The Budding Tree

Title: The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo
Japanese Title: 恋忘れ草 (Koiwasuregusa)
Author: Kitahara Aiko (北原亞以子)
Translator: Ian MacDonald
Publication Year: 1993 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 170

This past fall, I took a seminar on ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints depicting the “floating world” of the Edo period (1600-1868) urban pleasure districts. As we studied the courtesan prints of artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, we kept running up against the same issue: prostitution. Namely, what were the lives of the women painted by Utamaro really like? Were these women as glamorous as they seem in ukiyo-e, or were they sex slaves who lived miserable lives and died at an early age of starvation and disease? Or did they perhaps fall somewhere in between the two extremes, victims of their fates but still holding on to a measure of personal agency and control over their lives? As our class debated this issue, I couldn’t help but think about The Budding Tree.

Kitahara’s short story collection The Budding Tree is not about courtesans, but it is about Edo-period women who have close connections to the floating world. Each of the six stories in this collection has a different female protagonist: a Confucian tutor, a calligrapher who pens text that will be printed as gesaku popular novels, a singer of jōruri popular stage ballads, a hairpin designer who manages her own store, a rising print artist who works with Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s publisher, and the manager of an exclusive restaurant. Although the women don’t know each other directly, their stories are connected in small ways, and a unity of theme ties these stories together into a cohesive whole. Each of these women is struggling to make it in a man’s world, and each therefore leads a somewhat complicated love life.

I’m not an expert on the Edo period, so I’m not sure how realistic Kitahara’s depiction of her setting (Edo at the turn of the nineteenth century) actually is. From what I know of the lives of Hokusai’s daughters (especially Katsushika Ōi), however, her depiction of urban working women at the time isn’t too far off. As historical fiction, the stories in The Budding Tree are interesting and satisfying, especially since the swashbuckling samurai that one usually encounters in Japanese historical fiction are kept offstage. It is my (perhaps futile) hope that Ian MacDonald’s excellent translation will find a wide audience, so that other Japanese female-centric historical fiction, such as the Edo-period female detective stories of Miyabe Miyuki, will find their way into American bookstores.

I therefore recommend The Budding Tree to anyone with an interest in the Edo period, historical fiction, women’s literature, or just plain good romantic stories. The one caveat I might offer concerns the translation’s complete absence of footnotes. There are more than a few non-translated and non-glossed terms (such as jōruri, i.e., the songs of the puppet theater) that appear with frequency throughout the text, as well the names of actual historical figures and geographical landmarks with which a casual reader might not be familiar. Hopefully, however, the stories themselves will whet the reader’s appetite to learn more about the world of early nineteenth century Edo.

From Impressionism to Anime

From Impressionism to Anime

Title: From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West
Author: Susan Napier
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Palgrave
Pages: 243

Let me start off by listing the obvious flaws of this book. First of all, the cover. It’s terrible. Whose idiot idea was it to take a crappy photo of crappy cosplay, run it through the “Impressionism” filter in Photoshop, and then put it on the cover of a book? According to the back cover, this monstrosity is the work of “Scribe Inc.” Shame on you, Scribe Inc., and shame on you, Palgrave, for letting them get away with it! Second of all, in a book primarily concerned with visual culture, there are surprisingly few illustrations. To be precise, there are ten, and only four of them are in color. This I am going to blame on the author, whose 2005 work Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is also surprisingly under-illustrated (while other Palgrave scholarly publications have no shortage of well placed, high-quality greyscale images). Napier has no excuse for this, especially since the cosplay culture she details so lovingly is all about getting pictures of itself published. Third, Napier’s scope is very broad, but her treatment of her many topics is, perhaps unsurprisingly, shallow. I did not find this to be the case with Anime (despite many critical accusations to the contrary), but I’m disappointed with what I found to be the lack of sustained intellectual rigor in Impressionism.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me be something of a fangirl for a second and say that I love all of Napier’s work, Impressionism included. Napier always manages to choose the most fascinating things to write about, and she always does an excellent job of explaining why her chosen subject matter is interesting and important. Her analysis is apt, penetrating, and lucid, and her work does not suffer from any of the structural weakness found in a great deal of recent academic work – you always know what she’s trying to say, and her way of saying it is both logical and artistic. Although her theoretical background is rock solid (her bibliographies are a bit intimidating), she doesn’t blithely toss around big names and critical jargon. Also, you can tell that, even though she occasionally betrays a bit of light-hearted sarcasm, she has nothing but respect for the topics of her studies.

This attitude of respect is very important for a work like Impressionism, which deals with some strange and, depending on one’s perspective, almost contemptible subject matter. The book is divided into eight chapters (not including the Introduction and Conclusion). The first four chapters each take up a different aspect of the West’s fascination with Japan during the last two centuries. The first chapter covers turn-of-the-century Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, who revolutionized the fine arts with a little inspiration from Japan, or at least the “Japan” of their imaginations. The second chapter goes into famous inter-war Japan enthusiasts such as Lafcadio Hearn, Arthur Waley, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The third chapter follows the antics of post-war American writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michel Crichton, and William Gibson, and the fourth chapter is all about how Western men perceive and interact with Japanese women in works like Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha. The last four chapters, which I consider to be the true raison d’être of this book, deal with American anime fandom and all its various manifestations, from anime conventions to cosplay to slash fan fiction. Through all of this, Napier attempts to uncover the source of the West’s long fascination with Japan, all the while making astute references to the global political and economic climates during which this fascination has become manifest.

The first four chapters, while interesting, are, as I said earlier, somewhat shallow. Each topic that Napier covers in these chapters has been written about extensively by other scholars, a fact which she openly acknowledges. Her originality here lies in the fact that she documents what she sees as a trend, although she is cautious about saying that the various moments in the history of what I am going to call “Japan fandom” are directly related. The main point of interest for readers is the work that Napier has done on post-1980 American anime fandom, which is the culmination of many years of interviews and surveys. Mainly speaking through the voices of the fans she has contacted, Napier attempts to explain the appeal of contemporary Japanese popular culture to Americans, often in contrast to American popular culture. Although she offers no strong conclusion, the variety of insights Napier offers are invaluable.

My one real criticism of this study is that, although Napier hints at exposing the power relations underlying fan culture, she never really follows through. In other words, she is mainly concerned with the relation of fans to the world outside fandom (what she calls “the Muggle world”) and doesn’t delve into the hierarchies of power within the in-group of fandom itself. For example, I would have found an analysis of the term “weeaboo” (an American who loves anime so much that he or she wants to become Japanese) to be a pertinent addition to her discussion. Instead, Napier makes American anime fandom seem like something of a utopia; although she mentions the darker side of fandom by quoting scholars who bring up the concept of “fan pathology,” she never directly acknowledges that such a thing might actually exist in her own object of study.

Otherwise, I found From Impressionism to Anime to be a very satisfying read. It’s an excellent cultural study and could double as a perfect introduction to modern and contemporary Japanese history for someone considering pursuing the subject as an undergraduate – or simply as an intelligent, interested individual. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is actually a book you want to read!