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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Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna)

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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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Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko

are-you-an-echo-book-cover

Title: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Poems: Kaneko Misuzu (金子 みすゞ)
Illustrations: Hajiri Toshikado (羽尻 利門)
Text and Translation: David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 64

This guest review is written by Holly Thompson (@hatbooks on Twitter).

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, published by Seattle-based Chin Music Press, is an unusual picture book — bold and broad in concept and scope. This is a multifaceted book, containing a history of the rediscovery of the writings of Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930), a biography of Kaneko’s short life, current context for her work, and a selection of 25 of her poems.

With a foreword by Setsuo Yazaki, the Japanese children’s author and poet whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of her writings in 1982 and subsequent publication of all 512 of her poems in six volumes plus his own complete biography of Misuzu Kaneko, the reader is offered context: “Misuzu Kaneko’s poems are part of every child’s curriculum at Japanese elementary schools.” Of the intense fondness readers feel for Kaneko’s poems, Yazaki points out that her words “possess a deep kindness toward all things whether they are alive or inanimate.”

The story opens with a question — “Who was Misuzu Kaneko?” — then chronicles Yazaki’s quest to learn more about this insightful poet. From Yazaki’s encounter of Kaneko’s poem “Big Catch” about a huge sardine catch, which led to his desire to learn more about the poet and his ultimate discovery of her pocket diaries full of her poems, the narrative shifts to Kaneko’s life story and her childhood in the town of Senzaki (now part of Nagato City) in Yamaguchi Prefecture near the western tip of Honshu where her family ran a bookstore. Raised among books, Kaneko began writing poems, and at the age of twenty, after several of her poems were published in Japanese magazines, she became a well-known children’s poet. Kaneko’s poems appear interspersed with the book’s narrative — poems that focus on ordinary local topics, imbued with a sense of awe and curiosity. The poems “Benten Island,” “Wonder,” “Beautiful Town,” “Fish,” “Snow Pile,” and “Flower Shop Man” provide a solid introduction to the deceptively simple poetics of Misuzu Kaneko.

Kaneko’s life unfortunately took a tragically dark turn after her marriage to a man who was, as explained in the story, “a bad, unfaithful husband.” She gave birth to their child who she adored, but she “caught a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” What’s more, he forbade her to write. Kaneko divorced him, but he demanded custody of their daughter. The book does not shy away from the truth that Kaneko, in her illness and despair, made the decision to end her life after writing a letter to her husband imploring that he leave their child in the care of her mother.

This is admittedly dark material, but picture books are not only intended for the youngest readers. Are You An Echo? is a picture book for all ages and is especially well suited to the middle grades. Kaneko’s poems resonate in part because she wrote while suffering and longing. Her poems, so simple at first glance, reach straight to the heart, lift the spirit and stay with you. To write a story about Misuzu Kaneko without broaching her death by suicide would have constituted a huge omission.

Thus, after a spread illustrated in gray tones that includes Kaneko’s poem “Cocoon and Grave” containing a metaphor of a butterfly as an angel, a subsequent warm double-page spread offers hope, depicting Kaneko’s mother and her daughter by the sea remembering Kaneko’s “kind and gentle soul.” The narrative then shifts once again, this time to more recent history — the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, in northern Japan. Kaneko’s poem “Are You An Echo?” was featured in a public service announcement televised after the disaster, and survivors in Tohoku, and people all around Japan struggling to cope after such profound and enormous loss, found comfort and hope in her words.

Following the story is “A Selection of Misuzu’s Poems,” with fifteen illustrated double-spread pages of Kaneko’s poems, impressively presented side by side in both the original Japanese and in English translation. Counting the poems that appear in English within the narrative, as well as the fifteen selected poems presented bilingually, Are You An Echo? offers 25 of Kaneko’s tender poems that reveal her extraordinary heart and boundless empathy. The titles of poems like “Stars and Dandilions,” “Telephone Pole,” “White Hat,” “Waves,” and “Dirt” reveal Kaneko’s unique ability to imbue ordinary items with sensibility and love.

What a feat to contain all of this material — history, biography, poetry collection — in a single picture book, including an informative author’s note by David Jacobson and a Translators’ Note by co-translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Expansive watercolor illustrations by Tokushima-based Toshikado Hajiri capture early 1900s provincial Japan and provide sweetly detailed and poignant accompaniment to the story and various poems.

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko is a beautifully packaged, substantial picture book to treasure — a book to give poetry lovers of all ages, in all corners of the world.

Visit the Chin Music Press website for the book, Misuzu Kaneko, for information, backstory and further resources.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press.

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Holly Thompson (www.hatbooks.com) is a longtime resident of Japan and author of the novel Ash and three verse novels for young people: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, The Language Inside, and Orchards, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. She compiled and edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction — An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and she teaches writing in Japan, the U.S. and places in between.

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Manabeshima: Island Japan

Manabeshima

Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 142 (plus one amazing map)

I love French artist Florent Chavouet‘s 2009 book Tokyo on Foot, which captures the charm and vibrancy of my favorite city. Manabeshima: Island Japan was a tougher sell for me, as I’m not particularly interested in nature or rural communities. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the careful attention Chavouet brings to human habitats – garbage and vending machines and rusting powerlines and all – has carried over from Tokyo to Manabeshima. Regardless of whether he’s drawing the town or the ocean and forests that surround it, Chavouet transforms the mundane into the extraordinary with his gorgeous colored pencil illustrations.

Because he felt that he had only been exposed to a tiny fraction of the Japanese archipelago, Chavouet decided to spend a summer on an island he hadn’t yet seen, and he ended up in Manabeshima, Okayama Prefecture, population 326. According to the artist, the average age of the people living on the island is around 50 years old, and many of them are already well set in their daily routines. Chavouet observes them on their daily progress, taking careful note of their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, as well as the props they use on the stage of their daily lives. His artistic interest is drawn not only to humans, but also to the island’s abundant wildlife, including cicadas, fish, and cats. These cats gradually become characters in their own right as Chavouet documents their small dramas and battles over contested territory.

My favorite part of Manabeshima is how the artist portrays architecture as a living part of the environment and the island society, with each room and table and upended bucket telling its own story. Cars and boats become palimpsests of personal history, and each garden and untended backyard is portrayed its own tiny ecosystem. Chavouet also pays particular obeisance to food, placing each meal in context, whether it’s a community barbeque or freshly prepared sashimi.

I must admit that a certain amount of anxiety underlay my reading of Manabeshima. As with any travel account, part of the pleasure of the experience involves imagining yourself following in the footsteps of the writer. Even if it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, like the hiking the Shikoku pilgrimage route, it’s still fun to pretend that you’re there along with the author, sharing her triumphs and sympathizing with her tribulations. In the case of Chavouet’s account of Manabeshima, this sort of identification was very difficult for me.

Although nothing in the book makes this explicit, Chavouet’s experiences are gendered. Within the first twenty pages, he makes it clear to the reader that he has been, after a fashion, accepted into the community. He is taken in by Ikkyu-san, the owner of a small bar and restaurant who plies him with food and alcohol, asking only that he sit and eat and drink with the regulars. He is invited to two religious ceremonies (a Buddhist ritual presided over by Ikkyu-san and an evening of Shinto kagura dances), where he is expected only to sit and eat and drink. He goes to the neighborhood association meetings, he gets invited to go out crab fishing, and he participates in the island summer festival. He seems like an extremely friendly person, and he mentions exchanging drawings for food and goodwill; but, if anyone ever requests that he do anything except enjoy himself, the reader never hears anything about it.

My own experience with small communities both inside and outside of Japan is that, in order to be included, I am expected to perform labor, such as cooking or laundry or childcare. Since I am an undomesticated animal who is not good at any of this, things always get awkward. If you asked me if I, as a woman, would want to spend two months in a tiny village on a small island, my response would be something along the lines of AW HELL NO. While Chavouet would be eating and drinking, I would more than likely be summoned to the kitchen to help do the dishes. I use the hypothetical example of being asked to help clean up because it’s actually happened to me enough times (especially in Japan) that I would almost be taken aback if it didn’t. In other words, the price of admission is gendered and – let’s be honest – unfairly so.

Again, there’s nothing in the book that suggests that the people on Manabeshima are old-fashioned sexist pigs, but Chavouet is definitely writing from a privileged position, and your ability to identify with this position will more than likely affect your relationship to the world Chavouet creates for you with his words and illustrations. Personally, I found reading Manabeshima to be a bit stressful because I couldn’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop, like, so when are they going to ask him to serve tea? (Spoiler: No one ever does.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am enamored of Chavouet as a kind and compassionate observer who can communicate the wonder and beauty of even the most commonplace objects and settings, and his already enviable skill in drawing and annotating his environment has tangibly improved since Tokyo on Foot. Still, I can’t help but prefer Tokyo on Foot, which pieces together a physical, social, and cultural landscape that even the most casual of readers can easily enter. While Tokyo on Foot collects a multitude of fragments and progressively demonstrates how they are all connected, everything is already a cohesive whole in Manabeshima, which, unlike Tokyo on Foot, has a cast of recurring characters and something resembling a narrative. On the other hand, although it’s harder for a reader to imagine entering this narrative herself, the easy flow of the story renders Manabeshima a more satisfying extended reading experience.

The best part of Tuttle’s lovely softcover edition of Manabeshima is that it comes with a huge map folded into a pocket on the back cover. This map is intensely detailed, showing every house and garden and boat on the island and labeled with references to people, landmarks, and events from the main text. I spent at least an hour with the map alone, catching new details each time I opened it and spread it out over my kitchen table.

If you have kids in your life, and if you’d like to get one of those kids (or their parents) a really cool present, consider handing them a copy of Manabeshima, whose every page celebrates the thrill of exploration and discovery.

A review copy was provided by the good people at Tuttle Publishing.

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Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

Yūrei The Japanese Ghost

Title: Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost
Author: Zack Davisson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 206

Zack Davisson is a major rising star in the world of manga translation, having worked on high-profile and award-winning titles such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan and Oishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi’s Seraphim: 266613336 Wings. He is also a consultant for the ongoing comic series Wayward, for which he writes the closing essays. Fans of yōkai and other Japanese cryptids will know him from his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and he also maintains an active Twitter account, which is a great source of news on the American comics scene. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is Davisson’s first book, and it’s published by no less than Chin Music Press, which regularly releases Japan-related literary objets d’art such as Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan and Otaku Spaces. There’s obviously been a great deal of talent invested in this book, and it shows.

Yūrei are the ghostly cousins of yōkai, and their spectral tendrils stretch deep into Japanese history. Although he occasionally touches on contemporary popular culture, Davisson is mainly concerned with the society and print media of premodern and early modern Japan. Each of the twelve chapters in Yūrei covers one in-depth topic, the discussion of which is usually centered around a specific artistic work.

The first chapter takes as its subject “The Ghost of Oyuki,” the Edo-period painting by Maruyama Ōkyo that appears on Yūrei‘s cover. Davisson investigates the origin of this iconic image, melding history with legend. The second chapter covers kaidanshū, or “collections of weird tales,” while the third delves into the world of kabuki. The fourth and fifth chapters offer maps of the geography of the land of the dead, both imagined and, in the case of certain sacred mountains, real. Chapter 6 conveniently details how not to end up as a ghost, and Chapters 7 and 8 recount the lives and afterlives of people who really could have used this advice. Chapter 9, “The Ghost of Okiku,” is an Edo-period case study in how hauntings occur, and Chapter 10 brings the concept of haunting, or tatari, into the present by way of horror movies and urban legends. The eleventh chapter provides an explanation of the traditions surrounding Obon, the festival of the dead. Finally, the twelfth chapter is an informative analysis of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which was published in 1776 but still stands (or hovers creepily) as one of the finest works of dark fantasy in any language.

Although every chapter is a lot of fun, my favorite section of the book is its Introduction, in which Davisson relates a personal anecdote about how he and his wife lived in a haunted apartment in Osaka for seven months. Part of the appeal of reading ghost stories is imagining that you yourself might one day come into contact with the supernatural, so I can’t imagine a better way to begin a book like this. Davisson transitions into a brief overview of what the term “yūrei” signifies, how it differs from the Western concept of “ghost,” and its pervasiveness in contemporary film and literature. If I were a curious horror fan, or perhaps a teacher looking for a concise and engaging essay to assign as reading for a class on Japanese folklore, Yūrei‘s Introduction would suit my needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, the writing in Yūrei is not always uniformly smooth. In certain sections of the book, there are brief moments of jarring dissonance, as when one paragraph states that the constant warfare of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) generated countless ghost stories because of people needed a way to process their fear, while the next paragraph argues that ghost stories proliferated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in a way that they couldn’t before because people were finally free from fear. These paradoxes are relatively minor; and, in Davisson’s defense, such seeming contradictions need not be regarded as such, as multiple interpretations are equally valid. This is a book about ghosts, after all.

Yūrei is an extremely handsome publication. It opens with eight full-color images depicting yūrei as imagined by artists in the Edo period. There are fifteen additional images interspersed throughout the book, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation. There is also a glossary at the end, which helpfully provides the kanji for each term, as well as a useful five-page list of English-language works referenced.

The book’s most interesting index is its collection of 33 yūrei kaidan (“strange tales”), which are organized by theme, such as “Tales of Ghostly Vengeance” and “Tales of Ghostly Love.” As it’s difficult to find stories from medieval and Edo-period kaidan compilations outside of out-of-print academic publications, these translations are an extremely welcome addition to the project.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this release that I begged for a review copy, and they sent me one just to get me to go away. It was totally worth it.) You can preview the book on Davisson’s blog.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums

The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy provided by The Japan Society of the UK.

Three Directions

Three Directions

Title: Three Directions: teamLab, Tenmyouya Hisashi, Ikeda Manabu
Editor: Kirstin Pires
Publisher: Chazen Museum of Art and Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2014
Pages: 83

Three Directions was published on the occasion of an exhibition of the work of Tenmyouya Hisashi and Ikeda Manabu at the Chazen Museum in Madison and the Garden of Unearthly Delights exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery in New York, which lasts until January 11, 2015.

The “three directions” of the book’s title refer to the artists’ interpretations of early modern and modern Japanese art, specifically the Nihonga “Japanese-style painting” of the Meiji period (1868-1912). In her short essay on the works of the artists featured in Three Directions, curator Laura J. Mueller provides insight into the influences they have received from medieval and Edo-period (1600-1868) Japanese paintings, prints, sculpture, and garden design. Mueller also explains how the themes of the older art, such as the theme of anxiety surrounding the relationship between humankind and the natural world, have been translated into the work of the contemporary artists. In the main body of the book, which is comprised of extended interviews, the artists discuss their own perceptions of their influences, which are far more temporally immediate.

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teamLab, whose work must be seen to be believed (check out the video above), is represented in Three Directions by its founder Inoko Toshiyuki, who talks about the power of participatory media in the twenty-first century. Although he references manga such as Dragon Ball and One Piece and the masume ga (mosaics) of the eighteenth-century painter Itō Jakuchū, his most interesting description of the philosophy behind teamLab’s video installation Life Survives by the Power of Life (Seimei wa seimei no chikara de ikite iru) is that Chinese characters function like summon spells from the Final Fantasy series of role-playing video games. Inoko’s emphasis on a range of interlocking influences is deliberate, as teamLab’s work is designed to illustrate the blurring of the boundaries that supposedly separate contemporary media as they collectively exist both as entertainment and as cognitive enhancements.

Tenmyouya Hisashi expresses a markedly different attitude concerning his relationship to contemporary and premodern artistic media. According to Tenmyouya, his “Neo Nihonga” reflect “the subculture of the ‘street samurai,'” which “represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi sabi, zen, and otaku,” aesthetics that are “far from the reality of contemporary Japan.” Instead, he sees himself as tapping into the energy that originally drove the artistic movements of the Sengoku period (1467-1600), an era of intermittent civil war. Tenmyouya envisions his work as being representative of an aesthetic he terms BASARA – the Sanskrit word for “diamond,” which seems to mean “rebellious” in the context of his art and ideology. As one of his primary influences, he cites the yakuza films of Kitano Takashi, especially the violence, chaos, and dynamism they portray.

Ikeda Manabu is less concerned with aesthetics than he is with process. Stating simply that the most dominant theme in his work is “the conflict and coexistence between man and nature,” Ikeda speaks of being influenced by news reports and the ephemera he encounters in his daily life. The rest is a matter of design, focus, and patience, with the result being that many of his ink paintings function almost like diaries.

Ikeda is currently in residence at the Chazen Museum – you can read his residency blog here – where he is putting together a large and richly detailed masterwork. Three Directions includes an eight-page section on Ikeda’s tools, methods, and progress, which are fascinating even from the perspective of a non-artist.

These interviews with the artists, combined with Laura Mueller’s short contextual essay and the many high-quality images on display, make Three Directions an incredible resource for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese art, aesthetics, and culture. A commonality between the artists is the 3.11 “triple disaster,” which each references and responds to either obliquely or quite directly, so the interviews in particular will be of interest to students and scholars curious about how recent events have impacted mainstream art in Japan. I can also imagine the catalog becoming a useful classroom text, as it’s full of discussion points and allusions to both Eastern and Western art history.

Unfortunately, the book is almost impossible to acquire without either physically visiting the Chazen Museum or Japan Society Gallery or writing to one of their curators, as it’s not available through the online shops of either institution or through other online retailers. If you’re on the East Coast and can make it out to the Japan Society, I highly recommend checking out both the Three Directions catalog and the exhibition itself, which is running until January 11, 2015.

Review copy provided the Japan Society Gallery.

Ikeda Manabu, Meltdown

Ikeda Manabu’s Meltdown, image courtesy of Spoon & Tamago.