Colorful

Japanese Title: カラフル (Karafuru)
Author: Eto Mori (森絵都)
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
Publication Year: 1998 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 224

A fourteen-year-old boy named Makoto Kobayashi has committed suicide, so a nameless and formless soul is granted a second chance at life by doing a “homestay” in his body. While inhabiting Makoto’s body, the soul must also occupy his life while guided by an angel named Prapura.

As if being in middle school weren’t difficult enough, the soul soon realizes that Makoto’s life is a mess. His family initially appears to be warm and loving, but it soon becomes apparent that nothing is as simple as it seems. To begin with, Makoto’s phone is completely free of contacts, which Prapura gleefully explains is because Makoto doesn’t have friends. The only girl who’s ever been nice to him visits love hotels with an older man, which Makoto knows because he saw her – at the same time he saw his mother leaving with her dance instructor.   

Although the soul now occupying Makoto’s body is given a year to figure out its past crime, there’s very little sense of narrative urgency involved in solving this mystery. Instead, the forward momentum of the story comes from “Makoto” gradually realizing that life isn’t so black and white, and that every person has different colors. As he explains it…

The idea of the Kobayashi family I’d had in my head gradually began to change color. It wasn’t some simple change, like things that I thought were black were actually white. It was more like when I looked closely, things I thought were a single, uniform color were really made up of a bunch of different colors. That’s maybe the best way to describe it. (149)

Although Colorful is YA fiction, some of the “colors” of its characters may require an unusual degree of empathy for many American readers, but I would argue that it’s precisely this exercise of empathy that makes the experience of reading the novel so powerful and moving.

To give an example, Hiroka, the fourteen-year-old girl who is “dating” an adult man for money, is represented as being in control of her body and decisions. When Makoto attempts to rescue her from the doorway of a love hotel, she initially goes along with him, but it doesn’t take long for her to make it clear that she doesn’t appreciate his heroic gesture. She actually enjoys having sex with a considerate and experienced older partner, she says, and she appreciates the money he gives her. When Makoto asks if she can’t just wait until she’s older, Hiroka doesn’t hesitate to explain her reasoning, telling him that she wants to be able to buy nice things while she’s still the appropriate age to appreciate them. She wants to enjoy her body, and she wants to enjoy her life, and she doesn’t want to date Makoto, whom she considers to be a friend.

Later in the story, Hiroka admits to occasionally feeling depressed, confessing to Makoto that she’ll want to have sex on six days of the week but then want to join a convent on the seventh. By this point, Makoto has matured enough to accept Hiroka’s decisions. He assures her that it’s normal to feel confused sometimes, and that there’s nothing wrong with her. This conversation does not lead to romance, but rather to Makoto’s self-awareness that he has grown enough as a person to accept Hiroka on her own terms.

This is what is expected of the reader as well – a willingness to accept the characters not as stereotypes or idealizations, but as they actually exist. Colorful does not place any value judgments on Hiroka’s personality, desires, or decisions. She does not decide to stop having sex with her older partner, nor does she realize that the things she spends the money on are childish and shallow. She is not diagnosed with any sort of mental illness or personality disorder, and she does not decide to “get help.”

It’s extraordinarily refreshing to see teenage female sexuality discussed with honesty and sensitivity without being punished. Hiroka is not a slut or a victim, but rather a normal young woman who enjoys having sex with people who enjoy having sex with her. She’s not 100% emotionally mature, and she doesn’t entirely understand who she wants to be or what she’s doing with her life, but that’s okay. The point of Colorful is that human beings are complicated.

Makoto’s father is another example of a relatable character whose story requires empathy to appreciate. When Makoto tells him that, as an aspiring artist, he prefers to draw landscapes because he dislikes people, his father confesses that he dislikes people too. Although he’s a talented designer, he was bullied at the company where he works. He thought he was highly positioned and highly respected enough to be able to speak up about the CEO’s mismanagement of the company, which was causing real and serious harm. This backfired, and he was ostracized for two years by his former friends and colleagues even though they knew he was right. He explains to Makoto that, although he was promoted when the CEO was eventually forced to step down after a public scandal, he will never get back those two years of his life, nor will he be able to return to his former easy friendships with his colleagues.   

This is a difficult lesson – that “doing the right thing” is not always going to be appreciated. Many times, in fact, speaking out against something that is clearly wrong will turn you into a social pariah. Even worse, this damage can linger for years, perhaps even for the rest of your life. Doing the right thing can ruin your career, and you might become so focused on damage control that you don’t notice that you’re sacrificing your relationships with the people who are close to you.

In so many stories, young people who do the right thing despite the hardships involved are rewarded for their uncompromising bravery. Meanwhile, the “absent father” figure has to make difficult and complicated decisions and ends up being positioned as the villain. As with Hiroka, being able to hear Makoto’s father’s side of the story is refreshing, not to mention validating to me as an adult reader.

The beauty of Colorful rises from the novel’s ability to take simple stereotypes and explode them into rich and detailed character portraits as Makoto comes to understand and empathize with people who aren’t perfect but are doing their best to live their lives with dignity. Along with Hiroka, Makoto is able to forge friendships with two other classmates; and, along with his father, he’s also able to better understand his mother and brother. The fantasy bits about souls and angels and resurrection are little more than props for an extremely character-driven story that doesn’t feel like a fantasy at all.

Colorful doesn’t go out of its way to be gritty or nasty or unpleasant. It’s honest and sincere, and it handles serious topics with gentle nuance and an occasional touch of humor. As the author describes her intentions in the Afterword,  

I chose to write about a serious subject with a comical touch. I chose to depict it lightly. I wanted kids who liked reading and those who didn’t have fun with it to start. I wanted them to laugh and roll their eyes and relate to everything the characters did. I wanted them to enter the world of the book and be free of their everyday lives. And then, when they closed the book at the end, I wanted the weight on their hearts to be just a little lighter. (210)

I believe that Mori succeeded marvelously, and I could not write a better summary of her novel.

I should also mention that Colorful received a high-profile anime adaptation in 2010 that was later released in North America in 2013 by Sentai Filmworks. The movie makes a number of interesting choices regarding plot and characterization that help keep the story moving forward at a brisk pace. It also includes a charming interlude into Japanese train fandom as a means of showing Makoto’s growing friendship with one of his classmates. Although it might be difficult to find a copy of the officially licensed DVD version, it’s definitely worth the effort to seek out a way to watch the movie. Colorful is on par with slice-of-life Studio Ghibli movies like Whisper of the Heart and From Up on Poppy Hill, and its art, animation, and voice actor performances are all lovely.

Jocelyne Allen’s translation of the original novel is equally fun and lively, with an especially good ear for the dialog of the teenage characters. Over the years, many of my international students have told me that Colorful meant a lot to them as they were growing up, and that it sparked their interest in Japanese fiction. I’m delighted that Colorful is finally available in translation, and it’s my hope that this heartfelt coming-of-age story inspires readers with a sense of joy and appreciation for the rich and vibrant colors of the world.

I want to extend my gratitude to Counterpoint Press for sending me an advance review copy. Colorful will be released in paperback on July 20, 2021. You can learn more about the book on their website (here), and you can find a set of pre-order links on the book’s page at Penguin Random House (here).

Lost Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…architectural and artistic beauty…

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

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

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

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

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

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

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

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

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

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

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

…even though they know better:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twinkle Twinkle

twinkle-twinkle

Title: Twinkle Twinkle
Japanese Title: きらきらひかる
Author: Ekuni Kaori (江国香織)
Translator: Emi Shimokawa
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Pages: 171

About thirty pages into Twinkle Twinkle, I thought to myself, “Are all contemporary Japanese books written by women this depressing?” It’s an interesting literary trend. In America, writers like Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, 2005) and Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, 2004) craft literary paeans to female sisterhood, hope, and endurance, while contemporary Japanese female authors seem to be losing the struggle to gaman, or to deal with the hardships presented to them by Japanese society until they are able to claim some immaterial reward in the far-off future. In short, the new breed of Japanese women writers seems to be cracking under the strain of contemporary Japanese society, which has been slow to acknowledge new gender roles, even as the economic structures that have supported these gender roles have crumbled. Ekuni Kaori’s novel Twinkle Twinkle perspicuously demonstrates the effects of this societal paradox.

Twinkle Twinkle follows the fortunes of the newlywed couple Shoko and Mutsuki. Mutsuki is gay and quite in love with his boyfriend. Shoko is highly emotionally unstable and is quite open about the fact that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with anyone. Although the pair lives together, and although they are quite affectionate towards one another, their marriage is nothing more than a legal convenience. In fact, the only reason they agreed to marry in the first place was to escape from the pressure imposed upon them by their parents. Through the first months of their married life, Shoko and Mutsuki make friends and lose friends, battle their respective families, and learn how to live with one another in the strange situation they’ve created.

Because Shoko and Mutsuki take turns narrating the chapters, the reader is able to gain a very interesting perspective into their relationship and their individual personalities. I found myself becoming frustrated with the characters and sympathizing with them in turn. Mutsuki is kind, but passive and somewhat clueless. Shoko displays the classic symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which occasionally devolves into depression and alcoholism, but she is honest, true to her herself, and genuinely means well in her interactions with others. Both of the two main characters, as well as the cast of supporting characters, are expertly realized, and I felt that I came to know them quite well over the course of the novel, as if perhaps they were friends of mine in real life.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, the characters occasionally have fun and enjoy each other’s company, but the challenges they face are quite real, extremely frustrating, and never entirely resolved. Although the novel has something of a happy ending, I found myself fearing for the fate Shoko and Mutsuki several years down the road. Also, I found it hard to accept Shoko’s extreme behavior at times, and the all too accurate portray of her emotional instability was difficult to deal with. The hardheadedness of her traditional Japanese parents was even worse.

Overall, though, I think Twinkle Twinkle provides a welcome antidote to the bubblegum fluff of shōjo manga, “light novels,” and the works of novelists like Yoshimoto Banana. Don’t let the bright cover of this book fool you – Ekuni’s novel contains more insight into the dark side of contemporary Japanese society than you may find comfortable.