Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saimon Fumi: Tokyo Love Story (1988-1990)

Tokyo Love Story 東京ラブストーリー is the name of the manga. It's a bold title, promising that the love story it tells will somehow encapsulate the city of Tokyo, at least at that particular moment.  I don't know enough about Saimon Fumi 柴門ふみ's career to know if she had any right to be that ambitious in 1988.  Any right, that is, other than the fact that her manga succeeds perfectly.  If I had to pick one manga to be Exhibit A for the argument that manga can be Literature with that capital L, it might be this one.  If I had to pick one work of literature to represent Japan in the bubble years, it might be this one.

Generically, it's a romantic comedy.  It follows the conventions of this genre right down to the meet-cutes and the best-friends and the unexpected reversals, etc.  It's also a seishun monogatari, in this case the very end of youth, that moment in your early 20s when you're done with college, you're working, you're out on your own with disposable income and a driver's license that says you can drink legally and there's nobody to tell you not to sleep with person X and you're wondering if all this means you should start settling down but you're having too much fun in the big city...  (Mrs. Sgt. T notes that this manga is St. Elmo's Fire, and by God she's right.  But it's a little more than that.)

It centers around four main characters.  Nagao Kanji and his friend Mikami, who grew up together in Ehime and have now wound up in Tokyo, Nagao as a salaryman and Mikami as a med student;  their friend Sekiguchi Satomi, a fellow classmate from Ehime who's now working at a kindergarten in Tokyo;  and Akana Rika, an OL in Nagao's office.  Nagao is a painfully sincere, good-hearted guy who's a country boy at heart, lost in the big city, and he's been in love with Sekiguchi for years but she only thinks of him as a friend.  Mikami is a playboy, a dissolute son of wealthy parents, but he has, of course, a heart of gold, and he's been in love with Sekiguchi for years, too.  Rika is an overseas returnee - she spent her childhood in Africa - and this is held up as emblematic of her approach to life:  she has a freedom, an impatience with rules and customs, and a self-directedness that her countrymen (the manga sez) lack. She sets her sights on Nagao.

From here we get the expected love triangles in their various permutations.  As a love story, what makes it work is the fact that it never feels like Saimon is extending it needlessly.  It's not a very long manga as these things go, and given its popularity at the time it must have been a temptation to spin it out endlessly, but she didn't.  Each development feels like it was planned from the start, adding new depth and complexity to each character and their relationships.  And so it succeeds as a romantic comedy.  You really root for each of these people - if you're open to this genre at all - and you laugh and cry along with them as they fall in and out of love.

But what makes it work as literature (and what is literature? whatever you want it to be;  in this case what I want it to be is something that makes me think, something that says something, something that somehow transcends itself) is how elegantly each of the characters represents this particular moment.  She's writing during the later bubble years, just before things went to hell, and so her characters are effortlessly affluent and enjoy the best of everything.  (There's more than a little Gatsby in here, too.)  And it's not just unprecedented material freedom that this manga captures:  it's the utter freedom from tradition. 

Sex is a fact in this manga;  it's not particularly explicit, but it portrays characters thinking about sex with an openness, a matter-of-factness, that feels quite fresh.  Of course it's not precisely new, and it's not universal either:  part of the subtlety of the book is how it brings out a tension between the sexual fastness of Tokyo and the perceived conservatism of the countryside.  And of course Tokyo in literature has been sexually fast for decades - it's something each new generation discovers to its delight and shock, at least since Tanizaki's day.  (But then, every generation thinks it was the one to discover sex.)

Rika is held up as the exemplar of all of this fast Tokyo-osity.  At one point Nagao even says she's Tokyo itself.  Which means that of course she's yet another take on the age-old theme of the moga.  But it's the specificity of the character that is so powerful:  the details of her position in the company, the work she's expected to do, how she does it;  her ease with fashion, international travel, communication in English;  the way she represents for the men in the company a kind of consumption-based sexually-inflected freedom that both fascinates and threatens them.  All of this makes her a compelling new character, and simultaneously a perfect expression of the place of Tokyo in the cultural imagination in the late '80s.  There was, and is, a dynamic in Japanese culture that sees Tokyo as somehow un-Japanese (despite the metro area being home to something like a quarter of the population), something to be shunned, even as it's plainly something that attracts vast numbers of people.  Rika is all that.

Which is why it's so wonderful that this manga doesn't punish her.  This manga doesn't look at Tokyo with horror.  Rika isn't an aberration to be contained.  Saimon's vision of contemporary Japan is big enough to have room for Rika just as she is - just as Saimon accepts (depicts with loving surehandedness) Nagao's awkwardness as a common reaction to the newness of someone like Rika.

I could go on.  This manga is rich in theme, character psychology, dramatic detail.  And it's something to behold visually, as well:  Saimon's art is just light enough to deliver the comedy, while being just detailed enough to sustain the seriousness.  And on top of it all she has a great eye for fashion.  This is exactly how people dressed in Tokyo offices in 1989.  That reaching for a '20s kind of elegance - the scarves, the corduroy, the culottes and baggy suits.  It not only captures the era, but it resonates nicely with the characters' desire to be grown up. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tezuka Osamu: Dororo (1967-1968)

The line on Dororo どろろ, which Tezuka Osamu 手塚治虫 serialized from 1967 to 1969 in Shūkan Shōnen Sunday 週刊少年サンデー and then Bōken-ō 冒険王, is that it was an attempt to compete with people like Shirato Sanpei 白土三平 (by writing a dark, bloody samurai piece) and Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる (by peopling it with traditional and traditional-seeming monsters), and that it was a failure.

The story revolves around two main characters.  One is Hyakkimaru, a youthful swordsman who was born with basically every horrible physical handicap one can imagine:  no arms, no legs, no eyes, no ears, no nose, etc.  This is because his father, a lord of samurai, had made a deal with a collection of 48 demons that he'd sacrifice his newborn son in exchange for the power to conquer Japan.  Each demon, he said, could take a part of his son.  And so they did.  The boy survived, but his father cast him adrift in a basket on a river.  The boy was found and raised by a kindly physician who made artificial limbs for him, with special effects:  he could take his arms off to reveal sword, he had chemical weapons hidden in his fake leg, etc (yes, shades of Mighty Atom).  To boot, the boy learned that he could compensate psychically for his lost senses - talk, see, smell, hear, etc. mentally.  When he sets out on his own, the boy, known as Hyakkimaru ("Hundred Demons"), learns that he has a special talent for fighting and killing monsters, and that each time he does, he regains one of his stolen body parts.  So he's on sort of a quest to rebuild himself by conquering all the monsters.

Early on he gains a sidekick, a little boy named Dororo whose parents were Robin Hood-type populist robbers betrayed by a greedy sidekick.  Dororo is an orphan, and a little runt, but he prides himself on his burgling abilities, calling himself the best thief in Japan, and sets his sights on Hyakkimaru's sword (not the one in his hand, the normal one he carries at his side).  Thus they team up to travel the land and fight monsters...

It's not a bad setup, and Tezuka is a natural storyteller, so the tale never lags.  It's always interesting.  But.  It has several fatal flaws.  One of them is Dororo himself.  Unlike Hyakkimaru, he doesn't really have a story arc. He has a back story, and it provides some hooks for further episodes, but it's never clear what Tezuka wants to do with him as a character.  And, more importantly, he's just annoying.  He's a standard-issue spunky boy hero, which is fine in some contexts, but here he's as cloying as the little boy in the second Indiana Jones movie.  He's out of place here - his presence shows that Tezuka either wasn't fully committed to telling an adult story like his competitors, or just didn't know how.

The main problem with Dororo is that Tezuka just comes up short.  Again, he's a good enough storyteller that he can keep the reader interested, but he doesn't have the deep feel for samurai-type stories that Shirato did, nor for yōkai that Mizuki does.  The story feels derivative, and more than that it feels jokey toward its material in an inappropriate way.  Part of this comes down to the art:  Tezuka famously never quite outgrew the Disneyish character-design on which he had built his career.  Much later than this series he finally managed to temper it enough to enable it to tell serious stories, but at this point he's still all-out cute.  There's a disconnect here, considering that he's amped up the violence to compete with Shirato.  Seeing cute li'l Dororo cavorting amidst all that blood'n'guts is frankly a little disturbing.

But it's not all a question of style.  Like I say, it's also a question of feel.  Mizuki took the idea of yōkai and used it as a way to explore mood and atmosphere:  even with all the gags in his Kitarō series, there's an amazing variety of creepiness afoot.  And of course it goes beyond that:  he uses yōkai to satirize the present, preserve the past, suggest a whole alternate take on Japanese cultural history...  In Dororo, Tezuka seems to see yōkai as nothing but scary obstacles for his heroes to overcome.  His monsters don't have the extra dimensions that Mizuki's have.

The same can be said for his treatment of the medieval setting. Given Tezuka's vaunted humanism one might have expected him to find a lot to love in the ninjō heavy conventions of the jidaigeki.  I'm not sure I can put my finger on why it doesn't work, but his samurai are one-dimensional, and so are his peasants.  His treatment of the feudal social system feels preachy, not rich with ambiguity like Kurosawa's (another of his obvious models here - the tip-off is an early scene in an abandoned temple gate strongly reminiscent of the one in Rashomon).

Tezuka has, of course, a towering reputation in manga, and so it's worth reading any of his work you can get your hands on.  I've read all or parts of six or seven of his series - not a big proportion by any means - and I have to say, I find him kind of hit or miss.  When he's in his comfort zone of kiddie adventure comix, he's untouchably brilliant.  When he strays out of it - not so much.  Above I mentioned the Indy Jones movies, and in fact I've come think of Tezuka as being a lot like Spielberg:  a genius in a field that was at the time not well respected, who pushed himself to work in well-respected fields to mixed results. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana: Argentine Hag (2002)

There’s one other novel by Banana that’s been published in English, although this is so scarce as to almost not count.  Her 2002 novel Aruzenchin babā アルゼンチンババア was translated by Sawa Fumiya 澤文也 as Argentine Hag.  I don’t know anything about Sawa except that he studied at SOAS;  that probably explains the Britishisms that pepper this translation;  that’s fine.

This was the third of Yoshimoto’s highly-visible collaborations with Nara Yoshitomo.  I suspect it’s the most elaborate (Hard-boiled was just a normal hardback with some illustrations) but I haven’t seen the original/deluxe edition of the second yet, Hinagiku no jinsei ひな菊の人生.  I understand it’s pretty serious.

This one, if you get the deluxe hardback, is a pretty serious production.  Nara contributes illustrations and/or photographs for nearly every single page, and the whole thing is presented in a very sturdy case.  Impressive.  And part of this package is that the story is presented bilingually with a facing-page English translation by Sawa.

With all these fireworks, one might reasonably expect the story itself to be the least of the attractions, but in fact the Banana rises to the occasion.  The story starts out as Typical Yoshimoto Plot #1-C, “girl narrator loses mother, bonds with father, forms atypical family unit.”  That is, the narrator’s mother dies, and her father takes up with the local cat lady, an old lady in town who used to teach tango (this is only a few years after Shall We Dance, remember) and who, partly as a result of this, is nicknamed the Argentine Hag, living in the Argentine Building.  (Like Happy Together, this really doesn’t have all that much to do with Argentina itself.)  Narrator is freaked out at first, but comes to discover that said Hag is actually a really interesting, engaging, and spiritually uplifting person.  Epiphany.

But it’s handled extremely well this time.  Yoshimoto combines these familiar elements with some of her late-‘90s interest in spirituality, and unlike in Amrita the results here are quite fascinating.  The father, an ex-stonemason who had specialized in tombstones, moves in with the Hag and becomes fascinated by mandalas, eventually constructing a huge one on the roof of the Argentine Building.  With the Hag represented as the center of the universe.  This motif resonates beautifully with Nara’s art, which doesn’t use any mandala motifs per se, but which includes not only his usual pouty girls but also semi-abstract photos of plants, starry skies, luminously mundane suburbscapes, etc., enough to make you feel like you’re getting, in bits and pieces, a mandala of sorts…

So the story is worthy of the presentation, and the presentation enhances the story.  The design of the book is very careful in this regard to make sure that images match up with the text;  colored type and colored paper are also employed to give you the feeling that each page is its own world, its own new experience.

Which raises the question, however, of:  why the English?  I don’t believe this was designed for export.  It was probably available in a few museum shops or boutiques in Portland or Williamsburg, but even then I suspect the thing was meant to be experienced as an objet, rather than as a story.  I say this because the care that was put into making sure the text and the images match up was only given to the Japanese text, not the facing English translation, which typically lags two or three pages behind the Japanese.  If all you’re reading is the English, the careful balance is utterly destroyed, and you may find yourself wondering how indeed the images are meant to relate to the text.

More importantly for my purposes, the translation is mediocre at best.  It’s fairly accurate, in that it’s clear that the translator understood the original Japanese – since the translator is a native speaker, that’s to be expected.  What he lacks is much sense of colloquial English – even though a few Britishisms are thrown in to suggests naturalness, the prose still feels stiff and textbookish.  And, furthermore, doesn’t pay much attention to paragraph breaks in the original.  It reads, in other words, like a translation that was prepared as part of a package aimed Japanese readers, not English readers.  It’s a translation to be looked at, not read.

Monday, August 22, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)

Aviator Books, in the International Wing of the San Francisco Airport, is the best bookstore I've ever encountered in an airport.  I can't sleep on airplanes, and I've stopped listening to any music I care about because the noise of the engines gets in the way, so I get a lot of reading done.  I read the Ishiguro book I just blogged about on a flight to Tokyo last week, and during my layover in SFO I could tell I was going to finish it before hitting Setagaya-ku, so I went hunting for a bookstore.  Aviator had more attractive things for the literary-minded than I had hoped for, and I settled on The Great Gatsby.  Had about twenty pages left in it when I got to my in-laws' house, so:  that worked out well.

And now I'm sitting in our hotel in Kyoto trying to think of something intelligent to say about it.  I've got nothing. It's one of those books that everybody loves, and so do I, and I'm sure I love it for the same reasons everybody else does.  The way it mingles wisdom about material wealth and worldly glamor with an honest human love of same;  the way it lays bare American obsessions with origins, with self-reinvention, with status and place;  the way it does all this in some of the most glorious English ever written.

I guess it's something, though, if I can say I love it now.  I don't think I've read it since high school (required reading, sophomore year), and I didn't have much patience with it then.  A) I didn't appreciate language for its own sake then (despite pretensions to poetry), and B) I was in my full-on anti-materialist hippie phase, and didn't have any patience for the narrator's patience with Gatsby and Daisy.

Like, these are shallow people, and Nick Carraway knows that, but he's attracted by their glamor anyway.  By their what Gatsby says (in just one of the novel's immortal lines) he hears in Daisy's voice:  money.  I didn't get this when I was young.  I figured you either bought that stuff or you didn't;  it was black or white.  You know, that's youth.  Now, as a wizened (not necessarily wise) old dude, I'm all about the conflicted feelings, the self-contradictory attitudes, the loving what you don't necessarily approve of.  It strikes me as being about as close as you can get to a summary of the human condition.

Fitzgerald nails it.