Metal Gear Solid

Title: Metal Gear Solid
Authors: Ashly Burch and Anthony Burch
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Pages: 178

I don’t often talk about Metal Gear Solid.

It’s like how I might feel about a middle-school crush – my emotions concerning the games were once so intense that now I’m almost embarrassed by the object of my affection. There were so many cool things going on in the series, but it’s difficult to look back as an adult and not notice its glaring flaws.

Still, it’s impossible to deny the influence of the Metal Gear Solid series (and of its controversial director, Kojima Hideo), so I’ve always been on the lookout for someone to proselytize the games and remind me why I once loved them.

That is exactly what Metal Gear Solid, the latest title from micropublisher Boss Fight Books, manages to do. As Anthony Burch explains in the opening chapter:

Ash and I are, to put it bluntly, going to shit on Metal Gear Solid. We’ll talk about flaws in its story. We’ll talk about how it’s sexist and regressive. We’ll talk about how, despite its reputation, it’s actually a pretty bad stealth game. Today, MGS1 represents many things we either disagree with, find irritating, or actively fight against in our jobs as critics and creators.

But: Metal Gear Solid was the perfect game to Ash and me as kids. We love it with the part of our hearts protected by Kevlar nostalgia. In the chapters to come, we’re going to try to remember that love and we hope you’ll do the same.

Anthony Burch is one half of the brother-sister team that has co-authored Metal Gear Solid. Burch writes both for and about video games, and he also runs one of my favorite sites on Tumblr, No Wrong Way To Play, which documents creative and unusual gaming challenges and objectives meant to surprise players into seeing classic and popular games in a different light. He trades off sections with Ashly “Ash” Burch, a writer, speaker, voice actress, and online personality. The siblings respond to and play off each other both in the main text and in their footnotes to each other’s writing, and reading through Metal Gear Solid feels like being a fly on the wall during a conversation between two fun and intelligent people who obviously have a great deal of respect for each other.

(What I’m trying to say here is that the joint authorial voice of this book is really cool. I want to see more of this in nonfiction writing, please.)

Anthony and Ash don’t waste any time breaking down what the Metal Gear Solid games are and how they work. Or, as the case may be, don’t work. Their comments are consistently apt and cleverly stated. To give an example from one of Anthony’s sections:

The are two Hideo Kojimas.

One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.

The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle.

One Kojima is interested in genetic and memetic legacies, and predicted the rise of social media and information overload before Twitter.

The other Kojima helped design a sniper whose breasts are so large and exposed that she caused a controversy before the game in which she appears even had a release date.

These are all things that are true, but the authors don’t simply throw them at the reader without further analysis. Instead, they take these shortcomings and try to make sense of them. In the case of the above dichotomy between serious themes and ridiculous fanservice, Anthony points out that there are many such dualities implicit in the game. Although the player’s avatars in the games are supposed to be master soldiers, the players are just players, prone to making mistakes and dying. This in turn points to a paradox regarding the player-protagonist’s agency vis-à-vis the agency of the player, a constant negotiation that becomes increasingly complicated as the Metal Gear Solid series progresses.

Unlike the earlier titles released by Boss Fight Books, which include EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario Bros. 2, Metal Gear Solid does not delve deeply into the personal histories of its authors, who do not chronicle a playthrough of any of the titles in the series. Instead, the book focuses on key elements of game design and how these elements reflect the narratives and characterization patterns of the games, as well as how they affect the player.

Anthony dominates the first half of the book, which is largely focused on gameplay; but, when the discussion shifts to story and character development, Ash becomes the more impassioned and articulate of the two voices. She begins dropping truth bombs that are both spot-on and beautifully stated, and I wanted to applaud after every one of her sections in the latter half of the book. Unfortunately, the radiance she cast was often blighted by the shadow of her co-author, who for whatever reason had trouble reading the atmosphere.

Meryl’s characterization is problematic because her entire purpose is to act as an objective for the male hero to achieve, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that the interesting thing about Meryl’s characterization is how it acts as an objective for the male hero, and therefore it has a purpose. I wish Ocelot could have been a point-of-view character, because his perspective as a someone capable of feeling deep yet complicated emotions shows just how damaged and unrealistic Snake is, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that Ocelot has too many feelings, which is why the obviously emotionally balanced Snake gets to the hero. Sexism in the stories of games is a problem, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that sexism is an opportunity for interesting gameplay.

As I continued reading, I became increasingly frustrated with Anthony. I resisted this at first, because up until that point I had been in complete agreement with every word he put on the page. What this the same person that I quoted earlier in this review? How could someone who had made such a compelling argument for the ludic effectiveness of Snake’s vulnerability be working so hard to justify sexist game design? This was the moment when I snapped:

ASH: No exaggeration – time actually slows down so that Snake and the player can take a good, long look at Meryl’s sweet, blocky butt. But don’t worry, it’s not like it’s in there just so that dudes can gawk at her hind quarters. It’s actually a game mechanic! That’s right. In a cinematic stealth game about the horrors of nuclear warfare, you are required to stare at a woman’s ass to advance the plot.

ANTHONY: This scene is objectifying. It’s sexist. It undermines the game’s attempts to characterize Meryl as a smart, tough, self-possessed woman. It’s also, infuriatingly, one of the many interesting gameplay twists in the series. Where many of the game’s one-off challenges ask the player to disregard all of the stealth mechanics on which the game is based, the Butt Mission encourages the player to gain a deeper understanding of enemy patrols, vision cones, and proximity.

He then continues to talk about how great the “Butt Mission” is for another few paragraphs. I wanted to reach out across time and space and tell him to PLEASE SHUT UP. Somehow the rote acknowledgment that sexism is bad made this exchange even more maddening to me.

If you’re wondering how a less face-palm inducing version of this conversation might have proceeded, let me provide you with a model:

FEMALE CRITIC: The objectification of this female character, when combined with the way that all of these games develop all of their female characters in relation to members of their overwhelmingly male casts, made me hate women and myself as a younger gamer and contribute to a toxic culture of gender relations among older gamers. Both the objectification and the consistently sexist characterizations of the women in the series are ridiculous. I have developed this theme over the past dozen pages, and now I will offer a particularly egregious example to illustrate my many cogent points.

MALE CRITIC: You know, I previously thought your example was one of the more interesting gameplay twists in the series, but now that you’ve put it into a larger context I can appreciate how totally messed up it is. Since sexism is gross and stupid and I’m super interested in gameplay, let us brainstorm several alternative game mechanics that aren’t sexist and might be of immense practical interest to the current and future game developers reading this book!

If the male half of this conversation couldn’t be redirected to something more interesting and useful, perhaps it would have been better to omit it altogether. According to the book’s colophon, the editors at Boss Fight Books are all male, which is something a shame, because I have no trouble imagining a female editor rolling her eyes and crossing out Anthony’s five-paragraph justifications of sexism with a red sharpie without thinking twice.

I’m dwelling on the unpleasant gendered aspects of Metal Gear Solid not just because they grated so harshly on my nerves but also because they extend over roughly 2/5 of the text. This conversation about the intersections between gender, story, and gameplay is important and fascinating, and the Metal Gear Solid series is an ideal framework for such a discussion. It’s a shame it was handled so poorly, especially since the rest of the book is so brilliant and engaging.

There are a few other missed opportunities in Metal Gear Solid. Attempts to explain Kojima’s bizarre fourth wall breaking antics fall flat (although the jokes the authors make at the director’s expense are much more successful), and there was very little acknowledgment that the games weren’t made by an American developer for an audience of Americans. Regardless, Metal Gear Solid contains some of the most insightful and entertaining writing on gaming and game design that I’ve read in the past several years.

If you’ve never played any of the games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, I would still recommend this book, which references many of the big topics and debates in the gaming community, rendering them accessible even to non-gamers.

You can purchase a digital copy of Metal Gear Solid on the Boss Fight Books website (or on Amazon), and you can read an excerpt on Kotaku.

All You Need Is Kill

Title: All You Need Is Kill
Japanese Title: オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (Ōru yū nīdo izu kiru)
Author: Sakurazaka Hiroshi (桜坂 洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder with Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 200

Although I read and very much enjoyed Sakurazaka Hiroshi’s virtual reality gaming novel Slum Online, I was not interested in All You Need Is Kill, even after watching Emily Blunt do endless sexy pushups in Edge of Tomorrow. I have trouble with prison stories, and army stories are like prison stories except worse.

After hearing Akiko Hirao give a paper titled “All You Need Is Kill: Deciphering the Game Elements in the Novel and Film” at the Japanese and Korean Mediascapes conference at the University of Oregon this summer, however, I knew I had to give the book a shot. Drawing on Henry Jenkins’s essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Hirao outlined how the structure of the novel’s narrative evokes the experience of playing a video game but ultimately bows to the demands of fiction as a storytelling medium.

The main protagonist of All You Need Is Kill is Kiriya Keiji, a recent high school graduate who enrolled in the United Defense Force after he was romantically rejected by an older woman. Since he has no other ambitions, he decides to prove himself by joining humanity’s fight against alien invaders called Mimics. After spending six months training to fight in a special armored exoskeleton called a Jacket, Keiji is deployed to the Flower Line Base at the southern tip of the Bōsō peninsula (in Chiba Prefecture, on the east side of Tokyo Bay). The novel opens with Keiji’s swift death in his first battle and continues when he wakes up alive and unharmed – but with all of his memories – that same morning. After falling in battle three more times, Keiji realizes that he is caught in a time loop that is reset by his death. He decides that the only way out is to not die, but that’s easier said than done.

I found Keiji to be a bit generic. Even though I just finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I couldn’t tell you exactly how old Keiji is, or where he grew up, or what his relationship with his parents was like, or whether he had any friends, or what his interests and hobbies are. For the first one hundred pages of the novel, all the reader gets is Keiji the soldier in a time loop. He is bitter, introverted, and fairly introspective, but he seems to act as more of a substitute for the reader than as a character in his own right. Keiji is a video game protagonist, and his musings are the musings of a video game character on the game world he occupies:

At the end of the day, every man has to wipe his own ass. There’s no one to make your decisions for you, either. And whatever situation you’re in, that’s just another factor in your decision. Which isn’t to say that everyone gets the same range of choices as everyone else. If there’s no one guy out there with an ace in the hole, there’s sure to be another who’s been dealt a handful of shit. Sometimes you run into a dead end. But you walked each step of the road that led you there on your own. (54)

As the passage above illustrates, the language used by Keiji and his fellow soldiers is rough; but, as far as military diction goes, it’s fairly tame. There’s “fucking” but no “cunting” or “cock-sucking,” for example. I feel like an especially good opportunity was missed in the author’s failure to assign a creative and obscene nickname for the Mimics. The banter between the soldiers is stale, and Keiji doesn’t take advantage of his consecutive time loops to come up with good one-liners to use against his superior officers or the jerks who try to pick fights with him in the cafeteria, which for some reason is actually referred to as a “cafeteria” instead of a “mess hall,” “cookhouse,” “DFAC,” or any number of other military slang terms. The blandness of the language is indicative of how uninterested the novel is in building a world beyond Keiji’s limited range of experience.

This all changes in the novel’s third chapter, which takes the American Major Rita Vrataski as its point-of-view character. The nineteen-year-old Rita became the Mimic-destroying “Full Metal Bitch” after being caught in a time loop of her own; and, unlike Keiji, she actually has a personality. Rita verbally spars with a war photographer named Ralph Murdoch, lets down her guard down around an engineer named Shasta Rayelle, and remembers her childhood in Pittsfield, Illinois, offering glimpses not just into her inner world but out onto the wider world as well. In her paper, Hirao referred to Rita as an NPC (“non-player character” in a game), and this description is apt, as it is through Rita that the player/reader learns more about the nature of the conflict that drives the novel. What are the Mimics? Where do they come from? How can they best be fought? What’s up with this time loop business anyway? Rita doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good guesses.

Rita also has some cool passages in her section, such as when Shasta says…

“America’s at war, and we still find the time to turn out terrible movies.”

Rita couldn’t argue with that. The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rita thought. (130)

Preach it, sisters.

The fourth and final section of the novel switches back to Keiji’s perspective, which is a shame, because at the end of the story he becomes the video game hero he was meant to be, which is to say that he is awarded his own tragic backstory. If you’ve ever played any video game ever, you can probably guess how this happens: A woman has to get fridged, and it has to be the woman Keiji falls in love with despite the fact that she doesn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. It’s a really stupid ending. To make matters worse, the author is too lazy to expand on any of the implications of this ending beyond the fact that Keiji becomes the warrior he never wanted to be. He is a troubled teenager, hear his angst.

In his Afterword, the author explains how is inspiration for All You Need Is Kill did indeed come from a life spent playing video games, writing,

I’m just an ordinary guy, and I’m proud of it. I’m here because I put in the time. I have the blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my […] powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. (199)

The Afterword contains one of the more interesting passages in the entire book, as Sakurazaka is fairly negative both towards video games and the people who play them. Okay buddy, whatever.

If you’re curious about what a video game with all of its gameplay mechanics intact would look like in novel form, look no farther. I thought Slum Online was much more entertaining and skillfully constructed in its representation of what it means to be a video game protagonist, but All You Need Is Kill has the advantage of being short and fast-paced. Also, it’s got forty gorgeous pages full of Rita Vrataski, which is not enough but better than nothing.

I want to give a big thanks to Akiko Hirao for her wonderful and insightful paper on this novel, and I hope to encounter more of her work soon!

Buchou wa onee

Title: Mr. F. Vincent Is……
Japanese Title: 部長はオネエ (Buchō wa onee)
Artist: Nagabe (ながべ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Akane Shinsha (茜新社)
Pages: 231

Falnail Vincent is a section chief at a large corporation in Japan. He is cool, collected, and very good at his job. His colleagues respect him, and his subordinates admire him, but he’s desperately trying to keep a secret from his co-workers: When he leaves work, Falnail becomes Fal-chan, a hostess at an onee bar. At typical onee bars, patrons are served by glamorous “older sister” types, but Fal-chan’s bar, Jewelry, happens to be staffed by huge beefcakes in heels, hairbows, and strapless minidresses.

Cracks in Falnail’s masculine persona appear when he forgets that he’s not supposed to gush about girly topics like patisseries and makeup bags with his female co-workers. Still, he’s able to keep his two lives separate until a new patron at Jewelry, an American named George Weaver, shows up at his office the next day as a foreign business associate. Being a typical American (the kind that speaks perfect Japanese), George is upfront about his interest in Fal-chan and won’t take “no” for an answer, inviting Falnail out on dates to an amusement park and a fancy restaurant. Meanwhile, George’s advances have sparked the competitive spirit of Danto Impasu, Falnail’s junior at work who’s been harboring a crush on his boss. Because this is a manga, Danto also ends up visiting Jewelry, and hijinks ensue.

None of this deviates far from the routine BL nonsense we all know and love, but what’s a bit out of the ordinary is that everyone in this manga is an animal. George is a bird, Danto is a wolf, and Falnail is some sort of dragon. The mama-san of Jewelry is a tiger, and Fal-chan’s fellow hostesses are a shark and a ram. During his day job, Falnail works with rabbits, roosters, foxes, tanuki, and all manner of other creatures.

The tagline for Buchō wa onee, which just finished serialization in the bi-monthly BL magazine Opera, is “Jūjin + Suits + ML.” Jūjin (獣人) is a subset of a genre of manga called kemono-kei (ケモノ系), which might be glossed as “anthro.” As opposed to jingai (人外), in which mostly human characters have isolated animal body parts like ears or tails, jūjin, or “beast people,” are animals that speak, dress, and walk upright like humans. “ML” is an abbreviation of “mens love,” a subgenre of BL in which the characters are middle-aged and built like brick houses.

As in English-language anthro communities, there seems to be a strong interest male/male romance written and drawn by men and for men in Japanese kemono-kei, with bears being portrayed as literal bears (or wolves, or lions, or Satanic demons, or what have you). Buchō wa onee is extremely silly and lighthearted, but its overt bara stylizations hint at what I see as a movement away from the classic portrayal of androgynous bishōnen masculinity within the world of original dōjinshi comics for women.

I don’t want to read too much into the series of cute tableaus collected in Buchō wa onee, but the normalized strangeness of animals going about their daily lives in an environment otherwise exactly like our own lends an interesting perspective on Falnail’s dilemma, which is that he feels the need to keep his two personas entirely separate. He worries that his colleagues, who depend on him to be authoritative, won’t respect him if they find out about Fal-chan, but the fact that everyone is a different type of animal betrays the reality of the true diversity of the world, where it is not necessarily the case that one’s “species” affects one’s personality in any way. Over the course of the manga, it’s suggested that, even if Falnail isn’t completely comfortable with moving to America and living with George as an openly gay man, he can begin to bridge the gap between his two identities by slowly revealing himself to a sympathetic co-worker.

Mostly, however, Buchō wa onee is about ferocious anthro muscleheads being adorable. Sometimes it’s good to just leave all the real life gay drama behind in real life, you know?

If you’re interested in checking out more of the artist’s work, Nagabe is on Pixiv and Tumblr.

Since today is August 1, I also want to give a shout-out to the round-up of 2015 yaoi-themed web comics posted by Khursten Santos over at her blog Otaku Champloo. To all my fellow fujoshi and fudanshi, stay fabulous and never lose your sparkle-tinted glasses. Happy 801 Day!

Buchou wa onee Page 228

Last month I posted an essay titled The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga in which I argued that the work of young comics creators in North America has increasingly come to demonstrate narrative and visual allusions to shōjo manga.

Such influences are readily on display in the Artist Alleys at anime conventions, which I illustrated in an earlier post on fan comics at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. Transformative works based on anime and manga are obviously drawn to reflect the artistic conventions employed in these media, as are the majority of the original comics distributed at anime conventions.

What about comics conventions that aren’t directly connected to anime and manga?

This past May, I had the opportunity to travel to Canada to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), one of the largest and most prominent gatherings of small comics presses and independent comics creators in North America (others include the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York and the Small Press Expo just outside of Washington DC). On the day I attended, the venue was absolutely packed with fans and creators, and there were tons of references and homages to manga to be seen.

The most high-profile celebrations of manga culture at the TCAF came in the form of two special guests from Japan, the contemporary alternative manga posterchild Taiyo Matsumoto and the god of bara (male/male) manga Gengoroh Tagame, both of whom were enthusiastically welcomed. Established and well respected comics publishers such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly also actively promoted their releases of translated manga.

In addition, the TCAF was bursting with self-published comics of all shapes and sizes, and I’d like to share my scans of the covers of some of the manga-influenced work I had the great fortune to get my hands on while I was there.

Destroy Rape Culture

Destroy Rape Culture, by Starchild Stela
In which the Sailor Senshi encourage you to smash the patriarchy.

Magical Beatdown

Magical Beatdown, by Jenn Woodall
In which a magical girl beats the everloving crap out of street harassment.
(This comic is brilliant and should win the next Nobel Prize for Literature. Sorry Murakami.)

How to Make a Magic Wand

How to Make a Magic Wand, written by Chris Eng and illustrated by Jenn Woodall
A field guide to utterly decimating the sexist assholes in your life like a badass mahō shōjo.

Lacrimancer

Lacrimancer, by Jade F. Lee
I’m digging that Revolutionary Girl Utena realness.

Louisa Roy Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts, by Louisa Roy
Such gorgeous art, such lovely writing, such interesting research, so Rose of Versailles.

This Tastes Funny

This Tastes Funny, an anthology by the Suddenly Sentai collective
Stories about food with shōnen manga stylings.

No Scope

No Scope, by Sara Goetter
And let us not forget that video games are part of the manga media mix too.
(Sara Goetter’s RPG-inspired original comics are amazeballs, by the way.)

The Enemies of Twenty Something Mega Man

The Enemies of Twenty-Something Mega Man, published by The Devastator (NSFW)
They also have a book about otaku, but it’s too close to home and it hurts.

This is the standard disclaimer that the work posted above is not universally representative and is subject to my own taste and resources. If I have misrepresented an artist, or if you are an artist who wants any links or images removed, please let me know.

Nicolle Lamerichs, in a 2013 essay titled The Cultural Dynamic of Doujinshi and Cosplay: Local Anime Fandom in Japan, USA and Europe, writes:

I argue that anime fandom is not easily understood as a global phenomenon but rather is composed of different, heterogeneous values and communities. The local iterations of cosplay and doujinshi, which may seem homogeneous activities, are read as manifestations that are firmly anchored in particular traditions. (156)

Essentially, the fan practices and productions on display in anime conventions are different in different countries. Lamerichs readily points out that this has less to do with any sort of “national character” and more to do with the fact that “these fan cultures are individual events with their own ecologies” (158). Nevertheless, Lamerichs argues that, in comparison with Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands, American anime conventions exhibit “a very different tendency towards prints and hand-made drawings rather than full-fledged comics” (161).

Lamerichs is absolutely not wrong, but I would like to respond by positing that online communities primarily used for fannish artistic production and consumption, such as Tumblr, DeviantART, and Pixiv (along with many mirrors, offshoots, webcomic serialization platforms, and independently run artistic collectives), have put not just individuals but fannish cultural norms into closer contact with one another during the past several years. Among other things, this trend has led to an explosion of anime-inspired comics and fan comics at anime conventions in the United States.

I picked up a suitcase full of these comics at the Los Angeles Anime Expo this past 4th of July weekend, and I’d like to share some of them here in order to document this change. Independent artists had tables in the main Exhibition Hall and in the smaller Artist Alley section, but both areas are huge, and I’m not entirely certain I was able to cover the entire floor. Also, as much as I would have liked to buy everything I saw, my financial resources were limited. What I am posting here should therefore not be considered a representative sample. Furthermore, while I am focusing on fan comics based on well-known existing media properties, the reader should keep in mind that there was a great deal of original work available as well.

Without further ado, here are the scans I made of self-printed fan comics from Anime Expo 2015. Click on any of the thumbnails to see a larger image.

Ending to Naruto

The 100% True and #Confirmed Ending to Naruto by Kelly (on Tumblr)
based on the shōnen franchise Naruto

And Steven

…And☆Steven! by Mike Luckas (on Tumblr)
based on the Cartoon Network animated series Steven Universe

Tomoyo's Secret Diary

Tomoyo’s Secret Diary, edited by Yuj Lee (on Tumblr)
based on the shōjo manga and anime Cardcaptor Sakura

Pokémon Cross Breeds

Pokémon Cross Breeds, by Nathan Nguyen (on Tumblr)
based on the Pokémon series of video games

Artisan Ordinance

Artisan Ordinance, edited by MERODii (on DeviantART)
based on the video game Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Bubbline

Bubbline, edited by Schnekk (on Tumblr)
based on the Cartoon Network animated series Adventure Time

Shimotsuma Zine

Shimotsuma Zine, edited by FANGRRLZ (on Tumblr)
based on the novel and film Kamikaze Girls

I Will Always Be Here

I Will Always Be Here, by Karen and Britney (on Tumblr)
based on the animated Disney film Big Hero 6

In addition, there were several cool fan comics and comic anthologies based on the Marvel cinematic universe drawn or edited by Krusca (on Tumblr), and I also came across a cool book based on the manga of CLAMP put together by Lärienne (on DeviantART), GYRHS (on DeviantART), and Samantha Gorel (on DeviantART).

All of these books are *amazing.*

If I have misidentified an artist or editor, or if you are an artist or editor and would like me to remove or update any links or images, please let me know! I have nothing but admiration and respect for people who self-publish their art and comics, and I don’t want to misrepresent or appropriate anyone’s work. Stay awesome!

Ground Zero Nagasaki

Title: Ground Zero, Nagasaki
Japanese Title: 爆心 (Bakushin)
Author: Seirai Yūichi (青来 有一)
Translator: Paul Warham
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 182

Although Seirai is a relative newcomer to the Japanese literary scene, having won the Akutagawa Prize for his story collection Seisui (Holy Water) in 2001, he was born in 1958 and was 47 years old when Ground Zero, Nagasaki was first published in November 2006. Although its stories are all set in contemporary Japan, Ground Zero, Nagasaki is deeply engaged with themes of personal and historical legacy.

Each of the six stories in this collection is about the physical and emotional damage suffered by Christians living in Nagasaki in the wake of the atomic bombing. The memory of the atomic bomb is extremely subtle in most of the stories, but it’s never completely absent. Even more powerful than any real or imagined trauma generated by the bomb, however, are the moral dictates of Christianity, which demands that its adherents bear witness to suffering.

The second story, “Stone,” is narrated from the perspective of the brother of a Diet member who is being forced to resign from office because he hired his girlfriend as his secretary. While his brother is giving a talk to local business association at a hotel in Nagasaki, the narrator, a 45-year-old man who calls himself “Adam,” waits in the lobby, where he is approached by a female journalist named Shirotani. Adam is on the autism spectrum, and his conversation with Shirotani is almost frustratingly elliptic.

It gradually becomes clear that Adam’s mother is dying. She has sent Adam to intercept his brother in order to ask that the politician care for him, as he can’t live by himself. Shirotani, who has a brother like Adam, is sympathetic, but the author does not allow this story to become sentimental. Instead, the reader is hit with the full force of Adam’s sexual attraction as he fantasizes about the journalist: “If she wouldn’t marry me, at least I could carry her smell around with me. I would bury my face in her panties and inhale her woman’s scent to my heart’s content” (33). Adam’s mother has punished him for such thoughts in the past, asking him how he could dare to entertain such un-Christian notions “‘after our ancestors went to the stake with pure thoughts and prayers on their lips'” (32).

Adam’s brother Kutani is caught in a the grips of a similar moral vise. He entered politics for the most noble of reasons: to ensure that a doctrine of peace was represented at the highest levels of the Japanese government. The woman with whom he has cheated on his wife had come to him looking for a job after her husband’s family cast her out with her newborn son, who was born severely handicapped. Kutani explains to Adam that he initially wanted to help her as he wants to help all of his constituents, but that he couldn’t help falling in love with her. He says: “‘As long as I had her in my arms, nothing else mattered. Even if war had broken out and nuclear bombs were exploding all over the world, I probably wouldn’t have cared'” (41). His adherence to Christian doctrine, which has guided him along his path as a politician, allows no leeway for his identity as an individual. His affair with his secretary is merely an indication of a deeper emotional dissonance that has also estranged him from his mother and brother, who need him to be a person instead of a politician.

As Kutani struggles with his conscience in the penthouse suite of the hotel where he will offer his resignation, his brother is overwhelmed by feelings he doesn’t understand. After Adam leaves the hotel, he is afraid that his body will turn to stone in response to the emotional overload as it has in earlier catatonic episodes triggered by stressful situations. The story ends with Adam begging God to not leave him alone without a family and without ever having experienced intimacy, his longing for comfort inseparable from his sexual desire.

Another story that I found especially trenchant is “Shells,” which is also told from the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator. Six months ago, the narrator’s daughter Sayaka suddenly came down with a fever and ended up dying of a brain hemorrhage. Since then, he has become convinced that the ocean has been rising during the night, covering entire sections of the city and leaving behind cowrie shells and other assorted sea creatures in his highrise apartment. His delusions became so powerful and persistent that his wife has left him and his brother has placed him under outpatient psychiatric care.

While walking in his neighborhood one day, the narrator encounters an old man named Nagai who tells him that his late sister used to be friends of a sort with Sayaka. His sister had become senile, and the narrator’s daughter was the only one who would listen to her rambling stories. The narrator, overcome with gratitude, invites Nagai back to his apartment, where the old man tells him that his sister spent her entire life trying to forget the day of the atomic bomb, when she was forced to leave her siblings behind in a burning house as she fled with her mother. Nagai’s sister had once spoken to him about the sea of flames engulfing the city, saying, “‘I wish the sea would wash over it all,'” suggesting that she wished her memories would be washed away as well (146).

The narrator, who has his own fantasies of the sea, feels a connection with this woman, but he is terrified of losing his memories, specifically his memories of his daughter and the love he felt for her, which he describes as “the best and brightest, the truest feeling I have ever had” (117). He realizes that the shells that the ocean leaves behind for him every evening after the flood recedes are akin to physical manifestations of his memories, but this insight does not weaken his conviction that the city of Nagasaki sleeps under the waves every night. He tries to convince Nagai that his visions are real but fails. The story ends with his understanding that the saltwater coming in from the bay is not a purifying force like the Biblical deluge but rather indicative of a spiritual wasteland in which God allows the innocent to suffer and perish.

Obviously Ground Zero, Nagasaki is not light reading, and I found that I had to let a week or two pass between the stories, each of which stayed with me long after I had closed the book. Reading Seirai feels a lot like reading Ōe Kenzaburō, yet his style is pellucid where Ōe’s is confoundedly literary. Seirai’s narrators are not philosopher poets citing The Great European Male Thinkers in casual conversation, but this does not make them any less complex and compelling; their proximity to the mundane and mimetic “realness” serves to emphasize how the lasting reverberations of Nagasaki’s violent history have touched the lives of even the most unassuming of its citizens.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude this review by stating that Ground Zero, Nagasaki has the best book design I have seen in a long time. A faded image of the black circle on the cover, an inverse of the red rising sun of the Japanese flag, is on every page of the book, a reminder that the proverbial gross insult to human dignity in the room can never be ignored. Each chapter begins with a progressive series of diagrams illustrating how to fold an origami crane, indicating that somewhere inside this terrible mess is hope. These illustrations suggest that the reader, by sharing the experiences of these stories with the author, is in effect performing a symbolic act of prayer resembling the dedication of a chain of paper cranes to the atomic bomb victims. Kudos to designer Julia Kushnirsky!

Is Ground Zero, Nagasaki worth the $35 asking price for the hardcover? Yes, I think so.

Will the stories in this book be of interest to anyone outside of the academic field of Japanese literary studies? Absolutely. It’s not easy to read this book, but that’s a major part of what allows it to dig so deeply into the reader.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums

Title: The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums
Author: Sophie Richard
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 176

According to the good people at The Japan Society, art historian Sophie Richard’s The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums has been very popular, quickly selling out of its first print run. Between its convenience as a guide and its beauty as a physical object, it’s easy to understand why.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is so titled because it’s aimed at serious art appreciators who are willing to go off the beaten path in order to visit smaller museums that offer a more personalized and intimate experience. Richard skips the large national institutions and instead highlights private or regional galleries that would be worthy of a day trip or that necessitate a willingness to venture off the beaten path in urban and suburban areas. Based on my personal experience with several of these museums, the trip will definitely be worth it.

The main body of the guide is divided into five sections: Tokyo, Around Tokyo, Kyoto Area, West, and East (with “West” designating the area from Osaka to Hiroshima and “East” designating the area from Nagoya to Aomori). 29 of the 52 museums profiled are in or around Tokyo. In some cases, a location “around Tokyo” might require a long train ride and an overnight stay, but most are well within the city limits or accessible by commuter rail.

Most of the entries are two pages long. Each opens with the museum’s address in English and Japanese and general information (hours, holidays, access, website). This is followed with three paragraphs of description. The content of varies but can include information about the museum’s history, the highlights of its collection, and the availability of English text or audio guides. The short “In the neighborhood” section at the end of every entry tempts the reader out into the open to take in the layout of the town, the local cuisine, nearby temples, and even other museums. Each entry also includes two or three full-color photographs of the museum space and representative works from its holdings. The occasional four-page entries are usually longer because of their inclusion of more pictures, all of which are gorgeous.

Even if you’re not planning on visiting Japan, browsing through The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is still enjoyable, as Richard’s articulate prose guides the reader through the experience of visiting the galleries. For example, writing on the Chichu Art Museum designed by Andō Tadao, Richard offers this intriguing description:

The museum’s complex space includes passageways and stairs set at sharp angles and a courtyard with evergreen plants that contrast starkly with the grey concrete. The interior of the building is lit with natural light alone. At the heart of the museum, five monumental paintings by Claude Monet from the late Waterlilies series appear to float mysteriously in a serene space gently illuminated by the sun’s rays, which are diffused through channels in the ceiling. Security guards wearing futuristic white uniforms ask visitors to remove their shoes before entering the room, which adds to the compelling atmosphere.

As in the excerpt above, Richard does walkthroughs like Sherlock Holmes, albeit with less of an emphasis on dry facts and with more of an emphasis on atmosphere. If you’d prefer to travel from the comfort of your own sofa, Guide to Japanese Museums is a perfect companion.

Also included in the guide are a short “Introduction” in which the author explains her motivations for embarking on this project, an overview of “Museums in Japan,” a six-page essay on “Looking at Japanese art,” and a brief list of “Tips and advice.” These sections are useful regardless of whether you’re making plans to visit Japan or whether you’re already there. For instance, this is the first time I’ve heard of the Grutt Pass, a ¥2,000 booklet that provides one-time admission to several of the museums profiled in this guide.

I should add that Guide to Japanese Museums came with me across the North American continent twice during the past two months, and it’s still in pristine condition. The book is lightweight and flexible, and it can easily be slipped inside a backpack or a suitcase. If I couldn’t destroy it, it’s more than likely safe with you as well, so don’t feel as if you need to leave it on a shelf while you go and have adventures, whether those adventures are in Japan or at your local café.

Review copy provided by The Japan Society of the UK.