Title: Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter
Artists: Atelier Sentō (Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard)
Translator: Marie Velde
Publication Year: 2016 (France); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 128

This story was inspired by one of our trips to Niigata, during the fall of 2014. We dedicate it to the people we’ve met there. They welcomed us with overwhelming generosity and helped us discover the region and its secrets. Some of these people will appear in this book. We hope they will enjoy it.

This paragraph prefaces Onibi, a diary-style graphic novel written and drawn by Atelier Sentō, the creative team of Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard. In the late summer and fall of 2014, Brun and Pichard were able to spend about ten weeks living in the small village of Saruwada thanks to the efforts of Kosuke and Sumie Baba, who run a small restaurant and international guesthouse called Margutta 51. At the beginning of their stay, Brun and Pichard bought a toy Polaroid camera from a man who assured them that it could photograph spirits, so they went out ghosthunting. Onibi is the result of their travels and conversations.

Along with a short prologue and epilogue, Onibi has seven chapters, each of which chronicles a local legend related to the yōkai of Niigata prefecture in northern Japan. Sime of Brun and Pichard’s excursions were facilitated by the proprietors of Margutta 51, who introduced them to people with stories to share. Some of their encounters happened completely by chance, however, and most don’t play out as expected. In the second chapter, for example, Brun and Pichard take the train to a small village to find a creature called “Buru Buru-kun,” but they find that the old forest where it’s said to live has been cut down to make room for rice fields. In the seventh chapter, Brun and Pichard visit Osorezan, a temple in the caldera of an active volcano where the world of the living and the world of the dead are believed to meet. They misplace their ghost camera as they explore the strange surroundings of the temple, but the conversations they have with their fellow pilgrims make the journey worthwhile.

I especially enjoyed the fourth chapter, “Mountain’s Shadow,” which is about the pair’s chance encounter with a man who gives them a walking tour of Yahiko. The village is famous for its fall foliage, but it’s deserted during the week. After taking in the sights, Brun and Pichard step into a small udon restaurant, where they’re approached by a man who offers to tell them about the local yōkai. He takes them to a large tree in town and then up a hill to a mountainside temple, after which they embark on a walking trail through the woods. Instead of taking the tram down the mountain once it gets dark, they decide to walk, and they hear strange noises in the trees as they descend. This episode is enhanced by its visual appeal as the color palette shifts from the brown of the restaurant interior to the gold of the afternoon sunlight in the village to the blue of the forest twilight.

The comic artwork in Onibi is gentle and warm, with a gorgeous color palette and a pleasing compositional balance on each page. The humans who appear in the book are distinctive without coming off as caricatures, and the landscapes, townscapes, and interiors are striking. Brun and Pichard pay special attention to natural and artificial lighting and weather conditions, making the reader feel almost as if they’re right walking right beside the artists as the summer shifts into fall. Tuttle has released a beautiful Kindle edition of the book, but I highly recommend the print version, which allows the reader to appreciate the details and textures of the artwork.

Although it hints at some fairly dark themes, Onibi is more atmospheric than spooky, and it should be suitable for people of all ages. If I were teaching a class about Japanese folklore (and Onibi makes me dearly want to teach such a class), I think the graphic novel might serve as an interesting companion to Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing, especially the chapter on Osorezan. Even for people with no background knowledge of Japan, Onibi is a fascinating exploration of a beautiful part of the world, as well as a lovely introduction to the people who live there – and the supernatural creatures who may just live alongside them.

Manabeshima: Island Japan

Manabeshima

Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 142 (plus one amazing map)

I love French artist Florent Chavouet‘s 2009 book Tokyo on Foot, which captures the charm and vibrancy of my favorite city. Manabeshima: Island Japan was a tougher sell for me, as I’m not particularly interested in nature or rural communities. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the careful attention Chavouet brings to human habitats – garbage and vending machines and rusting powerlines and all – has carried over from Tokyo to Manabeshima. Regardless of whether he’s drawing the town or the ocean and forests that surround it, Chavouet transforms the mundane into the extraordinary with his gorgeous colored pencil illustrations.

Because he felt that he had only been exposed to a tiny fraction of the Japanese archipelago, Chavouet decided to spend a summer on an island he hadn’t yet seen, and he ended up in Manabeshima, Okayama Prefecture, population 326. According to the artist, the average age of the people living on the island is around 50 years old, and many of them are already well set in their daily routines. Chavouet observes them on their daily progress, taking careful note of their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, as well as the props they use on the stage of their daily lives. His artistic interest is drawn not only to humans, but also to the island’s abundant wildlife, including cicadas, fish, and cats. These cats gradually become characters in their own right as Chavouet documents their small dramas and battles over contested territory.

My favorite part of Manabeshima is how the artist portrays architecture as a living part of the environment and the island society, with each room and table and upended bucket telling its own story. Cars and boats become palimpsests of personal history, and each garden and untended backyard is portrayed its own tiny ecosystem. Chavouet also pays particular obeisance to food, placing each meal in context, whether it’s a community barbeque or freshly prepared sashimi.

I must admit that a certain amount of anxiety underlay my reading of Manabeshima. As with any travel account, part of the pleasure of the experience involves imagining yourself following in the footsteps of the writer. Even if it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, like the hiking the Shikoku pilgrimage route, it’s still fun to pretend that you’re there along with the author, sharing her triumphs and sympathizing with her tribulations. In the case of Chavouet’s account of Manabeshima, this sort of identification was very difficult for me.

Although nothing in the book makes this explicit, Chavouet’s experiences are gendered. Within the first twenty pages, he makes it clear to the reader that he has been, after a fashion, accepted into the community. He is taken in by Ikkyu-san, the owner of a small bar and restaurant who plies him with food and alcohol, asking only that he sit and eat and drink with the regulars. He is invited to two religious ceremonies (a Buddhist ritual presided over by Ikkyu-san and an evening of Shinto kagura dances), where he is expected only to sit and eat and drink. He goes to the neighborhood association meetings, he gets invited to go out crab fishing, and he participates in the island summer festival. He seems like an extremely friendly person, and he mentions exchanging drawings for food and goodwill; but, if anyone ever requests that he do anything except enjoy himself, the reader never hears anything about it.

My own experience with small communities both inside and outside of Japan is that, in order to be included, I am expected to perform labor, such as cooking or laundry or childcare. Since I am an undomesticated animal who is not good at any of this, things always get awkward. If you asked me if I, as a woman, would want to spend two months in a tiny village on a small island, my response would be something along the lines of AW HELL NO. While Chavouet would be eating and drinking, I would more than likely be summoned to the kitchen to help do the dishes. I use the hypothetical example of being asked to help clean up because it’s actually happened to me enough times (especially in Japan) that I would almost be taken aback if it didn’t. In other words, the price of admission is gendered and – let’s be honest – unfairly so.

Again, there’s nothing in the book that suggests that the people on Manabeshima are old-fashioned sexist pigs, but Chavouet is definitely writing from a privileged position, and your ability to identify with this position will more than likely affect your relationship to the world Chavouet creates for you with his words and illustrations. Personally, I found reading Manabeshima to be a bit stressful because I couldn’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop, like, so when are they going to ask him to serve tea? (Spoiler: No one ever does.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am enamored of Chavouet as a kind and compassionate observer who can communicate the wonder and beauty of even the most commonplace objects and settings, and his already enviable skill in drawing and annotating his environment has tangibly improved since Tokyo on Foot. Still, I can’t help but prefer Tokyo on Foot, which pieces together a physical, social, and cultural landscape that even the most casual of readers can easily enter. While Tokyo on Foot collects a multitude of fragments and progressively demonstrates how they are all connected, everything is already a cohesive whole in Manabeshima, which, unlike Tokyo on Foot, has a cast of recurring characters and something resembling a narrative. On the other hand, although it’s harder for a reader to imagine entering this narrative herself, the easy flow of the story renders Manabeshima a more satisfying extended reading experience.

The best part of Tuttle’s lovely softcover edition of Manabeshima is that it comes with a huge map folded into a pocket on the back cover. This map is intensely detailed, showing every house and garden and boat on the island and labeled with references to people, landmarks, and events from the main text. I spent at least an hour with the map alone, catching new details each time I opened it and spread it out over my kitchen table.

If you have kids in your life, and if you’d like to get one of those kids (or their parents) a really cool present, consider handing them a copy of Manabeshima, whose every page celebrates the thrill of exploration and discovery.

A review copy was provided by the good people at Tuttle Publishing.

Manabeshima Page 111

Cool Japan Guide

Cool Japan Guide

Title: Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen
Artist: Abby Denson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 127

Abby Denson is a comics writer who has worked on a number of high-profile and kid-friendly titles, such as the comic adaptations of Powerpuff Girls and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She’s also drawn two graphic novels of her own, Dolltopia and Tough Love: High School Confidential, both of which I love beyond all reason. She has a quirky style all her own, and her charm shines from everything she creates.

I should probably get this out of the way first – Denson is a wonderful writer, but her art can sometimes be a little uneven. In Cool Japan Guide, the continuity between panels is inconsistent, and her characters all tend to have the same の∇の facial expression. The coloring is absolutely flat, and the bright primary colors can occasionally clash against each other violently.

Even if Denson’s art style isn’t to your taste, is Cool Japan Guide still worth reading?

It definitely is!

As you progress through the book, the art will grow on you, I promise. Denson has a special talent for depicting places and objects, and the details of each panel are fun and creatively stylized.

All of Denson’s travel advice is spot-on. Seriously, this woman has excellent taste – if she recommends something, then it’s definitely worth doing. By all means, check out the train-themed socks for sale at Tokyo Station! Try the sweet potato soft serve ice cream in Kamakura! Enjoy a cocktail at the 8bit Café in Shinjuku! Make plans to attend the Kaigai Manga Festa! Soak in the warm water and kitschy atmosphere of Oedo Onsen Monogatari!

Cool Japan Guide also offers a fair bit of reference material, such as websites with travel resources and smartphone apps convenient for tasks like train scheduling and quickly finding phrases in Japanese. Each chapter is preceded by eight or nine useful words or expressions, and the hand-drawn map of Japan at the end of the book is a treasure, especially for people planning longer journeys.

Cool Japan Guide is definitely not for the type of thirty-something hipsters who are into the Wallpaper* city guides or the type of forty-something yuppies who are into Fodor’s, but I can imagine a younger person smiling with joy while reading through the book. Since Denson takes care to ensure that the content is family-friendly, the book would make a great gift for a child or teenager. The gentle silliness and positivity of the guide succeed in making it enjoyable for older readers as well.

For more pictures, stories, and news, Abby Denson has her own website, and Cool Japan Guide has its own Tumblr.

Review copy provided by Tuttle.

Cool Japan Guide Page 37

Rivalry

Title: Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale
Japanese: 腕くらべ (Ude kurabe)
Author: Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 1917 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 165

Nagai Kafū is a fascinating person and an incredible writer, but, without access to the resources of a university library, it’s almost impossible to find his work in translation. Thankfully, Columbia University Press has recently released a paperback edition of Stephen Synder’s excellent translation of one of the writer’s most popular novels. Rivalry is full of rich detail and beautifully drawn characters, as well as compelling melodrama that draws the characters and setting together into a highly entertaining story.

The narrative perspective of Rivalry is split between multiple characters, but the protagonist of the story is Komayo, an aging geisha (she’s 25 years old) who married and left Tokyo to live with her husband’s family in the country. When her husband dies three years into the marriage, Komayo finds herself increasingly alienated by his family and thus returns to Tokyo, where she resumes her life as a geisha. Komayo is beautiful and highly talented in a number of traditional arts, and her goal is to secure a patron, or danna, who will buy out her contract with the house that currently employs her and help support her as she begins a career as an artist and proprietor of her own establishment in the “flower and willow world” of professional entertainers.

At the beginning of the novel, the top candidate for Komayo’s danna is a wealthy “man of affairs” named Yoshioka, who had known Komayo in his student days. Yoshioka wants to rise in the world, and he sees his patronage of the highly desirable Komayo as a means to do so. Komayo enters into a financial and sexual relationship with Yoshioka but also falls in love with Segawa, a Kabuki actor specializing in female roles. When Yoshioka learns of this relationship, his pride is so affronted that he begins to scheme at how to get back at Komayo. Meanwhile, how long can Komayo’s relationship with a fellow performer actually last?

Oh, the drama!

Rivalry is like Gossip Girl with geisha, and it is immensely entertaining to watch these beautiful people fall in and out of love and squabble with each other. The trappings of the world they occupy are just as glamorous as they are, and the reader is often given the opportunity to pass judgment on characters based on their outfits. For example, this is Komayo at the beginning of the novel:

Her hair was done in a low shimada style with an openwork, silver-covered comb and a jade hairpin. She had changed into a kimono of light crepe with a fine stripe. The effect was quite refined, but perhaps fearing that it would seem too old for her, she had added a half collar with elaborate embroidery. Her obi was made of crepe in the old-fashioned Kaga style, lined with black satin, and it was held together with a sash of light blue crepe dyed in a bold pattern. The cord word over the obi was a deep celadon green decorated in front with a large pearl. (10-11)

Obviously, such an elegant and tasteful woman should hold our sympathies. Here is Segawa at the end of the novel:

He sat casually with his legs folded to one side, as a woman would, showing a bit of the material of his underkimono, a yellow brown fabric dyed with a pattern of wheels rolling through waves that could only be a specific order from the Erien. His obi, narrow in the old style and tightly bound, was made of satin decorated with a single stripe and marked at one end with the name of the maker embroidered in red. It was most likely the work of the Hiranoya in Hama-chō. On most men, this costume would have been terribly gaudy, but for an onnagata it seemed positively inspired. (136)

What a rake! But what woman wouldn’t fall for such a handsome devil?

Komayo and her relationship with Segawa take center stage, but other characters flit in and out of the story. One of my favorite of these characters is Kikuchiyo, a geisha who is more Western than Japanese. Her sensuality isn’t expressed by her art but directly connected to her concupiscent physicality. Interestingly enough, Kikuchiyo’s ambition is to become a stage actress in the new Western-style theater productions. Also amusing are Kurayama Nansō and Yamai Kaname. Both are writers; but, while Nansō writes Edo-style novels and lives in a beautiful old Japanese house with a traditional garden, Yamai writes modern confessional novels and lives like a vagrant. The two men are friends, and their commentary and ramblings through the glitzy Asakusa neighborhood help to create critical distance from the main story while establishing the world of professional entertainers in a wider context.

It’s difficult to separate any story of geisha from discussions of sexual slavery and sexual politics. I won’t give my own opinions here, but Rivalry itself has more than enough to say concerning the paid relations between women and men, which it views from both a male and a female perspective.

For a man, the patronage of a geisha is apparently about ownership and practicality. This is how Yoshioka sees Komayo in a particularly intimate moment:

He wanted to see every detail of her expression, every inch of her body as she writhed with pleasure. He wanted to see her beg him to stop. Among all his experiences, this was the richest; among all the postures and poses he had seen in erotic prints, these were the most exotic – and he wanted to study them with his eyes wide open. (22)

This is how Yoshioka justifies his dalliance with geisha in his student days:

Rather than suppress his sexual desire only to risk shaming himself by falling under the spell of a maid or some other amateur, it was far safer to spend the money to buy a woman properly when needed. To pay for a woman and have her without undue worry to relieve his sexual tension and then pass his examinations with high marks – this was combing duty with pleasure and, he though, killing two birds with one stone. For a young man of the modern age, in whom there was no trace of the Confucian values that had shaped earlier generations, the only thing that mattered was success, reaching his goal, and he’d had neither the inclination nor the leisure to question the means that got him there. (36)

For the geisha herself, relationships with men are mostly based on practicality and careful planning, and geisha understand what they must tolerate in order to become financially self-sufficient. Here, Komayo and Hanasuke (another geisha in Komayo’s house) discuss whether Komayo should take on another steady client:

Hanasuke’s attitude was that men were fine when things were going well, but once they had a change of heart, they could be terribly cruel. This sentiment fitted nicely with Komayo’s long-standing theory that men were fickle by nature, and from that time the two women began to compare notes more frequently. Ultimately, they decided that the best plan was to put away as much as they possibly could while they still had earning power and thereby accumulate the resources that would allow them to live comfortably, perhaps running a small business of some sort, and have nothing further to do with men. (52)

Having taken on this client, a physically imposing man from Yokohama who made his fortune in the import business, Komayo must then deal with him:

The sea monster was silent, his eyes, dim with saké, passing back and forth between the enticing scene of the bed and the melancholy figure of the woman seated with her back to the lamp. Like a gourmet before an array of delicacies, he seemed unsure where to begin; but he was in no hurry, choosing instead to study the prospects carefully, determined, when the time came, to lick the carcass down to the marrow, according to some private design of his own. For her part, Komayo recoiled from those piercing eyes, and yet she knew there was no use objecting at this point. As long as she was in no real danger, no matter what happened she would quickly close her eyes and try to bring things to a conclusion as quickly as possible. (60)

Although the novel gradually shifts to the perspective of its male characters as its female characters become more embittered against each other, the author never lets his readers forget that the women who operate within the confines of the glamorous world of geisha are real human beings who are just as rational and aware of their social and economic circumstances as the men who enter into relationships with them. There is also much more variety in the female characters of Rivalry than in the novel’s male characters, and Kafū uses the attitudes and behavior of these women to subtly illustrate generation gaps and shifts cultural ideology between various understandings of “traditional” and “modern.”

Rivalry is an accessible novel that rewards multiple readings. It’s exciting and scandalous and sexy enough to read for pleasure, but it’s also intricate and detailed enough to be used in a classroom. The themes of the novel are timeless and universal, but Kafū is also able to open a window onto a different time and place with his incredible prose.

Stephen Synder’s translation of Kafū’s novel is excellent. As the above passages detailing the clothing of Komayo and Segawa demonstrate, Synder is superbly skilled at rendering even the most Japanese of descriptions and settings into natural and readable English. The one word left in italics is danna, but the translator’s six-page introduction at the beginning of the novel explains the meaning and context of this term as it relates to the pleasure districts of Tokyo during the Taishō era. Synder’s translation is an enormous improvement over the translation by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich published by Tuttle, which is currently available on the Kindle store. Even though Columbia University Press’s physical publication of Snyder’s translation is gorgeous, I wish they would release a digital edition as well.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press

Kusamakura

Title: Kusamakura
Japanese Title: 草枕 (Kusamakura)
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Meredith McKinney
Publication Year: 1906 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 152

I don’t know whether it’s the tasteful covers, the velvety paper, the typeface, or the footnotes, but I love Penguin Classics. And I love it that they’re commissioning and publishing new translations of Japanese literature. Immediately before Kusamakura, I read the new Penguin translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, also translated by Meredith McKinney. This is probably not something someone who makes her business studying literature should say, but sometimes the publishing quality of a book makes all the difference for one’s enjoyment. A short but helpful and non-pretentious introduction, cogent yet unobtrusive footnotes, and a fluid and readable translation make texts like Kusamakura so much more worth reading in my eyes. I feel extraordinarily grateful to both Penguin and McKinney for the vast improvement they have made over the outdated Tuttle publications.

Aside from the cosmetic changes, what makes this new translation of Kusamakura worth reading? It is, quite simply, an intensely beautiful book. To put it in a different way, it is an aesthetically pleasing book about aesthetics. Many foreigners could be accused to coming to Japan while chasing a Japan fantasy; Kusamakura is Sōseki’s pursuit of this same Japan fantasy.

A nameless flâneur who styles himself as an artist escapes the harsh words (“fart counting”) of his critics in Tokyo by journeying to a small mountain hot springs village called Nakoi. There he observes the local culture and flora while casually interacting with the daughter of the owner of his inn, the abbot of the local temple, and a few other colorful characters. All the while, the narrator muses on art, poetry, and life. He references Chinese poets like Wang Wei and Tao Yuanming, Nō plays like Takasago and Hagoromo, and Japanese artists like Nagasawa Rosetsu and Maruyama Ōkyo while still sneaking in references to John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia and Gotthold Lessing’s essay Laocoön. All this seems far removed from the military conflicts brewing with Russia and China on the mainland, and the modernity of crowded urban spaces, bustling public life, and anonymous train stations is kept at bay until the end of the novel, when the monk nephew of the inn’s owner is shipped away to war.

I did not read deeply into Kusamakura, but rather took it at face value as a testament to the nostalgia Sōseki must have felt for the old Japanese way of life, which was still preserved in isolated rural areas but vanishing quickly from the cultural landscape. Of course Sōseki does treat his narrator with a small degree of irony and invites his readers to laugh at him as well as sympathize with him, and of course traces of nationalist discourse can be found in this supposedly anti-modernist work, but I feel that the pleasure of this short novel lies in its descriptions of a beautiful mountain village and its vivid portraits of quaint rural characters.

To illustrate the allure of Sōseki’s Japan fantasy, I would like to offer a passage in which the narrator relaxes in the bath….

Chill autumn fog, a spring’s mist serenely trailing fingers, and the blue smoke that rises as the evening meal is cooked – all deliver up to the heavens the transient form of our ephemeral self. Each touches us in a different way. But only when I am wrapped, naked, by these soft spring clouds of evening steam, as now, do I feel I could well become someone from a past age. The steam envelops me but not so densely that the visible world is lost to view; neither is it a mere thin, silken swath that, were it to be whipped away, would reveal me as a normal naked mortal of this world. My face is hidden within voluminous layers of veiling steam that swirl all around me, burying me deep within its warm rainbows. I have heard the expression “drunk on wine” but never “drunk on vapors.” If such an expression existed, of course, it could not apply to mist and would be too heady to apply to haze. This phrase would seem fully applicable only to this fog of steam, with the necessary addition of the descriptive “spring evening.”