Sunday, December 14, 2008

Caring for the Elderly: 『My Wife and I』 and 『Introduction to Nursing Care』

Two books — one old, one new — about caring for the bedridden elderly. My Wife and I (妻と私)by Eto Jun (江藤淳) is one of my favorite Japanese books of all time. Eto debuted in 1956 with a critical study of Natsume Soseki that later won the Kikuchi and Noma Prizes when republished in 1970. One of Japan’s most prolific literary critics, Eto is a giant of post-war Japanese literature. My Wife and I, published in 1999, is a departure from Eto’s academic work. This slim book records his diary of caring for his wife in her last months of sickness before death. Himself suffering from a stroke, Eto then killed himself in their Tokyo home later that year. I first learned of Eto when his suicide note was published in the newspapers while I was in Tokyo. I remember exactly where I was standing when I read it. I was struck by the depth of emotion conveyed in his severely Spartan prose. If you imagine one of the world’s most accomplished men of letters writing, to you, a personal letter on an intimate and painful topic, that is this essay.

Introduction to Nursing Care (介護入門), the new essay by Mob Norio (モブ・ノリオ) is entirely different. Winner of the 2004 Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious prize for short works by new authors, Introduction to Nursing Care is a howling, screaming, raging rant, a literary scream that draws attention to the personal burden of caring for Japan’s rapidly aging population, typically borne by women. Mob Norio, however, a 35-year old young man, speaks with a piercing voice and a completely unique style. Punctuated with rap music expletives (Yo n----!), Norio borrows the self-righteousness and bravado (and rhythms) of rap music as he tears into anyone and everyone who takes that sacrifice for granted. Yet his message is too particular to infer categorical imperatives. This is not a call for social security reform. Nor does he think everyone should care for their grandparents the way he has chosen to care for his grandmother. In fact, he urges children who were abused by their parents to return the abuse to them when the roles are reversed. This is not a considered essay. Introduction to Nursing Care is an electric venting of emotion. Strikingly honest. Supremely confident. Almost maniacally anarchic in it’s assertion of personal authority derived from making a deep personal sacrifice.

Urban Youth: 『Afro Tanaka Goes to Tokyo』 and 『Shinjuku Swan』

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) by Wakui Ken (和久井健) and Afro Tanaka Goes to Tokyo by Noritsuke Masaharu (のりつけ雅春), two newish manga, both tell gritty stories of young men trying to make it in Tokyo with little education and no particular skills. Afro Tanaka’s hero, Tanaka Hiroshi (田中広), age 20, finds a job digging subway tunnels and finally scrapes together enough money to move out of the company dormitory and into his own apartment (a necessary first step toward getting a girlfriend, which is his ultimate goal at this point). Shinjuku Swan’s character, Shiratori Tatsuhiko (白鳥タツヒコ), age 19, turns to a more illicit line of work as a “scoutman,” recruiting young women to work in a range of barely legal forms of paid companionship.

Debuting in 2005 in Kodansha’s “Weekly Young Magazine” and picked up in 2008 by TV Asahi for the channel’s Midnight Drama series, Shinjuku Swan takes the easier route as it appeals to more prurient interests. Focusing on an industry that’s way too close to prostitution, Shinjuku Swan is not likely to be released in the United States. That said, Shinjuku Swan does an excellent job showing its main character’s qualms about his line of work. Although he’s clearly enamored of the pimps’ bling — and has no intent of quitting the business — he refuses to follow certain orders from his jaded boss, surprisingly earning the boss’ respect.

Afro Tanaka Goes to Tokyo, on the other hand, deals with less racy subject matter, but is a bit stronger in the storytelling department. The artist, Wakui Ken, quite talented and innovative, introduces visual storytelling techniques that I’ve never seen before (see the ojisan conversation on page 13). He also creates one of the funniest pieces of visual humor that I’ve ever seen (page 98). (BTW, Two other specimens of visual humor that I particularly like are Borat’s hotel wrestling scene and Monty Python’s 100m dash scene in “Silly Olympics.”) Besides humor, though, Wakui drew me into Tanaka’s struggle to make something of himself, including the emotional roller coaster — the pain and the elation — of his search for an affordable apartment. If you’ve ever looked for an apartment in Tokyo, especially on a student budget, you’ll feel it, too.

I think these two manga contrast interestingly with Shima Kosaku (島耕作), the masterpiece manga of the 1980s bubble, in which Shima, a salaryman’s Everyman, used his wits, political instincts, and rudimentary English to rise through the ranks of the fictional conglomerate Hatsushiba Corp. The series continued with fantastic success through the heady 1980s and 1990s and into this century, the title changing every few years as Shima’s title at Hatsushiba changed. The optimism of the Shima series, and the bubble period itself, is starkly absent in both Afro Tanaka and Shinjuku Swan. The pimps in Shinjuku Swan, who themselves work as male companions in smoky “host clubs,” lament the extinction of the well-heeled women clients who frequented their clubs during bubble.

I suspect that Shinjuku Swan and Afro Tanaka will both be around for a long time, tracing the lives of their main characters for many years to come, just as the Shima series did (and continues to do) for the previous generation.

『To the Mine Face』 by Inoue Areno

To the Mine Face (『切羽へ』 or “Kiriha e” in Japanese) by Inoue Areno (井上荒野) won the Naoki Prize, one of Japan’s top literary prizes, in 2008.

To the Mine Face
is an elegant and compact novel about one woman’s life in a former mining town on a remote island off southern Japan. The unnamed town is thought to be modeled after the town of Sakito (崎戸町) on Kakinoura Island (蛎浦島) off the coast of Nagasaki, where the author’s father, the novelist Inoue Matsuharo, spent his childhood. Composed in thirteen short chapters, To the Mine Face reads like a monthly diary with one entry each for March, April, May and so on.

I want to say two things about this beautiful novel.

First, the story has been described as a love story about a contentedly married woman who finds herself attracted to a male schoolteacher from Tokyo. That description is accurate. But To the Mine Face is much more than that, by being much less. Inoue never tells us that the woman, Aso Sei, feels attracted to the schoolteacher. She never mentions love. She never even mentions interest or romantic feelings as such. All we know, as we follow Sei’s thoughts over thirteen months, is that she sometimes looks at him, she sometimes talks to him, and she sometimes ponders simple questions about him, such as whether he’ll stay on the island. But that’s it. They don’t kiss. They don’t embrace. They don’t pine. They don’t exchange furtive glances. Their hearts don’t race when they see each other. The romantic drama resides simply in the degree and carefulness of her attention to him. We feel morally warm and cozy when her husband is in her mental foreground, so to speak. We feel moral suspense when the Tokyo schoolteacher comes to the foreground, and when he stays there just a bit longer than we’d expect. But that’s it. That’s the drama. That’s the love story. It is extremely delicate and intimate.

The second thing I want to mention is that Inoue captures, in prose, a wonderful sense of time and pacing that is recognizable to — and sought after by — anyone who has enjoyed a sustained yoga or meditation practice, or has spent several days in a monastery, or simply enjoys rural life. I also seem to get this peculiar sense of time after a good acupuncture treatment, where time seems to slow down and I feel attuned to everything around me. The world slows down, but it’s hyper-illuminated at the same time. More prosaically, the subject matter of To the Mine Face concerns the slow life on a slow remote island. But Inoue’s prose, on the other hand, is extremely concise and compact. Minimalist. Sparse. It doesn’t dwell on peripheral details. Although almost nothing happens, Inoue’s dramatic sensibility clips along tightly. Although her world floats in time, I’m never bored. The events are slow, but the drama is quick. I’ve never quite seen this captured on paper.

Inoue previously won the 1989 Femina Prize for her essay Watashi no Nureefu (My Nureyev), and her short-story anthology Bacon was nominated for the Naoki Prize in 2007 before she won the prize with To the Mine Face in 2008.

Lawyer Comics: 『Kuzu the Lawyer』 & 『Saibancho!』 & 『The Lawyer of Shimane』

Three newish comics about lawyers. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each:

Kuzu the Lawyer (『弁護士のくず』) by (井浦秀夫) is arguably the best. Premiering in 2004 in Shogakugakan’s “Big Comics Original,” the main character, Kuzu Motohiro (九図元人) has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the right time. His comments offend everyone, but simultaneously reveal an angle or perspective that happens to resolve the dispute. That’s the formula. The images are great, the language is fairly rich, and Kuzu makes me laugh out loud pretty frequently. In addition, the situations are complex and substantive enough that I actually learn about the law, social issues, etc. The main drawback is that the characters don’t seem to develop from one episode to the next. It seems the “reset” button is hit after each episode. Kuzu won the Shogakukan Manga Award in 2006 and was picked up for television by TBS the same year. The current English title, “Scum of Lawyers,” is a mistranslation and needs to be scrapped. This manga expresses no cynicism about lawyers as a whole. The main character, Kuzu, is a scummy guy, arguably unfit to be a lawyer. That's the point. The message of this comic is not that lawyers as a whole are scummy.

Saibancho! (Your honor!) (『裁判長!』) by Kitao Toro (北尾トロ) is about an air-conditioning salesman who plays hooky from work to watch criminal trials in Tokyo. At court he meets a motley group of characters who share his hobby and teach him about what’s going on in the courthouse and how to find the most interesting trials. Unlike Kuzu, which takes place mostly in Kuzu’s law office, Saibancho! is litigation focused and takes place in the courtroom. I like this manga because I learn a lot about how Japanese courts work. And many of the trials are grizzly, which is fun. Saibancho! was released in book form by Bungeishunju in 2006. I’m not sure when the serial started. It hasn’t won any awards that I know of, but I hear it has triggered a trial-watching fad among Japanese teenagers.

The Lawyer of Shimane (『島根の弁護士』) by Kagawa Masahito (香川まさひと) is of an entirely different type. This is clearly otaku manga designed to show as many boob shots and butt shots as possible of the heroine Yamazaki Mizuho, a leggy and nubile young lawyer — full of breathy and quixotic ambitions — working her first lawyer job out in Simane Prefecture, which is Japan’s second least-populated prefecture (Tottori is the least populated). The Lawyer of Shimane debuted in 2004 in Shueisha’s “Business Jump Comics” and was picked up by FujiTV in 2007. With more pictures than dialogue, this one might do the best in translation, commercially speaking.

Friday, December 12, 2008

『Moyashimon. Tales of Agriculture』 by Ishikawa Masayuki

Moyashimon (『もやしもん』) by Ishikawa Masayuki (石川雅之) embodies much of what I like best about Japanese manga. With little more than a pen and paper, the artist bites off some small corner of the universe, exotic or mundane, educates me on the background information — slang, technical lingo, history — injects a bit of fancy, and opens my eyes to visual possibilities perhaps too expensive to pursue on Hollywood’s big screen. Moyashimon does all of the above.

First appearing in the August 2004 issue of Kodansha’s bi-weekly serial Evening, the story evolves around college life at an agricultural university. I didn’t attend an agro school, but my brother did. Moyashimon teaches me the vocabulary (in Japanese) and provides the images to let me participate visually in some of the stories I heard about life at an agro school (such as how to take a horse’s temperature the old fashioned way).

Moyashimon also offers a ton of info about things like brewing sake and soy sauce, and making cheese. In this sense, Moyashimon reminds me of Oishimbo, where culinary sleuth Shiro marshals vast culinary expertise to expose mediocrity and mischief, while teaching the reader why beef raised on the coastal cliffs of Normandy tastes better than beef raised on landlocked plains, and why raw fish tastes better when sliced with a sharp knife. That was Oishimbo. But if you liked Oishimbo, you’ll enjoy reading Moyashimon to learn about kiviak (a stinky Inuit dish), hongeohoe (an even stinkier Korean dish) and kami-zake (sake’s ancient precursor, a kind of fermented rice ball that was chewed and sucked). These aspects of Moyashimon will satisfy your inner geek, your inner Encyclopedia Brown.

Now here’s the fantasy: The main character, Sawaki Tadayasu (沢木直保), is a freshman who comes from a family of sake makers and is a bit of a genius in the field of microbiology. At least insofar as he can see microbes with his naked eye. Like the first child with perfect pitch, or a prodigy who derives polynomial square roots in his head, Sawaki becomes the darling of the Biosciences department as researchers fight to get him on their teams. Meanwhile, the high-minded Professor Itsuki inspires Sawaki to think of agriculture as the science of the history and future of life itself.

The artist lets us see the microbes the way Sawaki does, which makes for a visual experience that is hilarious, cute, beautiful, grotesque — and completely unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. The omnipresent microbes, blanketing the landscape in nearly every frame, have their own jokes, their own sub-plots, their own agendas. In a word, their own “culture.” I expect Moyashimon has triggered something of a science boom in Japan, just as Hikaro no Go turned youngsters on to the game of go, and Saibancho! (Your Honor!) got them traipsing into courts to watch criminal trials.

Moyashimon was twice considered for Asahi Newspaper’s Tezuka Prize before finally winning it in 2008, sweeping up the Kodansha Prize and the Soy Sauce Culture Prize (awarded by Japan’s soy sauce industry for particular cultural achievements) in the same year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

『Tokyo Island』 by Kirino Natsuo

What a fun book. Someone should make a career of translating Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生). She's prolific, her prose is straightforward and her subject matter is always just racy enough for an audience. Rebecca Copeland and Philip Gabriel translate some, but there's room for a lot more.

This one, Tokyo Island (『東京島』), won the Tanizaki Prize for 2008. I think of this novel as a modern version of the Kojiki, Japan’s creation myth, depicting the making of the myth itself as a tool in the struggle for survival and power on a Hobbesian island in the Pacific. The book reads like an imagination experiment, sussing out plausible scenarios in that proverbial State of Nature. A Japanese Lord of the Flies. But it’s more about the accretion of half-successful solutions to those problems, than the horror of the problems themselves. And the author seems, at least to me, particularly interested in Japanese solutions to these problems.

One interesting twist is that the chief protagonist Kiyoko, at age 46, is the only woman on the island. The other inhabitants, two dozen Japanese and Chinese men, are barely half her age. The author clearly enjoys watching Kiyoko use her sexuality, and her gender, to secure her survival. One interesting sub-plot is how Kiyoko competes with one of the men to build a shamanistic religion on the island with herself, not him, at its center. Interestingly, again, she’s only partly successful. Any reader familiar with Japanese history will wonder whether the ancestors of Japan’s first emperor, Amaterasu Ohkami, a woman, struggled in similar ways to bring Amaterasu to power.

It’s a real treat to see this familiar vehicle, the allegory of survival on a forsaken island, re-explored by a contemporary Japanese writer concerned with the issues of her time

Sunday, November 30, 2008

『La Quinta Camera』 and 『not simple』 by Ono Natsume

I read these two works by Ono Natsume (オノ・ナツメ) today, and I have to admit they both irritated me. I know how well-liked they are by many readers. I myself was very attracted to certain aspects of them, which I'll elaborate below. But perhaps my expectations were too high; I couldn't wait to be done with them. The language bored me and the visual clues were just way too frustrating. I couldn't tell which characters the dialogue balloons pointed to. I couldn't even tell some characters apart from each other. One guy wears a black t-shirt on one page, and on the next page an identical guy wears a white t-shirt. Same guy? Same guy on a different day? Different guys? I can take the time to figure it out, and I was willing to do so a few times. But this type of problem comes up way too much for me. I don't want to work that hard on that level. So that's what I didn't like about it.

But here's what I liked about Not Simple: it's "cringy," to use a word that describes how I feel when I watch Jerry Springer. The stories are hard to confront. Like anything by Yamada Eimi. They're full of people treating each other in ways that make me feel complicated. I'm sort of excited by the thrill and suspense of the violence, but uneasy about it, too. And the weirdness is mostly between family members. Sorting through those feelings can be interesting in a cringy, squeamish way. So if you you like that stuff, "Not Simple" is not only an appropriate title; this manga will provide grist for your mill. But still, this grist isn't very developed. The storytelling is scattered and superficial, IMHO.

La Quinta Camera ("The Fifth Bedroom"), on the other hand, is not cringy at all. It's about a group of roommates in Italy and the string of newcomers who stay in their "fifth" bedroom. It's kind of like an episode of "Friends," but with Italian characters portrayed by a Japanese comic. That's what I like about La Quinta Camera. I like seeing Japanese artists depict foreign milieux. I liked seeing Shima Kosaku kick butt in New York and the Philippines. I admired the infusion of Hello Kitty sweetness into Marie Antoinette's 18th Century France in the campy masterpiece, Versaille no bara. But La Quinta Camera doesn't have the heft and depth of those works. It's just an Italian setting, and a superficial one. Neither the setting nor the characters offer much. I can say only that despite my impatience while reading these works, I'm still savoring Ono's drawings, as well as the concept of a Japanese manga about a group of Italian roommates. I still like thinking about that.