Dendera

Title: Dendera
Japanese Title: デンデラ (Dendera)
Author: Satō Yūya (佐藤 友哉)
Translators: Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 360

Dendera is not an easy book to read. Although the cover copy describes the story as being set in “a utopian community” of old women, this is no tale of feminist empowerment. Rather, every page practically bleeds with suffering and human misery, and the only salvation for any of the characters lies in death.

In the Village, there is a strictly enforced rule that everyone must Climb the Mountain when they reach the age of seventy. Men and women who reach this age are carried on the back of their oldest child, who leaves them in the wilderness so that they may ascend to Paradise. That time has come for Kayu Saitoh, and she is ready – all she wants is to lie down and rest. As the snow falls around her on the Mountain, she embraces the sensation of her body becoming cold, knowing that when she sleeps, she will not wake in this world.

Right before she passes out, however, Kayu Saitoh is rescued and taken to Dendera, a settlement formed on the Mountain by all the women who were abandoned by their families and left to die of exposure. Dendera is little more than a collection of flimsy huts, but the community of fifty women has supported itself for more than three decades. These women don’t want to die, and so they rescue each other, eking out a meager living from the harsh environment.

The leader of Dendera is a woman named Mei Mitsuya, who founded the settlement because, as she says herself, “I had no intention of dying.” Mei Mitsuya hates the Village, but simply staying alive is not revenge enough for her. Her ultimate goal is therefore to accumulate enough resources to attack and destroy the Village. This is easier said than done, however, as life is not easy on the Mountain, especially for a small group of older women. They barely have enough to eat, and it is only by monitoring the community’s food supply that Mei Mitsuya is able to maintain her control over the other women.

Kayu Saitoh, who is resents being robbed of the opportunity to die a “pure” death, feels no gratitude toward Mei Mitsuya or any feeling of investment in Dendera. This sense of detachment allows her to see the power dynamics of the community, especially the tension between the “hawks,” which is what Mei Mitsuya’s faction calls itself, and the minority group of “doves,” who seem to want nothing more than for the village to prosper. This conflict is subtle, however, as the main concern of the Dendera inhabitants is feeding themselves. After all, no one has much energy to spare for anything besides hunting, scavenging, and rudimentary farming, not to mention the care of those too senescent to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the old women aren’t the only ones going hungry, as this particular winter has been especially fierce. A large bear who has established her territory on the Mountain is starving, as is her cub. She eventually becomes desperate enough at attack the human settlement, which throws the tiny society into complete disarray. As Kayu Saitoh watches everything fall apart around her, she begins to catch glimpses of Dendera’s dark secrets. The bear is a terrible enemy, but this creature is far from the most frightening threat besieging the community.

If you want to read about old women being evil to each other in a wilderness setting, Dendera is your book. I found myself fascinated by this story, especially when it became clear that there was a deeper mystery underlying the basic struggle for survival. I appreciate just how unapologetically mean and selfish each of the women is, and this darkness of characterization served to render their rare moments of kindness and cooperation shine all the brighter. I also enjoyed the interludes of narration from the bear’s perspective, which don’t attempt to attribute her with human characteristics but still engender a strong sense of sympathy for her own struggle to survive.

Although the story isn’t set in any particular time or place, it might be possible to read Dendera as an allegory for the precarity faced by a rising number of older people in Japan, especially in the context of the plethora of (relatively) recent news media stories about people who fall out of touch with their families and effectively “disappear” only to then be found in their houses or apartments weeks after they die. That being said, the story has a certain quality of timelessness that allows it to function as a study of human character that transcends any specific social or historical context. I could easily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highbrow horror fiction, regardless of whether they know or care anything about Japan.

Dendera is gritty and compelling human drama. The story takes a number of interesting turns before moving in a surprising direction as it builds up to an ending that is magnificently transcendent. The unrelenting unpleasantness of its subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste; but, if your stomach is strong enough, Dendera is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

Record of a Night Too Brief

Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Japanese Title: 蛇を踏む (Hebi o fumu)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 1996 (Japan)
Press: Pushkin Press
Pages: 158

Record of a Night Too Brief collects three short stories that the book’s cover copy describes as “haunting” and “lyrical” in their depiction of young women experiencing “loss, loneliness and extraordinary romance.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it in no way describes the actual stories in question, which are less “haunting” than they are grotesque and less “lyrical” than they are unapologetically strange. Instead of trying to treat them as romance, I believe it’s much more fulfilling to approach their absurdity in the spirit of intellectual play.

The title story, “Record of a Night Too Brief,” is a sequence of nineteen of the unnamed narrator’s dreams. Each of these dreams is two or three pages long, and they are linked only in that every other scenario features a young woman whom the narrator is either pursuing or in the process of merging with. If there is a unifying theme or plot, it is lost on me, but the power of these dreams comes from their vivid imagery. To give an example (from page 11):

Several dozen ticket collectors stood in a row, and once we passed through, showing our tickets, the tall object came into view.

It was a singer, who stood as tall as a three-storey building. From where I was, I had a clear view of the beauty spot under her jaw, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

“The beauty spot is artificial,” the girl informed me, gazing up at the singer, enraptured.

The singer was producing notes at different pitches, as if she were warming up. When she sang high notes, flocks of birds took flight from the branches of the ginko trees. When she sang low notes, the earth heaved, and small furry creatures emerged from underground and crawled about.

…and so on. It’s all very random, but one can’t help but become swept up in the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting parade of surreal images.

The next story, “Missing,” is set in an apartment complex that functions according to its own arbitrary and bizarre set of customs and rituals. One of the rules of this community is that each household can only have five members. If a sixth member is added for any reason, then someone has to disappear. This recently happened to the narrator’s family after her older brother was engaged to be married. Because his fiancée would have become the sixth person, he disappeared, and the narrator’s other older brother stepped in to fill his position. His fiancée, Hiroko, has no idea that this has happened, as the rules are different in her own apartment complex, where certain members of certain families literally shrink. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to hear the voice of the older brother as he (or his spirit) skulks around the apartment. No explanation is given for any of this, as everyone takes these occurrences for granted.

The final story, which provides the title of the original Japanese publication, is “A Snake Stepped On.” This story is about a young woman who one day finds herself living with a snake. This snake takes the form of an older woman who insists that she is the narrator’s mother. As she accustoms herself to life with a snake, the narrator begins to realize that many of the people around her are also living with snakes, including the local Buddhist priest whom she thought of turning to for an exorcism. Following the conventions of magical realism, the tone of this story is mundane, with the possibility of being devoured by a snake – or becoming a snake oneself – treated as merely another everyday occurrence.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a short collection of curiosities that are fascinating in their novelty. The fantastical qualities of each story allow for various interpretations, and they will no doubt intrigue different readers for different reasons. As contemporary fairy tales, the stories in this collection spark and inspire the imagination.

Indian Summer

Title: Indian Summer
Japanese Title: 小春日和(インディアン・サマー)
Koharu biyori (Indian samā)
Author: Kanai Mieko (金井 美恵子)
Translators: Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Cornell East Asia Series
Pages: 149

Nineteen-year-old Momoko has managed to pass the entrance exam of a university in Tokyo, and her mother has decided that she will stay with her aunt, a middle-aged novelist who lives in the Meijiro neighborhood of West Tokyo. Momoko’s aunt is a free spirit with a difficult personality, but that’s just fine with Momoko, who is more than a little quirky herself. Momoko occasionally goes to class or goes out drinking, and her aunt occasionally gets her act together and publishes something, but mostly they hang around the house together being useless.

Kanai Mieko is known for her surreal and often disturbing fiction, but there are no dark or upsetting themes in Indian Summer. In their introduction to the novel, translators Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley describe it as “girls’ literature,” meaning “not simply the new or older ‘chick lit’ or the juvenile fiction and romance targeted at female audiences but more widely any literature that has attracted the sustained interest of (and has often been produced by) ‘girls’ (young women and their sympathizers).”

Indian Summer was published in 1988, the same year as Yoshimoto Banana’s famous girls’ literature novella Kitchen, and both stories reflect the heady energy of the consumer culture at the end of the bubble years. Unlike Kitchen, however, Indian Summer has more of a satirical bite, with Momoko expressing a lazy disdain for the sort of concerns celebrated by women’s magazines, such as clothing and romance. One target of Momoko’s annoyance is her divorced father, who lives in Tokyo and works as a hotel manager. He makes a series of clueless attempts to bond with his daughter by taking her out to nice stores and fancy restaurants and offering fashion advice, but Momoko is not impressed. Her main concern is avoiding the girlfriend for whom her father left her mother, but this “girlfriend” turns out to be a beautiful young man. To Momoko’s complete lack of surprise, gay romance turns out to be just as tawdry and boring as straight romance, for which she has zero patience.

Momoko lets off steam with her college friend Hanako, whose father is also an embarrassment, especially in his insistence that his precious daughter is too good for things like a part-time job. Neither of the girls particularly cares what any men think of them, however, and in their lack of concern they are passively supported by Momoko’s aunt, who just wants to drink and write. These three women drift through their days together, not marching to the beat of any drum at all as they enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes they talk about their lives, and sometimes they talk about books and movies, but mostly they just chill out. Because of the charm and wit of Kanai’s writing, this is a lot more interesting than it sounds, but there’s no denying that Indian Summer is a light and refreshing novel that isn’t meant to challenge its reader.

Interspersed between the chapters of the novel are Momoko’s aunt’s essays on everything ranging from motherhood to abortion to Roland Barthes to the foibles of bourgeois women. These short interludes are inspired by the aunt’s day-to-day life with her niece and provide a sort of parallax view on the events of the story. While Momoko tends toward a negative assessment of the world around her, her aunt’s opinions are more tongue-in-cheek, but the two women are still very much alike in their casual nonchalance.

Because of its inclusion of these “non-fiction” essays, and because of its lack of a clearly definable plot, Indian Summer is a strange little book that’s difficult to categorize. That being said, Kanai’s writing is a lot of fun and genuinely humorous. I would recommend this short novel to people who enjoy the breezy sort of fiction characteristic of 1980s Japan but who would appreciate something a bit more grounded and intelligent than the romance and science fiction from that decade that had previously appeared in translation.

EarthBound Handbook

earthbound-handbook

Title: EarthBound Handbook: Travel Eagleland the EarthBound Way
Art Direction: Audrey Waner
Editor-in-Chief: Dan Moore
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 260

This guest review is written by Lance Mulcahey.

To call EarthBound Handbook: Travel Eagleland the EarthBound Way merely a charming guide to EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan) would be an injustice to Fangamer, whose staff clearly put their creative heart and soul into this book. Much more than a simple illustrated walkthrough, the Handbook assumes the guise of a travel guide akin to something like Lonely Planet, with a chapter-by-chapter introduction to all the unique locales of the EarthBound world, complete with maps, shop info, enemy stats, and game tips.

However useful, substantive information is not the main goal here, as each chapter seeks not to lead a player through each in-game task and battle but rather to deepen the established EarthBound world and immerse the reader within it through humorous articles and beautiful models and artistic renditions of characters and places. What brilliantly separates the Handbook from other fan materials is that it does not parade itself solely as an artifact from its respective game universe but an actual travel guide for the “real” Eagleland to help fans of the “real” EarthBound game experience the “real” inspiration for the game… except the reality of Eagleland seems closer to the fictional events of EarthBound more than you’d think!

The Handbook is divided into fourteen chapters, each of which is roughly equivalent to one of EarthBound‘s levels. True to the book’s travel guide billing, each chapter begins with an excerpt from a news bulletin, highlighting each region’s local news as if the reader were a tourist picking up a newspaper. The chapters proceed with day-to-day itineraries that closely follow Ness’s adventure. These sections have a wide variety of content but usually contain various ads for local shops (complete with items and pricing) and activities that give a subtle nod to in-game events or locations, like Scaraba Tours or an ad for the Egg Deboiler. There are also a number of “Get to Know!” NPC profiles scattered about, highlighting “local personalities” with true-to-life pictures and interviews. Of course, no itinerary would be complete without an artistically rendered map and depictions of numerous enemies in the form of trading cards. Each chapter ends with a “Talk Man 9X” fictional cassette-based self-guided tour segment that offers a short retelling of the in-game events of EarthBound and adds a surprising but welcome emotional flair. The last two pages of each chapter contain a scenic photographic spread of models of the area’s Sanctuary location, whose meticulous details jump off the page.

The Handbook is clearly the product of a Kickstarter campaign – in a good way! – in that it’s clear that a group of extremely dedicated and passionate people came together not only to write a love letter to a beloved game but also to deliver a romantic treatise that miraculously captures that unique style and wit so characteristic of the Mother franchise. It makes a fine addition to the already extremely rich body of fan media inspired by the games, but, more than that, the book’s creation served as a rallying cry for Western EarthBound fans, eventually funding the Mother-centric Camp Fangamer convention and bolstering the #ThisIsEarthBound campaign during the Nintendo Virtual Console releases. Clyde Mandelin of the website Legends of Localization also joined the Kickstarter campaign as a stretch goal for a Legends of Localization 2: EarthBound edition. All of this activity underscores how integral fan support and the fan experience is for an aging property like the Mother franchise, as it allows for active participation and engagement with the source material over decades.

While the EarthBound Handbook isn’t as helpful as the detailed walkthrough on Starman.net, it doesn’t need to be. This is a loving homage that feels more impressive each time I pick it up. Reading through it, I experienced the magical spark and sheer joy of EarthBound right on the page, which is no mean feat. The Handbook doesn’t feel like a throwaway coffee table book, with its sturdy hardcover and tasteful silver etching – even the dust jacket is an artistic showcase. The appeal of this book extends beyond the purview of the hardcore EarthBound-ophile, as its artistry begs to be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in gaming. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this guide for anyone seriously looking for a walkthrough, but EarthBound is best experienced with as little handholding and as much fan participation as possible.

. . .

Lance Mulcahey is a not-so recent graduate from UCLA with an MA in Japanese Studies. His time there included research on Japanese folklore, the formation of Kamishibai theater, contemporary homosexual identity in Japan, and neo-colonialist practices in postwar Japan and the U.S. He currently lives in Chicago and works at small Japanese plastics company. His love of Japan and gaming keep him engaged as an amateur translator, and he has a deep passion for all things Nintendo. You can find more information on his LinkedIn profile.

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Why Ganondorf Was Wrong in The Wind Waker

ganondorf-my-country-lay-within-a-vast-desert

My essay on The Wind Waker was posted last weekend on the feminist gaming blog FemHype! In this piece I use some of the basic ideas of ecological feminism to argue that, even though Ganondorf is far from the monster he’s made out to be, he’s still wrong to privilege destructive grand narratives like “nation” and “productivity” over the gradual change that better suits the natural processes of the environment and more directly benefits the lives of individuals.

Here’s a short except:

The Wind Waker is a post-apocalyptic narrative through which elegiac stories play out against a setting in which human civilization is already in decline. Far from presenting the gradual downfall of humanity and our political power structures as a fate to be avoided, however, The Wind Waker encourages its audience to consider the apocalypse in a positive light. By allowing the player to experience the thrill of exploring a beautiful world largely devoid of people, The Wind Waker reconfigures ethical valuations of villainy and heroism through a fantasy in which humanity is not privileged over the environment.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Moshi Moshi

moshi-moshi

Title: Moshi Moshi
Japanese Title: もしもし下北沢 (Moshi moshi Shimokitazawa)
Author: Yoshimoto Banana (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 209

A year after her father dies in a suicide pact, twenty-something Mitsuharu Yoshie moves to the hipster neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, where she works part-time at a small bistro. Everything is going reasonably well for her until her mother suddenly decides to move in with her. Yoshie had been looking forward to leaving the nest and striking out on her own, but her mother claims that her father’s ghost has begun to haunt their old apartment, so what can she do?

Moshi Moshi is like a glossy lifestyle magazine in the form of a novel. Yoshie and her mother float through their days in Shimokitazawa, eating delicious food, buying nice things, and gradually getting to know their neighbors. Yoshie is serious about her work in the Les Liens bistro, and her mother is serious about pulling herself out of the mire of her former role as a housewife, but they have no money worries and are quite comfortable together.

The only shadow on their bright days is the death of Yoshie’s father Imoto, who played keyboard in a rock band. The official story is that he committed suicide with a much younger woman, but neither Yoshie nor her mother has any idea why an otherwise grounded and stable man would have consented to such an extreme act of desperation. One day, Yoshie randomly runs into a frequent diner at her bistro. The man’s name is Shintani, and he happens to own a club where Imoto’s band often played. Shintani takes this opportunity to tell Yoshie that there was something very strange about the woman her father ran off with. He also tells Yoshie that he’s falling in love with her.

Shintani is a typical Yoshimoto male love interest who could have walked straight out of the pages of a shōjo manga magazine. He is gentle, kind, and attractive in a nonthreatening way:

Shintani-kun still ate beautifully, and the pot-au-feu disappeared into his mouth with dreamy alacrity. As he ate, he looked out the window peacefully. He always wore nice shoes. (96)

Once they start seeing each other, Yoshie and Shintani bond in the same way that Yoshie and her mother do, namely, by visiting cool restaurants and bars and eating tasty and unusual dishes. It is their shared consumption of trendy food and chic clothes and music that brings them together, and Shimokitazawa is the perfect backdrop for this featherlight drama of consumerism. Yoshie’s mother is also healed by her immersion in hipster paradise:

When I saw her reading manga with her belly out, shedding tears while murmuring, “I understand, of course you want to go back and live in the cave,” I was filled up with the thought that this woman hadn’t done anything wrong, and didn’t deserve any of this.

Yes, Shimokitazawa was a little like a mountain cave in the outlands, where people who found it difficult to keep up with the vagaries of the world could live quietly, as they wanted. Even people who’d been left behind, like me and Mom. (88)

This laid-back atmosphere is occasionally juxtaposed against Yoshie and her mother’s former home in Meguro, a pricey neighborhood just south of Shibuya. Meguro is too upscale for the two women to be true to themselves, but they’re finally able to relax and find a comfortable community in Shimokitazawa, which welcomes sweet and slightly quirky people into its patchwork of quaint stores and cafés. The last sentence in the author’s Afterword aptly sums up the message of the book: “I only pray for the survival of all the many fine shops that still quietly continue to exist” (206).

Moshi Moshi has something vaguely resembling a plot, but the story isn’t really the point of the novel. Rather, the reader is bathed in the warm flow of Yoshimoto’s words while experiencing of the charm of the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. The novel is comforting, like drinking hot chocolate on a cold day. Just don’t expect any bold or complicated flavors, and you won’t be disappointed.

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna)

shuna-no-tabi

Title: シュナの旅 (Shuna no tabi)
English Title: The Journey of Shuna
Author: Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿)
Publication Year: 1983
Publisher: Animage Bunko
Pages: 149

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna) is a short watercolor manga by Studio Ghibli director Miyazaki Hayao. Shuna is not only the precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but also to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä’s spiritual successor. It contains many of the themes that define Miyazaki’s oeuvre, such as the relationship between humans and nature, human rights, and pacifism.

Shuna is a prince from a small nation in a valley where food cannot grow easily and the people and animals are starving. One day, an injured old traveler wanders into his community. Before the man dies, he tells Shuna about a place where golden grain grows in abundance and gives him some seeds that a traveler gave him when he was a young man. Shuna decides to set off on a journey in search of the grain with Yakuul, his red antelope. Along the way, he fights slave traders and thieves and rescues a young woman, Thea, and her sister from slavery in the castle town of Dorei. They outrun the slave traders and eventually part ways. Thea and her sister go to a town in the north where they live with an old lady. Thea farms, raises animals, and weaves. Meanwhile, Shuna enters a forest full of giant green humanoids who become the forest when they die. The giants are people sold into slavery who are transformed into giants in an organic machine with the help of the Moon, who appears almost like a mask in the sky and appears to be a deity or other supernatural creature. Shuna finds the fabled golden grain in the forest, but his journey back to Thea and her sister is more difficult than anticipated.

Fans of Miyazaki’s work will be delighted to discover the prototypes for certain themes and scenes from both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke in Shuna no tabi. While the story is certainly more simplistic than the works it inspired, there’s still a lot going on beneath the surface. What is the machine that turns people into forest giants? If the Moon is a god, are there other gods? What relationship do the slave traders have with the Moon?

Additionally, many illustrations from Shuna no tabi were later recalled in Miyazaki’s animation. A scene of Shuna eating while looking at some fox-squirrels in the forest is reused in Nausicaä, whose heroine eats with her pet fox-squirrel Teto in an identical pose. After Shuna leaves the city, he encounters and camps with an old man who tells him to go west to find the grain, a scene that is used again in Mononoke when Ashitaka camps with the monk Jiko, who tells him the iron bullet he found came from the west. The old man’s character design is reused for a priest in Nausicaä as well. The aesthetic elements of the Valley of the Wind also have their origins in Shuna no tabi, particularly the formal wear of the northern village and the murals in Shuna’s home. Some of the illustrations depicting the forest, especially the image of the flowers growing out of Shuna’s gun, were later reused in Mononoke.

From the perspective of gender representation, one thing I’ve noticed and admired in many of Miyazaki’s works is that he doesn’t use extreme sexual dimorphism – that is, his young adult male and female protagonists tend to be built alike. Shuna and Thea look nearly identical in body shape and facial features, and they both resemble Nausicaä and Ashitaka. While Miyazaki’s character designs for middle-aged characters feature more differences in height and build, the dimorphism is nowhere as extreme as it is in Disney and Pixar films (and for that, this genderqueer reviewer is grateful).

The biggest difference between Shuna no tabi and the works that followed it, however, is Miyazaki’s commitment to pacifism. Shuna spends a lot of time defending himself by shooting at people with his gun, and at the end of the story the village in the north still has to use guns to defend their land. In contrast, both Nausicaä and Ashitaka commit acts of violence in the beginning of their stories, mostly in self-defense. These experiences directly shape their commitment to pacifism as they both try to end the violence surrounding them; Nausicaä’s goal is to end a war between the kingdom of Tolkmekia and its colonies, while Ashitaka does his best to intervene in a conflict between Tataraba (Iron Town) and the deities of the forest. This is not to say that these characters refuse to commit violence, but that the narrative tone regarding violence shifts significantly as their stories develop.

The watercolor images are gorgeously rendered, and all the pages are in full color. My only complaint with the publication quality of the book is that the text, which is often printed directly onto the images instead of in word bubbles, can sometimes be hard to read, especially when the text is printed in white or blue ink. Adding the standard border and background to set off the text from the surrounding image would have eliminated this difficulty, albeit at the expense of preserving the full glory of the paintings.

I recommend Shuna no tabi primarily for fans of Miyazaki’s films who want to explore his earlier work. Shuna no tabi has not been translated into English, but it is written at a middle school level of language and should be accessible to readers with a high intermediate proficiency in Japanese. I would evaluate the Japanese at an N2 level, more so for the vocabulary than for the grammar. There isn’t a lot of violence in Shuna no tabi, but its depictions of slavery and starvation may be uncomfortable for some readers.

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L.M. Zoller is a former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. Ze wrote zir senior thesis on moral development theory in Miyazaki’s films and has probably seen Princess Mononoke 100 times (no joke). L.M. blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

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