Getting Wet

Title: Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath
Author: Eric Talmadge
Publication Year: 2006
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 255

For the past two weeks, the internet has been deluged with people talking about how Tokyopop is going out of business. Somehow, in all the confusion, it seems that it’s slipped everyone’s mind that Kodansha International is closing its doors as well. At least, it’s ceasing all operations at the end of April. Which was yesterday, I realized a few hours ago – to my considerable dismay.

In my startled panic, I thought about writing a brief retrospective highlighting the excellent work the publisher has done with regards to promoting Japanese literature in America. I thought about how the company has put out the early novels of Murakami Ryū (such as Coin Locker Babies and Almost Transparent Blue) and the murder mystery novels of Miyabe Miyuki (such as The Devil’s Whisper and Shadow Family). I thought about how the company has published offbeat classics like Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan and Kawabata Yasunari’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. I thought about how the company has taken financial risks to publish niche-interest period dramas such as Ariyoshi Sawako’s The River Ki and Fujisawa Shūhei’s The Bamboo Sword, and then I thought about how the company has taken on even greater financial burdens to collect contemporary avant-garde short fiction in anthologies like Monkey Brain Sushi and Inside.

But really, I think what I’m going to miss the most are Kodansha International’s intelligent and beautifully published books about Japanese culture, like Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto, Kiyoko Morita’s The Book of Incense, and Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese. And of course Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet, which is probably my favorite “foreigner writing about Japan” book ever.

As its title suggests, Getting Wet is about baths in Japan. Private baths, public baths, bathing resorts, and bathing theme parks. And of course you can’t talk about baths in Japan without talking about onsen, or hot spring baths. Talmadge covers onsen in Hokkaido, onsen in Nagano, onsen right in Tokyo, and onsen in the Izu Islands south of Tokyo. There are onsen with mineral water, onsen with radioactive water, onsen with electrified water, onsen on the lips of volcano craters, onsen so acidic that your eyes hurt for days afterward, and onsen with snow monkeys.

There are plenty of books on Japanese baths floating around, but what I like about Getting Wet is that it’s not a traveler’s resource like A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs or a coffee table design book like The Japanese Bath. It is instead a collection of eleven journalistic essays unified by the theme of bathing. These essays aren’t travel literature, per se, but rather memoirs (if such a stodgy word is actually appropriate) of life in Japan cradling a core of interesting contextual information. For example, the fourth chapter, “Under the Bridge,” is about a trip to the Oedo Onsen Monogatari theme park in Odaiba. Talmadge begins by admitting his reluctance to don a yukata (he claims that they always flip open at the front at inopportune moments – which they do) and then walks his readers through the park before comfortably sliding into an essay about the Arima springs in Kobe, where emperors and the Heian nobility used to bathe. Talmadge then compares the Japanese history of bathing to that of the West, storied as it is with the opulence of the Greeks and Romans and Moors. Elsewhere, when Talmadge talks about mineral springs, for instance, he explains how our skin works and how our bodies retain water. When he talks about the onsen in the north of Japan, he writes about economic depression and the drive towards international and regional tourism (and why these initiatives never work). All of this writing, both travelogue and journalism, flows together smoothly, as if it were a feature in National Geographic.

Except Getting Wet is a lot more interesting than National Geographic. The way its author writes reminds me of the way my favorite grad student drinking buddy tells stories. His vocabulary is colorful but not ostentatious, he’s done his research and knows his facts, and he’s not afraid to laugh at something that’s ridiculous or unpleasant. Talmadge’s language is crisp and clean and for the most part professional, but every once in awhile he’ll let a colloquialism slip in (“The bath was – excuse me – fucking hot. It was really fucking hot.”), which adds both spice and warmth to his narrative. To put it simply, Getting Wet is a pleasure to read. Even if you don’t care about hot springs or bathing. Even if you don’t care about Japan. In terms of interesting and enjoyable essays, Eric Talmadge is right up there with John McPhee and Annie Dillard.

The book is a pleasure for other reasons as well. What I have always loved about Kodansha International is the attention and care they put into each publication, from the font to the page layout to the beautiful cover and binding. Most of these small touches are up to the reader to discover, but I should mention, in the case of Getting Wet, that the photographic illustrations are especially stunning. I don’t mean “stunning” in the sense of “created by a professional photographer with professional software,” but rather that the pictures are unusually sharp, printed in soft yet high-contrast greyscale, and perfectly positioned beside the text. In other words, the high quality of the images is something that you don’t find often even in art books published by specialty presses.

Kodansha International’s Japanese parent company has recently invested quite a great deal of money in Vertical, so I think that perhaps it’s not unreasonable to assume that their fiction licenses will change hands at some point. I’m not so sure what will happen to their non-fiction, though. Kodansha International put out beautiful books, and it will be a shame to see publications like Getting Wet disappear. I have loved Kodansha International and its books for many years, and I’m going to miss them now that they’re gone. Thankfully, the international arm of the company is resurrecting itself as a high-profile manga publisher, so this story may just have a happy ending after all.

Yokai Attack!

yokai-attack

Title: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Morino Tatsuya (森野達弥) 
Publication Year: 2008 (America)
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 191

I was absolutely certain that I was not going to like Yokai Attack. I had fully expected it to be a boring and poorly organized mishmash of folklore, citations, and half-baked interpretation along the lines of Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings. But the illustrations for this book were commissioned from Morino Tatsuya, a famous apprentice of Mizuki Shigeru (a manga-ka known especially for his manga Hakaba no Kitarō, which was adapted into multiple versions of the anime franchise Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō), so I decided to give it a shot, despite the silly cover.

To my immense surprise, I fell in love with Yokai Attack right from the book’s dedication to Lafcadio Hearn and his wife, which I found apt and also quite touching. It is clear from the first few paragraphs of the preface that the authors have done their research and are extremely knowledgeable on the subject matter. In fact, the “Yokai Resources” section at the end of the book, with its extensive bibliography, is almost worth the price of the entire book itself for people interested in yōkai. Alt and Yoda draw on wide range of materials, from Nō plays to Edo-period collections of woodblock prints to Yoda’s memories of the ghost stories she heard as a child, to bring together about thirty-five detailed, four-page profiles of Japanese ghosts and goblins.

The joy of this book is not its wealth of information, however, but rather the lucid and witty style in which the information is presented. Alt and Toda obviously enjoy what they do, and they make sure their readers are just as amused as they are. I don’t mean to say that Yokai Attack is condescending or facetious; rather, the writing is exuberant and filled with small, good-natured jokes that make it a pleasure to read. The format and organization of the book are reader-friendly as well, and the captions, panels, and side notes are enjoyable and not distracting.

Yokai Attack seems to be targeted towards an audience of all ages, with perhaps a movie rating of “PG.” Although instances of people (or other strange and inappropriate things) getting eaten are directly referenced with much glee, all mention of grotesque violence and sexual activity has been struck from the text. This is something of a shame, as I’m sure the writers ran across enough upsetting and salacious material to fill another couple of books, but I suppose it’s for the best, as it will allow this gem of a book to reach a wider audience.

The one qualm I have with Yokai has nothing to do with the authors but rather with the publisher. Kodansha International, true to its Japanese origins, is known for going out of its way to publish beautiful books. It seems that it has shortchanged Alt, Yoda, and especially Morino by being only half full-color. Although the first two pages of each yōkai entry are full-color, the second two are not, and the publisher seemed to give up around page 145, when the full-color pages end. Since this book is beautifully formatted and filled with interesting images, I can’t even begin to imagine why Kodansha would cut corners like this. I am so disappointed in them! Such a fine book deserves better.

Another thing that bothers me is that I have not seen this book in bookstores anywhere – not even Kinokuniya in New York. Kodansha should get on the PR train and market Yokai Attack as a manga, so that it will be shelved with manga and reach its target audience. I kind of want to go to Kodansha and throw something at them for being so willfully ignorant.

But three cheers for Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt! Yokai Attack is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Japan in any capacity whatsoever.