Yurei Attack!

Yurei Attack!

Title: Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Shinkichi (Satoko Tanaka)
Page Design: Andrew Lee
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Tuttle

This is the best book ever, and I love it.

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the authors of Yokai Attack!, have come out with another fantastic field guide to the supernatural phenomena of Japan. Everything about this book, from the selection of topics to the authors’ sense of humor to the colorful and creepy style of the illustrations, is wonderful, and the physical book itself is a work of art.

Like Yokai Attack!, Yurei Attack! is divided into four-page entries on famous ghosts, ghost stories, and haunted places. Each of these entries contains not just the legends associated with the ghost in question but also its real-world historical background, its method of attack, and a short section on “how to survive” (which is always appreciated). The second page of each entry is a full-page illustration, and photographs and woodblock prints are scattered across the rest of the pages. The entire book is printed in high-contrast full color, so the images and page layout are just as entertaining as the text.

The ghosts indexed include fictional characters from literature and kabuki plays, real historical figures, and legends that have arisen from historical events. Lady Rokujō from The Tale of Genji is catalogued (that’s her on the cover), as is Oiwa from the Yotsuya Kaidan. The outcast Heian noble Sugawara no Michizane, the crucified peasant Sakura Sōgorō, and the fallen soldiers of Saigō Takamori’s counter-revolutionary group make an appearance. You’ll visit haunted hotel rooms, weeping rocks, castle ruins, tunnels and waterfalls with terrible histories, and the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara. The range of material on offer in Yurei Attack!, which includes famous ghosts and hauntings as well as lesser known spirits and folklore, is incredible, and the authors treat all of their subjects with equal thoroughness and attention. It was immensely gratifying to me personally to learn the full stories behind the vague urban legends I had heard regarding places such as the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro and the tiny shrine dedicated to Taira no Masakado in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward.

I especially enjoyed “Chapter Five: Dangerous Games,” which deals with matters such as how to curse someone and how to summon ghosts. In this chapter, the reader can learn about Kokkuri-san (which sort of like an Ouija board), all the ways in which ghosts can manifest themselves in photographs, and how real estate agents deal with “houses with histories” (wake ari bukken or jiko bukken). Speaking of haunted houses, apparently agents are legally required to inform prospective buyers if something terrible has happened on the property. If, however, the house has been occupied – for however short a time – since the incident, they don’t have to say anything. Luckily there’s a website that can be consulted to make sure that the reduced price you’re being quoted for a property isn’t due to a ghost: Oshimaland. Good to know!

The opening of the book is really cool, as is its back matter. The five-page introduction is a well-organized discussion on yūrei that highlights trends without forcing any interpretation on the reader, and it’s followed by a seven-step guide to ascertaining if the strange ghostly presence in your life is indeed a yūrei. In the back of the book is a glossary of Japanese terms, a cool (and I mean really cool) photo collage of Japanese toys based on yūrei, a short section on the ofuda charms believed to be able to drive ghosts away, and a bibliography that is actually worth reading in its entirety. There’s also a short guide to the Japanese Buddhist hells, which are all lovingly illustrated.

I can’t exaggerate the awesomeness of the illustrations in Yurei Attack!. According to her short profile, the illustrator is an “active creator” of dōjinshi, or self-published comics. Shinkichi’s pictures do indeed have a sketchy, digitally colored feel, but this is not a bad thing by any means, and her slender-framed, angular chinned human (and not so human) figures are wonderfully expressive. What Shinkichi especially excels at is portraying all of the myriad calamities that can befall the human body. Blood, rotting flesh, missing teeth, emaciation, severed limbs, bloated skin, burn wounds, disfigurations, dangling umbilical cords, scalping, biting, rage, and extreme fear – Shinkichi does it all. The illustrations are generally more fun and dynamic than they are Stephen Gammell-style nightmare fuel, but they can occasionally be genuinely creepy. Shinkichi’s depiction of the frostbitten soldiers who died in a training exercise on Mount Hakkoda in Aomori prefecture in 1902 is particularly disturbing.

I can imagine small children being really upset by Shinkichi’s illustrations, but older children (such as myself) should find them morbidly delightful. I think kids would probably go nuts this book in general. The combination of colorful and imaginative imagery is perfect for a young reader, and the book eschews any serious discussion of adult topics such as sexuality and religion. The bound volume is fairly sturdy and can withstand hard usage (it is a field guide after all), so no worries on that end.

What I especially appreciated about Yurei Attack! is that asinine overgeneralizations about Japan and Japanese people are completely absent. Nowhere in the book will the reader have to suffer through idiotic statements about how “the Japanese have always revered nature” or how “funeral practices are very important in Japan” or how “there is no differentiation between good and evil in Japan.” It’s kind of nice. If nothing else, Yurei Attack! proves that it is entirely possible to write a fun cultural study of Japan for a broad audience without relying on meaningless stereotypes.

Isora from Ugetsu Monogatari

Isora from Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae

Title: Thermae Romae
Japanese Title: テルマエ・ロマエ(Terumae Romae)
Artist: Yamazaki Mari (ヤマザキ マリ)
Translation: Stephen Paul
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 372

This manga is fantastic.

There’s a drawing of a naked man on the cover (you can see his penis under the removable acetate), and there’s a chapter about Roman and Japanese phallus worship. There’s also a chapter about the Bar Kokhba revolt that’s sympathetic to the Romans. The manga tacitly acknowledges Roman homosexuality (Emperor Hadrian is an important character) and Roman slavery (Emperor Hadrian thinks it’s funny that his pet crocodiles have bitten his slaves). All of this is in the background, however; and, if you can get around it, you will love this manga. It’s like reading a super-awesome issue of National Geographic, except with time travel.

Thermae Romae is about Lucius Modestus, a Roman architect living in the first half of the second century who specializes in designing baths and balnea, or bath houses. At the beginning of the story, he sees his own time as possessing an inferior bathing culture and wants to return Rome to the glory days of bathing, but his designs are considered old-fashioned and unmarketable. While taking a breather in a public bath house after being fired from his job at an architectural firm, Lucius slips and is sucked through a water vent into a sentō, or public bath, in twenty-first century Japan. Lucius thinks the Japanese are just slaves from one of the lands that Rome has conquered (he calls them “flat-faces”), and the Japanese think Lucius is just another clueless foreigner (they call him “gaijin-san”), and thankfully no gaping time-travel-related holes open in time and space. Lucius is taught the joys of contemporary Japanese baths; and, after being sucked through another hot water vent, he returns to Rome to share his own adaptations of certain aspects of this culture, which prove popular with his fellow romans.

Although the story gradually develops over the course of the manga, it remains largely episodic. In each chapter, Lucius encounters a problem, is transported to contemporary Japan, learns about Japanese bathing culture, returns to Rome, and implements his own versions of what he saw in Japan to the amazement and delight of everyone involved.

Through these episodes, the reader gets to visit various parts of the city of Rome, as well as locations such as Emperor Hadrian’s mansion in Tibur, Trastevere (a small city on the banks of the Tiber River), and the Roman province of Judea. Also on offer are the hot springs of the Tōhoku region, including monkey hot springs and therapeutic hot springs for convalescents. In his accidental journeys to Japan, Lucius also finds himself in the bathroom of a private residence, a corporate showroom for bathtubs, and even an aquarium that uses the water from a natural hot spring to create a habitat for crocodiles and banana trees.

If exploring contemporary Japan and ancient Rome is half the fun of this manga, the other half is watching Lucius in action. Lucius, earnest to a fault, is a classic straight man who is very serious about everything and responds to every situation he finds himself in with utmost sincerity. Although his upright personality isn’t directly exploited for laughs, it occasionally leads to humorous situations, such as when Lucius takes off his clothes in inappropriate places (for science!) in modern Japan. Mostly, however, Lucius’s personality allows him to act naturally in situations that would otherwise be extremely awkward or uncomfortable. He’s a sympathetic character, and his intelligence and curiosity allow the reader to see and experience more than would be possible if Lucius were a more cynical or self-conscious person.

At first glance there seems to be an undercurrent of “everything in Japan is the best thing ever” running throughout the manga, but I don’t think the artist ever takes the story seriously enough for her celebration of Japanese bath culture to come off as jingoistic. Through Lucius, who is by turns clueless and comically sincere, Yamazaki pokes fun at both ancient Rome and contemporary Japan. The Romans thought they were the most civilized people in the world, but their culture is capable of improvement through outside influences; and, while Japan has a fantastic bathing culture, it’s not flawless either. If Emperor Hadrian trying to recreate the scenery of the Egypt in his private estate is a bit silly, so too is a Japanese zoo that grows bananas. Whether it’s foreign live-in caregivers for elderly people in Japan or Lucius’s frustrated wife leaving him for another man after he runs off to spend three years in Judea, the manga always treats its subject with gentle good humor.

Yamazaki’s art isn’t hyper-detailed, but it is pleasantly realistic. Although she uses screen tone, most of the texture in her drawing, such as the roughness of cloth or the movement of water or the blush on freshly bathed skin, is conveyed by pen strokes. She slightly abbreviates both line and texture in about half of her panels to give the page a clean and open feel and to draw attention to the more visually dense panels. There are always several pages in each chapter that display nothing more than talking heads, but Yamazaki is capable of conveying such a wide and deep range of emotion with facial expressions and body language that these pages never become oppressive or boring.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me in Thermae Romae were the two-page essays at the end of each chapter. These essays, which are always accompanied by a handful of captioned images, offer the reader a few more details about the cultural and historical elements of the preceding chapter. Yamazaki supplements factual information with her experiences travelling through Europe and Japan and anecdotes about famous figures of the ancient world, and her essays are entertaining without ever becoming too personal or pedantic.

Yen Press has done a beautiful job with Thermae Romae. Although the book is a bit too large to comfortably read in the bath, the extra size is worth the better print quality. It’s also worth mentioning that Stephen Paul’s translation is superb. When I read the manga in Japanese earlier this year, I wondered how certain aspects of the text (such as the Tōhoku dialect spoken by a handful of secondary characters) could be handled in translation, and I think the translator and editorial staff did a wonderful job; the language in Thermae Romae is beautifully smooth with no awkward translatorese or corny attempts to reproduce dialect.

Thermae Romae is fantastic. I’m so happy this manga finally made it to America.

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Title: The Lord of the Sands of Time
Japanese Title: 時砂の王 (Tokisuna no Ō)
Author: Ogawa Issui (小川一水)
Translator: Jim Hubbert
Publication Year: 2009 (United States); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 196

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and wonder what just happened.

The Lord of the Sands of Time was like that for me.

Allow me to spoil the ending:

The weakness of the aliens attacking the earth is salt water.

There is also time travel involved. Androids with highly advanced artificial intelligence are sent back in time to fight seemingly mindless mechanical extraterrestrials who for some reason are bent on wiping out the human race, and it takes the best among the androids several sweeps of human history to figure out that sea water kills the aliens.

I’ll be the first to admit that premise of the novel is kind of silly, but it’s still an engrossing tale of adventure across alternate histories.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is about Orville, an android who was created on Triton, one of the last outposts of human civilization in the year 2598. Orville is one of many Messengers, who were engineered with the purpose of going back in time and saving the humanity from destruction at the metallic tentacles of an alien force from beyond the solar system, which is collectively referred to as ET.

The novel begins in Japan in the year 248, a destination at which Orville has arrived after many timestreams of trial and error. With the cooperation of Himiko, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wa, Orville tries once again to rally the human race against the ET, but the situation is dire. The ET have already overwhelmed the Asian mainland, and many of Orville’s Messenger comrades have fallen over the course of their long journey. Even worse, the ET are also capable of time travel; and, unlike the Messengers, they have the capacity to attack from space.

Every alternate chapter tells a segment of Orville’s backstory. The Messengers first came to Earth in the twenty-second century, but humanity was too busy bickering with itself to launch an effective resistance against the ET. After failing to rescue humanity in that timestream, the Messengers try again, transporting themselves to the eve of the second World War. Once again, however, humanity is too busy bickering with itself to fight the ET. The Messengers thus try again, and again, and again, their numbers decreasing as the ET use their own version of time travel to thwart them.

Although it first appears that the humans of Himiko’s timestream will also fall victim to internecine warfare and thus prove incapable of marshaling a united front against the ET, Himiko is strong willed and politically savvy enough to keep the peoples of the Japanese archipelago from killing themselves long enough to realize the full extent of the threat the ET pose. Even though Orville lends Himiko his superhuman strength and knowledge of technological advances, the outcome of this timestream seems bleak as well, and the fight will be a close one.

For the first half of the novel, tension builds steadily as Himiko deals with political machinations and Orville comes into his own as a character. The descriptions of Japan in the late Yayoi period are just as fascinating as the descriptions of the doomed yet utopian society on Triton, and Himiko’s growth as a ruler is just as compelling as Orville’s blooming love affair with Sayaka, a human woman in the Triton Defense Force, as he learns about what he is trying to protect.

Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart in the last quarter of the novel. As the narrative rushes toward its conclusion, world building and character development are neglected in favor of battle scenes. In the midst of this fighting, Orville trips and falls into bed with Himiko. This is not quite as epic as it could be. In two short paragraphs, Orville tells Himiko about Sayaka, Himiko calls Orville by his first name, Orville cries, and Himiko hugs him. There’s a page break, and then the narrative is back to talk of fighting and armies.

“From that night on, Miyo [Himiko's personal name] and Orville shared the same bed” is about the extent of the romance between them, but Himiko undergoes a startling personality shift after she begins sleeping with Orville. She becomes a background character in her own story and spends most of her time panicked and helpless. The following “newsflash,” which has been making the rounds on Tumblr recently, states:

If a strong, independent female character falls in love, it does not automatically mean that she has lost her values or that she’s become less strong and independent, and does not necessarily change her story into an anti-feminist one. The idea that all women should fall in love and get married IS sexist, but a woman actually falling in love and getting married of her own free will is NOT sexist. Thank you and good day.

Sometimes, however, a female protagonist will fall love with a male protagonist and suddenly cease to be a protagonist at all, and that’s what happens in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Himiko is barely even fully conscious throughout the final quarter of the novel, and Orville is too busy kicking ass and taking names off camera to have any real input in the story. With the two main characters out of the picture, the novel gears up for its big reveals – what the motive of the ET is, how time travel works and doesn’t work, how the ET will be defeated – but these big reveals are rushed don’t really make any sense. The weakness of the aliens is water, the power of love plays a role in this discovery, and the aliens don’t have any real motive for attacking the earth. The time travel mechanics are especially disappointing. To be fair, time travel never makes sense, but it’s as if the author got around all the problems implicit in time travel by simply pretending that they don’t exist.

The last sixty pages of The Lord of the Sands of Time thus pass by in a flurry of tropes and battle scenes that might have worked better if they were filmed instead of written. In the novel’s defense, though, the buildup to these last sixty pages is strong enough to carry the reader all the way to the end. Sure, the love story between Orville and Himiko/Miyo never goes anywhere, and sure, this flaccid non-relationship diverts the narrative focus away from the relationships between Orville and the other Messengers (which are infinitely more interesting), but the reader is still curious to see how it all ends (and don’t worry, I didn’t spoil everything).

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not high art or epic romance, but it’s a fun novel, especially if you have a soft spot for science fiction. Jim Hubbert’s translation doesn’t call attention to itself and allows Ogawa’s prose to flow quickly and seamlessly. (In fact, I’m so impressed by the eighties American sci-fi feel of Hubbert’s translation that I’ve already ordered a copy of his other translation for Haikasoru, Hayashi Jyōji’s The Ouroboros Wave.) As much as I make fun of science fiction tropes, I can’t get enough of them, and The Lord of the Sands of Time fully satisfied my holiday craving for a sci-fi novel of manageable length to chill out with over a relaxed weekend.

Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess [...] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. [...] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities [...] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]‘s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.

An Otaku Tour of Kansai

If you’re an otaku, Tokyo is the best place to be. No other city on the face of the earth can hold a candle to Tokyo in terms of vibrant subcultures and amazing subcultural experiences that are completely open to anyone who stumbles upon them.

Kansai is awesome in its own right, however, and the region is well worth visiting, even if you’re not interested in rich cultural traditions, gorgeous architecture, and delicious food. There are plenty of things for an otaku to do in Kyoto, Osaka, and Takarazuka.

If you’re headed to Kansai, do yourself a favor and get an Icoca card from the JR automated ticket machines as soon as you exit the Shinkansen into the station. The Icoca is the Kansai equivalent of Kantō’s Suica card. Like the Suica, you pay need to pay 2000 yen for an Icoca. 500 of that yen is a deposit that will be returned to you if you turn in the card at a station office, and the rest can be used to go anywhere, anytime, on any vehicle. You can put more money on your Icoca at any station, and your remaining balance will be returned to you along with your deposit when you return the card. If you already have a Suica, you can use it for all JR rail lines in Kansai, but it doesn’t work anywhere else. Since the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus or taxi, and since the best way to get around Osaka is by subway, it’s definitely worth getting yourself an Icoca.

Kyoto

Besides being filled with temples and famous historic sites and traditional Japanese arts and so on, Kyoto is a tech hub and a college town populated by students, artists, and young professionals. The infinite alleyways snaking behind the main boulevards are lousy with ultra-modern restaurants, tiny theme bars, hostess clubs, host clubs, crazily decorated clothing boutiques, and art spaces the size of a hotel room. Alcohol of all types is cheap, plentiful, and delicious, and strange and fascinating things happen on the streets and along the Kamo River after dark, especially on the weekends. Kyoto is a great city to get lost in.

The top Kyoto attraction for otaku is the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place is amazing. As an added bonus, it’s also bilingual and Anglophone-friendly. The permanent exhibit is a hyper-illustrated walkthrough of the history and development of manga, the tools and artistic techniques used to create manga, the publishing culture of manga, the genres of manga, and the internationalization of manga. The museum also hosts special exhibits showcasing the work of specific manga artists and illustrators, many of whom are local to Kyoto.

All along the walls of the museum are bookcases on which are shelved the most massive collection of manga I’ve ever seen (and I have seen some massive collections, such as the one housed in the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library). Most of this manga is Japanese, but a sizable portion is foreign, including all sorts of North American and European translations and originals. The best part about this library is that you can take anything down from the shelves and read it for as long as you want. The museum also has a smaller library of academic materials dedicated to manga. Again, most of these materials are in Japanese, but there’s also a ton of stuff in English and other European languages. Was there some obscure manga exhibition in Germany? They have the catalog. Was there an issue of The Comics Journal from ten years ago that mentioned shōjo manga? They have that issue. The museum also publishes a few high quality pamphlets and periodicals that you’re free to take as you please (my favorite is a small magazine highlighting the areas of Kyoto featured in recent anime and manga).

To get to the museum, take the subway to the Karasuma-Oike Station, which is served by the Karasuma and the Tōzai lines. Take Exit 2 out of the station, turn to your right at the top of the staircase, and walk for a minute or two until you see the museum on your left. The museum is a converted primary school building, and you’ll know it when you see it. The pennants hanging from the telephone poles along the street in front of it help. Because the museum is awesome, they’ve posted an illustrated map explaining how to get there.

There are also a small handful of otaku specialty stores clustered along Teramachi between Sanjō and Shijō (these are all the names of streets/walkways). If you’d like to get to this area from the Manga Museum, go back to the intersection where you came out of the subway, cross the street, and turn left on Oike to go towards the Kamo River. Walk for about ten blocks (which actually isn’t that far) and enter the Teramachi covered shopping arcade on your right. To get to this area from anywhere else, start at the Sanjō-Keihan Station and cross over the Kamo River on the Sanjō bridge. Keep heading west on Sanjō for about two blocks until the street dead-ends into a covered pedestrian shopping arcade called “Sanjo Cupola.” Keep going straight through the Sanjo Cupola until you emerge into the open air (there will be a giant mechanical crab ahead on your right), and immediately turn left into the Teramachi covered shopping arcade.

After walking for awhile, you’ll see a Melon Books above a drugstore to your right. Melon Books sells hardcore pornographic manga and doujinshi for men, so enter at your own risk. Further ahead on your right you’ll see a bookstore called Manga・Can (漫画館), which is a great place to browse and discover new manga titles. A bit further ahead on your right is the Kyoto branch of Gamers, which has games (mainly of the erotic variety) on the fourth floor and manga and doujinshi on the fifth floor. Most of the merchandise stocked by Gamers is targeted at men, but the store isn’t as hardcore as Melon Books and caries many things of interest to female otaku as well.

Running parallel to Teramachi to the east (one street over to your left if you’re walking towards Shijō) is another shopping arcade called Shinkyogoku. Right before you emerge onto Shijō while walking along Shinkyogoku, there will be an Animate to your right on the second-floor level above a small open plaza. Like all Animate branches, the Kyoto store is distinctive. It has a large and well-stocked manga section that showcases work by local artists, work that has won regional manga prizes, and work appealing to yuri sensibilities.

If cross Shijō on Teramachi, you’ll find yourself on a small, uncovered street. Several dozen feet past Shijō, there will be a five-story Tora no Ana on your left and a five-story bookstore called Shinchō Shoten (信長書店) on your right. Both stores are custom-made for otaku.

Right next to Shinchō Shoten, in a tiny alley about twelve feet past the bookstore and leading off the right, is one of the best-kept secrets of Kyoto: a tiny vegetarian restaurant and sake bar called Mikōan (彌光庵). The food is cheap and delicious and varied enough that no two people will get the same meal even if they order the same thing. The décor and atmosphere are like something out of an urban fantasy novel. There are also several adorable, fluffy cats wandering around the restaurant at any given time, and they don’t mind being friendly if you engage them. Mikōan is all about how awesome Kyoto can be if you wander off the beaten path.

Osaka

Osaka never gets enough credit. Sure, it’s not as rich or as populous as Tokyo, but it’s still a huge city filled with interesting places to go. The urban landscape of Osaka resembles that of Tokyo, but it’s different in all sorts of neat ways. You really will hear people speak Osaka dialect here, which is lots of fun if you’re learning Japanese.

Nanba is the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara. This neighborhood runs alongside a broad avenue called Yotsuhashi-suji or, more appropriately, in the smaller streets and alleys branching off from either side of Yotsuhashi-suji. Nanba Station is an epic mess of stores and restaurants and hotels, and there are many ways to navigate your way outside, but the area you want to be in is on the northeast side of the station. Depending on what train line you’re coming from, it might be easiest to walk through the Takashimaya department store and exit the building from the main entrance. In any case, a small street called Nansan-dōri snakes along the west side of the station. Follow it until you see a Taito Station, and turn left past the arcade. If you keep walking west along the small road (which is still called Nansan-dōri even after if veers away from the station), you’ll begin to see otaku-related stores on your right. The area between Nanba Station, Nansan-dōri, and Yotsuhashi-suji is where all of the electronics stores, maid cafés, used video game stores, and specialty book stores are. You will find a Melon Books and a Yellow Submarine along these backstreets, but, if you want to go to the K-Books and Animate, follow Nansan-dōri until the big intersection and turn right on Yotsuhashi-suji. The K-Books and Animate will be down the street to your right, and the Mandarake will be across the street on your left.

If you’re looking for doujinshi, it’s definitely worth your while to visit the K-Books here, which stocks tons of work produced by Kansai artists. Doujinshi for large fandoms are more or less equally distributed across Kantō and Kansai, but work for small fandoms from small regional conventions doesn’t always make it to Tokyo. There are also a number of original doujinshi at the Nanba K-Books that don’t fall into pre-established genres and resemble nothing so much as they do North American indie comics.

For an otaku, I think the major attraction of Osaka is the Umeda Mandarake. According to fanlore, this is *the* Mandarake, the Mandarake to end all Mandarakes, and the One True Mandarake. The Umeda Mandarake is a sprawling three-story building stuffed to the gills with crap, garbage, and treasure. The building itself looks (and smells) like it should be condemned, and the soft, creaky floor literally sags under the weight of all the junk in the store. Otaku relics are lovingly displayed in glass showcases, while the dim overhead lighting flickers and throws shadows around the piles of unopened cardboard boxes stacked in the corners. The clerks cosplay, and there is a small stage for performances on the second floor that also serves as a dais for life-size renditions of pop culture icons. This place must really been seen to be believed.

Also, if you’re looking for original doujinshi drawn by artists like Yuki Kaori and CLAMP, this is the place to go. In addition, on the staircase landing between the second and third stories, there is a table with a few stacks of “Mandarake Note” notebooks in which visitors to the store can draw and scribble away to their hearts’ content with the art tools provided. If you take the time to flip through some of the old notebooks, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some really familiar names and art styles. If you’re an a creative mood, you can take over your own notebook page.

Fittingly for a quest of such magnitude, it’s a pain in the ass to get to the store. The easiest method is to take one of the south exists out of the JR Osaka Station (or the Hankyū Umeda Station across the street), get in a taxi, and pay the driver ¥660 to take you to the Osaka Tokyu Inn hotel. If you’re facing the Tokyu Inn, you’ll notice a Small Alley of Ultimate Sketchiness running alongside the right side of the hotel building. Turn left into the alleyway and keep walking until you emerge into a shopping arcade with the Mandarake right in front of you.

If you want to be adventurous, you can go on foot. Take the Mitōsuji South Exit from JR Osaka Station (which can be accessed from JR rail lines and the subway lines) and cross the street under the huge pedestrian bridge. Alternately, take the South Central Exit from JR Osaka Station and climb the stairs to get on top of the huge pedestrian bridge. Either way, you’re heading for the Umeda Hankyū Building. What you’re going to want to do, either by going around, going under, or going through, is to get to the other side of this building. At street level on the other side of the building you’ll see an intersection with a concrete island in the middle of it, and, on the far side of the intersection, a covered shopping arcade called “E Street.” This shopping arcade goes on for a few blocks and in the middle crosses over an open street and changes its name to Hankyū Tōtsū Shōtengai (阪急東通商店街). The Mandarake is on towards the end of the shopping arcade on the left. The shopping arcade itself is tacky and raucous, and any of the restaurants lining the passage can provide you with a ticket out of Sober City on the Cheap Alcohol Express, if you’re interested in that sort of cultural experience.

While you’re in the area, the Osaka Pokémon Center is on the thirteenth floor of the Daimaru department store above the South Central Exit of JR Osaka Station. The store has all sorts of special goods connected to Osaka and the Johto region that you can’t get anywhere else, as well as special Spot Pass promotions for fans who bring their Nintendo DS with them.

Takarazuka

Takarazuka is a mid-sized suburb located about a twenty minute train ride away from Osaka (and a forty-five minute ride from Kyoto, with one transfer in the middle). Not only is the area around the station interesting (it’s like an exaggerated fantasy version of the Europe described by Marcel Proust), but the city is also home to two major otaku-related attractions.

These two attractions are the Takarazuka Grand Theater building and the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum. Finding your way around is half the fun of an excursion to Takarazuka, so I won’t give directions. Let it suffice to say that you’re looking for the Hana no Michi (花のみち). This is an actual street divided by a raised walking path lined with flowers. It’s just as romantic as it sounds, and the Takarazuka Revue themed bronze statues along the path add to its charm.

The Takarazuka Grand Theater is the home base of the Takarazuka Revue, which is fabulousness incarnate. Even if you can’t catch a performance (if you do want to see a performance, you’ll want to book your seat well in advance), it’s fun to wander around the massive theater complex just to drink in the atmosphere. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a fan club; and, if you’re even luckier, you might get to spot a performer. The Quatre Rêves gift shop, which is easily accessible from the Hana no Michi, stocks all sorts of CDs and DVDs, as well as tons of glossy print material. Of special interest are “bromides,” which are laminated photos of Takarazuka actresses dressed in the costumes of their famous roles. If you’re not interested in spending money on pictures of glamorous ladies, you can get all sorts of material for free in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, and promotional fliers. There are also television screens set up around the theater complex where you can chill out and enjoy videotaped awesomeness at your leisure.

At the end of the Hana no Michi and down the street a bit is the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum, which is marked by a giant sculpture of Tezuka’s Phoenix just outside the main entrance. The museum hosts rotating exhibitions in a spacious and well-designed gallery space, but the permanent exhibition of Tezuka memorabilia is also interesting. Not only does the museum display the usual array of photographs and animation stills, but it also showcases the notebooks that Tezuka kept as a young adult. Even if you’re not a Tezuka fan, it’s difficult not to be awed by the range and scope of the artist’s imagination as represented in these notebooks. The museum has a handful of interactive installations, but my favorite is the Animation Studio (アニメ工房) on the basement floor, where anyone can sit at a computer station, draw pictures with the tablet and stylus provided, and then animate them. There’s also an open library with editions of Tezuka manga from around the world, as well as ample space to sit down, relax, and read. You’ll see visitors dressed in Tezuka cosplay (with floopy berets and seventies glasses), and the entire building is covered with images, murals, etchings, and sculptures. Visiting the museum is a unique experience and well worth the trip out to Takarazuka.

In conclusion, Kansai is a great area to visit, and not just for temples and historical sites. Kyoto and Osaka and Takarazuka can be just as edgy, quirky, and fun as Tokyo, and there’s no reason for a short-term or a long-term visitor with otaku inclinations not to make the trip down to Kansai.

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis

Title: Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade
Author: Jonathan Clements
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Titan Books
Pages: 272

Do you love anime? Do you really love anime? Have you lived long enough to catch references to anime titles more than five to ten years old? Do you appreciate dry humor? Do you want to hear some great gossip about the anime industry? If so, you should seriously consider grabbing a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis – or downloading one to your Kindle, which is what I did.

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has been out for more than two years now, but I had put off reading it because I didn’t think I wanted to read a book “mixing reviews, cultural commentary, insights into classic manga and anime titles, interviews and profiles of Japan’s top creators, and hilarious insider stories from the anime trade.” I assumed such a description was advertising code for “short, unrelated blips of a journalistic nature crammed haphazardly together within an appealing bright yellow cover that will attract potential teenage buyers in the wake of the success of Japanamerica.” In other words, I thought it would be rubbish.

It’s not. Jonathan Clements is a fantastic writer, and the editing and organization of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is equally well done. The result of this excellent writing and editing is a product that is intelligent and eminently readable. I downloaded the book on a whim during a short train ride yesterday afternoon and ended up doing several loads of laundry just so I would have an excuse to sit on my kitchen floor all night and continue reading it.

The essays in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis can be divided into three main categories. The first and foremost category is insider industry information and gossip. The gossip includes tidbits such as how fan-run conventions fail to respect their guests from Japan and how a famous director with a name suspiciously close to “Ōtomo Katsuhiro” was almost physically kicked out of the company that distributes his films in Britain. The insider industry information contains all the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts that fans often aren’t aware of, such as how property rights are acquired, how difficult it is to get a show on television, and how people end up becoming voice actors (apparently, voice acting is not a job anyone actually wants). The second category concerns information on foreign markets for anime in countries like China, Korea, the United States, and Britain – and also places like Finland and Estonia. I imagine that this category might be genuinely interesting for anime fans (especially those in the States) who see anime as existing only in their own country and Japan (and who aren’t freaks like me who read anime magazines in three different languages). The third category involves extended analytical essays that were originally delivered as public lectures. “Five Girls Named Moe: The Anime Erotic,” for example, is about the porn industry in Japan, and “Highbrow Skills in a Lowbrow Medium” concerns the issue of “translation” versus “localization.” In my opinion, these longer essays in particular make the book worth reading and are well worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, there were several sections that I found myself quickly clicking through after the first four or five pages. One was the chapter on Chinese animation, which begins with a brief overview and then launches into extended plot summaries of all of the titles mentioned in said overview (none of which could be found on Google). Another was the essay included as the liner notes in the re-release of the 1961 film Mothra, which lists name after name after name of a cast and crew I knew nothing about. Name dropping and plot summaries are rarely interesting, especially when the names are relatively unknown and the plots belong to films that are almost impossible to actually get one’s hands on. Speaking of which, even reviews that were interesting and fun to read could become frustrating, as the anime industry in the West moves quickly (and older titles have a tendency to become rare). For example, I was especially impressed by Clements’s liner notes for the anime series Saikano (released in 2002 in Japan, 2004 in America) but soon found that I couldn’t rent it from Netflix or Tsutaya or watch it on legally streaming sites like Hulu or Crunchyroll. What’s the point of reading about how great an anime is if you can never watch it?

In any case, what keeps the reader going through sometimes tedious and occasionally disjointed material is Clements’s wry and amusing narrative voice and common sense approach to the topic at hand. To illustrate this, I’d like to quote a paragraph from an essay titled “The Measure of Tape: The Lost World of VHS,” in which Clements describes a fantasy he had after witnessing a distributor throw out all the old review copies of VHS tapes he had gone through the trouble of returning:

So I decided that was it. I was going to liberate VHS. I was going to hoard my review copies until my office burst at the seams, and one day a grateful university library would come along and open the Jonathan Clements Wing, packed to the rafters with PAL copies of obscure titles like Ambassador Magma, and errant NTSC dubs of Fatal Fury. Researchers would then come from far and wide to leaf through my collection of ancient Japanese-language Newtypes and make notes for their dissertations. And once every few years, when I needed to check a scene in episode #8 of Ushio and Tora, I would pop back and visit my old tapes, just for the day. That was the plan.

I think this serves as a fitting analogy for Schoolgirl Milky Crisis itself. Sure, some of the titles Clements discusses may be old and obscure, and sure, maybe nobody cares about foreign markets and industry information besides the people actually involved in the process, but the essays in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, when read as a whole, succinctly track the history of anime in Asia and the West, bit by tantalizing bit. The writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader invested in the process all the way until the end. If you’re not an anime fan, you probably won’t have much use for the book; but, if you are a fan and haven’t checked out Schoolgirl Milky Crisis yet, I highly encourage you to do so.

Bye Bye Kitty

Title: Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art
Editor: David Elliott
Additional Essay By: Tetsuya Ozaki (小崎 哲哉)
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery and Yale University Press
Publication Year: 2011
Pages: 125

I’m glad someone finally said it: Japan is not all cute, all the time. Japan produces many cute things (I’ll admit it, pokémon are pretty cute), and Japanese cuteness is fairly visible in America, where there are vast subcultures of people who idolize it. Part of the reason why Japanese cuteness has spread to North America, Europe, and other countries in Asia is because cuteness appeals to people outside Japan, after all. (And it’s not like mainstream American media doesn’t produce its fair share of appeals-to-men-in-their-thirties cuteness on its own.) I think there is still an oddly pervasive idea, however, that everything that comes out of Japan is either Hokusai or Hello Kitty. I therefore want to hug David Elliott, whomever he may be, for putting together the Japan Society’s Bye Bye Kitty exhibition and catalog. The artwork is spectacular, and the essay by Elliott that opens the catalog strikes a powerful blow against the assumption that all contemporary Japanese art features huge anime eyes.

Elliott begins with a five-paragraph introduction to postwar Japan, from Douglas MacArthur to double-digit GNP growth to post-bubble malaise. He then moves on to Murakami Takashi’s cultural theory of kawaii, namely, that the Japanese nation is some sort of puer aeternus stuck in a neverland of cuteness and consumption. And then Elliott laughs and states the obvious:

Many artists, however, … have produced work that indicates a more complicated, adult view of life, melding traditional viewpoints with perceptions of present and future in radical and sometimes unsettling combinations. This hybridity … has created a fertile seedbed in which the struggle between extremes of heaven and hell, fantasy and nightmare, ideal and real take place. There is no room for Kitty’s blankness here.

In other words, Japanese artists deal with the same concerns as Western artists, and they do so as adults, intelligently processing cultural and political history and anxieties through creative and technically sophisticated artworks. Elliott identifies three major themes in the work of the artists represented in this exhibition: critical memory (how we deal with the legacy of the immediate past), threatened nature (how we deal with our fears concerning the immediate future), and the unquiet dream (how we deal with our selves). As a whole, the essay is beautifully worded, beautifully illustrated, and well worth the price of the entire book.

Elliott’s essay is followed by a short piece by Tetsuya Ozaki, the former editor of ART iT, a gorgeous bilingual magazine devoted to the contemporary Japanese art scene (if you happen to be in Japan, you can easily find back issues on Amazon.co.jp or at major bookstores like Kinokuniya). In this essay, Ozaki makes the connection between “a system that doesn’t make people happy” and the current “floating generation” of suicides, hikikomori, and otaku. He demonstrates how young Japanese artists are resisting “the kawaii phenomenon” as a means of escape and argues for a broader understanding of Japanese artists as adults both reacting to and transcending their cultural environment. Accompanying this essay are timelines demonstrating, for example, the discursive space of Shōwa Japan and landmarks in postwar Japanese art.

And then there is the art itself. The catalog showcases the work of sixteen artists, all in their twenties through forties, and all showing large and colorful pieces in this exhibition. In my opinion, the primary keyword for these pieces is detail. Yamaguchi Akira, for example, has two pen and watercolor paintings on the theme of Narita Airport in which the roofs (even those of the planes) are lifted to reveal a minutely detailed Edo-esque fantasy of Meiji bureaucrats rubbing shoulders with women in kimono excusing themselves after bumping into Caucasian tourists fumbling with their cell phones. Another of Yamaguchi’s paintings, The Nine Aspects, is a picture scroll reading from right to left and illustrating the nine stages of decay of a horse after its top-knotted master discards its corpse by the wayside. Except the horse is also a motocycle, and the architecture is half Edo and half Shōwa nostalgia. Time is also compressed in the huge pen-and-ink illustrations of Ikeda Manabu, which depict hulking architectural monstrosities so finely detailed that a magnifying glass is necessary to catch all the small touches, like the bomber planes flying in formation below the golden-ceilinged temple caught up in the branches of an enormous dying cherry tree. Finally, there is Aida Makoto (of Harakiri School Girls fame) whose acrylic painting Ash Color Mountains confronts the viewer with towering piles of dead salarymen, each individually detailed, which somehow makes the spectacle even more disturbing.

My one complaint about the Bye Bye Kitty catalog is that, with dimensions of about a foot squared, it really can’t do justice to all of the amazing detail of the exhibition’s artwork, the majority of which is at least as tall as I am. Therefore, if you can possibly get to New York to see the show itself before it closes on June 12, you should go! It’s one thing to see something like Ash Color Mountains while flipping through the pages of a catalog; it’s another thing entirely to walk into a room with no expectations and suddenly find that there it is all around you. The work of Ikeda Manabu especially must be seen to be believed, and the more installation-focused work of artists such as Shioyasu Tomoko and Chiharu Shiota should really be experienced in person. There is not a single boring artist in the exhibition, so it’s definitely worth traveling to visit. The best work of so many unique and high-profile Japanese artists doesn’t come together like this very often, so catch it while you can – or at least consider ordering a copy of the catalog.

Kazuo Ishiguro and the Problem of “Japaneseness”

The Remains of the Day is a really, really good book. In fact, it’s an excellent book. This is not a review of The Remains of the Day, however. It is instead a meditation on the thorny problem of whether the work of Kazuo Ishiguro can be considered “Japanese” literature.

The essence of this problem is “Japaneseness.” What is it, who has it, and who doesn’t? Since I am an American, it’s useful for me to consider the related problem of “Americanness.” How does one become culturally American? Is such a feat accomplished by matriculating into high school, taking classes, going to football games on Friday nights, agonizing over whom to invite to the prom, and listening to My Chemical Romance while studying for the SAT? If so, what happens when experiences of high school are radically different? I am referring not merely to disparities in experience according to one’s rank in the imaginary jock/geek hierarchy, but rather to the diversity of the experiences of a student in a small rural school in the South, and a student in a rich private school in New York, and a student in a large suburban school in the Midwest, and a student in school with a large immigrant population in southern Arizona. There are many different types of Americanness, as any young hipster from Seattle or old Republican from Mississippi could tell you. For me personally, moving from Atlanta to Philadelphia was like moving to a different country.

Although Japan is smaller than America in terms of both population and land area, there is an enormous diversity of Japaneseness. Younger Japanese do not grow up in the same world as their parents, who in turn did not grow up in the same world as their parents. The rural/urban divide is fairly pronounced, as is the divide between geographical locations (such as between Tōhoku and Kantō, or between Tokyo and Osaka). There are also a number of ethnic minorities in Japan, such as the burakumin, the Okinawans, and any number of resident Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos. The people living on the Japanese archipelago speak many markedly different dialects of Japanese, and different groups of people were taught and believe in different versions of Japanese history. We group all of these people together and call them “Japanese,” but the nation of Japan is an imagined community just like any other, and the degrees to which individuals opt into (or opt out of) this community can vary significantly.

Even though there is really no such thing as “Japaneseness,” I believe there should be a place in a college curriculum for courses like “Introduction to Japanese Civilization.” In order to teach such a class, a professor has to make up a story, and it is often useful for that story to be told teleologically (chronologically from “beginning” to “end”) instead of thematically. Even though the professor knows that he or she is simplifying and omitting and thereby telling a story that isn’t necessarily true, it’s still important to have a story to tell. An outline of Japan colored with rough brushstrokes is better than an outline of Japan left blank, after all. A constructed story is useful not only as a teaching device but also as a cultural bridge; it is in many ways worthwhile to tell students just beginning to learn about Japan the same story that many Japanese tell themselves.

Therefore, when we talk about “Japanese” literature, we need to decide what counts as “Japanese.” This is more difficult than it initially seems. For example, take T.S. Eliot, who was born and raised in America but spent his adult life in Britain and considered himself British. Is Eliot an American poet, or is he a British poet? My high school textbook couldn’t decide. Vladimir Nabokov is another good example. Although he grew up in Russia and in many ways consciously retained his Russian heritage (by translating his own works from and into Russian, for example), he lived in America (and Berlin, and Switzerland) and wrote in English. Is Nabokov American or Russian or something else altogether? The blurb on the back of the Vintage editions of his books skillfully evades the matter. An even trickier example is Tawada Yōko, who lives in Germany and writes poems and stories in both German and Japanese about being a Japanese person in Germany. Two major contemporary Japanese writers, Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki, not only speak other languages besides Japanese but also frequently spend long stretches of time living outside Japan.

Assigning “Japaneseness” to any one person is therefore difficult; but, in the end, it is convenient to be able to draw a line somewhere, even if that line is in the faintest of pencil. In terms of literature, I think it’s reasonable to categorize anything written in the Japanese language(s) as Japanese literature. But what about texts not written in Japanese? Specifically, can we call the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, who grew up in England and writes in English about being English in England, Japanese literature?

I would like to argue that this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. First of all, assuming that someone is Japanese simply because of his name comes dangerously close to racism. If “racism” is too loaded a term, then perhaps “culturalism” might be better. Is there some ineffable quality about someone of Japanese descent that makes him irrevocably “Japanese”? If nothing else, to point to someone who has grown up in the same cultural background and call him different because of his name or the color of his skin or his parents’ country of origin is problematic, to say the least.

Second, including Ishiguro in a canon of modern Japanese authors feels somewhat ethnocentric to me. The Japanese themselves consider Ishiguro to be a foreign writer – his novels are translated into Japanese, and his name is written in katakana like the names of other foreign authors. Ishiguro’s relationship with Japan is complicated, but he himself has said in so many words that he doesn’t consider himself to be a Japanese writer. To ignore the claims of the author and the Japanese literary establishment and to insist that novels written by a British citizen in English about Britain are Japanese literature seems misguided at best and pigheaded at worst, as if the Japanese themselves cannot produce or canonize their own literary works. One might as well call Muriel Bradbury’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog a classic of Japanese literature simply because it features a Japanese character and a few amateurish haiku.

I started thinking about Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Japaneseness” when I was sent a list of 20 Essential Works of Japanese Literature from Bachelor’s Degree Online. I have many problems with this list (including, most obviously, the fact that The Woman in the Dunes was written by Abe Kōbō and not Teshigahara Hiroshi, who directed the film version), but the inclusion of a male writer who isn’t even “Japanese” at the expense of many fantastic female writers was like a kick in the gut, especially considering that the ratio of modern male authors to modern female authors is thirteen to one. Even if one wanted to make a case for a literature of diaspora, wouldn’t Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World be a better choice than The Remains of the Day?

In the end, though, who is to say what is Japanese and what isn’t? What I have stated is merely my opinion, and my opinion is that perhaps it makes more practical sense to keep Ishiguro on the list of The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945 instead of forcibly transplanting him onto a list that begins with the Kōkin Wakashū.

The Other Women’s Lib

Title: The Other Women’s Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women’s Fiction
Author: Julia C. Bullock
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
Pages: 200

Sometimes I will hear someone describe an academic text with disdain, calling it “accessible” as if that were a terrible, embarrassing thing. This bothers me. Psychoanalytical, literary, political, and cultural theory are wonderful tools, but the texts from which this theory is drawn are often very difficult to read. Furthermore, academia has reached a point in its cycle of production at which it is simply not enough to have read the original sources of theory; one must also read all of the lenses through which they have been interpreted over the past thirty to forty years. As a result, even one strain of theoretical thought is often difficult to master. And yet, some scholars expect their readers to know everything about the specific theory that informs their work. They thus go about using specialist terms without explanation, throwing theorists’ names around metonymically, and not bothering to orient their reader to their underlying system of assumptions. I believe this is unreasonable, if only because some of us have not been alive for the requisite number of years it takes to read and study all the books (if such a thing is even possible).

I don’t mean to suggest that all academics write like this. In fact, I believe most professors are far more interested in communicating ideas than they are in hoarding them within the confines of the ivory tower. Julia Bullock’s literary study The Other Women’s Lib is a perfect example, I think, of how an “accessible” academic text can convey both the pleasures of the authors whose works are examined and the pleasures of the methods used to examine them.

In The Other Women’s Lib, Professor Bullock handles three postwar writers: Kōno Taeko, Takahashi Takako, and Kurahashi Yumiko. Each of these three writers is fairly canonized in the tradition of Japanese literary studies, with numerous dissertations and anthologized essays celebrating their work. Bullock’s book-length study is important because it has the courage to focus on these three female writers alone without feeling the need to include chapters on some of the more prominent male figures of the Japanese literary world, thus carrying on the torch sparked by classics like Victoria Vernon’s Daughters of the Moon and the fantastic essay collection The Woman’s Hand.

Instead of dividing the book into three sections focusing on each of the three authors, Bullock has categorized her chapters thematically. Each of these five chapters deals with an important issue relevant to the work of all of the authors. For example, how were they received by the literary establishment? How did they incorporate the concept of the male gaze into their writing? Do their stories reflect an ingrained misogyny, or do they instead reproduce misogyny in order to challenge it? How do these authors narrate the female body? How do they characterize the relationships between women? Throughout these chapters, Bullock draws on the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault (the internalized gaze), Susan Gubar (feminist misogyny), and Luce Irigaray (the creation of discursive sexual difference). Bullock does not merely throw about concepts like panopticism, however; she explains her terms and their contexts and fleshes them out with well-chosen quotes before explaining exactly how they apply to the stories and novels she analyzes.

The first chapter of the book, “Party Crashers and Poison Pens,” places these themes and writers into their geographical and historical context, namely, Japan in the sixties and seventies. These decades were an era of high economic growth and the cradle of gender ideologies that many people have now come to regard as “traditional;” i.e., the man goes out into the world and fights the good fight as a corporate warrior, while the woman stays at home and takes care of the children. The chapter introduces these ideologies and their political implications, explains their social and economic context, and then touches on the male-dominated literary scene before then demonstrating how certain proto-feminist women writers crashed the party with dark, violent, and absurdist fiction. Bullock describes the literature that emerged during this period as “the other women’s lib,” a nuanced and intensely critical evaluation of contemporary gender roles and economic ideologies. Even if a reader has no interest in the particular writers in question, this chapter alone is worth reading for its excellent summary of an exciting literary movement and the dynamic and explosive time period that served as its background.

That being said, Kōno, Takahashi, and Kurahashi are all fantastic writers who have been well served by their English translations, which appear in collections like Toddler-Hunting, Lonely Woman, and The Woman with the Flying Head. Their North American equivalents would be authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. In other words, they are authors who are worth reading and worth reading about. It is my hope that The Other Women’s Lib will encourage the popularity of these three Japanese authors in English-speaking teaching and translation communities. If nothing else, it is extraordinarily satisfying for me to put Professor Bullock’s book on my shelf next to all of the literary studies of Kyōka, Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Murakami.

To anyone interested in the topic of gender in Japanese literature, I might also recommend the title Girl Reading Girl in Japan, which was edited by Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley and published in late 2010 by Routledge. Unlike Bad Girls of Japan, Girl Reading Girl in Japan is intended for a more specialist audience, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out, especially for someone interested in the burgeoning field of shōjo studies. The book is a collection of conference papers, with each paper being about ten to twelve pages of essay and another one or two pages of footnotes. The ten conference papers are accompanied by an editors’ introduction, a genealogical essay introducing three major Japanese players in the field of shōjo studies (Honda Masuko, Yagawa Sumiko, and Kawasaki Kenko), and then two translated essays. Taken together, these collected writings demonstrate what has happened in Western scholarship relating to shōjo in the past ten years and provide an excellent introduction to the body of Japanese scholarship. Girl Reading Girl in Japan brings the topics discussed in The Other Women’s Lib into the present day through essays on subjects ranging from Murakami Haruki to Kanehara Hitomi to the portrayal of rape in Harry Potter dōjinshi. The essays are intelligent, the topics are fun, and the book is very easy to browse through. I only wish Routledge would release it in paperback…

The Anime Machine

Title: The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation
Author: Thomas Lamarre
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 385

If Susan Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is an entry-level textbook on Japanese animation for undergraduates, Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine is an entry-level textbook on Japanese animation for graduate students. The prerequisite for being able to fully appreciate this study is a firm foundation in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cinema theory. Lamarre plays hard and fast with specialist terminology, and he doesn’t wait for the reader to catch up. Nevertheless, The Anime Machine is a brilliant text that will hopefully revolutionize the study of animation, Japanese or otherwise.

Lamarre’s essential argument in The Anime Machine is that, in order to understand Japanese animation, one needs to understand what animation is and how it works before starting to talk about its cultural and social aspects. His main point seems to be that Japanese animation is characterized by non-Cartesian perspectivism, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s “flat,” or that it lacks the illusion of depth. This feature of “limited animation” is engendered by the limited budgets of many animation studios in Japan, whose personnel have nevertheless managed to turn financial constraints into an art form. Lamarre is not shy about embracing a strongly auteuristic view of animation, identifying the work helmed by directors like Miyazaki Hayao and Anno Hideaki as conscientious statements of personal worldview through the use of the various idiosyncrasies of limited animation.

The first work that Lamarre examines in depth is Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. After explaining the technology used to create layers, or “planes,” in traditional cel animation, Lamarre argues that Miyazaki subverts conventions used to depict depth (and also speed and movement) in order to present his audience with a more humanistic view of history and the environment. He then moves to the work of Studio Gainax, specifically Nadia of the Blue Waters and Neon Genesis Evangelion, to emphasize his point while also discussing affective character design and the implications of limited character animation. The text then turns to otaku theory via a summary of the work of Azuma Hiroki and finds its summarizing points in the confluence of girl, machine, audience, and “the cinematic apparatus” in the animated series based on CLAMP’s hyper-popular manga Chobits.

I am oversimplifying a great deal. Lamarre’s chapters are incredibly wide ranging in their themes and contents. One issue he carries through his entire discussion is that of the relationship between female characters and technological ideals in anime. An astute reader will notice that, although he blatantly contradicts himself at certain points over the course of the book, his observations are extremely interesting and almost completely removed from the clichéd repetitions of the vast majority of scholarship on the subject. In fact, without clearly delineating (and thus limiting the scope of) each topic, Lamarre manages to hit most of the major issues in the academic discussion of Japanese animation.

I like this book. I like it a lot. I had the opportunity to read it with a group of extremely intelligent undergraduates while taking a class on Japanese animation this past spring, however, and my impression was that the undergraduates hated it, aggressively and venomously. One person, an advanced student of philosophy, insisted that Thomas Lamarre is French and that this book is a translation, which is to say that Lamarre is a deliberately opaque writer and that the language of The Anime Machine is needlessly difficult to follow. Another person, a student of film theory and a practicing filmmaker, constructed an entire visual presentation arguing that Lamarre’s claims of non-Cartesianism, at least as they relate to Laputa, are completely unfounded.

I would have to agree that Lamarre’s language and system of references are quite dense. For example, when Lamarre argues in his introduction that the technology used to create animation influences the type of animation that is created, he phrases his statements in sentences like this:

The animetic interval (already implicit in the layering of images prior to the animation stand) became the site of a rationalization, instrumentalization, or technologization of the multiplanar image, allowing animators to harness or channel the force of the moving image in distinctly animetic ways.

It becomes increasingly clear what Lamarre means by such terms as “animetic interval,” and “multiplanar image” as the reader progresses through the book, but the use of phrases like “cinematic apparatus” (a technically appropriate but somewhat misleading way of referring to the function of the “camera” in animation) can be confusing and alienating to readers not wholly familiar with recent avant-garde film theory (this would include myself). Moreover, anyone with anything less than a sterling classical education is going to find him or herself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to clarify the meaning of the Carteisan subject and Heidegger’s views on High Humanism.

Despite this, I have read worse writers than Lamarre, and I didn’t find The Anime Machine particularly challenging as far as academic studies go. I am writing this review because I recently ran into a friend of mine who had gone to this year’s Otakon and found herself attending a panel on “Anime in Academia.” She said that one of the panelists had highly recommended Lamarre’s book to a room full of teenage fans, and the two of us had a bit of a laugh. This is not to say that The Anime Machine isn’t full of insights and wonderful ideas and solutions and problems and great leads on further research, but rather that a casual, nonacademic fan might find it extremely frustrating. So I therefore give this book a million gold stars and thumbs up and non-rotten tomatoes, but also a very serious caveat emptor warning for non-academics.

As long as I’m writing about academic studies of anime and manga, I would like to link to an excellent series of posts (which begins here) about desire, love, and rape in the classic manga The Rose of Versailles that credits the intelligence of its reader and makes interesting observations without becoming entangled in the morass of academic jargon. If you’re looking for good essays about Japanese popular culture, The Lobster Dance is a great place to start.