Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

Horses Horses

Title: Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure
Japanese Title: 馬たちよ、それでも光は無垢で
(Umatachi yo, sore demo hikari wa muku de)
Author: Furukawa Hideo (古川 日出男)
Translators: Doug Slaymaker and Akiko Takenaka
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 147

Furukawa Hideo, born in 1966 in Fukushima prefecture, is a prolific author who has won numerous awards for his work, which ranges from mystery to sci-fi to literary fiction. Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a memoir that defies genre as it responds to the March 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

Horses is the story of a road trip that the author makes to Fukushima almost immediately after the disasters. Furukawa lives in Tokyo, and he was in Kyoto when the earthquake hit. He describes himself watching the news on the television in his hotel room, unable to process what he was seeing but unable to look away. “That’s when that period of steady gazing began,” he admits (19). Furukawa describes his continuing shock as living in “spirited-away time,” as if “the dates of the calendar disappeared” (6).

He is shaken from his torpor by the voice of a character from a novel he has recently published, The Holy Family (Seikazoku). This character, who is from the Tōhoku region, tells the author to go there and see it for himself. Furukawa therefore gets in a car with three other people who are identified only by letters (as in, “Young S was driving”) and heads north from Tokyo, all the while commenting on the seemingly normal state of traffic, gas stations, and convenience stores. When he arrives at the affected area, however, nothing is normal. As Furukawa explains it…

We were overwhelmed by the sense of how powerful it was. The scene spread out before us, everything wiped clean away. There are no words for it. We didn’t just feel it, we were pummeled by it. I am ashamed to admit it – I want to spit at myself in disgust – but I was looking at the scene as if it were a great spectacle. I thought of air raids. And atomic-bomb sites. It hit me like a smack to the side of the head: it’s just like a city in wartime. I couldn’t help it. I exploded: “This scale, it spreads too far.” (41-42)

Although the disasters are never far from Furukawa’s mind, descriptions of its aftermath don’t form a particularly large portion of his narrative. Instead, he is concerned with his identity as a writer and his responsibility in chronicling what has happened. Throughout the book, Furukawa seems almost narcissistic in the way he dwells on the process of writing, as well as the invitations he receives to discuss it. This is not unique to Furukawa, of course; very rarely is an artist’s statement anything other than a validation of the artist’s ego. It’s what these meditations evolve into halfway through Horses that makes the book so interesting. Specifically, Furukawa tries to pick apart the various strands of meaning tangled up in the knot of Japanese identity, repeatedly returning to the question of how to approach Japanese history and myth. For example, he ponders…

How does one sing praises to this national land? Especially now, given that there is a second sun in the nuclear core? A meltdown that has taken its name from Fukushima. Can a name be given to this particular sun deity? (65)

Furukawa goes on to discuss how the vaunted warrior class and the great military leaders of the sixteenth century were brutal and pitiless murderers. “Our history is nothing more than a history of killing people,” he concludes (78). When he reflects on how he wrote about Japanese history in The Holy Family, Furukawa claims that he was therefore writing “for the horses.” If the history of humans is a history of killing people, then the history of horses is a history of being killed in human wars. Just like the animals around the Fukushima reactor, the lives of horses are affected by events that are only tangentially related to them. Although the author never makes this parallel clear, he suggests that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the “otherness” of domestic animals and the “otherness” of the people who fall outside the political center of Japan.

Furukawa’s memoir is not challenging in the traditional sense of being difficult to understand, but reading it can be challenging at times, as the author follows his train of thought without stopping for a full 140 pages. His style is not quite stream-of-consciousness, but he makes no attempt to order his thoughts or to impose structure to any sort of argument he might be making. As a response to the disasters, then, Horses feels less like a polemic and more organic and sincere. Furukawa ends his narrative on a somewhat surreal note, but Doug Slaymaker’s concise “Translator’s Afterword” neatly ties together the disconnected themes of the work, and I would recommend that the reader glance over it before embarking on the main text.

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a trenchant and often surprising work of literary ecocriticism. Furukawa transforms both the immediate disasters in Fukushima and the broader historical currents that flow around them into deeply personal experiences, resisting large narratives as he argues for the validity of individual stories, especially those that rarely make it into official histories. The smooth and well-considered translation gives the text, in all its complexity, a compelling sense of forward momentum. Furukawa’s memoir is just as engaging as it is important, and it will be of immense interest to anyone concerned with how views regarding the relationship between human beings and the natural environment have shifted during the twenty-first century.

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Title: Tales from a Mountain Cave
Japanese Title: 新作遠野物語 (Shinsaku Tōno monogatari)
Author: Inoue Hisashi (井上 ひさし)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Year Published: 2013 (England); 1976 (Japan)
Publisher: Thames River Press
Pages: 134

In 1910, the famous ethnologist Yanagita Kunio published the Tōno monogatari, a collection of folk legends from the Tōno region of central Iwate Prefecture in northeast Japan. Although the authenticity of these records is debatable, the collection is extremely important and has influenced subsequent generations of folklorists, including the inimitable manga artist Mizuki Shigeru. In 1975, Robert A. Morse translated the work as The Legends of Tono.

Inoue Hisashi was born in Yamagata Prefecture, which is southwest of Iwate but still in the Tōhoku region. Although famous primarily as a playwright, Inoue is also known for his novels, many of which are humorous and contain elements of fantasy and science fiction. Tales from a Mountain Cave, or “The New Legends of Tono” in its Japanese title, is Inoue’s take on the Tōno monogatari, which he sets in the coastal town of Kamaishi, just east of Tōno.

If you’re not a professional historian or ethnologist, the Tōno monogatari can require quite a bit of study to fully appreciate. Robert Morse’s translation is remarkably well done, and the book is nicely published, but the work is still difficult to read for pleasure. Tales from a Mountain Cave, on the other hand, is a lot of fun.

The nine stories in Tales from a Mountain Cave are relayed to the narrator, a young man taking time off from college, by an old man named Inubuse Takichi, who lives in a small cave in the mountains behind the sanatorium where the narrator works. Initially drawn to Inubuse by the sound of his trumpet, the narrator forms a habit of spending his lunch break with the old man, who rewards him with a series of stories about his life.

In these stories, which span from the 1920s through the early postwar period, Inubuse describes his hardships, his various forms of employment, his romantic relationships, and the odd characters he’s encountered. Not all of these characters are human, and each of the tales focuses on a supernatural occurrence, many of which are the doing of the yōkai that inhabit the region. Inubuse’s recollections of these creatures are vivid and refreshingly original. To give an example from the second story, “House up the River,” this is how the narrator summarizes Inubuse’s description of river imps called kappa:

According to him, there were several thousand kappa in the Hashino River, but when in the water they were translucent, like jellyfish. In fact they couldn’t be seen with human eyes at all. Once they were out of the river they took the form of children or travelers. In the mountains they appeared as monkeys or phesants. They could change size as well as appearance – a thousand kappa could hide in the puddle of a horse’s hoof print.

Far from being remixed or modernized versions of legend fragments, each story has a clear and compelling narrative arc; and, although they’re all connected, all but the last of the stories (which ties everything together) can be read by itself. The major theme of the collection seems to be the inability of human beings and yōkai to coexist, which can be understood as representing a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between human society and the dangerous wilderness of the Tōhoku region. If you’re looking for the sort of religious messages common in medieval Japanese folktales, they’re practically nonexistent, but Tales from a Mountain Cave does offer plenty of sexuality and earthy humor.

I really enjoyed this collection. It’s colorful, charming, and highly entertaining. Even if you’re not familiar with Japanese history or folklore, you’ll still enjoy Inoue Hisashi’s outrageous stories and charming prose.

Review copy provided by Thames River Press.

Vibrator

Vibrator

Title: Vibrator
Japanese Title: ヴァイブレータ (Vaiburēta)
Author: Akasaka Mari (赤坂 真理)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 155

Vibrator is not an easy book to read.

In the first twenty pages, the 31-year-old bulimic narrator describes her strategies for throwing up after meals. Apparently, the trick is to not allow the food to digest. Soda water helps too, it seems. Alcohol complicates matters, but it’s difficult to give up entirely, because it makes the voices go away.

As you might imagine, the narrator of Vibrator has Issues. The first third of the novel is occupied by her nerve-wracking, stream-of-consciousness jabber. What’s perhaps most disturbing about the narrator’s ranting is not that it so accurately reflects narratives of self-hatred and self-doubt, but that the circumstances she describes make her anxieties and self-destructive behavior seem entirely justified. Being an independent woman in a man’s world is hard, and the narrator knows that her beauty will fade as she grows older, thus depriving her of her only advantage over her male colleagues. Moreover, as a female journalist, the narrator is placed in situations in which she must comment not as a professional but as a representative member of her gender, which she finds banal and insulting. To anyone – male or female – who’s ever resented her job or lamented her relative lack of professional success, the narrator’s complaints will be painfully familiar.

One snowy night, after buying a liquid dinner in a Family Mart on her way home, the narrator almost runs headlong into a tracker-trailer on the edge of the convenience store parking lot. The driver, a twenty-something named Okabe, invites her into the cab. The narrator wants to spend more time observing the white world generated by the snow flurry, and she feels as if she has nothing to lose, so she accepts his offer. They talk while drinking, and before long they’re on the road to the northern Tōhoku region. Sex is involved, but more interesting than the smut is the intimacy of Okabe’s story about dropping out of high school to become a low-ranking member of a yakuza clan.

Vibrator is not quite a love story. At the end of the book, there’s no indication that the sudden relationship between the narrator and Okabe will amount to anything beyond the single ride they share. Still, it’s lovely to witness the garbled voices in the narrator’s head slowly fade as she is calmed by vibrations of the truck’s engine (the “vibrator” of the title) and Okabe’s placid self-assurance. Even if the narrator is unable to achieve any deep or permanent connection with Okabe, her escape from her own head and engagement with the landscapes flashing past the truck’s windows is satisfying and meaningful.

Vibrator may not an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worth reading, if only to witness the skill with which the translator, Michael Emmerich, has rendered its narrator’s many voices.

If you live in the United States, Hiroki Ryūichi’s 2003 cinematic adaptation of Vibrator is streaming on Netflix. The film features gorgeous long shots of the Japanese countryside, and the director effectively removes the characters from the narrator’s incessant stream-of-consciousness commentary, which creates an entirely different atmosphere for the story. Tom Mes highly recommends this movie, and it’s a beautiful interpretation of the novel.

Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae

Title: Thermae Romae
Japanese Title: テルマエ・ロマエ(Terumae Romae)
Artist: Yamazaki Mari (ヤマザキ マリ)
Translation: Stephen Paul
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 372

This manga is fantastic.

There’s a drawing of a naked man on the cover (you can see his penis under the removable acetate), and there’s a chapter about Roman and Japanese phallus worship. There’s also a chapter about the Bar Kokhba revolt that’s sympathetic to the Romans. The manga tacitly acknowledges Roman homosexuality (Emperor Hadrian is an important character) and Roman slavery (Emperor Hadrian thinks it’s funny that his pet crocodiles have bitten his slaves). All of this is in the background, however; and, if you can get around it, you will love this manga. It’s like reading a super-awesome issue of National Geographic, except with time travel.

Thermae Romae is about Lucius Modestus, a Roman architect living in the first half of the second century who specializes in designing baths and balnea, or bath houses. At the beginning of the story, he sees his own time as possessing an inferior bathing culture and wants to return Rome to the glory days of bathing, but his designs are considered old-fashioned and unmarketable. While taking a breather in a public bath house after being fired from his job at an architectural firm, Lucius slips and is sucked through a water vent into a sentō, or public bath, in twenty-first century Japan. Lucius thinks the Japanese are just slaves from one of the lands that Rome has conquered (he calls them “flat-faces”), and the Japanese think Lucius is just another clueless foreigner (they call him “gaijin-san”), and thankfully no gaping time-travel-related holes open in time and space. Lucius is taught the joys of contemporary Japanese baths; and, after being sucked through another hot water vent, he returns to Rome to share his own adaptations of certain aspects of this culture, which prove popular with his fellow romans.

Although the story gradually develops over the course of the manga, it remains largely episodic. In each chapter, Lucius encounters a problem, is transported to contemporary Japan, learns about Japanese bathing culture, returns to Rome, and implements his own versions of what he saw in Japan to the amazement and delight of everyone involved.

Through these episodes, the reader gets to visit various parts of the city of Rome, as well as locations such as Emperor Hadrian’s mansion in Tibur, Trastevere (a small city on the banks of the Tiber River), and the Roman province of Judea. Also on offer are the hot springs of the Tōhoku region, including monkey hot springs and therapeutic hot springs for convalescents. In his accidental journeys to Japan, Lucius also finds himself in the bathroom of a private residence, a corporate showroom for bathtubs, and even an aquarium that uses the water from a natural hot spring to create a habitat for crocodiles and banana trees.

If exploring contemporary Japan and ancient Rome is half the fun of this manga, the other half is watching Lucius in action. Lucius, earnest to a fault, is a classic straight man who is very serious about everything and responds to every situation he finds himself in with utmost sincerity. Although his upright personality isn’t directly exploited for laughs, it occasionally leads to humorous situations, such as when Lucius takes off his clothes in inappropriate places (for science!) in modern Japan. Mostly, however, Lucius’s personality allows him to act naturally in situations that would otherwise be extremely awkward or uncomfortable. He’s a sympathetic character, and his intelligence and curiosity allow the reader to see and experience more than would be possible if Lucius were a more cynical or self-conscious person.

At first glance there seems to be an undercurrent of “everything in Japan is the best thing ever” running throughout the manga, but I don’t think the artist ever takes the story seriously enough for her celebration of Japanese bath culture to come off as jingoistic. Through Lucius, who is by turns clueless and comically sincere, Yamazaki pokes fun at both ancient Rome and contemporary Japan. The Romans thought they were the most civilized people in the world, but their culture is capable of improvement through outside influences; and, while Japan has a fantastic bathing culture, it’s not flawless either. If Emperor Hadrian trying to recreate the scenery of the Egypt in his private estate is a bit silly, so too is a Japanese zoo that grows bananas. Whether it’s foreign live-in caregivers for elderly people in Japan or Lucius’s frustrated wife leaving him for another man after he runs off to spend three years in Judea, the manga always treats its subject with gentle good humor.

Yamazaki’s art isn’t hyper-detailed, but it is pleasantly realistic. Although she uses screen tone, most of the texture in her drawing, such as the roughness of cloth or the movement of water or the blush on freshly bathed skin, is conveyed by pen strokes. She slightly abbreviates both line and texture in about half of her panels to give the page a clean and open feel and to draw attention to the more visually dense panels. There are always several pages in each chapter that display nothing more than talking heads, but Yamazaki is capable of conveying such a wide and deep range of emotion with facial expressions and body language that these pages never become oppressive or boring.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me in Thermae Romae were the two-page essays at the end of each chapter. These essays, which are always accompanied by a handful of captioned images, offer the reader a few more details about the cultural and historical elements of the preceding chapter. Yamazaki supplements factual information with her experiences travelling through Europe and Japan and anecdotes about famous figures of the ancient world, and her essays are entertaining without ever becoming too personal or pedantic.

Yen Press has done a beautiful job with Thermae Romae. Although the book is a bit too large to comfortably read in the bath, the extra size is worth the better print quality. It’s also worth mentioning that Stephen Paul’s translation is superb. When I read the manga in Japanese earlier this year, I wondered how certain aspects of the text (such as the Tōhoku dialect spoken by a handful of secondary characters) could be handled in translation, and I think the translator and editorial staff did a wonderful job; the language in Thermae Romae is beautifully smooth with no awkward translatorese or corny attempts to reproduce dialect.

Thermae Romae is fantastic. I’m so happy this manga finally made it to America.

March Was Made of Yarn

Title: March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on
the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
Editors: Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 216

As the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami draws closer, Japanese bookstores have begun to promote retrospective magazine-books. These publications are filled with huge glossy photographs of destruction, and the number of people killed is printed in bold characters across their covers. Although such disaster porn is disturbing, it helps to illustrate a definite aspect of the reality of what happened a year ago in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn helps to illustrate another aspect of the reality of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis. If pictures and body counts inform the physical reality, then this collection of fiction and nonfiction offers insight into the emotional reality. Thankfully, March Was Made of Yarn is infinitely more gentle and subtle than sensationalist reporting and sentimental recollections of heroism and despair.

Even though all of the short pieces brought together by this collection address the events of last year in some fashion, many do so obliquely, and the themes of the pieces are universal. What is it like to live through a crisis? What is it like to know that other people are living through a crisis? What does it feel like to worry about the future? What does it feel like when science fiction becomes reality? What happens when you’re so sick with worry that you can’t fall asleep at night? What happens when words can no longer express truth or meaning?

March Was Made of Yarn features the work of internationally renowned Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kakuta Mitsuyo, Furukawa Hideo, and Tawada Yōko. These writers don’t cut corners in their craft simply because they happen to be responding to a topical issue; and, although none of them are writing “happy” stories or essays, their work is a pleasure to read. Kawakami Hiromi, who rewrote her debut story “Kami-sama” (translated as “God Bless You”) to address the incidents at the Fukushima reactor, reminds us that, even though we live in a world shadowed by the fear of radiation and environmental poisoning, we still need to eat, and we still want to go outside. The title story, Kawakami Mieko’s “March Yarn,” deals with the strange ways in which people process their memories and their understanding of their relationships with each other. Tanikawa Shuntarō’s poem “Words,” which opens the book, poses the question of how we can even write about things for which there are no words (yet still “Words put forth buds / From the earth beneath the rubble”). The translators who contributed to this volume are among the best in the field, and their skill illuminates the entirety of the collection.

March Was Made of Yarn isn’t just an excellent anthology of work related to the Tōhoku disasters; it’s an excellent Japanese literary anthology period. The range of authors represented by the book has the most even distribution of gender, generation, and genre I’ve ever encountered, and the English-language contributors, such as David Peace and John Burnham Schwartz, bring an added level of flavor and diversity. This collection is also accessible to casual readers, as few of the stories are any longer than twenty pages, and it has been beautifully published by Vintage. I don’t know how so many good things were able to come together to create this amazing book, but I am extraordinarily grateful that it exits.

March Was Made of Yarn should be available at all major bookstores in North America, Britain, Australia, and Japan, and it’s available on the Kindle Store as well.

If you don’t mind reading entirely in PDF digital format, please consider checking out Waseda University’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature Project, which has some overlap with March Was Made of Yarn. It’s free to download and read the PDF versions of the stories and essays on the website, and the reader is encouraged to make a donation to disaster relief efforts afterwards.