes home to a rural household. His dealings with the agencies and later the mob take place in Tokyo, but his family lives in the countryside. The Tengo family, moreover, is rich and owns a large farm and holds sway over the whole village. Through Jiro’s eyes, we get to know that deeply dysfunctional family and the estate. The father is a violent, sexually abusive man, who treats everybody like shit. The rest of the family is composed of the lickspittle older brother and various younger siblings, as well as the older brother’s wife, who has just given birth to a girl called Ayako. As it turns out, Ayako has really been fathered by the head of the family, and the older brother just acquiesced, hoping to curry favors and power from his father. Jiro is the only one not bowing to every insane whim of his father’s, the rest of the family is suffering in silence. What happens next is too complicated and disturbing to recount in detail, but eventually, Ayako is thrown in a windowless room in the cellar, with only a trapdoor bringing in light and food. In that windowless room she grows up into a beautiful young woman. And there is a sense of safety for her in there, even though the sexual abuse rampant on the Tengo estate does not spare her in her hidden place either. Officially she is declared dead. A few hundred pages later, the death of the head of the household precipitates another series of events that lead to an unexpectedly dark ending. Having read a few other books by Tezuka, including the splendidly imaginative Dororo, the relentlessness of Ayako is stunning. The author offers us no compromise, there are no copouts and there is really very little respite in this story of one huge downward spiral.

DSC_0554Ayako, the girl/woman, is the only light in the darkness, but her character is strange, odd (there is a footnote in the beginning of the book,, pointing out that her name in Japanese is written with the character for “odd”), she almost seems fantastic. In a story of unrelenting realism, where consequences have to be faced and suffering can at best be delayed, she adds an almost supernatural element. I am not spoiling the ending for you (and you can see I tried my best not to tell too much of the story), but throughout the book and especially in the last panel that we see her in, she reminded me so much of Junji Ito’s work. Now, Ito is a younger writer/artist, so he was not an influence on this book, but I guess I am using the comparison to try and explain how the girl, Ayako, feels to me as a reader. Junji Ito is a writer of horror manga and the only writer in the genre of comic book horror who has genuinely terrified me with his work. I recommend, nay, urge you, to read his work. Here is a blog post that might get you started. Ito writes horror that is metaphysical as well as intensely physical. Bodies decay, are warped, torn apart and transformed in his work, but the same happens to people’s souls. And while Ayako’s body remains unblemished, one can’t help but feel the horror of a whole lifetime of abuse coiling up inside this innocent mind. The last panel we see her in, she looks at us and we are terrified, even though she is the most unequivocally ‘good’ character of the whole book. She seems to have contained the horror of that whole Tengo family, all their guilt and violence and suffering and sadness and abuse, without even losing a bit of her innocence. There is a purity to her that nothing can diminish and this is deeply fantastic, deeply unrealistic, as the book itself keeps reminding us by showing us all the bruises on all the other characters. She is a wonder, and terror, at the same time.

DSC_0558It is hard not to see the family, and its eventual breakdown, as somewhat analogous to the state of Japanese society, which went from a monarchy to a democracy. I said earlier that it is never explained what happened to Jiro in the war, but some things that happen to some characters in the book can be read as explaining the spirit – if not the substance of what happened. And there is another element that ties the personal stories to the actual events in Japan that are verifiably true. The story of Jiro is a relatively straightforward crime narrative that gets tangled up in the mess that is the Tengo family. At its heart is a murder mystery. Now, that is a mystery to the characters in the novel, and further murders and deceptions follow from it on the level of the fictional Tengo family. But at the same time, the murder of a political figure called Shimokawa is, according to a very helpful footnote, modeled on the murder of a real life politician called Shimoyama, whose death is one of the enduring historical mysteries in Japan and is described as the “Shimoyama incident”. 1970s Japan was an audience that was sure to recognize the massive similarities, and Tezuka offers us a revelation of the way the murder took place and the reasons for it that is less Dan Brown and more James Ellroy in Black Dahlia. What it also does is tie the Tengo family to an urgent strain of Japanese postwar history. The historical murder is mirrored and repeated by intra-family murders, strengthening the idea that the Tengo family is analogous to Japanese society. And Ayoko, the milky skinned young woman might well be read as the soul of the Japanese nation, in the way that Romanticism has invented ‘national’ essences, a notion that many modern nationalisms have built upon.

However, we are left with a bit of a stale taste: the girl who has been used by her family all her life, is being exploited by the author as well. There is an uncomfortable amount of female nudity in the book, and while I would like to think that part of the discomfort is intentional, and that it does intentionally reference exploitation, the fact remains that the book visits terrible abuse on its female characters to make a narrative and a political point, and one can’t help but be reminded of the “women in refrigerators” trope that was so well described by Gail Simone and others in her wake: the tendency of comics to kill or abuse women to make a plot point, or to motivate the male superhero into action. The case here is not as simple as that, thanks to the incredibly layered nature of the book, but a distinctive unease remains, especially since the Seinen manga genre is primarily targeted at a male audience.

DSC_0556A note on the translation: the book reads very fluently and the occasional footnotes are very helpful, but there is one big weird flaw: the rural populace speaks a ‘hick’ dialect and Mari Morimoto attempts to approximate it in English, yet the result is frequently awkward. And as I close this review, I have barely mentioned Tezuka’s art. The reason for that is that by now, any panel drawn by him is instantly recognizable: his mixture of realism and Disney-fied cuteness has been a defining influence on manga artists. I find it hard to describe without also describing so much of what was to follow him. Suffice to say that this is a complex and masterful tale, and the art doesn’t just accompany it – it makes much of it possible. So much of the strangeness is conveyed in images rather than in words: it is a story of secrets, silences and looks. And Tezuka’s art is always in complete control of the story. Ayako is a masterful book by one of the greatest comic book writers/artists of his or any time. I can only repeat what I said earlier: if you are at all tempted by comic books, give this one a whirl.

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Taiyo Matsumoto: Tekkonkinkreet

Matsumoto, Taiyo (2007), Tekkonkinkreet, Viz Media
[translated into English by Lillian Olsen]
ISBN 978-1-4215-1867-1

Taiyo Matsumoto’s graphic novel Tekkonkinkreet, originally published in 1994 as 鉄コン筋クリート in three volumes (after having been published in small increments from 1993 to 1994), is a deeply impressive, powerful hunk of a comic book, the translated version of which (translated by Lillian Olsen) deservedly won the prestigious Eisner award. It’s a 614 page story about two brothers and a modern Japanese city in the process of changing, a book that is as moving as it’s ingeniously constructed and brilliantly drawn. Tekkonkinkreet describes a world that is about to dissolve, about to disappear beneath the inevitable onslaught of change, and we feel this loss like the tragedy that it is, because within the pages of this book, the world is completely, fully, palpably realized. You enter Matsumoto’s world on his own terms and while you’re always conscious of this being the case, you are always sorry to leave. This book contains multitudes; depending on your sensibilities it could make you laugh, it could make you cry, in short, Tekkonkinkreet is a book that could break your heart if you let it. At the same time, there is no actual sentimentality in this book because it is so tightly wound, and so efficiently narrated and illustrated. It is without a doubt the best graphic novel I’ve read in at least two years, if only for the fact that it contains several different kinds of books within one cover, all of which are completely successful (although some writers may have done a better job in individual registers). In case this feels repetitive, it’s certainly worth pointing out how completely this book manages to master very different registers and genres without ever showing us the seams between the transitions. It contains low humor and witty, sophisticated jokes. Its plot is captivating whether we look at it from a sociocultural, spiritual or plain entertaining angle. And, finally, its art can be painstakingly, brutally exact and vividly vague at the same time. Taiyo Matsumoto is one of the best artists of his genre, and this extraordinary book provides ample proof of that.

One cannot, however, unreservedly recommend this book to all kinds of readers, mostly because it’s pretty violent. My copy even bears a Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker, so as not to run the danger of seducing parents into unwittingly buying this book with its color- and cheerful cover for their innocent kids. I am not convinced that this is necessary. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably true that especially the first half of Tekkonkinkreet contains quite a bit of graphic violence as a child uses an iron rod to break skulls, knees and sundry wayward bones in the bodies of various gangsters. Infrequently, people are shot, as well. As far as contemporary comics go, it’s not particularly horrendous and if not for the neat sticker on the front I might not have mentioned it at all, but there you go. Perhaps this is not for kids, but adults, unless they are unreasonably squeamish, have nothing to worry about, especially since the shootings, beatings and other displays of violence never feel gratuitous. Violence, generally speaking, is important to the overall build of the novel because its most central obsession is with bodies, and the way that they connect to the world without, and to other bodies. In every panel of his book, Matsumoto ties the bodies of his characters into a stiff corset of signs and signification, and the whole book keeps providing examples of how its characters and their bodies are all connected to the world and other people’s bodies through language and other means of signification. Its focus on our bodies and their capricious behavior (and misbehavior) is further pronounced, paradoxically, by the unnatural details of some of its characters’ bodily prowess. There are people who can fly (or jump very highly), other people’s injuries heal unnaturally fast or do not incapacitate the injured person in the least, and one person’s visions can impact what happens to people in real life. All this may sound mad, but ultimately, it reinforces the basic parameters of the human body, projecting this story within the limits of these parameters.

While principally, the body takes center stage, another important element of Tekkonkinkreet (and one which will eventually be subsumed by the focus on the bodily aspect of its characters) is the city the book is set in. The sleeve of my copy tells us that the book’s title “is a play on Japanese words meaning ‘a concrete structure with an iron frame’” and the city presented to us is indeed a contemporary city, with elaborate structures constructed from steel reinforced concrete, its forms both highly recognizable for any modern-day city dweller, and pleasurably strange. This strangeness stems from the fact that the city reacts to Matsumoto’s characters frolicking around in it, it bends and strains under their impact, often curving around them, an effect which is partly due to Matsumoto’s drawing technique, which prefers ellipses and circles to straight lines and boxes. Everything seems to be a bit out of bent, more off, even malleable. Sometimes the effect is that of a children’s book, not in the sense of a book for children, but a book by children, conveying a certain levity and looseness. Bodily proportions correspond less to anatomical exactness and more to the action taking place in the panels in question. In fight sequences feet and hands are often somewhat enlarged, both because they are the focus of the action in these panels and because they are ‘in focus’, being closer to the reader. In this way, the book, more than many other well drawn graphic novels I’ve recently read, works a lot like a movie, in each of its panels. This is a distinction that I think is worth making: between artists who have mastered graphic, movie-like action sequences by stacking several panels with small bits of motion, letting the reader follow the movement as they turn the pages. Long-time Millar collaborator Steve McNiven (cf. my review of Old Man Logan (and my other Millar reviews)) is one of those artists, and the effect is tremendous, as it is in the dumbfoundingly fantastic Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware.

Matsumoto’s game is different: in his book, actions are rarely prolonged beyond individual panels. Indeed, it seems to me something that would be fairly unusual for a mangaka to do. Unlike other artists of his genre, however, Matsumoto doesn’t rely overmuch on visual stresses like exclamation marks and the like to show actions and their result within the borders of only one or two panels. Instead, he works with perspective, as I outlined before, with an exaggerated enlargement of objects or parts of the body that are closer to the viewer. In a sense, I think what Matsumoto’s art does is the equivalent of what in a film would be a narrow depth of field. And when Matsumoto does spread an action sequence over several panels, the effect is tremendous, allowing him to zoom in on as many as three actions at the same time without losing momentum or focus. I’m dwelling on this so much because the novel might seem less sophisticated than books drawn, say, by J.G. Jones, Chris Ware or David Mazzucchelli, but Matsumoto’s deceptively simple art hides a complex graphic vision; that vision is the reason why each page, each panel seems to be highly essential, highly labored over and the reason why the whole book appears to be as dense as it does. And it’s not just a narrowed depth of field in action sequences that draws our eyes to hands, feet and iron rods. Its paucity of detail is not unlike that of other manga books (in other words, that aspect is quite typical), but the intense sense of emotion and movement that seems to be quivering in each drawn line of Tekkonkinkreet is something you don’t find that easily. Fear, joy and anger each seem to leave their imprint on the panels in question, especially if one of the two protagonists is somewhere in that panel (they don’t need to be front and center of a specific panel to bend its art around them). This is because when objects that dole out violence are not in focus, the book centers its attention on faces.

Faces, eyes and mouths seem to be several times as large as they need to be because clearly Matsumoto’s interest is in people rather than events. Whether we have mouths that are shouting, laughing, gritting teeth or grinning, the art tends to focus on that. Eyes, as well, but not to the same extent as mouths. The reason for that is the web of signification I mentioned earlier. The city exists because the people in it exist, and things happen because people make them happen. Everything in Tekkonkinkreet is part of a relationship (a very Foucauldian view of things, by the way), power and violence are not accorded presence outside of active human relationships. Nothing just is, except for individual human beings. Everything else is created, shaped and changed by people, for better or worse. This is why it’s perfectly true to say that the whole book is about the invented city Treasure Town and about Black and White, Matsumoto’s protagonists. These are not two different thematic elements: one is contained within the other. Without Black and White gallivanting all over town, the town itself, we feel, would not exist. But it’s not just these two. The story of Tekkonkinkreet is about a new gangster conglomerate moving into Treasure Town to take over, starting a gang war that ends in many gangsters dying or leaving town, and the identity of the ‘old’ Treasure Town is shown to be linked to the people living in it, and their departure (and the arrival of others) signaling changes in the architecture of the city. These new gangsters are opposed by Black and White, two boys who grew up in the seamy back alleys of Treasure Town, and who have earned themselves the respect of the gangster community through a curious mixture of ruthlessness and friendliness. It is in Matsumoto’s depiction of these two boys that the absolute importance of relationships (rather than individual persons or objects) contains some worthwhile ambiguities.

These two boys are antitheses. White is a free spirit, by no means innocent, yet naïve, happy and bursting with creative life. Black on the other hand, with a scar around his left eye, anything but naïve. Of the two, it’s usually him who doles out punishment and violence, it’s him who makes plans, and it’s him who decides to defend Treasure Town against the intruding (and interfering) Yakuza. As the book’s events unfold, Black moves more and more into the foreground, and the events become as much a fight for Black’s soul as they are a fight for the soul of Treasure Town. At the same time, White slips into the background, in several ways. Early on, we are told that Black is “the soul of this city”, and that White is “completely untouched by this sewer of a city”. More and more, as Black fights his adversaries tooth and nail, White steps away from these events, re-creating them with crayons from afar. White is the metaphysical element, independent not just of the city, but also of the maze of relationships that constitute the city and force events and actions on its residents. He does as he pleases, whatever happens to the city and its residents. He would be able to leave altogether, if not for Black. This is the book’s central ambiguity: White, who in almost every way negates the basic givens of the city, whose mouth is the most expressive the most open, who seems to represent the creator of the book itself in his aloof independence, this White is firmly tied to Black who is the city. Thus, on a metaphysical level, through the unbreaking and unbreakable relationship of Black and White, the smaller interdependency on the more gritty level of the city streets and the brutal events unfolding there is reflected and (in a way) confirmed. But this reading is one that is likely to change with further re-readings, since Tekkonkinkreet is a very rich stew of a book, the taste of which is highly addictive and which keeps surprising its readers when they stir around in its steamy depths. There is so much more to this book than I could ever tell, even in a review that had twice the length of this one. Read Tekkonkinkreet, goddamn.

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Ryotaro Shiba: The Last Shogun

Shiba, Ryotaro (2004), The Last Shogun, Kodansha International
[translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter]
ISBN 978-1-56836-356-1

When Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay (then Edo Bay) in in July 1853, and demanded that Japan open its ports to European tradesmen, he set in motion a process of revolution that completely transformed Japanese society and politics. Japan at that time was ruled by a military administration, the Shogunate, the rule of which was a complex interaction of bureaucratic mechanisms and a wielding of dictatorial power, a post held by one family (and its collateral family branches), the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa Shogunate’s dominion had been established by military successes, and it rested on a balance of power between the different Japanese nobles and warlords. The Japanese emperor was head of state in name only, having no military or financial power, whereas the Tokugawa were one of the country’s richest clans; its fabulous financial assets one of the main sources of the Tokugawa strength. The changes that European pressure effected led to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and to a restoration of the Emperor’s standing, albeit within a constitutional monarchy, with limits to his powers. Although Western-style democracy had not been introduced until after 1945, the so-called Meiji Restoration was significant in moving Japanese politics into modernity, abolishing an intricate feudal society for a more open, enlightened one. The period between the day Perry and his threatening ships appeared, and the day the Shogun stepped down and a new constitution was introduced, is an endlessly fascinating one; in historical studies like Conrad Totman’s eminently readable The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, for example, it proves to be an incredibly engrossing subject of modern historiography. Books like Totman’s, however, also show how obscure many aspects of the period are, how elusive certain details and motivations.

This is one of the reasons why The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a good historical novel by Ryotaro Shiba (or Shiba Ryotaro), is such an eminently interesting read. There are a plethora of flaws in this relatively slim book, but despite all them, The Last Shogun is highly recommended if you like either historical novels or have an interest in the period. It’s author, from the evidence of this novel, would not be amiss in the company of historical novelists more common on Western bookshelves like Stefan Zweig or Hilary Mantel. Beneath the ebb and flow of its history, there’s also a mind at work with insights into his culture and past not unlike that of major thinkers as Masao Maruyama. The Last Shogun, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, was a runaway bestseller upon publication in Japan in 1967, and its author one of the most popular novelists of his day. Unlike Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe or Yukio Mishima, Ryotaro Shiba is relatively little known outside of Japan, with only a handful of books translated into English. Before Carpenter’s translation in 1998, no other books have found their way onto American or British shelves, as far as I know. Since then, notable translations have included The Tatar Whirlwind, translated by Joshua Fogel and Drunk as a Lord, translated by Eileen Kato. The Last Shogun is a completely bewitching book, and an odd fiction, as well. In about 250 pages, Shiba manages to tell the story of a life spent in the heart of power, and a tragic, very brief reign, as well as the story of a country changing irreversibly, shedding its feudal skin, opening up to enlightened ideas and politics. Shiba throws names and events at us, without blinking, without long sentimental introductions.

The shifts between certain events can be brutal, as he makes no attempt to fatten up his story with unnecessary décor and small exotic subplots. If you have any experience reading low-quality books in the genre, you can almost see where writers like James A. Michener would insert flowery prose and emotive stories, but he goes beyond merely evading trashy filler in his elliptic history. At times, this spareness is tantalizing, especially since The Last Shogun is not, in fact, told without any digressions, but the small detours that do occur are precise and dense with significance and symbolism, more often than not consisting of one or two pages at most detailing a particular observation or event, and it’s almost never repeated. There is a pause, for example, when he offhandedly asks of his mistress to be ready to commit suicide when he embarks on a dangerous mission. Or gruesome moments, as when a close adviser is killed and the narrator observes that “every time a sword had penetrated the flesh, there had been a soft sound, like the sound made by hitting a rubber ball.” These moments are rare, though, especially compared to the enormous amount of history, replete with names and dates. This wealth of names and details, however, is never overwhelming for the reader, which, one assumes, is due in part both to the translator and the particular edition here. The edition helpfully contains maps, a glossary, a list of characters and a genealogy of the Tokugawa family, as well as a highly informative introduction by Frank Gibney, journalist and vice chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopædia Britannica, to make sure we do not get lost in the sea of the history of a country and culture that is not ours.

It must have been slightly different for Japanese readers. The Last Shogun, originally serialized in a newspaper, was one of many successful books by the author about the period, and his long and prolific work has created a sense of trust and respect in the Japanese reading public. Indeed, his gluttonous reading habits and his endless curiosity had helped unearth and popularize historical figures not well known before they became a subject of one of Ryotaro Shiba’s novels. This respect explains the utter lack of references, footnotes or historiographical defensiveness. Shiba spins his tale, assailing his readers with what he proposes to be facts and is done with it. It’s not a romance, it’s pretty serious about is history and yet Shiba is so confident he refrains from all explanation and commentary, giving us sometimes little more than the bare details. However, as readers of the translation, we don’t really know exactly how bare the details were in the original, since Carpenter is pretty cavalier about staying close to the text and prides herself in her “Translator’s Note” on having “slipped in a bit of explanation” “here and there”, or, indeed, on “having done a bit of trimming as seemed necessary”. This is, I shit you not, the full extent of her explanations of the changes she made to the text. There are no footnotes by her, either, pointing out changes, or explaining what would have made the “trimming” seem “necessary”, or how much “here and there” or “a bit” really is. It’s the sort of thing that usually makes me put away a book unread, and as a reader, I can’t help wondering how much editoring Carpenter has done. How much does this book still resemble the book Shiba wrote? Is this book better or worse than the original? The fact that the language is the single worst aspect about the book, musically wooden and lexically uninventive, does not bode well for Carpenter’s competence in making these cuts and additions. But in cases like this, we have to take the good with the bad, and state the obvious: we can complain all we want about Carpenter’s meddling and her cavalier explanations (or lack thereof), but the fact is, without Carpenter’s efforts, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book at all. To be honest: I wouldn’t even know its author had ever existed, and my life and my shelves would be poorer for it. There is an invaluable service that translators provide, yet one hopes that some of them would be more careful and considered about it.

The Last Shogun, readable despite or because of Carpenter’s meddling (either could be true) spends less time with momentous events like the devastating battles that marked the death of the Shogunate’s and forced the Shogun to leave Japanese politics altogether, than it spends with his youth, and the turning points in his life. The Yoshinobu that Shiba describes to us is a true polymath, incredibly gifted at intellectual tasks as well as at sports and artisanry and craft. Shiba largely skips battles and fights and focuses instead on rhetorical battles, showing us a man who will forgo a fight and try and engage his enemies in a discussion instead. Yoshinobu, whose office represented the height of Japanese feudalism, is painted by Shiba as an enlightened ruler, for all intents and purposes a precursor of the Meiji era. The word meiji appears to mean something like “enlightened government” and Shiba’s Yoshinobu is the epitome of the enlightened ruler as so many philosophers envisioned him. Few studies of the period focus as intensely upon Yoshinobu as Shiba does in his novel, and so the depiction of Yoshinobu seems a bit fanciful, less a realistic portrait of a historical character, as Shiba’s idealized version of him. In the characterization of Yoshinobu we find a powerful cocktail of positive and negative traits that perfectly explain some of the obscure points I mention earlier. Yoshinobu’s fear of being branded a traitor and his obsession with the reading and writing of history serves, for example, as an explanation for the lack of military resolve that the administration showed at the time, the lack of military forcefulness, which Totman is a bit puzzled about. However, these ‘explanations’ are not, strictly speaking, about historical accuracy. Instead, Shiba took pains to create a narrative for modern Japanese history that established a continuity from the Tokugawa Shogunate to post-WWII Japan. History, for Shiba, is not just an accumulation of facts and factoids, it’s about understanding the foundations of contemporary society in the dark recesses of the past, as any good historical novel does, really.

Sometimes, reading a book like The Last Shogun makes one worry about knowing too little about Asian and especially Japanese literary traditions, because one feels that Shiba makes use of a mixture of traditional phrasings or descriptions, and individual ones. This feeling stems from the fact that Shiba’s ideal, pacifist, pro-Enlightenment narrative reads very different from other descriptions of Yoshinobu that keep praising him effusively in an almost unmediated fashion. Part of the book read less like a novel and more like formulaic praise for an Emperor, dictator etc. by a loyal subject, the kind of rote praise that we have, most recently, heard from the coach of the North Korean side at this year’s World Cup. It doesn’t really add content, but what it does is add texture. Whatever the tradition or Shiba’s reasons for including it, one of the effects is that the stiff, ritual nature of Yoshinobu’s time feels real and palpable for the reader. This is a period, after all, that is very far from ours, its customs often strange and alien. We don’t immediately understand the extent of the breach of protocol that allowing a council of advisers to smoke and eat sweets in the presence of the Shogun, for example, entails. The book (and Carpenter) refrain from explaining or telling us; neither do they offer us human interest stories to make the culture and its strictures more relatable to the modern reader. Shiba expects us to go with it, to understand it, if not the exact reason for the ritual, then the bare fact of it, the restricted and tightly woven nature of political and private acts. The frequent, odd praise is an excellent stylistic tool to achieve this. We don’t feel the restrictiveness as an alien, invasive force on our sense of privacy, this is not Arthur Golden nor James Clavell, after all, but we have a vivid sense of it, a sense that helps us understand, but that doesn’t evoke negative feelings or exoticist sentiments. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is interesting and helps balance the incredibly wooden writing which is the main problem of the book.

Not reading Japanese, it’s impossible to say whose fault it is, but the writing reads very translated, stiff, sometimes extremely awkward. Given the fact that Shiba was a popular novelist, one is tempted to assume that the fault is with the translator and her lack of writing skills in English, but it’s really too close to call. The result, however, hampers the reading of The Last Shogun, making it less evocative and sumptuous than it could be. This is a problem, because the book clearly banks on being a popular novel more than a literary masterpiece. The structure of the book is conventional and simple, completely chronological. The narrator is an omniscient third person narrator, moving the story along, contextualizing events and explaining Yoshinobu’s motivations. This is so simple, it feels almost rote, and depends for success in part on the language. The writing is never quite really terrible, and might not even have been as remarkable for its problems in an aesthetically more ambitious book. But in as simply structured a novel as this, the stiff style sticks out like a sore thumb. The complexities of the book are not aesthetic, they are political. As mentioned, Ryotaro Shiba writes in the tradition of such luminaries as Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer who specialized in fictional biographies. Zweig was a highly political, strongly engaged writer who viewed the encroaching political darkness in Europe with great concern. An unwavering pacifist, he stood for the idea of an enlightened Europe, a Europe of thinkers, writers and artists, and took his own life when the horrors of WWII appeared to swallow the whole world. Shiba is just that kind of writer, and his depiction of Yoshinobu as a ruler with the heart in the right place (but the head firmly caught in feudal ideals), a pivotal figure who overcame his own inhibitions, his own flawed perceptions to sacrifice his political career and even his family fortune in order to allow modern Japan to rise from the war-torn feudal kingdom that was rife with intrigue and strife.

There is much to admire in the novel, despite its faults. There is the precision and spareness of its telling, the clear eye for salient detail, and, paradoxically, it helps us understand modern day Japan more than it helps us understand Meiji-era Japan. Like Zweig or fellow historians like Theodor Mommsen, the titan of German Wilhelminian historians, Shiba is concerned with the tensions in his own society just as much or more than with the subject he describes. The conflicts between pro-Western and nationalist warlords, between proponents of monarchical, military or democratic rule, between different religious sects and directions, all this were just as prominent concerns in Shiba’s time as in Yoshinobu’s. Reading The Last Shogun, I had to think of the fascinating books of Masao Maruyama, who was also concerned with the transformation of Japan into its present state. Yoshinobu, as Shiba depicts him, was not afraid to seem weak, to go against consensus and to change his opinion if history changed around him. In many ways, he is the ideal man (and Shiba, in this book at least, is extremely androcentric, another flaw of the book). His weaknesses, as his blind elitism, are pointed out by the narrator in order to show us how far Japan has progressed. The result is admirable, sweeping and very much worth reading. This book is not a masterpiece, but one is glad to have read it. I think we all have white spots in our reading of history and its narratives. I know I do. Empathy and grievously exotic narratives just don’t cut it, often enough, but writers like Ryotaro Shiba, and books like this one can help us fill them, not with knowledge but with a deeply felt, and brilliantly conveyed understanding about the fundamental soundness of human beings and our innate capacity to change the world into a better place. It’s a tragic book about a Shogun who reigned only two years and then resigned and disappeared from the public eye until he died in self-chosen seclusion. While The Last Shogun seems in part a defense of modern Japan against monarchist loyalists and nationalists, it is also a call not to ignore historical change, but to be a part of it. That it does this without declaiming its message from the rooftops, without turning into a cheap political pamphlet is yet another reason that The Last Shogun is such a readable and recommendable book. Yes, it’s a bit slight, yes it’s an easy and conventional read, but see if I care.