By all accounts Zen Master Seung Sahn was a funny guy, and that squares with my understanding of the way Buddhism and Zen specifically act as a liberating force on the personality. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, likewise, is a funny book. Funny in a way that is unforced, because the best humor in most anything — whether it’s Zen Buddhism or trying to fry an egg or what the President said the other day — is something that comes directly out of the material without being forced. Much like Zen itself, I suppose.
Seung Sahn was a preeminent Zen master in his native Korea, but in the 1960s he moved to the United States and began the process of founding what would ultimately become several thriving centers of Zen study in New York, Providence, and many other places. He bootstrapped the whole thing more or less by hand. He didn’t even know English when he came to the U.S., and for a time supported himself as a repairman for a Laundromat. In time he accrued students, learned the language, ordained monks of his own, and created an explanatory body of literature and practice for Zen Buddhism that had the best sort of homespun simplicity about it. His advice was cheerful, direct and unadorned: “Only keep don’t-know mind, only go straight”, “Don’t make anything,” or “Put it all down!” — all of it revolving around the basic Zen practice of allowing the mind to receive things exactly as they are, to add nothing and take away nothing. I never met him — he died in 2004 — but I can say his work more directly influenced my willingness to delve that much more deeply into Zen than most any other single figure. Read more
I once read that there were two François Truffauts — one being a filmmaker of life, light and laughter (Day for Night, Love on the Run, etc.) and the other a director fascinated with death and stark emotional horror (The Bride Wore Black, The Green Room, The Story of Adele H). In the same way, there are two Osamu Tezukas. One is the creator of Astro-Boy and Unico and any number of other sunny, optimistic stories. The other is a man smashing his heart against all the walls of the world: MW, Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, Phoenix, Buddha, and now Ayako.
And yet as more of Tezuka’s work is translated into English, the more I see this dualistic view as being fundamentally wrong. The same fundamentally transcendent impulse runs through all of his work, great and small; he was simply seeking tirelessly for any number of different ways to express it. Sometimes he could seek it in a more upbeat or commercially acceptable fashion (Dororo, Black Jack); sometimes, he sought it by flinging himself into a place where it seemed no one else would dare follow.
Ayako is one of those into-the-void works. It is loaded with excess, but it’s all fearless stuff, and all in the service of a story that looks pitilessly at the way people cling desperately to scraps of power and influence even as it corrupts them from within all the more. No lie is great enough to tell, no sin mortal enough to contemplate, no life sacrosanct in the face of such need. What’s remarkable is how Tezuka’s storytelling makes such dank and horrific things into the stuff of compulsively readable, wide-gauge visual drama. You’re drawn in despite yourself, not just once but many times over. Even if the final product doesn’t quite have the focus and force of his best work in this same category — for me it’s a tossup between MW and Kirihito for such honors — it still deserves to be read by as broad an audience as possible. Read more
I do have a cause, though. It is obscenity. I'm for it. — Tom Lehrer
Those might well be the same words that Subuyan of The Pornographers might have printed on his business card. He’s an entrepreneur dealing in contraband: not drugs, but hard-core smut. Japan of the 1960s may have stern laws about what you can and can’t show in books and on film, but since when have little things like the law stopped any self-respecting businessman from reaching his target market?
If the title of the story and the main character’s predicament sound familiar, it might well be. Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel was the inspiration for Shohei Imamura’s witty, biting film, and so coming to the book at this point feels as odd as it did when I read Shotaro Ikenami’s Ninja Justice long after having watched Baian the Assassin, or watching Vibrator and then reading Mari Akasaki’s novel a year or more later. Odd, but not wrong: in each case I fully expected the book and movie to diverge from each other, and here I went in curious about where they broke off and how they rejoined. Read more
The Timeless and the Dated
There’s little more frustrating than truly great writing in a middling package. Ryunosuke Akutagawa: The Beautiful and the Grotesque was originally published in 1960 under the unfortunate name Exotic Japanese Stories, and the approach it presents to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s timeless work is encapsulated by that wince-inducing title. As annotated and translated by John McVittie (in conjunction with Takashi Kojima), I am reminded of some truly beautiful paintings stuck in the most tasteless of frames.
I’m not positive the book having been published in 1960 is the sole reason it comes off as such a stodgy artifact of its moment. When Donald Keene translated Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human in 1958 and wrote an introduction for that book, his opening paragraph for that essay contained this sentence: “[With the praise for the English translation of Dazai’s earlier novel The Setting Sun] … there was no trace of the condescension often bestowed on writers emanating from remote parts of the world, and for once nobody thought to use the damning adjective ‘exquisite’ about an unquestionably Japanese product.” Read more