Saturday, July 9, 2011

Last thoughts on the Moody Blues

I got in a cab the other night, here in the 'Gene, and inside it was like a time warp. It was an old Lincoln, I think, with red leather interior, and the driver, a shaggy guy in his '50s, was playing an honest-to-god cassette. It was the Moody Blues - '80s Moodies. The stuff I grew up listening to, before I discovered their first-run stuff: "The Voice," "Gemini Dream," "Sitting At The Wheel." The band played here a few weeks ago - I skipped them out of lack of interest; the cabby skipped them out of lack of money, he said. We talked about the band for a while, and it was apparent he wasn't a sick music geek - he didn't know that the band today only includes three of the guys who were in it in its prime. He was just somebody who loved that tape, hiss and all, and had done for twenty years or more.

There are a lot of hippies in Eugene. Young ones, too, but in particular lots of aging, or aged, hippies. Sometimes it disconcerts me how much I feel at home here: like in that guy's cab, humming along to "Blue World."

I don't know how my wife can stand me sometimes.


So, the Moody Blues were basically an album band, and so I've only been looking at their original studio albums. But they had a few significant non-album tracks, and a couple of live things worth mentioning.

Live work: The Moody Blues got in on the archival thing early. In preparation for their 1978 comeback they released a double-lp called Caught Live + 5. Wrapped in a Hipgnosis cover so that it looked more like a Pink Floyd record than a Moodies disc, it contained three sides of the band live at the Royal Albert Hall on 12/12/69, plus a fourth side of stray studio tracks.

The concert is taken from the Children's Children's tour, but the only song from that record they perform is the opener, "Gypsy." The rest is from their first three records; a nice cross-section of their work up to that point.

Unfortunately, the sound quality isn't very good, and the performance is dicey. The Mellotron is out of tune for much of it, as was wont to happen to those beasts; worse, the singing goes in and out of tune. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to approximate their studio discs' pristine harmonies in the chaos of a live setting; nevertheless, it makes for a less than stellar listening experience. It's interesting to hear how much of their records they could and couldn't pull off live, and some of the songs gain a certain transformative energy (I find "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" actually listenable here - it turns into a psychedelic hoedown).

But overall it's strictly for the faithful. So much so that I haven't even bothered to hear the other complete live disc they've released, from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Nor have I picked up the obligatory BBC Sessions disc; a few of these sessions are on the 2008 remasters I have, and they don't really interest me.

What do interest me are the small cache of non-album studio tracks the band has released over the years. Not alternate takes, but actual songs that slipped through the cracks. The Moody Blues, like most of their peers in psychedelic/serious pop/prog, approached their music in the album unit, but (like more than a few of their peers) might have done better to think in terms of singles. The ur-Moodies were a singles band, and even in their prime the Moodies were seldom truly consistent across a whole album; meanwhile, isolated cuts could always deliver.

Thus it's not at all surprising to find that, before embarking on Days Of Future Passed, they cut a couple of singles as calling cards, and that these were left off the album. They're on the remastered version, and they're a big reason why it's worth picking that up, even if you already have the record.

The first single was "Fly Me High" c/w "I Really Haven't Got The Time," released in May 1967. The a-side, a Hayward number, is key, if you care about this band: it's the real missing link between the old beat group and the new symphonic-pop outfit. The entire rhythmic underpinning - tambourine, funky piano, bluesy acoustic-guitar fills - is very 1966 London r&b. But the vocals - not just the harmonies on the refrain but the soaring "ahs" in the middle section and the outro - are classic Moody Blues. Very nice. The b-side is by Pinder, and it's, well, a b-side. Very vaudeville-y. Best forgotten.

The second single, released in September 1967, was Pinder's "Love And Beauty" c/w Hayward's "Leave This Man Alone." The a-side introduces the mellotron, and the band's trademark moodiness; it's not half bad, but not as immediately winning as the first a-side. Plus, it has way too much bad echo. Sounds like it was recorded in an empty ice rink. The b-side is Hayward at his most agressive - not saying much, I know, but this is almost a garage-rock track, despite the harmonies.

The band's third single was "Nights In White Satin," and we know how that goes. The b-side was a non-album track, though, and it also shows up on the remaster. "Cities," it's called, and it's another Hayward number. It's a product of the sessions for the second single, though, and sounds like it; the distance between what they could do in June and what they learned to do during the Days sessions is considerable. This is why I love hearing obscure tracks by bands I like.

Two more tracks have emerged from those summer '67 sessions: Hayward's "Long Summer Days" and Pinder's "Please Think About It." Both were among the studio tracks on the fourth side of Caught Live + 5. They're striking in that both sound a great deal like prime-era Moodys, but they were passed over for the single. They sound ahead of their time, in other words.

The other big concentration of non-album tracks is associated with their second album. In early '68 they recorded the three tracks that fill out Caught Live + 5: Hayward's "What Am I Doing Here" and "King And Queen" and Lodge's "Gimme A Little Somethin'." The liner notes to the remastered In Search Of The Lost Chord imply that these were the first sessions for that album, and maybe they were, but according to the dates in those notes, it seems more likely that the album sessions proper didn't start until later in the spring, and that the January and February sessions that resulted in these three tracks were meant to produce an interim non-album single, as was still the practice in England at that time. It didn't happen, but at least one of these tracks is worthy.

"King And Queen" is probably a little close in feel (not to mention lyrical subject matter) to "Nights In White Satin" to have been acceptable, but "What Am I Doing Here" is brilliant, better than a half-dozen album cuts I could think of right off hand. It's an anti-war number, about a dead soldier - even though it's couched in fairy-tale terms, the relevance to 1968 is unmistakeable, and it gives Hayward's trademark melancholy some heft for a change. The lyric is married to one of his best melodies, and some excellent playing - Edge's drumwork is fantastically sensitive, lending of urgency and tension at just the right moments, and Pinder makes his mellotron outmuscle any orchestra.

That should have been an a-side, and the b-side could have been "Gimme A Little Something." Hayward sings it, but it has a poppy sunniness that marks it as Lodge's - it's really a nifty number, with a catchy little piano-flute riff underpinning the verse.

The last time they'd do any studio sessions not directly related to an album project was at the end of 1968, months after the release of In Search Of. A session in October produced Pinder's "A Simple Game," which, all hyperbole aside, belongs on any short list of the Moody Blues' best songs. It appeared on the flip side of the "Ride My See-Saw" single, but it deserved better. It would have overpowered any of their albums, though: in one cut it concentrates all the epic emotion of their best work and weds it to the always-lurking r&b sensibilities they had once traded on. It's easily Pinder's best song.

Once they got going, the Moody Blues don't seem to have generated much in the way of unused material. Very few outtakes - at least, the remasters only include a grand total of three unused songs for the band's last five albums. A Question Of Balance didn't include (but now does) Pinder's "Mike's Number One," while Every Good Boy Deserves Favour gave (and now gives) the same treatment to the Hayward/Thomas composition "The Dreamer." Both deserved their fates.

Far more interesting is the song "Island," which graces the Seventh Sojourn remaster. It's not an outtake from that album; rather, it is (the notes say) the only finished product of an early-1973 attempt at recording another album with the classic lineup. It's unclear why they didn't go any farther; they kept touring together with this lineup until early 1974. And "Island" is a strong number. It doesn't break anything even resembling new ground - it's a standard Hayward sigh-fest. But it's quite nice, with its Chamberlin polish and harpsichord touches.

What's so intriguing about it is that the chord progression under the refrain is a quote from the James Bond theme. Uncredited, but unmissable. And, Bond aficionado that I am, I can't help but wonder: was this an attempt to actually record a theme song for a Bond movie? In early 1973, that would have been Live And Let Die - which, let's not forget, was the first 007 to sport a theme song by a rock artist. And which, let's also recall, was set in part on an island...

It's not as far-fetched as it may sound. We know that through the years the Bond producers have commissioned theme-song candidates from multiple artists: Dionne Warwick famously recorded one for Thunderball that was never used, and it seems more than likely that the Pretenders songs buried beneath the action in The Living Daylights were written with a more prominent placement in mind.

And the Moody Blues might well have seemed, to some producers older than the rock generation, to be the "acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff" (as REM once described themselves) - their symphonic polish, their undeniable pop songcraft, and their lack of interest in the more in-your-face elements of the counterculture may have made them look like good candidates for Bond's rapprochement with the music he once disparaged.

Anyway, I'd like to think so. It makes my interest in the Moody Blues slightly less indefensible. (Alright, it really doesn't. Two dweebs don't make a hipster.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Taguchi Randy, Enkiri jinja (2001)

One more by Taguchi: Enkiri jinja 縁切り神社 ("Breakup Shrine," maybe?). Also 2001, also from Gentôsha.

This is a book of 12 short stories, a paperback original from Gentôsha. The stories were first published in “Webmagazine Gentôsha” Vol. 1-12 (dates unspecified in the book, but still available on Gentosha’s website: March through September 2000, every two weeks). The series title there was “Watashi to anata o tsunagu mono” (What connects me and you).

Since Konsento was published in June 2000, that means these stories started to appear just before her official debut as a fiction writer. It seems pretty likely that the project was part of Gentôsha’s publicity push for her (I have to admit I wasn’t paying attention at the time, so I can’t say for sure).

The stories are all pretty short – ideal for an e-zine – and they all deal with love and/or sex. Relationships. In that hard-boiled, sexually explicit way that made Konsento leave such an impression. However they no more than barely hint at the occult obsessions that would inform that novel and dominate her next two.

Unsurprisingly, I find it the more satisfying because of that: the stories are grounded, limited to the here-and-now, the real. They’re concerned with exploring the jagged edges of contemporary relationships, from a defiantly female (if not always doctrinally feminist) point of view. She’s good at that: these are good stories. Not always great, but good.

The title story has the narrator (different narrator in each story) stumbling across a “Breakup Shrine” in Kyoto where people have written wishes on votive plaques and hung them up as offerings to the gods. Only, instead of the usual “let our love last forever” or “let Kôji-kun notice me,” these are praying for a love to end – “let Kôji-kun break up with Megumi” or whatever. That’s curious enough (and a characteristically tart reminder that love not infrequently involves ill-wishing and schadenfreude), but then the narrator finds a plaque with her name on it. Someone wanted her to break up with her boyfriend – and, coincidentally, she just has. The Twilight-Zone-esque discovery isn’t the point, though – it’s that her lover had someone who felt that strongly about the narrator, the “other woman.” Love’s complicated.

Other stories involve a woman who only sleeps with AIDS patients – and is bummed when one falls in love with her; a woman whose married lover’s wife dies, and she (the narrator) decides to go the funeral, to see what her lover looks like mourning; a woman who gets back together with an old boyfriend and is embarrassed by how sexually experienced she’s become in the meantime, and how dull she now finds him in bed.

I’m not sure quite where I’d place these in the pantheon. Her frank and liberated way of dealing with sex is not new in the history of J-lit – lots of women writers were doing this in the ‘60s and ‘70s (Setouchi Jakuchô, Tomioka Taeko, even Enchi Fumiko come to mind). But they tended to be Serious Writers, writing for Serious Readers – a minority then and now, and what’s more an audience that, one can assume, was more receptive to the idea of the sexually liberated woman than society as a whole might have been. That Taguchi is writing like this in 2000 might not be new; that she was doing it for a mass audience might have been. Although she certainly wasn’t alone.

Taguchi Randy, Mosaic (2001)

The third book: Mosaic (Mozaiku モザイク), also published in 2001.

The first half was better than Antenna – quite plot-driven, with an interesting couple of main characters. But then it starts to suffer from the same weaknesses as Antenna. Too talky, to static.

The main character here is Satô Mimi – and yes, we’re meant to think of “ears.” Mimi, who narrates, discovers that. …She’s an ex-SDF, ex-martial arts, ex-psychiatric nurse who’s working as a kind of mover, an isôya 移送屋, helping with the transfer of people who are probably mentally ill, but who aren’t enough of a clear and present danger that the authorities are stepping in. She was transferring a delusional (?) kid through Shibuya when he ran away, and now she’s trying to find him.

The mental illness bit brings us back into similar territory as the first two novels – we’re dealing with hikikomori again. And like those novels this social issue is just a hook to get into all sorts of mystical speculation. This time the idea is that all the young kids hooked on cellphones are microwaving themselves into a new kind of consciousness, a new stage in evolution, and that Shibuya, where so many of these waves are concentrated, is kind of a portal or something into another level of existence, of awareness, of consciousness…

This time the mysticism is even less engaging than in the previous two books, partly I think because it’s so clearly pandering to kids. Hey, kids, most adults think you’re rotting your brains with all that cellphone crap, but I know you’re really pioneers of a new consciousness! Etc.

Narratively it’s perhaps even more problematic than the second book. Again the plot grinds to a halt while the narrator engages in endless repetitive conversations with experts in one field or another – we’re exploring epistemologies just like in Outlet, but while it was effective there, here it just feels random.

And this book doesn’t even have the virtue of attempting a gender-reversal or balancing act on the Outlet ideas, because here gender is all but eliminated as a concern.

Just kind of lame. And the focal image is kind of weak. Outlet worked partly because of the powerful focal image of the outlet. Antenna had a good central image, but it kind of failed to come into focus. Mosaic – well, given the sex-saturated nature of the first two books, I expected this to be the bokashi of porn (also called mosaic), but it’s not – there’s almost no sex in this book, in fact. Instead, it’s a mosaic in the English sense, a picture composed of tiny parts – it’s an image for the new collective consciousness of the cellphone kids. Kind of weak – and not at all parallel to the images in the first two books. It’s not electronic (although the cellophones are, of course).

Well, that's no surprise: it's not a trilogy in any except a marketing sense.

Taguchi Randy, Antenna (2001)

So: Outlet had two "sequels." That's how they were marketed, but in fact they're only related in the vaguest way to the first book. Outlet sold so poorly in English that Vertical decided not to publish the second and third books; which was too bad, but understandable. And of the three, Outlet is by far the best anyway.

The second book was Antenna アンテナ, published in 2001. Looking at how fast the two sequels came out (both in 2001), I think it's pretty clear that the publisher, Gentôsha, was leaning on Taguchi to produce more fiction while the notoriety from Outlet lasted - she was quite the media celebrity there for a while, I understand. The second and third books are in many respects quite close to the first, quite what you'd expect from sequels (except that they don't involve any of the same characters), but they're not nearly as good. They feel rushed, not very carefully crafted, and also like she doesn't really have anything new to say about these themes yet.

And, unfortunately for her, they brought notoriety of quite another kind. Both books brought allegations of plagiarism - detailed exhaustively here. I value my sanity too much to read everything that guy writes, but from what I can tell, he's a troll. That is, it seems like she did research on, among other things, new religions and the Tokyo S&M scene for these books, and certain of her insights come from the books she read and (here's the killer) websites she visited, and she didn't properly note this in her bibliography. I can't see that she stole any sentences, much less paragraphs, so I'm not sure it qualifies as plagiarism for fiction (if she was writing a term paper, it's a different story, kids). But the internets in Japan went apeshit about it, and Gentôsha withdrew the books and issues slightly-revised versions. My read (and I could be wrong) is that, as the first internet-celebrity writer to cross over into the dead-tree world, there was a certain tendency among the 2chan people to see her as a traitor, or a carpetbagger, or something; plus, she's a woman, and trolls love to attack women.

Anyway: Antenna. Overall it’s not as good as Outlet.

It’s kind of following the Outlet formula in reverse. It’s narrated by a male (check) philosophy grad student in his early 20s named Yujiro. When he was 10 his 8 year old sister disappeared from the futon next to his in the middle of the night. Never explained, and it tore the family apart: uncle, living with them, was always suspected, and he killed himself protesting his innocence. Father died next, mother took refuge in crackpot religion. Younger brother – born after sister’s disappearance – is now showing signs of mental illness. Turns out that mother secretly convinced brother (Yuya) that he was really Marie reborn (sister).

Yujiro is once again trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious sibling disappearance (check), and in doing so he’s moving through various scientific, pseudoscientific, and ultimately mystical epistemologies (check). He’s a philosophy major (but this part is never presented very persuasively – no real philosophical name-dropping); his best friend Miki is also one, but she’s really a physiognomist. She recommends he visit a half-Filipina dominatrix named Naomi (check the kinky sex theme), who it turns out is something of a shamaness a la Yuki in Outlet.

Meanwhile, Yuya in his delusions is talking about Marie actually inhabiting his body. And he also raves about having “antenna” – astral antenna, sort of. In the end the mystical worldview of this book isn’t developed as logically or as clearly as in Outlet, but it does involve some kind of astral antenna which are, once again, overlaid with sexual anatomy: yes, Yujiro’s dick is his antenna, and in the end it’s by obsessively masturbating that he manages to access the spiritual/astral realm in which Marie’s spirit, or his family’s disturbed projection of her, is wandering. And he puts her to rest.

Things are much less clear in this novel than in the first one. Marie’s disappearance is never really explained. That is, we’re given repressed-memory evidence that seems sufficient to identify the uncle, but Yujiro doesn’t accept it, so we don’t – and in the end Yujiro’s encounter with Marie’s spirit doesn’t explain why she disappeared, not in a real-world way. Not like Yuki’s brother’s death was explained.

And the mystical underpinnings aren’t as developed as in the first book, either. In the first book she left open the slight possibility that men could become outlets too, that the mystical nature of the universe wasn’t solely open to women – but in the end it was a very feminine vision she was presenting, of a very feminine cosmos. Here she’s developing a male-centered mysticality, redeeming the phallus, but perhaps because she doesn’t want to contradict the vision of the first book, it doesn’t expand into a worldview. How does the antenna fit with the outlet? And, oddly enough, she doesn’t really connect this antenna rhetoric to the tree-antenna imagery in the later parts of Outlet (there it's connected with Findhorn).

On top of that, there’s a theme of delusion running through this book – Yujiro gets from at least two encounters (Yuya’s psychiatrist and Naomi) the idea that beliefs, gestalts, ghosts, mystic perceptions, may all be delusions, and that’s okay: we’re all able to heal ourselves through our own delusions: in fact, that’s what they’re for. Which undercuts a lot of what happens in the end, and may explain why we never get closure on Marie’s death.

Ideologically, that sounds pretty challenging and fascinating. Kind of undercutting the positivism of the first book. But it’s itself undercut by the fact that this is a less powerful fiction: very talky, very repetitive. Too long by about a hundred pages, really.

Taguchi Randy, Outlet (2000)

I read more Japanese stuff than I write about here. I read it because that's my obsession, my hobby as well as my work; but I don't always blog about it because, as I say, it's my work. I haven't yet figured out how I want to balance the blog life with the work life, the digital with the flesh. For example, I often find, when I read an English translation of a Japanese work, that I have a lot to say in terms of critiquing the translation. But to do so anonymously would be unethical, since I am in fact in the same professional field as the translator; and to lose the anonymity of the Sgt. Tanuki alias would involve a lot of adjustments I'm not sure I'm ready to make. I don't think I write anything on here that would piss anybody off, or jeopardize my career - I'm mild-mannered like that - but at the same time I'm not sure I'm quite secure enough in that career yet to set up shop on the 'net and start popping off about other translators' work.

The present book (Outlet, J. Konsento コンセント, by Taguchi Randy 田口ランディ, 2000, trans. 2003) poses a different problem. I just re-read it - in fact, I just lectured on it last month - and that inspired me to read the two sequels (untranslated, at least into English - I think they're in Italian). And I want to blog them. But it makes little sense to blog the latter two and not the first. And there are ethical issues to blogging the first anonymously - because, oh hey, it turns out I'm the translator. And I was pretty bummed that the book didn't sell better - not because I wanted more royalties (that wasn't going to happen no matter what), but because I really believed in it as a book, and it disappoints me that more people aren't aware of it. That's why I assigned it to my class, and the process of teaching it to 100 kids confirmed my opinion of it. It's an awesome book. But praising it anonymously would turn me into a sock puppet. Ethical issues.

So, there it is. I translated it, so what I say below isn't an attempt to goose the sales figures anonymously. If you don't already know my personally (hi!), you can now search Amazon and find out my name. Why you'd want to, I don't know.

So, what have I to say about the book? What follows is excerpts from the lecture I gave my students. I stand by it, more or less. I'd like to think it's the intro I would have written to the book if Vertical was the kind of publisher that did that sort of thing, but I probably couldn't have written this in 2003.

BTW, my students hated this lecture when I gave it. Now you can, too!


Outlet. What’s it about? According to the Naoki Prize committee, it’s pop fiction, which means it’s entertainment – and I do find it very entertaining. But it also reflects a lot of the values that are characteristic of serious literature in contemporary Japan. For example, just like many recent Akutagawa Prize winners, it represents a previously unheard voice, and it engages with social issues. I want to talk about those aspects of the novel first.

Let’s start with the main character, Yuki, and her occupation. How do we meet her? She’s getting out of bed and turning on her laptop. She’s just had sex – and now she’s going to start working. She thinks the guy is asleep, until he asks her what she’s doing. And notice her reaction: "For some reason, I felt embarrassed, as if I’d been caught red-handed at something" (p. 2).

What’s her job? She’s an analyst and writer for a financial magazine. She’s studying to be a Certified Financial Planner. She’s a career woman, in short – she’s not just an OL in this publishing company, she’s a writer, who plans her own projects and looks forward to a future in finance, not necessarily with this firm.

That’s how she knows Kimura, the guy she’s just slept with as the novel opens. P. 4: "We were doing a story on a new on-line securities firm – he was the photographer." First, very sign-of-the-times, right? Not just securities, but online securities – that places the story right in the intersection of the new internet age and the post Financial Big Bang deregulation of the Japanese finance world. And look also at the respective relationships of the writer and the photographer. Don’t you get the feeling that she’s in charge? That the photographer is just a tag-along? It’s her story. And that relationship is reinforced, in this opening scene, by their behavior in this post-coital moment. She’s purposeful and driven: she’s checking the market. He’s lost. P. 3: "I lay on my belly on the floor staring at the computer screen, and the naked guy behind me didn’t know what to do with himself." They’re probably both naked, but he’s the one who’s at a loss. Powerless. Confused.

And notice how unusual it feels for a woman to be tackling this kind of story – not domestic topics, not fashion, but high finance. Traditionally a man’s world. She acknowledges that right off: 2 “Men drive the market” she says. But then she asserts her own right to focus on it, to speak about it: “but it behaves like a hysterical woman. It has violent ups and downs; it goes off at the slightest provocation. But it also has great intuition – it can tell the future, and sometimes brings about synchronicity – on a global scale. The economy is kind of occult.”

Of course, knowing how the book ends, this speech takes on a lot of resonance – she goes from something that’s “kind of occult,” to the out-and-out hair-raising occult. But even at this point, notice what she’s interested in: not just making money, in fact not making money out of stocks at all. She’s interested in them as a kind of overall system that explains the world. The stock market is the mechanism behind everything. One way to read this book is as a successive examination of various epistemologies – various systems for figuring out how we can know anything, about the world and about knowledge itself. Our first stop is economics, which she claims explains everything.

But also notice that she seems to find a feminine principle in economics, in this very male world. It’s not that she finds that the stock market has both male and female characteristics, and concludes that therefore “male” and “female” aren’t very useful concepts in dealing with the stock market (as one might). Rather, she insists on this gender-binary reading of the market. It’s driven by men, but behaves like a hysterical woman. She’s not challenging the idea that women behave in stereotypically feminine ways – hysteria, temper, intuition. In fact, she’s reinforcing that idea.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the way Taguchi deals with this gender binary, because it’s absolutely central to the book. But right now I want to point out that, as a vision of women in the workplace, on the career track, this is the opposite of what I've written about in Itoyama Akiko’s work. Itoyama is basically saying that woman can be company men just as much as men – that it’s the job, not the gender, that determines behavior. In Outlet, Taguchi is giving us a career woman character who seems instead to have internalized the notion of essential gender differences.

Think ahead to the scene in the bar where Ritsuko takes Yuki to meet the spiritualist, Ako. What’s Ako’s reading of Yuki? P. 135: “She seems very strong. Very logical – the impression I get is almost that of a man.” This is how she appears to others – and I think it’s how Yuki sees herself. Think of her college days studying psychology. She was capable of being incredibly nurturing and empathetic – qualities traditionally associated with the feminine – but her default mode was aggression: “I took pleasure in taming people and dominating them” (p. 107). Traditionally masculine behavior.

I’m not saying these are essential differences between men and women. I’m not even sure Taguchi thinks they are. But many people do think they are, and the attitudes she’s depicting are fairly typical of contemporary Japan, I think, with people who are challenging traditional gender-based standards of behavior, while not necessarily challenging received notions of essential gender differences. And this seems to interact specifically with women’s views of themselves in the workplace. The career woman, particularly of Taguchi’s generation, was very conscious of herself as a pioneer, as a woman in a man’s world. And one reaction was to feel that one had to act like a man.

You can see this, I think, in Yuki – she’s internalized notions of what it means to be a woman or a man, and adjusted her behavior so that she can succeed in a male-dominated world. She’s acting like a man. But she’s conflicted – she feels guilty for focusing on work instead of a relationship.

Meanwhile, think of the men in her life. Kimura, the guy she slept with, is kind of typical: they’re all somewhat diminished, even emasculated. Even her former professor, Kunisada, who seems like such a powerful figure at first, is at the end totally dominated by Yuki. I’ll come back to what I think this means in a few minutes, but first I want to point out a couple of other social issues that the work raises. And these it does through the characters of her brother and her father.

Her father was an alcoholic and a violent man. And much of what Yuki and her brother have gone through in their adult lives can be traced to the stresses they endured growing up in that kind of home. This is especially true of Yuki’s brother – what we learn about him first is that he was if anything more violent than their father, more of a borderline sociopath. But by the end we’ve come to see him as a victim – too sensitive to endure the kind of emotional hell that their father created at home.

Which, of course, makes her brother a classic example of a phenomenon that others have written about, the adaruto chirudoren, or adult children of abuse and alcoholism. Taguchi specifically ties their situation into this concept, right? On p. 146 Yuki says, "I suggested once that he attend a support group for adult children of alcoholics…" Yuki studied psychology: she knows that her brother’s symptoms are rooted in his childhood. On that level, this book is a social problem novel: Taguchi is presenting an instance of an adult survivor of alcoholism and abuse, and depicts what happens to him.

As an aside, the fact that she specifically brings up the buzzword “adult children” and has Yuki talk about the concept with a psychologist might be one example of why this book was categorized as popular fiction. It’s filled with ideas, but Taguchi takes a fair amount of care to make sure her readers understand what they are: here she comes right out and says it. The reader doesn’t have to work too hard to figure it out. Is that bad? Certainly not – but if sophistication and challenge are what you think defines serious literature, than you might wince at how obvious she’s being here. Maybe.

So, in the characters of Yuki and particularly her brother, Taguchi is depicting what can happen to adult children of alcoholics and abusers. What is that? Well, in Taka’s case, it’s a chronic inability to interact with other people normally, culminating in a total withdrawal from society. He just shuts himself in his apartment with his manga and his instant ramen and wastes away. No more human contact: it’s too much for him.

This, in fact, connects the book to another social problem that came to be talked about in the ‘90s and then increasingly in the ‘00s. This is what is referred to as the hikikomori, the “withdrawn” or “shut-ins.” The term has made it into English, too. It refers to people like Taka, who for a variety of reasons just withdraw from the world, shut themselves in their rooms and never come out. It’s not a formal psychiatric diagnosis, but rather an umbrella term that may cover everything from depression to agoraphobia to, in kids, fear of bullies at school. The public concern over it, the discourse about it, tends to focus not so much on a clinical diagnosis as on the assumption that the cause lies in the outside world – that certain stresses of Japanese life, or the way the modern city tends to isolate everybody, can cause this kind of reaction. I.e., the hikikomori is a symptom that Something is Wrong with Society Today, rather than a new category of psychological ailment.

So with that in mind, I think we can read Yuki’s brother Taka not only as a person whose traumatic childhood leads him to become a shut-in as an adult. We can also read him as an indictment of a society that has no place for people like him, of a society that can allow a person to just withdraw into his room, shut the door, and die alone. I’m not sure it’s a major theme of the novel, but certainly there’s an undercurrent of contrasting modern, fragmented, urban life, with its dislocations and disconnections, to an imagined wholeness, an organicity, a connectedness located in primitive rural life.

It might also be worth mentioning that Yuki went through the same traumas as her brother, but she’s survived better. In fact, the most damaged characters in the book are men. Taka, certainly. But even their father – for all of his violence, Yuki readily comments that he’s the weakest in the family, less able to deal with his son’s death than her mother is. There’s a gender-based critique here, too, just as there is in the level of the novel that deals with work.

And it’s important to note, I think, that to go along with this focus on the psychological ramifications of abuse, alcoholism, and withdrawal from society we have the fact that Yuki, before she became a financial writer, was a psychology student. Much of the novel, in fact, is taken up with her thinking about psychology, and her relationship with her psych professor. Remember how economics is presented, why the stock market interests Yuki: because it’s a system that explains how the world works. It’s an epistemology. Well, so is psychology: it’s a totalizing discourse that seeks to explain everything about human behavior.

This is when we begin to realize that Yuki has always been after some kind of comprehensive explanation. She’s a seeker: she’s trying to find the key to unlock the world. It’s presented to us out of order in the book, but here’s how it’s gone for her. She started out, in college, subscribing to the psychological epistemology. That is, believing that psychology was going to explain everything. Then she leaves that behind, and when we first meet her she subscribes to economics as an epistemology: it explains everything, encompasses all human behavior. Notice the progression, here: psychology, you could argue, is a fundamentally spiritual explanation for human behavior. That is, especially as presented in this book, it’s about the mind, and the heart – not the body, not the material world. From that perspective she goes to the total opposite – economics. Which, while it could certainly involve market psychology, investor psychology, is basically a materialist explanation. The world works, not by what’s in the mind, but by money, and moving it around.

Where does she end up? With yet another epistemology: this time a mystic one, based on shamanistic practices and an understanding of the world based on magic, on quasi-animistic religious perception. And yet her final understanding of the world is not just spiritual: think of the last scene, when we realize that she’s not just a shamaness, but what you could generously describe as a sex therapist, and what you could uncharitably describe as a prostitute. There is, in other words, a physical dimension to her final understanding of the world, too. What she arrives at in the end is something that unites the spiritual and the physical, the rational and the mystical.

Among other things.

One way to read Outlet is against the background of the boom in J-horror that was going on at the time. The book came out right in the midst of that boom, and even aside from the way it was marketed, I think it’s fair to say that Taguchi was responding to certain aspects of the J-horror boom. In particular, the way it was reviving and exploiting the connection between the feminine and the otherworldly.

I'm talking about the well-used, well-explored trope of the Demonic Woman: Sadako in the Ring series, the woman in the Grudge movies, Tomie, but also going way back to Oiwa in the Yotsuya Horror and even certain characters in the Tale of Genji.

As I say, this is a trope that gets used over and over again in Japanese culture, and it’s been like that for hundreds of years. Why? Why is it so popular? I think there are almost too many possible answers to that question. That is, there are lots of answers, any one of which would be sufficient to explain the phenomenon, and they’re all persuasive. Let me outline four of them.

1) The cultural/cosmological explanation. In short, this is that deeply embedded within Japanese culture is a suspicion and a hatred of women. Maybe it starts with the Daoist duality that permeates East Asian culture. According to Daoist cosmology the female principle, yin, is associated with darkness, dampness, negative energy, filth, the subterranean, the underwater, passivity, pliability, softness, quietness, the moon, etc. Basically a catalog of archetypal images of femaleness. Meanwhile the yang principle is the opposite: male, light, positive energy, purity, air, movement, protrusion, potency, hardness. Daoism doesn’t really conceive of this as a good-vs-evil thing, but it’s hard not to think of it that way. Who isn’t on some level afraid of the dark? In the Daoist conception that’s the same thing as being afraid of the female.

Add to that Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which position women as inferior to men in moral capacity – not by nature evil, perhaps, but prone to evil. Prone to jealousy, to anger, as well as to weakness. Combine that with the Daoist worldview – and for most of Japanese history these three have been bound up together, inextricably intertwined – and you start to see that the metaphysical deck is pretty much stacked against women. They are, at least potentially, monsters.

2) Modern psychological theory does a pretty good job of explaining the demonic woman trope in Japanese culture, as well. NYU professor Nina Cornyetz, in her Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, examines the way three very high-culture writers use the image of the demonic woman, but I think what she says applies just as well to pop-culture manifestations of it. If I might be permitted to oversimplify her argument, she’s basically saying that since it’s basically men who control culture, its constitution and expression, the female comes to be portrayed as demonic not just because she’s female and therefore other, but because she can conveniently represent everything the male subject must reject in order to define itself. She sees this principle at work in female writers as well as male, and I think you can see it in something like Outlet – women who have internalized a male view of women. If Yuki feels that emotions are getting in the way of her doing her job, she labels them feminine and thus compartmentalizes them, suppresses them, and what’s left she calls male and embraces. And so the idea of “female” comes to include everything that has to be excluded from male-defined subjectivity – and all of this rejected, abjected stuff piles up and comes back to bite you. Thus, Oiwa and Sadako embody men’s worst nightmares – not just femaleness, but everything that’s scary and threatening. It’s just given a female face. And long black hair.

3) Going along with the psychological interpretation of Oiwa and Sadako, we should note that there’s often an erotic dimension to the demonic woman. Sometimes it’s obvious – the demonic woman as seductress – we see this in the Tomie series. But more often it’s sublimated, just hinted at. And you might not pick up on this at first, but the hair is the tip-off. I keep mentioning how Oiwa and Sadako and the Grudge woman all have this unruly hair. Well, in traditional Japanese poetry, long black hair that’s unbound and tangled is an image that means, first and foremost madness, but also sex: because sex can drive you mad. So we have the classical poet Lady Izumi writing: Ignoring / the disorder of my black hair / I lay down / Oh, how I love / him who first combed it. We’re supposed to imagine that her hair is disordered because she’s sinking beneath her tears – but there’s an unmistakeable erotic charge to the poem, too. And early 20th century poet Yosano Akiko – Tawara Machi mentioned her – picked up on the theme. She had a whole collection entitled Tangled Hair. And the famous poem: My black hair / a thousand strands of hair / tangled hair / and the tangle of my heart, / the tangle of my heart. So, maybe not everybody is aware of it when they see an image like Sadako – but there’s an erotic dimension there to be noticed, if you want to go there. And of course this fits right in with the Freudian aspects – female sexuality, female desire, can be scary to the male psyche.

4) I don’t want to ignore the commercial nature of the image of the demonic woman, either. That is, it might be going to far to claim that every horror movie or book that features a demonic woman is thinking of the Daoist, or Freudian, or erotic implications of it. Sometimes I think it’s just a matter of what’s popular at the moment, of creators chasing the almighty yen. So maybe The Grudge gets made with a female ghost because Ring had been made a few years before and had been a huge hit. Everybody cashes in on the idea for a while, but then it dies down and something else catches people’s imagination. Certainly not every horror story in Japan focuses on women: there are other things that scare people. …And it was that way in the Edo period, as well. Oiwa wasn’t the only demonic woman, and demonic women weren’t the only thing in a kabuki play that could scare you. There was a plethora of monsters.

In short, there are a number of reasons why this trope keeps coming back, and a number of different meanings you can read into it. Any individual instance can mean as much or as little as the creator chooses, or as you the reader choose.

What’s important for our purposes is to realize that Taguchi Randy comes along right at the height of the J-horror boom of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, and that boom was particularly centered on the image of the demonic woman. In the ‘70s it was disaster films; in the late ‘90s it was ghostly women. And I think Taguchi is thinking very deeply about what it means, because I think you can see many of these ideas reflected in Outlet. Not just in the fact that with the creepiness and bloodiness of the first half it feels like it might be a horror story. It’s more that in the main character, Yuki, she’s appropriating the idea of the demonic woman, intimately connected to death and ghosts, and she’s turning it inside out. Yuki is kind of the inside-out version of Sadako.

That’s the significance of the shamaness idea. The other aspect of the traditional association between women and otherworldliness in Japan is just what the book says: the idea that because of this, women are well placed to be mediums, conduits between this world and the world of the dead.

Partly what Taguchi is drawing on here is the traditional role of the miko – shrine maidens is how the word is usually translated. Now they’re attached to Shinto shrines and perform rituals, often involving dancing as well as ceremonies. But historically they were also believed to be able to function as mediums – conduits between this world and that of the dead, or that of the gods. And prior to the modern period they weren’t as closely identified with Shinto as they are now – rather they represented a strain of folk religion that some ethnographers connect to the larger Northeast Asian phenomenon of shamanism. That’s the strain of thought that Taguchi is following in Outlet.

But she’s also drawing on a tradition from outside Japan – sort of. Mostly what she talks about is the Okinawan shaman, the yuta. The yuta isn’t quite equivalent to the miko – at least, in modern Okinawa she’s not attached to Shinto shrines, but rather is a figure in traditional Ryukyuan religious beliefs and practices. Like the miko, she’s considered to have special access to the world of the dead. And this function survives today in the yuta much more than it does in the miko of mainland Japan – which is why Taguchi has Yuki visit Miyako Island at the end of the book when she wants to meet a real shamaness.

The Okinawan connection is particularly important because women – not just yuta – play a central role in Okinawan traditional culture and religion in a way they don’t in Japan. The priestesses of the Ryukyuan folk religion were so revered that some observers described Ryukyuan culture as a matriarchy.

Now here’s where I think Outlet gets really interesting. Part of the back-and-forth about Okinawa in modern Japan has been the question of how “Japanese” is it. Okinawans have often suffered discrimination in Japan because of an assumption that they’re different, not really Japanese. At the same time the difference has sometimes been celebrated – that’s kind of what’s going on in Outlet, with Okinawa being positioned as this privileged place where shamanesses still thrive. But I think Outlet contains not just a celebration of this difference, but an assumption of underlying similarity as well. That is, partly based on observations of Okinawan society, some anthropologists believe – and this argument goes back decades in Japan – that prehistoric Japanese society was very similar to historical Okinawan society. That is, some people believe that before the influx of Chinese culture with its Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist attitudes toward women, Japan was a matriarchal society, with shamanesses occupying a particularly important place. Other scholars argue that this wasn’t the case. Whether it was or wasn’t isn’t the point I want to make, it’s that this idea is out there, and Taguchi is clearly drawing on it for Outlet.

In short, Outlet is imagining a moment in which women in Japan will regain their rightful place at the center of the nation’s spiritual life, in which women will function once again as a conduit between this world and that of the dead, and more than that in which they will offer mystical power and healing to a society sorely in need of it. And they’ll do this by virtue of being female – it’s a power, as imagined in this book, that in both ancient times and today is only available to women. It’s all tied up in being a woman.

That’s what I mean when I say I think Taguchi is turning the Oiwa and Sadako image inside out. She’s taking a trope that was tremendously popular at the time – the woman made monstrous by virtue of her ghostliness, the woman whose connection to the supernatural was expressed as a malevolent, vengeful violence – and using it. For much of the book it seems that Yuki is going crazy, perhaps becoming monstrous – but in fact she’s just awakening. She’s turning into the positive aspect of the supernatural woman: the medium, the priestess, the shamaness. They’re two sides of the same idea, in other words. And Taguchi is taking it from negative back to a positive.

And she’s also trying to make it universal. It’s not just that Yuki discovers she has shamanistic abilities, right? This is the final step in her quest to discover the true explanation for the way the world works. She started out with psychology, then moved to economics, and now her final epistemology is, well, mystical. It’s a little bit hard to pin down – a vision of total interconnectedness, of vibrations and wavelengths and, well, it’s all very New Age.

What’s key, though, is that it’s a female vision. An epistemology of radical female-centeredness. Her understanding of the world is something she can access because she’s a woman, of course, but more than that, it’s about seeing all of existence in terms of the gender binary.

This is where the plug-outlet imagery of the title comes into play. The occult vision of the universe that Taguchi advances at the end of the book is one of power and energy, and of women who can serve as conduits for that energy. The model she’s using is of electrical power, which is distributed through power sockets in the wall – outlets. To access this power you need a plug, which you stick into the outlet – think of the physicality of it. The plug is unmistakably phallic, and the outlet is unmistakably vaginal. But the plug is useless on its own. Just because an appliance has a plug doesn’t mean it can function: the plug needs to be connected to the outlet. It’s the outlet that has the power: it’s the outlet that is the power.

As a vision of the universe it’s a radical reversal of the one advanced by, you know, just about every system available. The Freudian model is of the phallus representing power, and the vagina representing lack – thus the old idea of penis envy. Taguchi’s vision is a reversal: it’s the phallus that’s useless, and the vagina that’s powerful. The outlet for the energies of the universe – which, because they’re channeled through the female, have to be considered female themselves, more or less.

Of course with all this phallic symbolism flopping around in the book, it almost has to have a sexual dimension, and she certainly gives it one. I’m sure that’s an area of the book that makes some readers uncomfortable, and with good reason. Not just because it’s so sexually explicit, but again, think of the way it ends. With oral sex, for money. How do we deal with this?

I think we have to conclude that Taguchi is very much thinking about some of the debates that were going on in feminism at the time. One of them was over the essentialism question. That is, if we contrast Outlet with, for example, Itoyama's work, we would probably conclude that Itoyama Akiko is rejecting the notion that, at least in work situations, there’s any essential difference between men and women. Physically, yes, perhaps, but mentally, spiritually, in terms of character, no. Meanwhile Outlet seems to be saying yes, absolutely. It’s one of feminism's eternal debates; Outlet is taking a fairly extreme, but by no means unheard-of, position.

Another debate is that over sex. Outlet is also taking an extreme sex-positive stance - it's very much a post-Camille Paglia book, embracing sexual activity, sexual liberation, sexiness, as a fundamental part of being female. A right, a pleasure not to be denied.

Outlet is a book that argues for female essentialism, that buys into the historically essentialist gender binary, but reverses the values to privilege femaleness. And it’s also a book with a sex-positive view of femaleness, one that sees sexuality as absolutely central to female identity. Again, this is what she’s getting at, I think, with the plug-outlet metaphor. It comes down again to her reversal of Freudian psychology: she’s positing the vagina, rather than the phallus, as the site of plenitude and potency.

It’s a problematic view, to be sure, and not just because when you accept an essentialist view of gender such as this, no matter how positive a spin you put on it, you’re leaving an opening for somebody else to come along and put a negative spin on it. There is that. But there’s also the fact that in the absolute binary view of sex and gender that Taguchi is depicting in this novel, you have to wonder: where does same-sex love fit in? If you have to plug into the outlet to access the power, what happens if you’re just not interested in the outlet? Or the plug, for that matter? So, as a philosophy, one may find it lacking - I do.

But as a literary vision, as a response to, among other things, the way her culture was thinking of women, and the way women were experiencing their culture, I think it’s a very exciting book. Exhilarating. I mean, the audacity of her vision, the all-encompassing triumphalism of Yuki’s transformation at the end. It’s almost messianic – that’s why it’s important that she goes back to Tokyo at the end and takes up her new trade. If she’d stayed in Okinawa, settled down as a shamaness in a place where they appreciate shamanesses, it would have neutralized her as a character. Instead, she’s going back to the heart of the city, to change the world, one person at a time.

Outlet is a radical affirmation of the possibility of spiritual regeneration, and perhaps even social change, through female agency. At least, that’s how I read it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Allen Ginsberg's "America"

Zoë Pollock, underblogging for Andrew Sullivan, reminded me of this, perhaps the most patriotic poem ever written. "America," a 1956 poem by Allen Ginsberg. My favorite passage:
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
The whole poem can be found here. Happy 4th of July.