Saturday, September 17, 2011

Buddy Greco: Talkin' Verve (2001)

I'm gonna just own the fact that until I decided I had to pick up this whole series, I had never heard of Buddy Greco.  Turns out he's a crooner-lounge singer type;  as the liner notes make clear, he sings like Frank Sinatra but tries to play piano and band-lead like Nat King Cole.

This disc is hardly representative of his career;  even I can tell that.  It draws from precisely four albums he made in the late '50s, three for Kapp Records and one for Coral.  Presumably somewhere along the way those two catalogs entered the Mercury/Verve/Universal morass, and that's why this disc.  So I have no idea if it's his best or not.  That's my caveat.

If Sinatra is the Chairman of the Board, then Buddy Greco works for the same company, but somewhere way down the food chain:  he's in Sales, probably travels, mostly lives out of midpriced hotels in midsize Midwestern cities, where he hangs out at the lounge bar hitting on middle-aged married women.  Or:  If Sinatra is Tony Soprano, Greco is Chris.

Sinatra has swagger, which may or may not be empty depending on whether you like that kind of thing.  But he also has enough restraint to make you feel like he loves the music, even if he mostly coasts through it.  Greco doesn't sound like he has any respect for these songs at all.  He mugs and vamps his way through "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" like it's nothing, like maybe it's so old and hackneyed that all you can do with it is joke around.  His singing on this record is all about him, never about the song, or what it's about.

Which is almost a shame, because he's got an agile, expressive voice, and plays a great piano.  Has a nifty band, and some rather okay arrangements - clever flutes and whatnot.

Sincerity, man.  It's such a drag.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Taniguchi Jirō and Kusumi Masayuki: Sanpomono (2003-2005)

Art by Taniguchi Jirō 谷口ジロー, script by Kusumi Masayuki 久住昌之.  It was serialized in Tsūshin seikatsu 通信生活 from 2003 to 2005, collected in book form in 2006, and issued in bunkobon 文庫本 format in 2009 by Fusō shuppan 扶桑出版, which is what I read.

This is a really interesting manga.  Perhaps the most junbungaku manga I've yet encountered.  It's about a typical salaryman who takes walks.  That's it, essentially.  He's out on an errand, or visiting a friend, misses his bus, and decides to walk home instead, or whereever he's going;  each episode details what he sees while he's walking, and involves some very minor daily-life epiphany.  The end result is the sort of apotheosis of the mundane that is one of the major themes of modern Japanese literature.  Finding meaning, beauty, delight, solace, in a small thing encountered by accident and seen in just the right light.

The art supports this marvelously;  it's probably no exaggeration to say that the whole point of this series was to give Taniguchi a chance to experiment visually, or maybe even to show off.  The art combines photorealistic backgrounds with pretty manga-esque humans;  just as the scenery of the strolls is the thematic point, the backgrounds are the artistic point.

Photorealistic doesn't quite cover it, because he's giving you more detail than you'd pick up from a photograph.  His unbelievably fine lines and exact geometry give you a sort of heightened realism, an almost surreal level of detail and volume:  the buildings and trees fairly leap out at you.  To this amazing line Taniguchi adds amazing facility with screentones, creating effects of light and shadow, texture and touch, that pretty much define the state of the manga art.  If you want to know what it feels like to walk through a Tokyo neighborhood, just read this manga.

The art is so wonderful, and the theme so deep, that it makes the two flaws I find in the project all the more glaring.  One is that Taniguchi's handling of human facial expressions, at least in this manga, isn't as subtle as his rendering of the scenery.  I came to this right after Billy Bat, and for all the adventure comix cartooniness of that manga, the way figures are rendered in it is incredibly expressive and well-observed.  You've seen people make that exact face, stand in just that way.  Taniguchi's people, on the other hand, are a little stiff, their expressions a little blunt, and for me that meant the art just barely failed to support the theme.

The other flaw is more interesting.  I mentioned that each episode culminates in a kind of daily-life epiphany, usually through an encounter with some object.  In classic modern J-lit this object would be a cherry tree in bloom, or a locket that belonged to a former lover - those are clichés, but you can see what I mean.  Here, almost all the objects are items for sale.  A particular kind of light bulb, lunch at a particular curry shop in Kichijōji.  And the kind of epiphanies the main character experiences - the lessons he takes from them - have to do with nostalgia for a better time, but that better time is basically the Tokyo of thirty to fifty years ago.  More mid-Shōwa nostalgia, in other words.

And this was, for me, pretty disappointing.  I like a good curry lunch, a good unchanged '50s neighborhood, as much as the next guy, I really do, but this manga was so aesthetically promising that it was a let-down to realize that the meaning-in-life it was finding was basically just a cool thing to buy, or a Tokyo with simply a slightly lower degree of commercial exploitation.  Like, that's the best you can imagine?  Really?

That's where I'm glad I read the paperback (which otherwise is a bad deal, because the art really deserves to be seen as large as it can be), because it has lots of prose in the back by Kusumi detailing the making of this series, and where each episode is set (they're all real neighborhoods).  And he comes right out and admits that it was the publisher's insistence that each episode involve a product.  This was serialized in a magazine that's half general-interest mag and half mail-order catalog.  Of course they want the comix to celebrate consumption.

So I can't make up my mind whether this is art compromised by commercial concerns, or a case of art sneaking in under the radar of commercial concerns.

Hatakenaka Megumi: Shabake (2001)

If you've been paying attention to Japanese pop culture over the last dozen or so years you know there's been a real vogue for yōkai 妖怪, traditional Japanese monsters.  Part of this has been the elevation of my boy Mizuki Shigeru to the status of manga saint.  Part of this has simply been the '90s and beyond "Edo boom," wherein there has been wave after wave of popular interest in one aspect or another of Edo-period culture, everything from hand-towel designs to comic storytelling.

In any case, part of the boom has been a renewed presence of yōkai and/or traditional-flava horror in Japanese popular fiction.  Seemingly the biggest figure in this is Kyōgoku Natsuhiko 京極夏彦, who has written a series of doorstop-sized mystery-horror novels set in the twentieth century but with yōkai motifs.  The first of them has been translated recently;  I read it in the original years ago, but it was in my pre-blogging days, and I don't seem to have written any notes on it for myself.  (Meaning, I might as well have not read it at all, for all I remember of it.  My memory is a sieve.  A broken sieve.)

Hatakenaka Megumi 畠中恵 is part of this trend as well.  She writes a series known as Shabake しゃばけ, after the title of the first book in the series, published in 2001.  Shabake (the kanji would be 娑婆気) is an archaic term;  she provides a definition as an epigraph; basically, it refers to a state of mental captivity to worldly desires such as for honor, advancement, profit.  How exactly the concept relates to the story is for the reader to figure out.

Unlike Kyōgoku, Hatakenaka's approach to this genre is to set her stories in the Edo period.  Her main character is Ichitarō of the Nagasakiya, the scion of a wealthy merchant house - they run a shipping business, and an apothecary shop on the side.  Ichitarō, 17, is in charge of the apothecary, but really he's not in charge of anything in his life.  He's frail - constantly getting sick - and since as the heir he's the future of the family business, his family pampers him in every respect.  In addition, they set two strapping young shopboys in charge of him, to take care of his every need and make sure he doesn't overexert himself.

These shopboys happen to be yōkai:  one's a Doggod and one's a Whitemarsh.  They can and usually do shape-shift to disguise themselves as humans, but when they're angry the camouflage slips...

Ichitarō can see, and hear, and communicate with, yōkai.  He knows his companions' true identity.  Exactly how much the rest of the family knows is part of the mystery - Ichitarō's abilities seem to be unique, although he takes them for granted, and why he has them isn't explained until the end.

This novel can be thought of as combining a number of different genres.  First is the yōkai story;  it's not quite horror - it's not scary - but it involves some of the trappings of horror.  Second is the jidaigeki:  it makes use of a lot of the tropes of pop lit and TV shows set in the Edo period.  The way it depicts townsmen and samurai, the kinds of stock characters and situations, are part of the jidaigeki repertoire.  Third is the mystery:  halfway through, Ichitarō is forced to turn (armchair) detective, in order to save his life.  Someone starts killing apothecaries, searching for the right medicine;  Ichitarō has to figure out what the medicine is and why the killer wants it, before he becomes the next victim (dot dot dot)

All of this is fine and dandy, and the story is reasonably well constructed and entertaining.  But what mainly holds the book together is its cuteness.  Japanese Wikipedia says the series is mostly popular with young women, and I can see why (if I can engage that stereotype at face value):  Ichitarō is cute.  His yōkai minders are cute.  The other characters  - Ichitarō's parents and his best friend Eikichi are cute.

I don't mean visually cute.  That's part of it, of course;  the book includes some adorable illustrations by Shibata Yū 柴田ゆう.  But mainly it's that the ways Hatakenaka imagines these characters - the situations she puts them in and their reactions to them - tend to make you smile indulgently and affectionately at the character, or roll your eyes in mock exasperation.  Or just laugh.

Ichitarō himself:  he's both a stereotype and a reversal of a stereotype.  As a lazy scion of a wealthy Edo merchant, he's a centuries-old stock character;  the trick here is that his parents lovingly force him into laziness.  They don't want him to lift a finger.  His parents dote on him to a ridiculous degree, and since Ichitarō himself doesn't act like a spoiled brat, the whole situation becomes adorably comic.  Ichitarō chafes against his inactivity - but mildly, with a sort of wan grace that would make him a tragic figure if this were a more serious book.  But it's not, so he's just kind of a pale, wry figure at the center of his own story.

His best friend Eikichi:  he's also the scion of a merchant family, but his house is as poor as Ichitarō's is rich.  Eikichi's family are confectioners, and Eikichi's problem is that for all his best efforts he sucks as a candy-maker.  He burns the an.  His dango come out different sizes.  He's kind of a sad sack, but he's also a loyal friend.  So:  cute.

And then there are the yōkai.  Mizuki uses yōkai as a sort of exposé of Japan's collective unconscious, I think:  there are creepy-crawlies in there, and denying that will get us nowhere.  Kyōgoku, from what I can tell from one novel, uses them as motifs, metaphors, to explain contemporary human behavior.  Hatakenaka's yōkai are more down-to-earth;  in their haplessness, they have a lot in common with Mizuki's, but without the palpable aura of creepiness that his have even at their most comixy.  Hatakenaka's really are cute.  Even when they're capable of murder.

Kokurikozaka kara (manga version)

This summer's Ghibli release, Kokurikozaka kara コクリコ坂から, was based on a manga by the same name.  It was drawn by Takahashi Chizuru 高橋千鶴 with a story by Sayama Tetsurō 佐山哲郎, and it was serialized in the girls' comix mag Nakayoshi なかよし in 1980.  It's currently available complete in one volume, in stacks next to all the movie paraphernalia in the bookstores.

Taken on its own terms, it's an utterly typical shōjo manga.  Average.  I guess I mean that as both a pejorative and a mere descriptor.  That is, I don't find the manga really remarkable in any way;  but there's a certain value in reading unremarkable works, too, because they help you appreciate the excellent ones. 

The art:  it's undistinguished.  Very few compositions struck me as being memorable or arresting.  At the same time it's obviously using the visual vocabulary of girls' comix circa 1980 in typical way:  the flowers, the floating-in-space emotional moments, the dizzy-angle closeups of eyes, mouths, etc.  It's kind of a primer on the genre.

The story:  same.  Puppy love presented with an accent on beautiful boys just out of reach, and the endless internal sufferings of a girl in love.  Just enough complications to keep the plot going, and a resolution just in time to bring tears to your eyes.  (Theoretically.)

Read in terms of the movie, however, it's fascinating, precisely because Ghibli was able to make such a deeply resonant movie out of such average source material.  They kept the basic outlines of the story (Mer and Kazama's relationship, the boarding house, the school), but changed the setting from "contemporary" (in 1980 the manga was set in 1980) to "past," and thus the tone from up-to-the-minute (in the manga the boys all have Shaun Cassidy long hair) to nostalgic.  Furthermore they drew out the emotional, almost mythic power of the dad-lost-at-sea motif.

Here's an example of what they did.  High-school-student protest is a theme in both.  In the manga, it's a gag:  Kazama manufactures a student uprising against school uniforms, as a way of selling more papers (he's on the school newspaper).  It's mildly funny, but mostly a shockingly cynical parody of the student protests that had swept the country just ten years before.  Takahashi and Sayama's youngest readers may or may not have had any memory of them, but older readers would have, and it's some kind of sign of the new decade that student unrest in 1980 could only be thought of in terms of this kind of ridiculous parody.

In the movie they keep the theme, but transform it into a crusade to save the Latin Quarter dorm.  Notably, this too neutralizes the student-protest theme - what in the late '60s would have potent political significance is recast in the film as pure-hearted young people trying to save their community.  But at least it's taken seriously by the filmmakers - commitment to something other than puppy-love and hairbrushes is held up as a real thing.