Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lady Murasaki: the robot

So there's now a robot version of Lady Murasaki, Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. English article with video here, and Japanese article with more videos here. It's at the Buddhist temple Ishiyama-dera in Ôtsu, a temple where legend says that Murasaki composed part of the Tale. The robot is part of the 1000-year anniversary celebrations for the book; it recites bits of the tale along with the history of the temple.

Toki ga nijimu asa

Yan Ii (Yang Yi) 楊逸. Toki ga nijimu asa 時が滲む朝. Bungei Shunjû, 2008.

Winner of the 139th Akutagawa Prize, for early ’08. Yan’s the first winner for whom Japanese is not the native language. (Note: her name in Pinyin would be Yang Yi; the phonetic pronunciation given of it in Japanese is Yan Ii.)

It concerns two boys in rural China, Zhiqiang and Haoyuan, who go to college in the provincial capital in 1989 and get caught up in the democracy movement. They travel to Beijing and participate in the demonstrations in Tienanmen Square, although they go home to Qindu just before the crackdown; nevertheless, the repression of the student movement affects them, too. They’re kicked out of school, and the teacher who had inspired them and led the local movement goes into exile in France. The story then follows Haoyuan as he marries a Japanese woman and settles in Tokyo. The second half of the story follows his life there, as he gets involved in a expat group pushing for democratic reform in China, and sees enthusiasm among the Chinese community in Japan steadily dwindling. He tries to organize resistance to the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997 and the campaign to award the Olympics to Beijing, and finally comes to realize that for most of his countrymen, dreams of political reform are always going to take a back seat to making a living; indeed, as his own family grows, Haoyuan himself becomes less and less sure of his commitment to activism.

The title (which can be translated rather literally as "Mornings when time blurs," or less literally but maybe more sensibly as "The mornings all run together") refers, obliquely, to the recurring motif of morning—several key scenes in the novel involve Haoyuan watching a sunrise; his thoughts at these times are seldom clearly articulated, but his emotions are at a high point each time. Presumably the title is meant to indicate a sort of telescoping of time at such moments, linking the various periods in Haoyuan’s life through the motif of these sunrises.

Yan is not the first non ethnic Japanese author to win the Akutagawa Prize—a number of zainichi Koreans have gotten it—but she is the first for whom Japanese is not the recipient’s first language. She was born and raised in China, and came to Japan at age 23. Her Japanese here is serviceable, certainly readable. It’s not exactly beautiful, though—at times it lapses into cliché, and the dialogue is a bit clunky--and given the weight usually placed on a polished style as a marker of literariness in Japan (the cult of the sentence has a long history here) I imagine there’ll be a lot of debate around whether or not this deserved the A-Prize. But I think the novel’s problems lie elsewhere.

It’s successful at telling one story: the gradual weakening of Haoyuan’s youthful idealism. The story is only a hundred and fifty pages long (in fairly large print)—a novella, really, standard length for A-Prize bait. This means it only has time to seriously follow this one story. I suppose you could say it’s ruthless in its focus on this, paring away unnecessary detail so that we get a clear view of Haoyuan’s emotional state as his teenage patriotism is betrayed by the State, and as he moves through a difficult period of exile into acceptance of Japan as his home. The message that, even for someone as dedicated as Haoyuan, politics are inevitably going to pale next to day-to-day concerns comes through loud and clear.

The problem is that in focusing on this emotional arc, and trying to pack almost twenty years of history into a novella, Yan ends up sacrificing a whole lot—too much for the story’s good, I think.

The characters are wafer thin. For all the resonance of Haoyuan’s emotional arc, he and Zhiqiang are little more than vague sketches of the idealistic young student at the beginning, utterly interchangeable with every other student who appears in the book, not to mention each other. We’re finally able to tell Haoyuan apart from Zhiqiang because Haoyuan goes to Japan while Zhiqiang stays in Qindu, but otherwise they might as well be the same person for all the detail we get about them. And everybody else fares worse. Haoyuan’s wife Ume is ethnically and legally Japanese, but she was raised mostly in China—she’s a zanryû koji, a descendant of Japanese in wartime China who was left behind after the war. But despite the rich possibilities of such a character, we’re told next to nothing about her.

The lack of detail extends to the events Haoyuan lives through, as well, and this is where the novel really falls down. The democracy movement and the Tienanmen Square crackdown, the situations of Chinese expatriates in Japan, efforts by overseas Chinese to promote democracy at home, the reversion of Hong Kong, China’s transformation to a market economy, the zanryû koji—all of these are not only interesting historical circumstances in their own right, but they present a lot of excellent story opportunities as well. We as readers—I as a reader—want to know more about what it felt like to be part of these things, how they affected a real individual (as opposed to a faceless symbol). But we get precious little detail. Instead, Yan glosses over these things, the result being an impressionistic novel that fits in quite comfortably alongside the sort of plotless, navel-gazing narratives that usually win the A-Prize. Evidently it’s making a favorable impression on Japanese readers, as it did on the prize committee, but it’s pretty unsatisfactory considering what it could have been, in different hands.

Part of the problem may be that Yan herself wasn’t a participant in Tienanmen—she was already living in Japan at that time, and watched the events on TV while on a brief visit back home (I know I'm being inconsistent here--usually I gripe about the insistence of Japanese literary authors on sticking to autobiography, while here I'm complaining that Yan goes beyond it). She professes not to have any particular political point of view in writing now, and that’s obvious. The students in the movement are shown merely as patriots, doing whatever it is they’re doing solely out of a love of their homeland; there’s very little discussion of what ideas, if any, drive them. We’re told that Haoyuan wants democracy for China, but we never get much of an idea of what this means to him—we know he’s thrilled to hear pop songs smuggled in from Hong Kong and Japan, but that’s about it. And that may be enough motivation for an impressionable college freshman—but why does Haoyuan stay involved in the movement after moving to Japan? This is not explained—we’re told he has ideals, but we’re not really shown them. Again, this is probably intentional on the author’s part, but I think it impoverishes the book.

As an A-Prize recipient, it fits in nicely with other recent winners, many of which have represented neglected subcultures or unheard voices in contemporary Japan—otaku, hip-hop boys, career women, body piercers, work-world dropouts. It’s also timely, as the Prize was announced on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. And certainly one can sympathize with the desire to encourage non-Japanese contributions to the Japanese literary scene. I just wish this was a better book. Actually, I guess I wish it was a different book. That may not be fair, but there it is.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Black Snake Moan

I saw this movie because David Edelstein, a critic I find consistently readable and frequently reliable, wrote a great review of it. That review includes this paragraph:

“At the multiplex in my progressive little fairy-tale kingdom of Park Slopia, the trailer for Black Snake Moan—in which big black Samuel L. Jackson chains little white nympho Christina Ricci in her shorty-cutoffs to his radiator—drew dark murmurs and even a few boos. What the hell—had Tarantino remade Mandingo?”

Edelstein, incidentally, loved the movie—and so did I. But it’s got something at its center that’s just damn hard to get around. I repeat (gratuitously, for effect): he chains her up.

How do we deal with this?

1. Maybe we get inside it. The weird thing is, in the context of the movie—which doesn’t at all play like Tarantino remaking Mandingo—it almost makes sense for Jackson’s character to chain up Ricci’s. Here’s how:

The film is set somewhere in the South—Wikipedia says Tennessee, but I think I saw the name Macon on a storefront, which would place it in Mississippi (too small a town to be Macon, Georgia). Either would make sense: it’s Delta blues country, and Jackson plays a blues musician-turned-farmer named Lazarus. As the movie starts, his wife leaves him, and he gets drunk and into a fight at the local juke joint. In the morning he goes outside and finds Ricci’s character, half-naked and beaten half to death, in the road by his driveway. We know she was beaten up by an acquaintance, who then dumped her by the roadside; it just happened to be on this stretch of road.

Jackson performance in this movie is the best I’ve ever seen him give. Watch him as he discovers her. He’s immediately worried for her—her face is bleeding, she’s obviously been raped or almost, and she may even be dead—and his first impulse is to help her. But this is immediately countered by fear—he looks around to see if anybody has seen her, seen him standing over her helpless body. He doesn’t need to say anything for us to realize—Jackson’s performance tells us perfectly—what Lazarus knows all too well: as soon as she was dumped at the end of his driveway, it was all up for him. There’s no way the cops are going to believe he, a poor black man, didn’t do this to her. It doesn’t even matter if he just turns around and walks away without helping her—she’ll be found, and he’ll be blamed.

So he has to help her—and he has to do it in secrecy. Can’t call an ambulance, can’t call cops. He takes her inside, and nurses her until she regains consciousness. When she does, she’s still out of her mind on the previous night’s drugs, not to mention fever and shock. She tries to run away. This won’t do, either—a delirious half-naked beaten-up white girl running away from his house? He has to keep her under control until she’s aware of her surroundings and he can convince her he means her no harm.

Ergo the chain. Like I said, it makes sense. Almost. There’s still this residual luridness to the image of him chaining her up, even though he never touches her sexually. Like, the story justifies it, but the image itself overwhelms any explanation. It’s too much. This doesn't completely enable us to deal with it. So what do we do?

2. Maybe we get beneath it. We notice just how much of a blues movie this is. And not just any kind of blues—Mississippi Delta blues, deep blues. So we make sure we’re on the same page as it is, by familiarizing ourselves with Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins (okay, he’s a Texan), and R.L. Burnside. Why?

One of the Tanuki’s touchstones in modern film is O Brother Where Art Thou? Among the many brilliant things that movie did was to perfectly capture the South of the old blues and bluegrass songs. Not the South that produced those songs, but the South produced by those songs. If all you knew of the South was what you learned from the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, the Stanley Brothers, the Mississippi Sheiks, it would be exactly the South of O Brother. If you love the music of that period, you know what I mean, and you know just what a glorious thing that movie is. It knows how to listen to music.

Black Snake Moan (title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson blues) does the same thing for the Delta blues. It’s populated by blues characters. R.L., Lazarus’s preacher friend, is named after R.L. Burnside. Lazarus himself you recognize, if you’ve seen O Brother, as “Po’ Lazarus,” who the chain gang was singing about at the beginning of that film.

The chain gang. The Delta blues knows about bondage, about how we’re all in chains. Not just physical bondage, although that’s a big part of it, as this is music (obviously) made by people for whom slavery was a living, or at least a not-too-distant, memory. Spiritual bondage, too. Mississippi Delta blues, the deep stuff, knows about God, and it knows about sin. Son House was a preacher, as well as a convicted killer (self-defense), and a bluesman. Robert Johnson sang about hellhounds on his trail, Satan knocking on his door in the morning.

This is a music that says people are caught between God and the Devil, and that we’re not real good at staying faithful to either one of them. We’re in bondage to ourselves, as well as to them, and we can’t be free. That’s what this music knows, and that’s what this movie knows.

So when Lazarus chains Rae up, he’s only making visible her invisible, internal bondage—her helplessness before the abuse she experienced as a child, which now drives her to self-destructive behavior. Only by admitting that this childhood horror is influencing her adult behavior—that she’s not completely in control—does she manage to begin to take control of her life.

This is where the movie seems to take a pop-psychology turn, but I think it’s still quite rooted in this blues outlook. And I think it’s conscious of it. Director Craig Brewer’s previous film was Hustle & Flow, which I admit I didn’t see. There’s a minor character in this one that echoes the protagonist of that one, a young gangsta and pimp named Tyrone. Lazarus has one brief scene with him that, though very understated, crystallizes the difference in mindset between the older man and the youth, and the two musics they express themselves through. Unlike hip-hop, blues, at least the Mississippi Delta variety, isn’t much about freedom, triumph, swagger. A lot of it’s about defeat, or at least downtroddenness, and whatever triumph there is in it comes from acknowledging and/or resisting that.

(On the other hand, other varieties of the blues have some swagger, and some gangsta elements as well. Viz. Lazarus’s take on “Stagger Lee” in the juke joint late in the film: we’re supposed to see it as echoing modern gangsta rap murder tales, but what this really tells us is that Craig Brewer read Greil Marcus’s essay “The Myth of Stagger Lee.”)

So if we appreciate the blues underpinnings of the movie, can we deal with the fact that he chains her up? Well, maybe not. After all, the reading I’ve outlined above is essentially saying that he’s chaining her up for her own good. But no, we wouldn’t say that, not in our right mind. That would be dumb. Is this movie dumb?


3. The movie poster seems to be suggesting we laugh at it. Tarantino remakes Mandingo. I don’t know. I don’t think the movie is doing what the poster says it’s doing, which is to be, well, a Southern Pulp Fiction. It’s not that heavily ironic, and it’s not that interested in genre (except for musical). And the poster makes the event look more violent and sexual than it is.

But even if it does it more tastefully than the poster would have us believe, the movie does have Lazarus chain up Rae. At the movie’s center is the explosive image of a black man chaining a nubile and half-naked white woman up in his house. Is it trying to shock us? Trying to bring atavistic racial paranoias into the open to expose them as ridiculous? Is it just trying to be melodramatic—tapping into the Southern Gothic tradition, as several reviewers put it? Does it just want us to think about the chains that were really used in the South, and about how white fears of black sexuality constitute another set of chains? All of that may be at work—and yet it still doesn’t exhaust the image. It’s doing all that and more, and the “and more” is probably stuff we just don’t want it to do, and furthermore that the movie itself doesn’t want to do, but can’t help but do once it’s chosen this image as its center. Like, maybe the movie wants us to squirm, or wink, or laugh a little, or smirk, or smile ruefully, or grin guiltily, or scowl, or whatever, but even after we’ve done that the fact still remains: he chains her up. Dude, that’s wrong.

So, maybe the movie’s a failure. It invokes this image, but can’t control it: the image constantly threatens to overpower the movie.

I like lots of flawed works of art, though. Give me ambitious and honorable failure over safe perfection any day.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mizuki Shigeru and the kashihon manga

(The subtitle of this here blog lists books as first among the Tanuki's interests, but I haven't written about any yet. The one I'm in the middle of is kind of taking a while to finish; when I do, I'll write about it, but in the meantime here's something about the last book I finished. Purely for personal reference--if I don't write it down, I'll forget everything about a plot within a couple of months--I've been writing up books I read for a while now.)

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Kaiki kashihon meisakusen 怪奇貸本名作選 (Weird tales from the rental manga) and Kyôfu kashihon meisakusen 恐怖貸本名作選 (Scary stories from the rental manga). Shûeisha 集英社, 2008.

Mizuki Shigeru is my favorite manga author/artist. Born in 1922, he's still around. His most experimental work is probably his wartime memoirs--he served in Rabaul, lost an arm there, and drew some startlingly vivid manga about his experiences--but he'll always be thought of mostly as a horror writer. He specializes in traditional Japanese ghosties and ghoulies--he's more or less solely responsible for the images modern Japanese have of traditional monsters. Poke around here or here and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about (sites in Japanese).

This is a two-volume collection of early horror stand-alones that Mizuki published in kashihon manga mags in the early 1960s. The kashihon were a phenomenon of the immediate postwar period in Japan: they were manga magazines or books that were published expressly for the rental market. Most kids couldn't afford to buy manga in those days, so they rented them on the cheap; the rental market died out in the '60s as the economy boomed, and most of the kashihon titles were forgotten until recently. Now, as part of the eternal manga boom, some are being rediscovered (the originals are scarce) and republished.

Most of Mizuki's work, even in this period, was in series centered around popular characters: Ge-ge-ge no Kitarô, etc. The stories in these two volumes contain early versions of Nezumi Otoko (from the Kitarô stories), Mizuki's version of the kappa, and some of his other later characters, but they have no actual connection (that I’ve noticed) with his famous later series. They’re just stand-alone creepy stories. Here they’re divided into “kaiki” (weird) and “kyôfu” (scary) but that’s just an arbitrary categorization, I think. No real difference in tone or subject matter between the two volumes.

They vary in quality, but the best of them are quite creepy, with that sense of homely gloom that he does so well—horror paired with poverty, monsters in patched clothing. Against this backdrop the protagonists/victims generally display some ostensibly admirable quality such as ambition, self-respect, or rationality, but Mizuki always shows this to be pathetic. In their own way, these stories are a potent counternarrative to the risshin shussei (work hard and succeed, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, make something of yourself kid) model of modern Japan, as well as the shiny new Tokyo of the ‘60s.

Some deal with traditional monsters or legends; some just with ghosts. One is a really weird sci-fi tale about a kid who agrees to be turned into a cyborg so he can become an astronaut—he loses all his humanity in the process, turns into a green monster, and ends up killing the scientist who made him. Haunting. Others are about people who explore remote corners of Japan and find…horror!

The art varies widely. Some of it is fairly polished, some is almost amateurish, and it all looks kind of rushed. This is the first I’ve read from his kashihon period, so I don’t know if it’s a factor of his age or the industry. The art isn’t as beguiling as Kitarô, but then there’s also a kashihon Kitarô, so I should compare it with that. It works, though.

Special mention should be made of the story “Haka o horu otoko” (The man who dug up graves) It’s about Yukio Mishima stealing skulls from a graveyard so he can give them to Jean Cocteau. A wicked little satire of the great novelist and his Western pretensions.

I’m fantasizing about someday translating a bunch of Mizuki stuff, and if I do, a selection of five or six of these would not be a bad thing to include.

"Black Tie White Noise (Here Come Da Jazz)"

This was a remix of the title song from David Bowie’s 1993 album. The song was released as a single, the remix on a 12”, and both singles and album were mostly ignored when they were released. The company Bowie had released them on went bankrupt immediately, and Black Tie White Noise all but disappeared from Bowie’s catalog until recently. I’ve been working my way backwards through Bowie and just reached this; the remix is available on the second disc of a 2-disc+DVD reissue of the album that came out in 2003 and is starting to become scarce.

The album/single version of the song is good. Solid hip-hop beat circa ’93, a nice bed for the hard-hitting lyrics, which deal with the L.A. riots of the previous year and sometimes feel like an updated version of “Ebony And Ivory” but which get less sappy the closer you listen. That’s Al B. Sure! trading vocals with Bowie, either a nice touch or a mawkish one, can’t really tell. Good melody line, decent groove; coy vocal references to older songs. The best part of the song is the jazz touches, trumpet by Lester Bowie (who played on about half the album) and sax by David himself. In 1993 acid jazz was going strong, and while it would be going too far to say this was Bowie’s “acid jazz album,” it definitely toys with the style, and jazz elements (mostly Mike Garson’s piano) would crop up on Bowie’s albums for the next decade.

The “Here Come Da Jazz” remix (credited to album co-producer Nile Rodgers) is better. As the (somewhat embarrassing) title says, it brings the jazz, but what it really does is change the groove. It removes all percussion, and in fact most of the instruments. What we’re left with is a slinky bass line, augmented by several interlocking vocal lines, some very cool keyboard, and the jazz instrumental touches—ironically, the solos are chopped up, but they’re even more effective here. The sparseness of the arrangement was probably originally intended to put the spotlight on the lyrics, which are much more audible here than in the original mix, but the new groove is so good that it has the opposite effect—I listened to this four or five times before I even realized there were lyrics. It’s a very sensual groove, with some seductive chord changes and a lot of reverb on everything. Sometimes the bass drops out, and the vocal lines alone don't provide a constant rhythm. The groove never quits, but sometimes it feels like it’s moving forward on air alone.