Emily

Emily

Title: Emily
Japanese Title: エミリー (Emirii)
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本 野ばら)
Translator: Misa Dikengil Lindberg
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Shueisha English Edition

There are two short stories and one novella included in Takemoto Novala’s collection Emily, which was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize (for popular established writers) in 2003. “Readymade,” which is only a few pages long, is written in the form of a confession of a young female office worker to an older male colleague who takes her on a date to an exhibition of French Cubist art at the Ueno Royal Museum. “Corset” is told from the perspective of a male illustrator in Kyoto who plans to indulge in a short romantic relationship with an engaged woman before committing suicide in honor of a deceased friend. The novella Emily is about two high school misfits devoted to street fashion.

The two short stories are wonderfully atmospheric and can be read as treatises on Lolita aesthetics. Both stories follow the pattern of an older and self-assured man aggressively offering instruction to a naïve younger woman characterized as a tabula rasa, and they’re less about suspense and development than they are about establishing a colorful and stylized worldview.

To give an example from “Corset”:

“Wouldn’t it have been great if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century?”

“Yes. Sometimes I really think so. But I also think that if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century, maybe we’d still be complaining, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d been born in the eighteenth century?’ Perhaps it’s not this era that we dislike, but the state of being in the present that doesn’t agree with us.”

“You mean no matter what era we were born in, we’d always long for the past and have nothing but despair for the present? Maybe you’re right. So there’s no way out except death.”

“Regardless of how the times change, as long as you are alive, you’ll be full of nothing but discord with the world around you.”

Such sentiments provide a fitting prelude to the novella Emily, in which the narrator truly is out of sync with the world in which she lives. This is not her personal failing, but rather a failing on the part of a society that refuses to accommodate diversity and always seeks a scapegoat. Emily‘s narrator, who enjoys visiting the Laforet shopping center in Harajuku and dressing in cute street fashions, has become a target for the other girls in her high school, who subject her to bizarrely cruel forms of bullying:

They sometimes made me stand in the middle of the court with my hands bound, as they spiked balls at me. I had to take the hits directly to my body as the seniors spiked and then ordered others to spike. There was no way I could run. If the balls had been coming from one direction, I could have escaped, but they came from all directions. Every ball hit me. It was a game to them. If a ball hit my body, they scored one point. If it hit my face, they scored five points. And if it knocked me over, they scored ten points.

The narrator isn’t subject to abuse just from her classmates and volleyball club teammates, but also from her mother, who is disappointed that she was unable to become a child television star, a path the narrator refused to follow after she suffered abuse of another kind. Instead of becoming bitter or resentful, however, the young woman finds joy in the self-expression she realizes through clothing that flies in the face of conformity and social expectations. In fact, it seems only natural to the reader that she would use street fashion to carve out a comfortable refuge for herself away from her school and family.

Through a shared interest in the Emily Temple Cute brand, the narrator becomes friends with a boy who also hangs out around Laforet. It turns out that he’s a student at her high school, and he’s also being bullied because he came out as gay to another male student. After one particularly frightening incidence of bullying that threatens the life of the narrator, her friend flies into a rage and attacks her tormentors before fleeing the school grounds. The narrator tracks him down in Shibuya, and they have a long heart-to-heart conversation that is both touching and extremely painful.

Although Emily addresses real social issues, like the two other stories in the collection, its themes are exaggerated, and the style in which it is written is clearly stylized. Readers searching for absolute mimetic realism probably won’t be impressed, but fans of young adult fiction – including young adults – will be moved and swept away by the entire collection.

Included at the end of Emily is a lengthy and illuminating interview with the author, Takemoto Novala.

Although the translation is only available as an e-book, its short length (probably fewer than 150 pages) would make it a perfect classroom text should it ever become available in a paperback edition.

So, you’re intrigued by Emily. You should be! The publisher, Shueisha English Edition, has put up a lovely website to help promote the book. But you’ve searched on Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, on Kobo, and on iBooks, and it’s nowhere to be found. What gives?

It turns out that Shueisha English Edition titles were only available through the Sony Reader digital storefront, which was shut down earlier this year (2014). When the Sony Reader store closed, an announcement was posted stating that all Sony Reader titles would be transferred to Kobo. An April 2 post on the Shueisha English Edition Facebook page reads as follows:

We’re very sorry but our move to Kobo won’t happen very soon. We’re still talking with our possible representative in the States.

On June 29, the following update appeared:

Ours is an editorial team only working for Shueisha English Edition, and has no connection to Shueisha’s other operations. We’ll restart our publication soon when we reach an agreement to our next retailer. Please don’t send any inquiries about Shueisha’s other publications and rights/licensing business. We simply cannot answer to any such questions and requests. Thank you for your patience and we’re working hard on our future titles. Please wait for some more for our official announcements and new titles.

Since then, nothing.

It seems as though the publisher has disappeared, which is a shame, since it was off to a fantastic start, regularly putting out lovely digital books with excellent bonus materials and carefully crafted promotional websites (such as those for Shimizu Yoshinori’s Labyrinth and Makime Manabu’s The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom). In an interview on the SCBWI Japan Translation Group’s webpage, the Shueisha English Edition editor in chief, Yoshio Kobayashi, outlines the care and attention put into the translation, editing, and presentation of each of the publisher’s titles. Although I don’t have access to any of these other titles, Emily is a cool little book, and I imagine that it would have been able to find a sizeable audience through the appropriate distribution channels.

Although I understand that the collapse of the Sony Reader Store must have been a major blow, I can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on with Shueisha English Edition, especially since the publisher is working with such fantastic and high-profile authors and translators. I can only hope that good news is forthcoming from them soon.

Review copy provided by Shueisha English Edition.

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part One – On Cultural Difference

Wind Waker Great Wave

Before we begin, I’d like to specify what I mean by “Japanese” video games. Although the term seems obvious enough, there might be some confusion over whether games heavily influenced by Japanese styles or games released by North American or European branch offices of corporations with headquarters in Japan count as “Japanese” video games. Since a debate concerning what is and isn’t “Japanese” according to stylistic conventions could easily become mired in a bog of stereotypes and cultural essentialism, I’d like to clarify that I’m referring to video games produced and developed in Japan.

Between the most recent Wolverine movie, Keanu Reeves’s 47 Ronin, and Katy Perry’s performance as a geisha at the American Music Awards last November, I sometimes feel like I’ve been up to my elbows in arguments over cultural appropriation for the past year or so. Since the related topics of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are relevant to a discussion of Japanese culture in Japanese games, I think they’re worth touching upon here at the beginning of the essay. To explain why they’re relevant, let me quote from an essay posted on Tumblr about the portrayal of imperial colonialism in Final Fantasy XIV, which introduces itself with the following caveat:

I remain open on whether Japanese gamers are less likely to find these implications to be controversial/confusing and [Square Enix] is only by coincidence hitting a possible nerve with Western audiences. I don’t think this is a question Westerners like me should attempt to answer. Japanese attitudes towards both culture and religion are so different from Western attitudes that they can hardly be recognized as the same issues. It may be a moot point for [Square Enix]’s intended (i.e. Japanese) audience; the only thing that we can really examine is the impact hitting our own, aka English-speaking, neck of fandom.

In other words, do Japanese and Western audiences pick up on the same types of themes? Will they have the same emotional and intellectual responses to these themes? Will they come to the same hermeneutic conclusions regarding these themes? Furthermore, are we, as English-speaking Americans, unwittingly acting as cultural imperialists by assuming that our readings of Japanese games can or should be the same as those of Japanese gamers?

What I’d like to posit is that is that we should indeed consider ourselves as being on the same page as Japanese gamers. I don’t wish to downplay or marginalize the differences between Japanese and American culture(s), but I also don’t want to position Japan as some sort of mysterious, unknowable Other whose citizens operate on a completely different wavelength than we do here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Issues such as cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are most pertinent to situations in which there is a clearly dominant culture and a clearly disadvantaged culture coming into contact with one another; however, with the most profitable video game companies and franchises currently being of Japanese origin, I’m extremely hesitant to characterize Japan as subaltern, at least in the field of electronic media. I therefore don’t think we should consider Japanese gamers as too terribly different from ourselves. Our cultural and educational backgrounds may not be the same, but this may also be said even of gamers from the same country, region, or municipality; and, in any case, we are quite capable of understanding each other’s entertainment media, which is for the most past designed to be accessible to the broadest possible audience.

Still, because most Americans don’t have the same pedestrian awareness of and focused educational exposure to Japanese history and culture that most people raised in Japan have to our history and culture, our appreciation of the stories, themes, and art of Japanese games can be greatly augmented by insight into the culturally specific elements of these texts. For example, regarding the Legend of Zelda games, essayist and game reviewer Tevis Thompson has argued that the main protagonist of the franchise isn’t Link, but rather the land of Hyrule itself:

Building up a world with a past, a believable place with its own logic – that would be enough. Wind Waker’s post-apocalyptic drowned world was enough; Majora’s Mask’s temporal loops and grinning lunar horror were enough. Zelda is a perfect candidate for environmental storytelling. A Hyrule you can dwell in, despite its limitations (perhaps because of them), with gameplay that compels you further in – such a world will produce its own stories.

If the world within a video game can build its own stories, think of how much richer our experience of this world could be if we were able to better understand its allusions, which add layers of depth and meaning to gameplay.

Kenchōji Triforce

Miyamoto Shigeru’s famous comment concerning how he was inspired to create the landscapes of the Zelda games by his childhood experience of exploring the forested mountains of his hometown of Sonobe in northwest of Kyoto is perhaps apocryphal, but the various caves and temples (shinden in Japanese) of Hyrule are indeed reminiscent of Kyoto, which is surrounded by forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains dotted with enormous temples and tiny hidden shrines. The Skulltulas of the series are very clearly a reference to the jorōgumo (golden orb-weaver spiders) that suddenly drop down to the eye level of hikers in the Kyoto mountains, and the Triforce is the crest of the Hōjō, an important historical samurai clan that lent its symbol (known as mitsu uroko, or “three scales”) to the Zen temples its leaders patronized. Moreover, several story arcs of the series, such as the “Hyrule sinks” scenario of The Wind Waker and The Phantom Hourglass, could just have easily come out of Japanese popular media – such as the influential 1973 novel Japan Sinks – as from American disaster films like Waterworld. Although such marginalia may seem like nothing more than footnotes to a series of games heavily based on Arthurian fantasy tropes and imagery, an appreciation of such artistic elements might help our experience of exploring the games resonate with our experiences of exploring the world outside the games, as it has for Japanese players, who have compared Tokyo train stations to Zelda dungeons.

Although going on a scavenger hunt for parallels between video games and the real world is always amusing, the purpose of the above examples has been to demonstrate that, even in Japanese games designed with “Western” stylizations, Japanese cultural elements are present. In this essay, I want to explore some of the more notable of these elements, especially as they might be of interest to American gamers. Specifically, I will examine how Japanese cultural elements influence the portrayal of race in Japanese video games.

Part Two – On Pokémon
Part Three – On Final Fantasy

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.

An Otaku Tour of Kansai

If you’re an otaku, Tokyo is the best place to be. No other city on the face of the earth can hold a candle to Tokyo in terms of vibrant subcultures and amazing subcultural experiences that are completely open to anyone who stumbles upon them.

Kansai is awesome in its own right, however, and the region is well worth visiting, even if you’re not interested in rich cultural traditions, gorgeous architecture, and delicious food. There are plenty of things for an otaku to do in Kyoto, Osaka, and Takarazuka.

If you’re headed to Kansai, do yourself a favor and get an Icoca card from the JR automated ticket machines as soon as you exit the Shinkansen into the station. The Icoca is the Kansai equivalent of Kantō’s Suica card. Like the Suica, you pay need to pay 2000 yen for an Icoca. 500 of that yen is a deposit that will be returned to you if you turn in the card at a station office, and the rest can be used to go anywhere, anytime, on any vehicle. You can put more money on your Icoca at any station, and your remaining balance will be returned to you along with your deposit when you return the card. If you already have a Suica, you can use it for all JR rail lines in Kansai, but it doesn’t work anywhere else. Since the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus or taxi, and since the best way to get around Osaka is by subway, it’s definitely worth getting yourself an Icoca.

Kyoto

Besides being filled with temples and famous historic sites and traditional Japanese arts and so on, Kyoto is a tech hub and a college town populated by students, artists, and young professionals. The infinite alleyways snaking behind the main boulevards are lousy with ultra-modern restaurants, tiny theme bars, hostess clubs, host clubs, crazily decorated clothing boutiques, and art spaces the size of a hotel room. Alcohol of all types is cheap, plentiful, and delicious, and strange and fascinating things happen on the streets and along the Kamo River after dark, especially on the weekends. Kyoto is a great city to get lost in.

The top Kyoto attraction for otaku is the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place is amazing. As an added bonus, it’s also bilingual and Anglophone-friendly. The permanent exhibit is a hyper-illustrated walkthrough of the history and development of manga, the tools and artistic techniques used to create manga, the publishing culture of manga, the genres of manga, and the internationalization of manga. The museum also hosts special exhibits showcasing the work of specific manga artists and illustrators, many of whom are local to Kyoto.

All along the walls of the museum are bookcases on which are shelved the most massive collection of manga I’ve ever seen (and I have seen some massive collections, such as the one housed in the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library). Most of this manga is Japanese, but a sizable portion is foreign, including all sorts of North American and European translations and originals. The best part about this library is that you can take anything down from the shelves and read it for as long as you want. The museum also has a smaller library of academic materials dedicated to manga. Again, most of these materials are in Japanese, but there’s also a ton of stuff in English and other European languages. Was there some obscure manga exhibition in Germany? They have the catalog. Was there an issue of The Comics Journal from ten years ago that mentioned shōjo manga? They have that issue. The museum also publishes a few high quality pamphlets and periodicals that you’re free to take as you please (my favorite is a small magazine highlighting the areas of Kyoto featured in recent anime and manga).

To get to the museum, take the subway to the Karasuma-Oike Station, which is served by the Karasuma and the Tōzai lines. Take Exit 2 out of the station, turn to your right at the top of the staircase, and walk for a minute or two until you see the museum on your left. The museum is a converted primary school building, and you’ll know it when you see it. The pennants hanging from the telephone poles along the street in front of it help. Because the museum is awesome, they’ve posted an illustrated map explaining how to get there.

There are also a small handful of otaku specialty stores clustered along Teramachi between Sanjō and Shijō (these are all the names of streets/walkways). If you’d like to get to this area from the Manga Museum, go back to the intersection where you came out of the subway, cross the street, and turn left on Oike to go towards the Kamo River. Walk for about ten blocks (which actually isn’t that far) and enter the Teramachi covered shopping arcade on your right. To get to this area from anywhere else, start at the Sanjō-Keihan Station and cross over the Kamo River on the Sanjō bridge. Keep heading west on Sanjō for about two blocks until the street dead-ends into a covered pedestrian shopping arcade called “Sanjo Cupola.” Keep going straight through the Sanjo Cupola until you emerge into the open air (there will be a giant mechanical crab ahead on your right), and immediately turn left into the Teramachi covered shopping arcade.

After walking for awhile, you’ll see a Melon Books above a drugstore to your right. Melon Books sells hardcore pornographic manga and doujinshi for men, so enter at your own risk. Further ahead on your right you’ll see a bookstore called Manga・Can (漫画館), which is a great place to browse and discover new manga titles. A bit further ahead on your right is the Kyoto branch of Gamers, which has games (mainly of the erotic variety) on the fourth floor and manga and doujinshi on the fifth floor. Most of the merchandise stocked by Gamers is targeted at men, but the store isn’t as hardcore as Melon Books and caries many things of interest to female otaku as well.

Running parallel to Teramachi to the east (one street over to your left if you’re walking towards Shijō) is another shopping arcade called Shinkyogoku. Right before you emerge onto Shijō while walking along Shinkyogoku, there will be an Animate to your right on the second-floor level above a small open plaza. Like all Animate branches, the Kyoto store is distinctive. It has a large and well-stocked manga section that showcases work by local artists, work that has won regional manga prizes, and work appealing to yuri sensibilities.

If cross Shijō on Teramachi, you’ll find yourself on a small, uncovered street. Several dozen feet past Shijō, there will be a five-story Tora no Ana on your left and a five-story bookstore called Shinchō Shoten (信長書店) on your right. Both stores are custom-made for otaku.

Right next to Shinchō Shoten, in a tiny alley about twelve feet past the bookstore and leading off the right, is one of the best-kept secrets of Kyoto: a tiny vegetarian restaurant and sake bar called Mikōan (彌光庵). The food is cheap and delicious and varied enough that no two people will get the same meal even if they order the same thing. The décor and atmosphere are like something out of an urban fantasy novel. There are also several adorable, fluffy cats wandering around the restaurant at any given time, and they don’t mind being friendly if you engage them. Mikōan is all about how awesome Kyoto can be if you wander off the beaten path.

Osaka

Osaka never gets enough credit. Sure, it’s not as rich or as populous as Tokyo, but it’s still a huge city filled with interesting places to go. The urban landscape of Osaka resembles that of Tokyo, but it’s different in all sorts of neat ways. You really will hear people speak Osaka dialect here, which is lots of fun if you’re learning Japanese.

Nanba is the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara. This neighborhood runs alongside a broad avenue called Yotsuhashi-suji or, more appropriately, in the smaller streets and alleys branching off from either side of Yotsuhashi-suji. Nanba Station is an epic mess of stores and restaurants and hotels, and there are many ways to navigate your way outside, but the area you want to be in is on the northeast side of the station. Depending on what train line you’re coming from, it might be easiest to walk through the Takashimaya department store and exit the building from the main entrance. In any case, a small street called Nansan-dōri snakes along the west side of the station. Follow it until you see a Taito Station, and turn left past the arcade. If you keep walking west along the small road (which is still called Nansan-dōri even after if veers away from the station), you’ll begin to see otaku-related stores on your right. The area between Nanba Station, Nansan-dōri, and Yotsuhashi-suji is where all of the electronics stores, maid cafés, used video game stores, and specialty book stores are. You will find a Melon Books and a Yellow Submarine along these backstreets, but, if you want to go to the K-Books and Animate, follow Nansan-dōri until the big intersection and turn right on Yotsuhashi-suji. The K-Books and Animate will be down the street to your right, and the Mandarake will be across the street on your left.

If you’re looking for doujinshi, it’s definitely worth your while to visit the K-Books here, which stocks tons of work produced by Kansai artists. Doujinshi for large fandoms are more or less equally distributed across Kantō and Kansai, but work for small fandoms from small regional conventions doesn’t always make it to Tokyo. There are also a number of original doujinshi at the Nanba K-Books that don’t fall into pre-established genres and resemble nothing so much as they do North American indie comics.

For an otaku, I think the major attraction of Osaka is the Umeda Mandarake. According to fanlore, this is *the* Mandarake, the Mandarake to end all Mandarakes, and the One True Mandarake. The Umeda Mandarake is a sprawling three-story building stuffed to the gills with crap, garbage, and treasure. The building itself looks (and smells) like it should be condemned, and the soft, creaky floor literally sags under the weight of all the junk in the store. Otaku relics are lovingly displayed in glass showcases, while the dim overhead lighting flickers and throws shadows around the piles of unopened cardboard boxes stacked in the corners. The clerks cosplay, and there is a small stage for performances on the second floor that also serves as a dais for life-size renditions of pop culture icons. This place must really been seen to be believed.

Also, if you’re looking for original doujinshi drawn by artists like Yuki Kaori and CLAMP, this is the place to go. In addition, on the staircase landing between the second and third stories, there is a table with a few stacks of “Mandarake Note” notebooks in which visitors to the store can draw and scribble away to their hearts’ content with the art tools provided. If you take the time to flip through some of the old notebooks, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some really familiar names and art styles. If you’re an a creative mood, you can take over your own notebook page.

Fittingly for a quest of such magnitude, it’s a pain in the ass to get to the store. The easiest method is to take one of the south exists out of the JR Osaka Station (or the Hankyū Umeda Station across the street), get in a taxi, and pay the driver ¥660 to take you to the Osaka Tokyu Inn hotel. If you’re facing the Tokyu Inn, you’ll notice a Small Alley of Ultimate Sketchiness running alongside the right side of the hotel building. Turn left into the alleyway and keep walking until you emerge into a shopping arcade with the Mandarake right in front of you.

If you want to be adventurous, you can go on foot. Take the Mitōsuji South Exit from JR Osaka Station (which can be accessed from JR rail lines and the subway lines) and cross the street under the huge pedestrian bridge. Alternately, take the South Central Exit from JR Osaka Station and climb the stairs to get on top of the huge pedestrian bridge. Either way, you’re heading for the Umeda Hankyū Building. What you’re going to want to do, either by going around, going under, or going through, is to get to the other side of this building. At street level on the other side of the building you’ll see an intersection with a concrete island in the middle of it, and, on the far side of the intersection, a covered shopping arcade called “E Street.” This shopping arcade goes on for a few blocks and in the middle crosses over an open street and changes its name to Hankyū Tōtsū Shōtengai (阪急東通商店街). The Mandarake is on towards the end of the shopping arcade on the left. The shopping arcade itself is tacky and raucous, and any of the restaurants lining the passage can provide you with a ticket out of Sober City on the Cheap Alcohol Express, if you’re interested in that sort of cultural experience.

While you’re in the area, the Osaka Pokémon Center is on the thirteenth floor of the Daimaru department store above the South Central Exit of JR Osaka Station. The store has all sorts of special goods connected to Osaka and the Johto region that you can’t get anywhere else, as well as special Spot Pass promotions for fans who bring their Nintendo DS with them.

Takarazuka

Takarazuka is a mid-sized suburb located about a twenty minute train ride away from Osaka (and a forty-five minute ride from Kyoto, with one transfer in the middle). Not only is the area around the station interesting (it’s like an exaggerated fantasy version of the Europe described by Marcel Proust), but the city is also home to two major otaku-related attractions.

These two attractions are the Takarazuka Grand Theater building and the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum. Finding your way around is half the fun of an excursion to Takarazuka, so I won’t give directions. Let it suffice to say that you’re looking for the Hana no Michi (花のみち). This is an actual street divided by a raised walking path lined with flowers. It’s just as romantic as it sounds, and the Takarazuka Revue themed bronze statues along the path add to its charm.

The Takarazuka Grand Theater is the home base of the Takarazuka Revue, which is fabulousness incarnate. Even if you can’t catch a performance (if you do want to see a performance, you’ll want to book your seat well in advance), it’s fun to wander around the massive theater complex just to drink in the atmosphere. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a fan club; and, if you’re even luckier, you might get to spot a performer. The Quatre Rêves gift shop, which is easily accessible from the Hana no Michi, stocks all sorts of CDs and DVDs, as well as tons of glossy print material. Of special interest are “bromides,” which are laminated photos of Takarazuka actresses dressed in the costumes of their famous roles. If you’re not interested in spending money on pictures of glamorous ladies, you can get all sorts of material for free in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, and promotional fliers. There are also television screens set up around the theater complex where you can chill out and enjoy videotaped awesomeness at your leisure.

At the end of the Hana no Michi and down the street a bit is the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum, which is marked by a giant sculpture of Tezuka’s Phoenix just outside the main entrance. The museum hosts rotating exhibitions in a spacious and well-designed gallery space, but the permanent exhibition of Tezuka memorabilia is also interesting. Not only does the museum display the usual array of photographs and animation stills, but it also showcases the notebooks that Tezuka kept as a young adult. Even if you’re not a Tezuka fan, it’s difficult not to be awed by the range and scope of the artist’s imagination as represented in these notebooks. The museum has a handful of interactive installations, but my favorite is the Animation Studio (アニメ工房) on the basement floor, where anyone can sit at a computer station, draw pictures with the tablet and stylus provided, and then animate them. There’s also an open library with editions of Tezuka manga from around the world, as well as ample space to sit down, relax, and read. You’ll see visitors dressed in Tezuka cosplay (with floopy berets and seventies glasses), and the entire building is covered with images, murals, etchings, and sculptures. Visiting the museum is a unique experience and well worth the trip out to Takarazuka.

In conclusion, Kansai is a great area to visit, and not just for temples and historical sites. Kyoto and Osaka and Takarazuka can be just as edgy, quirky, and fun as Tokyo, and there’s no reason for a short-term or a long-term visitor with otaku inclinations not to make the trip down to Kansai.

Gate 7

Title: Gate 7
Artist: CLAMP
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Shūeisha
Pages: 180 (per volume)

There is a haiku by Bashō that goes something like “even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto” (Kyō nite mo kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu). I love Kyoto, and I think I know what Bashō was talking about. Kyoto is a special place. The food is delicious, the city is filled with countless shrines and temples, all sorts of interesting historical stories happened in Kyoto, the tea and vegetables grown just outside of Kyoto are amazing, there’s a vibrant nightlife catering to the students who come to the city’s numerous universities, tons of artists and craftsmen make their homes in Kyoto, and the local sake is out of this world.

Almost every grade-school student in Japan gets dragged on a class trip to Kyoto at least once, and even adults make pilgrimages to Kyoto to see the sights (especially during the spring and fall, when the cherry blossoms and maple leaves are at their best). Since Kyoto is only about two hours away from Tokyo by bullet train, the city also has a reputation as a good place to go for romantic getaways and weekend partying. Kyoto is totally awesome, and almost everyone in Japan has been there at least once, so it’s always been surprising to me that there aren’t more manga set there. CLAMP’s new fantasy series Gate 7, however, is like a love song to the ancient capital.

Gate 7’s teenage protagonist, Takamoto Chikahito, is just as much in love with Kyoto as I am, but he has somehow managed to make it almost all the way up to high school without having ever been there. He saves up enough money to make a solo visit to see the sites; but, on his very first trip to a famous Kyoto shrine called Kitano Tenmangū, he is suddenly transported onto a magical battlefield. Chikahito witnesses a beautiful young warrior with an enormous sword defeat a strange creature before passing out. He wakes in a house near the shrine, where he is attended by the child, named Hana, and her two older companions, Sakura and Tachibana. Sakura, a kind-hearted and cheerful young man involved in the world of geisha and maiko, and Tachibana, a serious and sullen college student, discuss how strange it is that Chikahito was able to enter the magical realm. Tachibana then attempts to erase Chikahito’s memory but fails. In the final coup of strangeness, the androgynous Hana kisses Chikahito and tells him that s/he’ll be waiting.

At the beginning of the second chapter (actually the first chapter, as the previous chapter is considered a “prelude”), Chikahito has somehow been transferred to a high school in Kyoto. As soon as he gets off the train that has brought him to the city, he sets off for a famous soba restaurant, where by chance he encounters Hana, who is as happy to see him as s/he is to eat bowl after bowl of noodles. Chikahito is soon dragged into another magical fight with Hana, in which it is revealed that all creatures are affiliated with either light (陽) or darkness (陰). Sakura is affiliated with darkness, Tachibana is affiliated with light, and Hana, for some mysterious reason, can fight using the power of either. By the end of the day, Chikahito finds himself invited to live with the trio in a traditional Kyoto townhouse in the Ura-Shichiken district (the hidden side of the Kami-Shichiken neighborhood around Kitano Tenmangū), an invitation which he ends up accepting, to his own consternation. It turns out that, during their first meeting, Hana had cast a spell on Chikahito that would cause him to return to the Ura-Shichiken.

The second and third chapters of the volume develop this fantasy version of Kyoto a bit further. The reader learns, for example, that major historical figures have been reincarnated in our own time, and that these personages are battling over both the position of head of their respective families and the possession of the legendary familiar spirits called “oni” that are connected to these positions. Chikahito also learns that Hana unique in not being affiliated with light or darkness, and that he is special in the same way. Furthermore, he can see oni, which normal humans cannot. In other words, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in Kyoto that most people don’t know about, and Chikahito has somehow found himself right in the middle of a conflict spanning hundreds of years and multiple dimensions.

Gate Seven moves quickly through both plot points and battle scenes, but I found it to be a perfect balance between an action-oriented title like Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and an exposition-oriented title like xxxHolic. Backgrounds, dialog bubbles, and movement between panels are all handled effectively and artistically. The character designs are appealing and seem to be drawn from a wide range of CLAMP styles, such as those on display in series like Legal Drug and Kobato. Veteran readers of CLAMP’s work should find themselves right at home:

Chikahito is appealing as a hapless yet loveable protagonist, much like Hideki from Chobits. Also reminiscent of Chobits is the character Hana, who occupies a strange liminal position between ontological dualities. Is Hana a boy or a girl? Is s/he a child or an adult? Is s/he a person or a pet? Is s/he innocent and weak or completely in command of the situation? Is s/he even remotely human?

There is a lot of magic and mystery contained between the pages of Gate 7, as well as some interesting historical revisionism. The series plays with questions such as: What if Buddhist magic (妙法), as well as the principles underlying Taoist divination and geomancy, were real? What if the Shinto gods were real? What if the major figures of Japanese history were somehow more than human?

The city of Kyoto, with its temples and shrines and traditional houses and narrow alleys and delicious soba restaurants, provides a pitch-perfect backdrop to the story. At the end of the volume is a section called “Wandering Around Kyoto” (ぶらり京めぐり), which provides addresses, websites, and other information about the real locations visited by the characters. Dark Horse has the North American rights to the manga, and I hope they’ll include lots of Kyoto trivia (as well as historical and cultural information) in their own translation notes when they release the first volume this October. Gate 7 is shaping up to be a good story, and it’s interesting just as much for its setting and its take on history as it is for its fights and its handsome male characters.

The Makioka Sisters

Title: The Makioka Sisters
Japanese Title: 細雪 (Sasameyuki)
Author: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (谷崎潤一郎)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1948 (Japan); 1957 (America)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 530

In his introduction to Shimazaki Tōson’s The Broken Commandment (破壊), translator Kenneth Strong lists Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters as one of the five most famous works of Japanese literature in the West (along with Kawabata’s Snow Country, Sōseki’s Kokoro, Abe’s Woman of the Dunes, and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Strong wrote this essay in 1972, and, since then, I would say that Naomi has replaced The Makioka Sisters as the Tanizaki text that is most frequently taught. The formation of national identity in the pre-war period is a hot topic in Japan-focused scholarship these days, especially when the evils of modernity are represented by a sexy young woman. Regardless, The Makioka Sisters is still an excellent novel.

As the English title suggests, the novel is about four sisters who live in a suburb of Osaka. Tsuruko and Sachiko, the two older sisters, are married, but the two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are not, and therein lies the main conflict of the novel. Eldest sister Tsuruko moves to Tokyo after her husband gets transferred, so the task of marrying off third sister Yukiko falls to second sister Sachiko and her (Tanizaki stand-in) husband Teinosuke, who remain in Osaka. The problem is that they can’t find a suitable husband for the shy traditional beauty, who has entered her thirties under the shadow of rebellious youngest sister Taeko, who cares nothing for the family’s reputation.

After Tsuruko and her family move to Tokyo, they all but disappear from the story, which is fine, since the author has more than enough material to work with concerning the three sisters who stay behind. Each of the three is an interesting and fully developed personality in her own right, and they have plenty of floods, illnesses, and secret love affairs to keep them busy. Taeko especially falls into the role of Tanizaki’s trademark femme fatale, with her modern clothing, flirtatious attitude, lies, ridiculous expenditures, and so on. Although the reader can’t help but share her sisters’ attitude of frustration towards her, Taeko adds spice to the novel and generally drives the plot forward.

Not that the novel has much of a plot. Nothing grand happens, no one important dies, no major secrets are revealed, and all conflicts are eventually resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Instead of focusing on dramatic action, Tanizaki has instead created a world within his novel and invited the reader to visit it for five hundred pages. Although I wasn’t able to read the book for long stretches at a time, I was happy with its length and would have even been happy if it were longer. Even though the story takes place during the opening years of the Pacific War, the characters occupy a comfortable environment rich with detail, culture, and tradition. In other words, this is a novel not to be enjoyed for its forward impetus but rather for its description of a family outing to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. Any fan of traditional Japanese culture, and especially the tension between tradition and the modern lifestyle, should enjoy this novel – there’s a reason why an earlier generation of Japan scholars considered The Makioka Sisters to be one the defining works of modern Japanese literature.

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese

Title: Turning Japanese
Author: Cathy Yardley
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 310

I think that the cover of this book was obviously designed to attract a specific demographic of me, personally. Pink! Cherry blossoms! Serious business woman! Anime! I saw this book in the bookstore and didn’t even look at the back cover until it was safely home with me. Thankfully, what the cover promises, the book delivers: Japan-themed super-fun. According to Amazon, author Cathy Yardley already has quite a few novels under her belt, many of them romances with titles like “Ravish” and “Crave.” There are no heaving bosoms in Turning Japanese, though, and the book is much more of a comedy than a romance. I wouldn’t call it a travelogue, either, as the emphasis is much more on plot and character development than descriptions of exotic Japan. I genuinely enjoyed reading it; it was fun.

Okay, now the plot. Lisa Falloya is a 29-year-old factory office worker in upstate New York. Despite having lived in the same town her whole life, she can speak and read Japanese thanks to her Japanese mother. She loves reading and drawing manga and ends up winning a competition at a sci-fi / fantasy / anime convention, which gives her the opportunity to work as an intern at a manga publisher in Tokyo. Going to Tokyo would mean leaving behind her two best friends and fiancé, but she goes anyway after everyone she knows practically bullies her into it. Once she gets to Japan, Lisa has to deal with a mean boss and nightmare host family; but, as she begins to overcome those challenges, she also has to deal with the resentment of her friends and fiancé, who have started to feel that she has left them behind.

And now it’s time for me to explain why, even though I couldn’t put this novel down, it upset the shit out of me. Perhaps the least significant issue I had with this book were the small inaccuracies concerning Japan, which mostly involve mistakes with the Japanese language. As I said, these are fairly insignificant, but there are quite a few of them, and several of them are repeated quite often. Which is annoying to a Japan snob such as myself.

Second, Lisa is an almost textbook definition of what people in the various universes of fandom like to call a “Mary Sue character” (perhaps “self-insert character” would be a good translation), who is a bit shy and awkward but whose only real flaw is that she has no flaws. But, whatever, this isn’t high art here, and there have been worse Mary Sues who have stalked across the printed page.

My main problem with Lisa is that she more or less allows people to walk all over her while constantly apologizing and blaming herself. Even though the narrative demonstrates that it is when Lisa forces a dramatic confrontation that any sort of progress is achieved, the author doesn’t seem to put much stock into this method of resolution and instead allows most inter-personal relationships to stew in barely concealed mires of passive-aggressiveness, which I found extraordinarily frustrating.

To give a good example, Lisa’s fiancé is a self-absorbed, hypocritical, and emotionally abusive MBA student – I believe the technical term is “douchelord.” When he is studying for finals, he won’t give Lisa the time of day; when he wants to get married, he forces her to plan everything according to his schedule; when she starts to express passion and ambition concerning her own life, he asks her (at least two dozen times) to re-evaluate her priorities. And then, when he breaks their engagement because she brings up the possibility of pursuing a career in the same part of New York City where he will be working, she acts as if the failed relationship were entirely her fault, an assumption that the author is almost completely uncritical of. Of course, it can be argued that people are silly when it comes to love, and that men sometimes get to be selfish too, but this sort of relationship pattern is repeated again and again throughout the novel. It perhaps comes as no surprise that none of the relationships that follow this pattern are ever successfully resolved – at least they weren’t to me.

It therefore seems that the moral of this book is that you can be a strong, independent woman with dreams and aspirations as long as you are still meek and submissive to anyone who has any real control over your life. I found this to be a problematic message, personally, and it ended up undermining a great deal of the fun I felt I should have been having with this book. That being said, however, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I would still recommend this novel, which is on the whole well-written and well-edited, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have always wanted to live the Tokyo dream. Also, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have not yet lived the dream but are considering it, I believe Turning Japanese offers a painfully accurate portrayal of reverse culture shock, or what happens when you go abroad and return home to find that everything has changed. I also believe that it is its honesty about this particular phenomenon that makes the novel worth reading not as popular fiction but perhaps as literature in its own right.