Book Reviews: Paradise Kiss Vols. 2-3 (Ai Yazawa)

A genre-transcending romance reaches its conclusion and ennobles itself in the process.



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I’m going to start my discussion of the second and third volumes of Paradise Kiss with the sex scene in volume 2. Actually, there’s a couple of such scenes, but the one that comes most crucially to mind involves heroine Yukari and her lover / antagonist / homme fatale George. I mention it not as a way to denigrate the story, but entirely the opposite: if Paradise Kiss is able to take one of the hoariest, most stock components of any romance — the good-girl heroine losing her virginity to her bad-boy lover — and make it into a complex and nuanced story about whether or not the guy and the girl even deserve each other in the first place, or deserve something better than what they currently amount to.

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Tags: Ai Yazawa books Japan manga review Vertical Inc.


Book Reviews: Epitaph of a Small Winner / The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Machado De Assis)

A winner. A work so "modern" and bracing it's hard to believe it was penned in 1880.



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I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who had died and is now writing.

Fiction is about what's impossible, but not what's implausible. It is impossible that a man would tell us his autobiography in the form of a novel after his own death. It is not implausible that he would use such a story to ruthlessly burst apart the hypocrisy of others, and himself as well. A dead man worries nothing about his reputation or his standing in the eyes of others — except maybe posthumously, and even then why should he, in limbo, worry? — and so who but someone like him would be best suited to showing up the living for the fools they are?

Epitaph of a Small Winner —  also known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas  — is one of those miracles of literature that seems to have barely any right to exist in the first place. Its pessimism and bitter irony seem decades, if not centuries, out of phase from the 1880 in which it was written — more the child of a Luigi Pirandello or even a Louis-Ferdinand Céline (although without that author's repugnancy). Wipe away the topical details of life in late 19th century Brazil, and you have a story that not only hasn't dated but seems immune to irrelevancy.

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Tags: books fiction Machado De Assis review writing


Book Reviews: Flowers of Evil, Vol. 3 (Shuzo Oshimi)

A further tightening of the screws, and maybe the first step in the next direction for this story.



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Third installment in this symphony of adolescent emotional brutality pits hapless would-be seeker of transgression Kasuga against his (female) mentor in perversity Nakamura, with his would-be sweetheart Nanako caught between them. After Kasuga and Nakamura enjoy — not sure that's really the word, actually — an orgy of destruction in their school homeroom, Nanako's forced to see what Nakamura wants her to think the "pervert" Kasuga is really made of ... except that Nanako is even more pure-hearted than anyone banked on her being. Where the story goes from here ought to be a real challenge; let's see if they branch out even further and more daringly, or simply repeat the same beats as per a goofy sitcom where nobody ever learns. My money's on the former.

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Tags: books Japan manga review Vertical Inc.


Book Reviews: Heroman Vol. 1 (Tamon Ohta)

Enjoyable if not-impressively-drawn manga take on Western-style kid's action comics. (Stan Lee had a hand in it, and it shows.)



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Vertical has been attempting to snag a bigger slice of the mainstream manga pie in various ways now. This latest attempt is the adaptation of the Stan Lee + BONES anime which I liked for being an interesting Japan-POV take on the American kids'-comics mythos: kid has his robot toy struck by lightning and it turns into a giant fighting companion (see: Johnny Sokko, et al.), one which comes in great handy when fending off a burgeoning alien invasion. Emphasis here is not on the gimmick but on little Joey Jones's growing accustomed to the idea of being anybody's hero, especially when he's spent the better part of his young life being everyone else's kickball. Bad points: amateurish art by Tamon Ohta, and a translation that seems way below par for the typically meticulous Vertical folks.


Tags: books manga review Vertical Inc.


Book Reviews: Paradise Kiss, Part One (Ai Yazawa)

What makes a story that's nominally a romance into something a little deeper and more insightful? The idea that the characters want to be more than overgrown children, for one.



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It’s been said that genres are reading instructions. A book bearing the label science fiction earns certain exemptions of tone and content right out of the gate that a book labeled fantasy or romance or literary fiction does not. Romance is a label we associate freely with broad brushstrokes of emotion (e.g., hate-that-is-actually-love), coincidence, and a great many other things we’d only tolerate in small doses, if at all, in something not sporting that label.

In other words, a genre is a label for a specific kind of suspension of disbelief, and that may explain why many people turn their nose up at certain genres. Some people find the suspension of disbelief re: human behavior or motivation required for a romance to be far more absurd than the suspension of disbelief re: physical reality required for a fantasy, SF, or four-color comic story. I don’t believe this mechanism underlies all instances of why people snub a romance for something else, but it sure explains why many people never try out certain genres at all. They have evolved a certain discipline for their suspension of disbelief. They do not let themselves play outside of those strongly-painted lines.

It’s a shame, because within any genre there is always the possibility for happy accidents and lively discovery. Shojo manga, the whole subdivision of manga nominally intended for girls, has many titles with plenty of crossover appeal. Having a mainstream breakthrough experience with one of them doesn’t much increase the odds of the others following suit — the Dark Knight Trilogy hasn’t caused mainstream moviegoers to pick up too many Batman comics — but it can at the very least expose the reader to new territory. The very best of shojo manga has included some territory I might never have discovered on my own: Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, for instance, or Moto Hagio’s remarkable work that freely crossed between labels: romance here, fantasy there, science fiction at times, all of it remarkable. Read more


Tags: Ai Yazawa books Japan manga review romance shojo Vertical Inc.


Book Reviews: Silence (John Cage)

John Cage's first book (and perhaps the only one of his you need) continues to stimulate, infuriate, and amuse over fifty years later.



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There are two ways to experience John Cage at this point in time: through his work, and through his writing. I had plenty of grounding in the first by way of Indeterminacy and Variations IV and so on by the time I encountered Silence, but even if I had none of those formative experiences I think Silence would have still cracked a good deal of the pavement under my feet.

It has been nearly twenty years since I first read Silence, and I keep it in the small cubby of books next to my desk that is reserved for a few select things I pull out and read whenever I need a moment to see things more clearly. It is the closest thing Cage ever created that amounted to a manifesto, even though he published it in 1961 and spent the next thirty or so years still evolving and mutating. It is the right of any artist, and any human being period, to re-invent himself continuously, but much if not all of what Cage put into Silence serves as an encapsulation of most everything he identified himself with throughout his career.

I am not sure Cage would have appreciated that. He was fondest of the living event, not the artifact that signified it. A recording of music was not for him music, but a recording — it was no more the music than the photo of the Grand Canyon was the place itself. Likewise, his words on paper were nothing more than photos, but all the same there are enough such photos in this book, and from such a diversity of angles, that it’s hard to read it and not feel a first-hand engagement with his way of seeing things. Silence has much of the experience of a performance of his work (bested only by actually attending one, that is), which means that it can be every bit as boring as the real thing — although as Cage once said, do something long enough and you’ll eventually find it’s not boring at all but very interesting. Read more


Tags: books John Cage music review Zen


Book Reviews: Limit Vol. 1 (Keiko Suenobu)

The cost of conformity, explored in a ''Lord of the Flies''-style manga scenario.



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In my first years of reading about Japan I learned quickly to separate the sociological wheat from the pop-psychology chaff. Most anything I encountered originally in English about “conformity in Japanese society” was potted pop-psychology churned out in the 1980s, when fear of Japan buying out America rode high and books that purported to explain those inscrutable Japanese were being hustled out into airport bookstalls. (The big airport-reading trend now is neuroscience for businesspeople, which manages to be even more insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved than Yellow Panic For Dummies.)

I find the whole discussion of Japanese social conformity to be at least partly a red herring, because society is by definition a conformist enterprise. Most of us are conformist if only in that we do not kill the other guy because we know that if we do most everything we ourselves could draw on runs the risk of spontaneously collapsing. The idea that Japan puts greater pressure on people to fit in and work together seems borne less of perspective on the very tangible historical conditions that shaped such things, and more out of a need to contrast their straightlaced ways with more allegedly freewheeling ones elsewhere. It’s not that conformity doesn’t exist in Japan; it’s that most of how non-Japanese talk about the subject is unenlightening, sanctimonious b.s. designed to make anyone not Japanese feel like they dodged a sociological bullet.

This may seem like a loaded lead-in for a review of a manga — Keiko Suenobu’s Limit — but I cite it here as a lead-in for a story that, in its own pop-culture way, attempts to look at conformity in Japan from the perspective of a type most vulnerable to it: the schoolgirl. Limit’s main schoolgirl character is Konno, and in the opening pages she makes it clear that the ability to conform, to merge with the current and just drift along, is not something you do because you like it. It is simply a fact of life, a survival trait you either acquire and use to your advantage, or ignore at your own peril.

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Tags: books Japan manga review Vertical Inc.


Book Reviews: Pro Bono (Seicho Matsumoto)

It all starts when near-penniless Kiriko makes the trip to Tokyo to enlist the help of lawyer Kinzo Otsuka. Kiriko is a hapless woman trying to scrape together a legal defense for her brother; he stands accused of a murder...



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It all starts when near-penniless Kiriko makes the trip to Tokyo to enlist the help of lawyer Kinzo Otsuka. Kiriko is a hapless woman trying to scrape together a legal defense for her brother; he stands accused of a murder for which there seems a preponderance of solid evidence to send him to the gallows. Otsuka, on the other hand, is everything she’s not: well-heeled, surrounded by peers who appreciate his hard work, enjoying the affection of a woman who runs a classy French restaurant.

Kiriko presents herself in Otsuka’s office, minutes before he’s about to run off and enjoy a tryst with his ladyfriend, and he finds himself having to give her one piece of bad news after another. It’s not just that she can’t afford him, but that he’s also convinced she wouldn’t be getting significantly more robust legal representation by paying for a “name” lawyer. And no, he won’t take her case on pro bono. She tries to change his mind, and her single-mindedness instead leaves a impression with a journalist who’s been sniffing around for a story that might look good in the issues-and-controversy magazine he writes for. But even he has to admit the deck is stacked heavily against Kiriko’s brother — and the whole thing seems to end with a thud when the brother is convicted and dies in prison before his execution.

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Tags: fiction Japan mystery review Seicho Matsumoto thrillers Vertical Inc. writing


Book Reviews: Sakura: Blossoms Wild (Moyoco Anno)

The anti-"Memoirs of a Geisha". Moyoco Anno's manga, source for the film of the same name, is a brassy and sassy tribute to a milieu that often only gets the sleeve-wringing weepie treatment.



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A while back I reviewed Sakuran, the motion picture, and I called it “the antidote to Memoirs of a Geisha”: funny, sassy, bold, and bitter, where Geisha was just wistful, sodden, and romanticized in all the wrong ways. The same good things could be said for the manga that was the source for Sakuran, now out in English thanks to — who else? — Vertical Inc., who are increasingly becoming to manga what Criterion or perhaps Kino International have been to film.

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Tags: books Japan manga Moyoco Anno review Vertical Inc.


Book Reviews: A Guru Is Born (Takeshi Kitano)

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano's novel about religion and hypocrisy is a quiet little masterwork that invites multiple readings and interpretations.



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Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi to his legion of fans) nominally gets notice as a filmmaker, but he's written a bevy of books — some fiction, some non- — slowly finding their way into English. Boy was a good taste of his talent; A Guru Is Born is even more ambitious and rewarding.

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Tags: fiction Japan review Takeshi Kitano Vertical Inc.


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