Drop Dead Cute

Title: Drop Dead Cute
Author: Ivan Vartanian
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Pages: 160

When I first picked up this book several years ago, I was quite disappointed. With a title like “Drop Dead Cute” and references to Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo in the blurb on the inside cover, I had expected the book to contain more of what I saw as “anime art” (or perhaps “manga art”). In fact, however, the deliciously pink cover image by Takano Aya is as close as this book gets to anime art. The rest of the book isn’t even cute. It’s disturbing, yes, and violent, yes, and all sorts of interesting and creative, but not cute.

Which leads me to wonder, upon closer examination, what exactly the title means by “cute.” To me, “cute” is something that elicits an emotional response along the lines of “Oh my gosh I want to love on it.” The pieces exhibited in Drop Dead Cute aren’t exactly that sort of cute (and, to that effect, I would wager that the emphasis in the title is actually on “drop dead”). The book is filled with animals, however, and plant life. Much of this flora and fauna is anthropomorphic. There are also plenty of young women (and almost no men) and a profusion of soft pastel colors.

Kudo Makiko opens the book with her oil paintings of young girls, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dreaming, who have found themselves in strange landscapes guided only by cats and dogs. Murata Yuko renders animals and landscapes in simple compositions consisting of wide, sweeping brushstrokes. Hosoya Yuiko is represented by pencil drawings of sullen young women that look like the work of a beginning art student, with finger smudges and blank backgrounds. Ban Chinatsu, famous for her collaboration with Murakami Takashi in the New York Japan Society’s “Little Boy” exhibition of 2005, paints huge acrylic canvases filled with baby elephants in pursuit of underpants. Murase Kyoko works in all sorts of media, from traditional oils to white out pen on yellow legal paper, but her naked drowning girls are equally unsettling no matter what her canvas. Tabaimo’s work is, as always, something straight out of a horror movie.

My two favorite artists in this collection are Aoshima Chiho and Takano Aya. Although Aoshima claims that she doesn’t read manga or watch anime, her works closely resemble the anime style, filled as they are with fantastic, wide-eyed girls sporting wild hair of various colors and very little clothing. In her work, these girls are bound, eaten, digested, rotting, free floating, and reborn in amazingly detailed, brightly colored graveyards and Edens. Since the majority of her work is digital, her photo manipulations, which juxtapose her cartoon-like demon girls against ordinary Japanese backdrops, blend seamlessly into the rest of her oeuvre. Takano, whose artwork was used for the cover of this book, does in fact draw manga, or at least sequential art resembling manga, and she is represented in this collection by a short, colorful, manga-esque piece titled “Subterraned,” which I think is by itself worth the price of the entire book. Her artist’s statement, which delves into themes of sci-fi and eroticism, is also quite interesting.

Each of the ten artists is given a three page introduction, with doodles at the top of the pages and text based on interviews at the bottom. Following each introduction are eleven pages showcasing the works of the artist, with one, or occasionally more, pieces per page. The titles of the pieces are given in English, but each artist has also handwritten the original title of the piece next to the English entry. The book begins with a twelve page, well-illustrated introductory essay by Ivan Vartanian and ends with short biographies of all the artists. Everything is full color, and the publication quality is just about as high as it can go.

The artists featured in this book are:

Kudo Makiko
Aoshima Chiho
Murata Yuko
Aoki Ryoko
Hosoya Yuiko
Takano Aya
Ban Chinatsu
Murase Kyoko
Kusama Yayoi
Tabaimo

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.