Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko

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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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Manga through the Eyes of an Architect

Manga through the Eyes of an Architect

Title: Manga through the Eyes of an Architect: The Economics of Yotsuba&!, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Evangelion, and Persona 4
Japanese Title: 建築家が見たマンガの世界:よつばと!、ジョジョの奇妙な冒険、ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版、ペルソナ4の経済編 (Kenchikuka ga mita manga no sekai: Yotsubato, Jojo no kimyō na bōken, Evangerion shingekijōban, Perusona 4 no keizaihen)
Author: Sakurada Ikka (櫻田 一家)
Publisher: Gloria Earth Technology
Publication Year: 2015
Pages: 199

In his preface, architect Sakurada Ikka explains that the idea for this book came about through a conversation with a group of friends at a bar. A young editor, referring to the adage that “a good novel will make its protagonist’s economic circumstances clear,” wondered if the same could be said for manga. Sakurada, knowing full well that someone’s home reflects their socioeconomic status, posited that any story with solid worldbuilding would give the reader a clear picture of the living space of its characters. Once he set about investigating this issue, however, he realized that there were a great many gaps lurking in the shadows of even the most solidly constructed manga (and anime, and video games). Manga through the Eyes of an Architect thus functions as a set of close readings that attempt to fill in these gaps.

Sakurada opens his book with a precise examination of Yotsuba&! in an attempt to hammer out the details of its setting. For instance, when does it begin? (Probably July 18.) Where in Japan is Ajisai City, the fictional town where Yotsuba and her adoptive father Koiwai Yōsuke live? (Probably in Chiba Prefecture in the general vicinity of Narita airport.) What direction does Yotsuba’s house face? (Probably south.)

Sakurada uses evidence not only from passages in the manga but also from his own real-world research and observation. For example, in trying to figure out where Koiwai’s parents live, Sakurada argues that, since Koiwai borrowed a light cargo truck (a 2001 Mazda 660KU series, to be exact) from his friend Jumbo to move from his parents’ house to Ajisai City at the beginning of the first volume of the manga, he probably wasn’t traveling for more than a few hours. The “New Pione” label on a package Koiwai’s mom sends him (in Chapter 27 of Volume 5) would seem to indicate Okayama Prefecture, but that’s too far away, so it’s probably coming from nearby Yamanashi Prefecture, a somewhat lesser-known source of the brand’s grapes.

When I wrote “a precise examination” earlier, that’s the level of precision I mean. Sakurada does walkthroughs of his reasoning like Sherlock Holmes, and it’s fascinating to read through his evidence and conjectures.

The next section of the book investigates the floorplan of Kishibe Rohan’s house from Part 4 (the “Diamond Is Unbreakable” arc) of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Despite Araki Hirohiko’s comment that his manga isn’t popular in America because Americans have no sense of style, all of the homes of the major characters exhibit classically American architecture. Sakurada teases out the layout of Rohan’s house room by room while discussing the history of the architecture and the furniture. As an American, I enjoyed seeing things I take for granted, such as Queen Anne houses and Mansard roofs, being treated as fascinating – and expensive! – foreign oddities. Sakurada tries to puzzle out how successful Rohan is as a manga artist by referring to the information presented in the manga Bakuman (about two manga industry hopefuls). For example, how many manga would Rohan need to sell in order to afford his Porsche 928 GTS? How do Rohan’s sales compare to the sales of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure? Was this sort of wealth achievable for a manga artist in the late 1990s?

Sakurada continues with an analysis of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies (released in 2007, 2009, and 2012). In order to figure out how much Ikari Shinji’s guardian Katsuragi Misato is paying for her apartment, he argues that we must first understand how the catastrophic “Second Impact” event affected the earth. Since the viewer is told this disaster melted the polar ice caps, Sakurada employs math and maps to demonstrate what parts of Japan would have been submerged. He also speculates on how various Japanese industries would suffer from the resulting climate change, as well as how this would affect local economies and regional infrastructures within Japan.

Sakurada’s main concern in this section, however, is Misato’s annual salary. Her apartment accommodates herself, her pet penguin, two teenagers who get their own bedrooms (Shinji and Asuka), plus tons of extra space for her garbage, including a nice kitchen and living room. Given the state of Japan’s postapocalyptic economy, Misato must be doing well for herself in order to afford such a large place. (I guess NERV has to pay people the big bucks to put up with Shinji’s asshole father.) In addition, Sakurada gives a detailed analysis of each character’s room, providing an interesting set of insights. For instance, Shinji’s haplessness is emphasized by the fact that the room he’s given in Misato’s huge apartment is tiny and has no windows. Sakurada concludes with an estimate of Shinji’s dad’s salary, arguing that the women in Shinji’s life should really consider being nicer to him.

The final section of the book, which is by far its shortest, is about “The Mysteries of the Dōjima House.” The Dōjima house is the residence of the protagonist of the 2008 PlayStation 2 game Persona 4. Although a wealth of material related to the game and its 2011-2012 animated adaptation (not to mention several spin-off titles) has been released, Sakurada has been able to find numerous inconsistencies in the official floorplans of the quaint Shōwa-era structure that serves as the player’s (or viewer’s) home base. Where is the staircase, exactly? What’s filling all the space that’s unaccounted for on the second floor? Where’s the bathroom?

Although it helps to be familiar with the source texts under discussion, this is not necessary in order for the reader to enjoy his speculation and analysis. No prior knowledge of architecture is required, and Sakurada’s clear explanations and frequent illustrations render his arguments accessible to even a casual reader.

Granted, both the information presented and Sakurada’s readings are highly specific. In fandom terms, what Sakurada is performing would be referred to as “textual meta,” meaning that his analysis is so minute and self-referential that it might not make sense to people outside the fandom. As I wrote above, I don’t think this is true – I know very little about Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure but still enjoyed reading Sakurada’s essays on its architecture and economics.

Still, it brings up an interesting point concerning how manga and other pop culture texts should be discussed in an academic context. Is it absolutely necessary to reference larger social, historical, and intellectual currents, or are we allowed to dig our heels into the text itself in order to make it more meaningful? In my opinion, Manga through the Eyes of an Architect is close reading done right, and I can only hope that more formal English-language discussions of manga in this mode of inquiry appear as the related fields of Comics Studies and Anime and Manga Studies continue establish themselves.

From Five to Nine

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Title: From Five to Nine
Japanese Title: 5時から9時まで (Goji kara kuji made)
Author: Aihara Miki (相原 実貴)
Publication Year: 2010 (ongoing)
Publisher: Shōgakukan
Pages (per volume): 190

From Five to Nine is the current project of Aihara Miki, whose manga Hot Gimmick and Honey Hunt have been published in English translation by Viz Media. Like Aihara’s earlier titles, From Five to Nine is a drama-filled exposé of the love lives of gorgeous young people going about their business in the trendy districts on the southwest side of Tokyo. From Five to Nine is serialized in Monthly Cheese!, an unfortunately named magazine that serves as a bridge between a shōjo readership of tweens captivated by stories of pure love and a josei readership of young women interested in the more physical aspects of romantic relationships. In accordance with the magazine’s house style, all of the characters in the manga are well dressed and ridiculously attractive, emotional and sexual tensions always run high, and chapters end on cliffhangers more often than not. In other words, From Five to Nine is highly entertaining, addictive reading. It’s designed to be.

What I think is interesting about this manga is the way it explores the conflicts between different gender roles and expectations of femininity through the love affairs of its main protagonist.

Sakuraba Junko, the leading lady, teaches during the evenings at an English language conversation school (Eikaiwa gakkō). Because of her friendly professionalism and almost native fluency, she’s considered to be one of the top instructors at her workplace, and her dream is to save up enough money to study abroad in America. Since Junko has passed through her early twenties without having settled down with a man, her grandmother has started to set her up on dates with potential marriage partners through a somewhat formalized process known as miai. To appease her grandmother, Junko spends her twenty-seventh birthday out on a miai date with a Buddhist monk named Hoshikawa Takane, who graduated from Tokyo University with a major in Indian philosophy. Junko is put off by what she sees as Hoshikawa’s snobbishness; but, thinking that their date is a one-time thing and that she’ll never see him again, Junko ends up sleeping with him on a lark. For Hoshikawa, however, that one night is the beginning of TRUE LOVE FOREVER.

Because this is a manga by Aihara Miki, Junko is fated to be the unfortunate object of nonconsensual manly persuasion concerning a relationship that she doesn’t particularly care for. Immediately after Junko gets back from her one night stand with Hoshikawa, she realizes that the deadline to move out of her apartment, whose building is slated for renewal, is fast approaching. When she goes to her grandmother for help, her grandmother suggests that she take temporary residence (geshuku) in a temple with connections to the family. Unfortunately, this temple is headed by Hoshikawa, who now wants to make Junko his temple wife (tera no yome). Being a temple wife is a full-time job, and a marriage to Hoshikawa would require Junko to give up her position at the English conversation school where she currently works, as well as her dream to study abroad. Essentially, if she were to marry Hoshikawa, Junko would have to give up the pleasures of her existence as an independent urbanite and spend her days cooking, cleaning, dressing herself in traditional clothing, setting out flower arrangements, and entertaining guests. Needless to say, she wants none of this. Hoshikawa won’t give up on her so easily, however, and he takes to stalking her, abducting her, and harassing her at both at home and at her workplace. One particularly unpleasant stunt Hoshikawa pulls is to lock Junko up in a small guesthouse separated from the main temple compound by an ornamental garden. In order to escape, Junko agrees to marry Hoshikawa; and, to keep him fooled regarding her true intentions, she makes a show of waking up early to devote herself to cleaning, all the while scheming of ways to get away from the temple.

Meanwhile, her college friend Mishima Satoshi, who has been assigned to his company’s branch office in America, shows up at Junko’s school in order to brush up on his English. Mishima has feelings for Junko and harbors a secret desire to take her to America with him; but, as Junko becomes more aware of Mishima’s intentions and her own reciprocal feelings for him, she surprises herself by becoming conflicted over leaving Hoshikawa and the life he’s offering her. Junko has also attracted the interest of one of her younger pupils, a wealthy student at an elite high school who cross dresses so effectively that only a small handful of his friends know that he’s actually male. This student, Satonaka Yuki, dislikes both Hoshikawa and Mishima and wants Junko to be able to stand on her own two feet outside of relationships with creepy stalker monks and alcoholic playboy salarymen.

This is high melodrama, of course, but what is interesting about Junko’s love life is how aptly it represents the push and pull between traditional and contemporary women’s roles. Should Junko give into social and sexual pressure and relinquish her independence and her dreams, or should she take advantage of a potential romantic partner’s kindness in order to break free of the constraints of living in Japan? Is it possible for her to somehow fend for herself without a social and economic safety net? Because of the romantic drama, the reader is able to experience the emotional attraction and anxiety of all of these possibilities. For example, when Hoshikawa does something ridiculous in order to (sometimes literally) lock Junko into a traditional gender role, the denial of agency that Junko suffers is viscerally upsetting to the reader. As it gradually becomes clear that Hoshikawa genuinely cares for Junko, however, it also becomes clear that Junko’s spirited resistance might be able change the way he sees the responsibilities and aspirations of the women of his generation. In this way, Hoshikawa serves as a representative of a society that is still primarily dominated by phallocentric interests. He’s scary, and his behavior is obviously psychologically unhealthy, but he can be persuaded to change by a woman smart enough and tough enough to take him on, even if she’s coming from a position of relative disadvantage. The sort of “he can change” mentality Junko comes to embrace is presented as being just as dangerous in the fictional world of the manga as it is in real life, but the alternative – “he will never change” – would be a bleak prognosis on the sort of patriarchal mentality Hoshikawa represents. The possibility that Hoshikawa can change himself as he learns that women are people too (gasp!) is an element of social optimism that serves as an emollient to the seemingly misogynistic sexual drama of the manga.

Two other female employees at Junko’s workplace, Yamabuchi Momoe and Mōri Masako, act as counterpoints to Junko’s situation by providing different attitudes towards employment, love, and marriage.

Along with Junko, Momoe is one of the most professional and sought after instructors at the conversation school, but she has a reputation for being standoffish and emotionally chilly. Although she’s all business in the office, she secretly loves yaoi manga. When Arthur Lange, a blond-haired foreign instructor from Britain, discovers Momoe’s hidden interests, he uses the threat of revealing her identity as a fujoshi to her boss to blackmail her into a relationship. Although Momoe enjoys fantasies of attractive, foreign-looking men being sexually aggressive and emotionally manipulative, the enactment of her fantasy is much more unpleasant in real life than it is in the pages of yaoi manga. Momoe is older than Arthur, but she has never had any romantic experience, and she constantly second-guesses her reactions to his teasing and bullying. She therefore often finds herself in the position of wondering how a woman her age should behave towards men, even though she wants nothing to do with them.

Masako, a receptionist at the English conversation school where Junko and Momoe teach, is a recent college graduate who, more than anything, wants to settle down with a boyfriend and become a housewife. Her coworkers tease her by calling her “Zexy,” a nickname taken from the title of a wedding and bridal magazine. Since Masako is attractive and intelligent, her standards for a partner are high, and she can’t find anyone her own age who meets them. Unfortunately, having cultivated an attitude of flirtatious approachability, she finds herself the constant target of unwanted male attention, especially in the form of sexual harassment from middle-aged men.

Junko’s English conversation school is thus a microcosm of Japanese society staffed by different women with different expectations, goals, and challenges concerning their futures. Although the manga focuses on its three main female characters, the male characters are also allowed enough interiority for the reader to see them working, talking to each other, and thinking about their own dreams and romantic problems. All of these characters work at cross purposes because of the artificial drama created by the manga artist, but their attitudes and emotional conflicts ring true to real social expectations and gender roles.

From Five to Nine is a fascinating exploration of contemporary Japan with enough intersecting plot lines, character development, and thematic subtlety to keep even the most demanding readers engaged. The obi bands around the manga covers tout the series as “a Tokyo version of Sex and the City,” and that should be recommendation enough for anyone seeking a fast-paced, hormone-fueled examination of gender roles in the twenty-first century.

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Danchi junrei

Title: Danchi junrei (団地巡礼)
Author and Photographer: Ishimoto Kaoru (石本 馨)
Publication Year: 2008
Publisher: Futami Shobō
Pages: 176

I learned about this book while doing research on the manga Hot Gimmick, which is about teenage romance and social hierarchies in company-owned danchi housing. If a certain living arrangement exerts such a strong influence on people’s lives that it can determine patterns of everyday interaction, I wanted to know more about what these danchi actually look like.

Danchi are apartment complexes. Unlike the stand-alone manshion apartment buildings found everywhere in the urban centers of Japan, danchi are sprawling arrangements of buildings situated in more peripheral locations such as suburbs and commuter towns. As seen from the windows of passing trains, danchi are almost monstrous, and I’ve always counted myself lucky to not have to live in one. After reading Danchi junrei, though, I’m now jealous of the people who have had the experience of living in a danchi.

In Danchi junrei, or “danchi pilgrimage,” professional photographer Ishimoto Kaoru takes the reader along on his journeys into danchi complexes of various sizes and layouts. His pictures don’t beautify the buildings, but he does give the reader a sense of the charm and livability of the danchi he visits. Although the buildings themselves, which were constructed in the housing boom of another era (usually the late fifties), are often dilapidated, the backyards and balconies and inner courtyards and playgrounds of these danchi are filled with children, pets, greenery, and the evidence of the daily lives of the people who live in the complex, from hanging laundry to bicycles to discarded toys to graffiti.

Of course, this is when there are people living in the danchi at all. Over the course of his pilgrimage, Ishimoto also visits complexes that are nearly abandoned, fully abandoned, or already demolished at the time of printing. Some of these danchi have historical significance, such as a structure in Daikanyama built in 1927 that was one of the first modern apartment complexes in Japan. Some of them, such as the “ghost danchi” in Meguro, are associated with urban legends and famous among people into haikyo, or the exploration of abandoned buildings. Although these derelict danchi are covered with rust and mold, they’re surprisingly well preserved, and one might think that people could still be living there were it not for the rampant, jungle-like plant growth that has filled the open spaces and started to encroach into the buildings themselves.

Ishimoto’s photographs are enhanced by his text. Each photograph is accompanied by an unobtrusive one-line description, and each set of photographs is introduced by a short paragraph of flavor text. What I really enjoyed reading, however, were the one-page descriptions of each danchi, which would usually include the history and occupancy status of the complex as well as any rumors that Ishimoto had picked up from fellow danchi enthusiasts or just people living in the neighborhood of the danchi in question. Ishimoto also describes his own experiences of walking around each danchi, which tend to be particularly interesting when the complex has been abandoned.

Ishimoto is an engaging writer, and the undoctored feel of his photography gives the reader a sense of proximity that wouldn’t be possible with more polished-looking set pieces. Danchi junrei is urban exploration at its finest, and I surprised myself by enjoying the book so much. I highly recommend it to people interested in Japanese cities and architecture. I might also recommend it to people interested in Japanese aesthetics, because you can’t get any more wabi-sabi than a deserted apartment complex slowly going to seed on the borders of Tokyo.

I should mention that Ishimoto ventures out of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area as well. Here are two examples from the end of the book…

Hatarake Kentauros

Title: はたらけ、ケンタウロス!(Hatarake, kentaurosu!)
Artist: est em (えすとえむ)
Year Published: 2011
Publisher: Libre Shuppan
Pages: 160

Hatarake Kentauros is a one-shot manga by the BL author est em that contains eight stories and a kaki-oroshi (a short afterward section created especially for the tankōbon publication). The subjects of these stories are centaurs trying to make a living in contemporary Japan. The first four stories are about a salaryman centaur named Kentarō, the challenges he faces at work and while commuting, and his relationship with his human co-worker. The fifth story is about a centaur who wants to apprentice at a soba shop but can’t fit into the kitchen and is assigned delivery work instead. The sixth story is about a centaur craftsman who makes shoes even though he can never wear them, and the seventh story is about a centaur model who becomes depressed because his lower half is always replaced with human legs in Photoshop. The eighth story is about a young centaur graduate who is nervous about moving to Tokyo and beginning work at his first job.

The world created by est em in Hatarake Kentauros is largely homosocial; and, although nothing is ever expressly stated, the reader is encouraged to think of the male protagonists of the stories as gay. The salaryman Kentarō misses a day of work due to a cold and is visited by his male coworker, who prepares noodles while making observations on Kentarō’s kitchen, which was built to accommodate a centaur. The apprentice soba chef ends up bonding with an attractive apprentice ramen chef, and the two decide to open a portable street stall together. The centaur shoemaker rescues the son of his employer from an arranged marriage, and the two grow old together while operating their own business in a different city. The bonds between these male characters are gentle and subtle but no less powerful for not including overtly romantic or sexual elements.

What I like about the stories in Hatarake Kentauros is that they avoid a facile allegorical application of social justice by disallowing a one-on-one correspondence between “centaur” and “gay.” Although they’re just as “human” as anyone else, the centaurs created by est em are most definitely “other.” They’re too large to fit into crowded elevators. There are special lanes for them on the streets because they can’t ride in cars. They need to eat large quantities of food, and they have separate toilets. Centaurs aren’t just different from humans in terms of the shapes and sizes of their bodies; they also live for hundreds of years and take almost fifty years to mature into adults. It is therefore difficult to map categories of real-world otherness, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, onto est em’s centaurs. The reader is thus able to understand the characters in Hatarake Kentauros not just as platonic symbols but also as individuals.

At its core, Hatarake Kentauros is about the stories of individuals. It’s not about social justice or about men in love with other men. est em’s Equus (released at the same time as Hatarake Kentauros), on the other hand, is much more raw. In my opinion, it’s also more artistic. Some of the book’s stories have almost no dialog, and the impressionistic yet forceful lines with which the centaurs of Equus are drawn emphasize their muscularity and masculinity. These centaurs are sexy – especially when they’re having sex with each other. The stories of Equus do not limit themselves to contemporary Japan but look back to other times and places in which centaurs lived freely in the wilderness apart from human habitation or were inherited from father to son like slaves. Equus makes a clear connection between otherness, sexiness, sexualization, and discrimination, and it’s not afraid to hit the reader where it hurts.

I could write much more about Equus and Hatarake Kentauros, but, to make a long story short, these two manga are brilliant, genius-level works. If you can read Japanese – and even if you can’t read Japanese – it’s absolutely worth the ridiculous shipping rates of Amazon.co.jp to import these two books from Japan.

ETA: Hatarake Kentauros will also be available via JManga starting on Thursday, April 19.

Nemuri

Title: ねむり (Nemuri)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Illustrations: Kat Menschik
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Shinchōsha
Pages: 95

Every once in awhile, someone will ask me for advice on how to start reading literature in Japanese.

…Okay, I’m just kidding. No one has ever asked me that.

But I wish someone would, because then I could tell them about how Murakami Haruki is one of the easiest Japanese writers to read in the original Japanese language. His critics have said of him that reading his writing is like reading American English translated into Japanese. I think that’s supposed to be a bad thing; but, if you’re a reader of American English without a lot of experience reading Japanese, that sort of “translated” style is a godsend. Murakami’s sentences are relatively short and don’t have an unmanageable number of clauses, his paragraphs begin and end in reasonable places, the reader can easily differentiate between subject and object, his usage of idiom is generally familiar to someone who speaks English, and – best of all – he doesn’t use all sorts of crazy, high-level kanji.

This is not to say that Murakami’s style or stories are childish and simplistic. Rather, Murakami has a unique style, and that style is very accessible to people used to reading American English. Murakami’s system of allusive references should also be familiar to anyone who has grown up outside of Japan and has a passing familiarity with cultural figures from John Lennon to John Irving. I don’t mean to suggest that Murakami’s writing is some sort of hodgepodge amalgamation of Western culture, though, as his imagery and analogies and narrative structures are definitely his own.

Another nice thing about Murakami Haruki is that he has written a ton of short stories. These short stories have been collected into small, inexpensive books like Barn Burning and The Second Bakery Attack, but single stories are occasionally published individually in larger hardcover editions. “Nemuri” (translated as “Sleep” in The Elephant Vanishes) is one of those stories. It was originally published in 1989 in the collection TV People; but, when the German publisher DuMont issued an edition of the story with illustrations by Kat Menschik, Murakami edited and updated the story so that a similar art book quality edition could be published in Japan. Such an edition was published, obviously, and it’s gorgeous.

The story itself is interesting as well. The female first-person narrator once experienced a bout of insomnia in college, but she got over it and went on to marry a dentist and become a housewife. After having a kid and living with her family for several years, the protagonist’s life has fallen into a pattern of comfortable routine. One night, however, she experiences a terrifying case of sleep paralysis and wakes up to find that she is no longer has any physical urge to sleep. She tries to go back to bed, but she is simply not tired. She therefore pours herself a glass of brandy and begins reading Anna Karenina. The next night, she’s still not tired, so she continues not to sleep while staying up all night reading. Two nights turn into two weeks, and the narrator’s thoughts range from her daily life to the value of literature to how sleep works to the nature of life itself. Eventually, her musings on life turn into musings on death, and the narrative tension mounts until the story reaches and strange and disturbing conclusion.

Despite its unaffected language and seemingly flat surface, Nemuri possesses a very literary flavor and rewards slow and careful reading. Kat Menschik’s surreal and striking illustrations, which are loosely based on the text, offer another layer of possible meaning and interpretation. If you’re looking for a good place to start reading Japanese literature, then, I would venture that Nemuri is as good of a place to start as any. The Japanese characters are clear and sharp and large enough to read easily, the textual layout isn’t too dense on the page, and there are enough chapter breaks and illustrations so that even the slowest reader will feel as if she is making good progress through the book. The meta-textual elements implicit in the discussions of Anna Karenina are oddly motivating for the reader as a reader, and the story itself is fantastic and compelling. The whole package is just about perfect. Even if you’ve already read the story in TV People, it’s still worth picking up a copy of Nemuri if you see it on your next trip to a Japanese bookstore.

Keritai Senaka

Keritai Senaka by Wataya Risa

Title: 蹴りたい背中
English Title: “The Back I’d Like To Kick”
Author: 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa)
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 140

Wataya Risa made waves in 2001 when she became the youngest writer to win the Bungei Prize (文藝賞), a prestigious award managed by the literary magazine Bungei. She won the award for her debut novel Install (インストール), written while she was a senior in high school. After graduating from high school, Wataya entered Waseda University and began work on her second novel, Keritai Senaka. This novel would win her the Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞), the single most prestigious literary award in Japan. At the age of nineteen, Wataya became the youngest author ever to receive this award.

So, what’s all the fuss about? In a market dominated by pop fad writers like Yoshimoto Banana and Yamada Amy, it’s easy to be skeptical. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, when I say that Wataya is the real deal. Her prose reflects the background and personality of her high school aged narrator while still managing to maintain a definite literary tone. Her descriptions of people and places are vivid and artistic, and her introspective examination of memory and interpersonal dynamics are sure to resonate with anyone who’s old and yet young enough to be able to look back on high school with both bitterness and nostalgia.

The novel’s plot centers around the lone wolf narrator Hachi, her changing relationship with her best friend Kinuyo, and her developing relationship with a strange boy named Ninagawa. Hachi and Kinuyo have just graduated from middle school, and Hachi is disappointed that Kinuyo has become popular with a new group of friends in high school. Left to her own devices, Hachi is drawn to Ninagawa, a fellow outcast who steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with other people. When Hachi mentions that she’s met the fashion model with whom Ninagawa is obsessed, he latches on to her, and she finds herself introduced to his strange otaku fantasy world, which ultimately provides a means for her to re-affirm her relationship with Kinuyo.

Although it’s debatable whose back Hachi wants to kick, the back that she does kick (twice) belongs to Ninagawa. Don’t let yourself think for one second, however, that this book is about a high school romance between the two. The somewhat twisted relationship between the them is exquisitely complicated and yet imminently understandable, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. One of the main appeals of this novel, in fact, is the challenge of decoding Hachi’s feelings towards Ninagawa. Perhaps the other main appeal is trying to understand one’s own feelings, as the reader, concerning Hachi (and, by extension, oneself at her age).

Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be translated. For those of you studying Japanese, however, you will be pleased to find that Wataya’s prose is very accessible. The book can easily be finished in three or four sittings. If you’ve been looking for a book to serve as a gateway into Japanese literature, please allow me to recommend Keritai Senaka.