“A screaming comes across the sky,” begins Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow — a description which could well apply to the female primal scream that opens Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s 1979 debut album. Given that the side-long title track translates to “Mt. Fear” — a volcanic mountain reputed in Shinto mythology to be the entrance to the underworld — it comes off less as some avant-garde indulgence, and more as The Beast That Shouted “I” at the Heart of the World.
For a long time Geinoh Yamashirogumi existed in my mind as the quintessential cult band. They were mysterious to a fault; even other hard-core underground music fans didn’t know a thing about them apart from being the folks (singular? plural?) who created the soundtrack for the animated film Akira. They had a relatively small number of releases; after 1992 or so they put out no new recordings at all, but continue to have live performances. They specialized in synthesizing musical traditions from every corner of the world, from Japan on outwards, and using modern technology (synthesizers, cutting-edge recording studio systems) to bring it to a global audience. And they were from Japan, another major magnet of fascination for me personally — not just because of the cultural aura that provided, but because that made them all the more remote and difficult to learn anything about in a practical way. Read more
It was only through George Russell’s obituary that I ever learned about him in the first place. He was not as household a name as Duke or Miles or ‘Trane, but he mattered in a way that is only now becoming clearer to me the more I delve into his catalog. Better late than never, I suppose, but maybe there is no “late” when you are dealing with someone who has become effectively immortal through their work.
Russell was not just a composer, performer and bandleader, but one of jazz’s major theoreticians — someone who took what jazz was about and codified it in a scholastic way. Most people immediately wrinkle their noses at the words music theory and I know I did at first, but on getting closer to his work I realized he used that perspective to tunnel into jazz and build outwards from inside it to create new things. His theory was meant to be practice, and the recordings that exist of his work are testaments to the ways that could be done.
Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, for me, stands as the best example of this incarnate theorizing. It has been recorded at least three different times, each version enough unlike the others that it becomes clear even to someone without a copy of the score how much the work was meant to be interpreted in each performance. Originally released on the tiny Flying Dutchman and Strata-East labels, it became a favorite not only of jazz fans but prog-rock and experimental music lovers thanks to its scope (it’s one long composition broken over two sides of an LP), long modal passages, use of tapes and electronics, and its general atmosphere of striving, surpassing and transcending. It went out of print for nearly a decade or more, became a collector’s item, and has since returned on CD and as an MP3 download. The latter is easily the best way to spend $2 burning a hole in your pocket. Read more
I could provide any number of examples of Japanese popular literature whose only real exposure to English-speaking audiences came through adaptations into film. Many of Edogawa Rampo’s mystery / crime / thriller / horror stories fit that category nicely, Blind Beast (1932) being one of them. At least two movie adaptations found their way into English, one of them Yasuzo Maruyama’s 1969 version and the other a hybrid of that story and “The Dancing Dwarf” (featured in The Edogawa Rampo Reader) by Teruo Ishii. The former adapted only part of the story; the latter was intermixed with elements from too many other stories to allow a viewer to form an understanding of what the story was really like.
Now we have the original story itself in English for the first time, and it’s not hard to see why it’s been cited as a seminal work of ero-guro. That term is the acronymic fusing of the terms “erotic” and “grotesque”, used to describe not only many of Rampo’s own works but a whole genre of popular decadence that flourished in Japan in the 20s and 30s. Within Blind Beast alone we have sadism, masochism, dismemberment, cannibalism, misogyny — all the ingredients that make it “one of the key prototype ‘slasher’ stories,” as Jack Hunter puts it in his introduction to the book. What’s also there is a general atmosphere of dread and terror, something prevalent in the story even in the moments when very little is happening or all is over and done with. (Without spoiling anything, I will say that the conclusion features this in the form of one of Rampo’s favorite regular devices: that of horrible things being hidden in plain view, with the reader being one of the few in the know.) Read more
My theory goes something like this. The more popular an author is in a given country, the greater the odds they will be that much more difficult to bring to audiences in other languages — because their popularity in their original locale comes at the cost of being rooted that much more in it and dependent on it. It’s far from a perfect theory, since there’s a great deal it can’t explain, but in my mind it does go a long way towards describing how some of Japan’s most popular authors remain woefully under-translated in English. A variant on this theory involves the availability of rights and permissions, but that doesn’t explain why authors like Yumeno Kyūsaku or Juran Hisao are not in English despite their work being out of copyright.
Edogawa Rampo should have been a shoo-in for being more widely translated, since most of what he wrote was nominally in the mystery / thriller / horror mold. Such stories find easy audiences in almost any language; Agatha Christie has sold literally billions of copies of her work in over forty languages. But for decades Rampo had exactly one book translated into English, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, an anthology of stories that only appeared in English after an arduous five-year collaboration with the translator. His imagination drew on the strains of “erotic grotesque” that ran through the popular imagination of Japan during the 20s and 30s, giving his work a decadent flavor. Perhaps it was exactly that flavor which made translation that much more difficult, but the more likely explanation in Rampo’s case is twofold: simple lack of awareness on the part of a prospective audience that wasn’t Japanese. Read more
The label historical novelist usually brings to mind someone like Robert Graves, whose I, Claudius has become something of a staple reference point for such work. It’s no coincidence Graves is namechecked in the introduction to The Roof Tile of Tempyō, but not because this slender and spare work is any kind of sequel in spirit to Graves’s books. The whole reason it’s mentioned is as contrast, since Yasushi Inoue’s approach to reconstructing history is consistently minimalist. He isn’t interested in battle scenes or souped-up drama; he takes the facts that are available, presents them plainly, and adorns them with only such novelistic embellishment as he feels are needed.
For the most part this approach works, and works so well the competition just feels overblown and self-indulgent. It was like that with The Blue Wolf, his remarkable history of Genghis Khan’s life and empire; it was most definitely like that with Tun-huang, his masterwork (written the same year as The Blue Wolf, incredibly), wherein he merged history and fiction to provide an explanation for the treasure found in the Thousand Buddha Caves. Roof Tile is not quite in the same category, if only because the history it retraces is highly specific to Japanese (and Chinese) readers and demands a lot more effort from the reader to assimilate the material. That doesn’t make it a bad book — just not the first Inoue one should read. That distinction I leave to either of the other two mentioned before. Read more
The seaside landscape of ancient rural Japan depicted in Shipwrecks makes the moors of Wuthering Heights seem downright inviting. What little beach exists is surrounded by rocky shoals, and the villagers unfortunate enough to live there eke out an existence either by fishing or evaporating sea water to make salt. Both such enterprises are barely enough to sustain single families, let alone an entire community; small wonder one of the few ways to escape — and to provide for one’s family at the same time — involves selling one’s self to be a bonded servant.
The central character of Shipwrecks is nine-year-old Isaku, who sees all this with the clear-eyed, sad understanding that is common among children of hardscrabble life. When we first meet him, he’s fishing driftwood out from between the rocks to create a funeral pyre for one of the village’s recent dead. His thoughts are less on the one who has died than on how good wood like that would be put to better use heating their own hut. His own father has sold himself off for a three-year stint, leaving him, his mother and his little sister to fend for themselves — and forcing him to grow up that much more quickly. There is no childhood in a place like this, only infancy and then whatever grueling work a boy can perform at his age. Read more
A while back I wrote about Baian the Assassin, one of any number of samurai-era TV shows that Japan created for itself rather than an international audience. Times have changed, and what Japan once considered insular and wholly theirs has since filtered out and become part of the larger galaxy of cinematic and storytelling tropes. You don’t need any particular background in Japanese history to find Baian enjoyable; most of the period details either explain themselves or exist solely as exotica for their own sake.
I was vaguely aware that Baian had been adapted from a series of novels by Shotaro Ikenami, whose mainstay was samurai adventure stories. They not only sold well but lent themselves to being adapted: Hideo Gosha filmed Ikenami’s Hunter in the Dark (starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tanba, two of the most dependable and charismatic Japanese actors of the last few decades), and when Baian was filmed for TV it featured Ken Watanabe (Last Samurai, Inception) in the lead role. The movies proved easier to find than the books, so when a copy of Ninja Justice — a Kodansha paperback reprint of an earlier offering in hardcover — turned up relatively cheap I pounced on it. Read more
Nisioisin has a palindromic name, and a mind that also seems to double back on itself in one knotty convolution after another. He writes novels that have elements of mysteries, thrillers, surreal comedies and what Japanese sometimes call “erotic grotesque nonsense” — three-way mixes of sex, violence and absurdity. The audacity of the whole thing is at least as important as any of the other elements, to say nothing of the plot.
I was not thinking of the plot a great deal during Death Note: Another Note, if only because the conventions of murder mysteries guarantee that their plots only exist as a framework for authorial witchcraft of one kind or another. They’re as ultimately unimportant to the story as the color of the tarmac at the Indy 500, which in turn only exists to give the cars something to run on really fast. But unimportant doesn’t mean useless, and so novel murder weapons and bizarre ways of obtaining (or obscuring) clues are part of the author’s showmanship. This is a big part of how Nisioisin’s Zaregoto and Anotherholic worked: they were arenas in which the author could get away with hitching together the most improbable and colorful of elements. That was part of the fun. We know the story’s a contrivance with all the “reality” of the patter a stage magician tells us when he’s doing a card trick, so why get hung up about it? Isn’t all this stuff about consenting to have our legs pulled in a creative way? Read more
Last night I saw Tron Legacy in IMAX and was pleasantly surprised.
Most everyone else has already commented on the look of the film (dazzling, if gloomy — is our own world gonna look this bleak soon?) and the Daft Punk score (downloading it from Amazon as we speak). I liked both, and the audience I was with clapped when Bangalter & Cie. appeared briefly in the club sequence.
The plot isn't groundbreaking, but there is a nice, heartfelt father-and-son story at the core — not just about the father inadvertently losing a son, but gaining another and being betrayed by him (although, in the father's mind, he was the traitor). That part of it, I think, will help it stand up when people come back to it later and some of the backlash/hype has burnt itself out.
Plus there are some intriguing elements about the presence or absence of a creator god, the spontaneous evolution of life, etc. — and while they're not developed as far as they could be, this is a Disney movie. I imagine they were not crazy or bold enough to give the helm to, say, Werner Herzog or Alejandro Jodorowsky and see what turned up. But oh man, just thinking about those ...
Re: 3D — I'm not a fan of it but it was used quite effectively in this picture, with only a couple moments of overload. The contrast between the movie itself and the overwhelmingly cardboard-y looking trailers — most of which I suspect were post-processed 3D — was pretty striking. But on the whole I'm more appreciative of flat IMAX or even classic 70mm than I am of 3D.
The end of the year has been far, far busier than I ever dreamed, which means a lot less time to look at or talk about anything in detail. Much of that has been due to my regular, paying job(s), but the rest of it is me being the new Guide at Anime.About.com and having my hands super-full. Still, a couple of things have fallen into my hands that are worth commenting on. Rather than do full-blown writeups, I'll just nod as I go down the list.
The Gundam novels by Tomino — the three-in-one published by Stone Bridge Press earlier — made for an interesting read. Not just because they were written by the director himself, but because they are at least as much about the insides of all the character's heads as they are about the story, and I was fond of that. I'm dismayed by it being out of print, and grateful that my local library system had a copy (which was, uh, unexpected to say the least). The original series is up on Crunchyroll right now although I hope it doesn't vanish before I get to see it, as I understand there were some key differences between the TV series and the novels — not least of which were a couple of racier portions that you couldn't show as a prime-time anime! (Nod.)
Another curious item I found in the local library: Jinsei Annai ("Life's Guide"): Glimpses of Japan through a Popular Advice Column. As the title implies, it looks at various installments of a popular newspaper advice column and makes various sociological observations via both the questions asked and the answers given. It's probably dated a bit since it was published in 1991, right as the bubble burst, but I imagine many of the notes about family life or society in general are still on the mark. (Nod-nod.)
I also picked up for cheap a book I couldn't get through my library system: Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture. It's another scholarly work, one that does a lot of extrapolation and theorizing, so it's not so much a general history of the subject. That said, there's some interesting material in here about folks like Rampo and a number of other undertranslated (or completely untranslated) authors. (Noddy.)
And on a totally unrelated note, a wonderful little movie about Zen-style three-bowl eating! Everything served there — the rice, the pickles, the soup — are all things I eat quite happily, but the presentation and the atmosphere of the whole thing make me muse that much more about life in a monastery. People talk about "austerity" but to me it's not that at all — it's having the good sense to not take more than you need, and to know your limits. Those are skills which our society doesn't seem to be in the habit of teaching.
... Yep, I think I'm adding "attend a Zen retreat" to my bucket list. I don't think I'd be able to handle a three-month break in my current lifestyle, but a week or so would be about right.
As part of my general budget-cutting measures, I've taken a good hard look at my book-buying habits — especially from online venues — and decided I needed to make more use of my local library system. I was pretty surprised when many of the books I'd been considering buying were in fact available through inter-library loan, or were in the local branch. It's one of those "durr, right under my nose!" moments that needed to happen.Read more
First, a statement: The last volume of Peepo Choo is a satisfying ribbon for the gift that this whole series has been, a way to tie everything together and give everyone more or less what they deserve. Second, a promise: I’ll try not to ruin too much when talking about the book, since the how of the final installment is as important as the what.
What’s clearest, now that the series is over, is how more than anything else Peepo Choo has been about delusion and illusion. The Japan that Milton saw through otaku-colored glasses wasn’t the Japan he ended up in when he finally got there. That Japan ended up being wall-to-wall with what turned out to be the same sort of prosaic, mundane folks he thought he was getting away from. His buddy Jordy is equally deluded, seeing either endless opportunities to get laid (none of which pan out) or some fleeting kinship in a fellow “gangsta” (who turns out to be far more of the real thing than he can handle). In fact, most everyone in this story — male, female, black, white, Japanese, American, law-abiding, law-breaking — is really looking for one thing: companionship. It’s only after the delusion is wiped away that they have a chance at finding it. Read more