Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gen'yū Sōkyū: Chūin no hana (2001)

Finally I'm managing to push a little farther backward in my A-Prize project.  Chūin no hana 中陰の花 (Flowers of Limbo), by Gen'yū Sōkyū 玄侑宗久, won the 125th Prize, for early 2001.

The chūin of the title refers to the first 49 days after death, a period in which the deceased is thought, in traditional Japanese Buddhism, to be hovering in a nether-state between this life and reincarnation.  "Limbo" is no doubt too Westernizing a translation of the concept, but it gets the job done.

The author is an ordained priest of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.  The story that won the prize reads very much like autobiography, although it's written in the third person.  The main character, a Rinzai priest called Sokudō, officiates at a temple in a small town in northeastern Japan;  this seems to be drawing on Sōkyū's own experiences at a temple in Fukushima.

The main conflict in the story is between Sokudō's highly intellectualized Zen understanding of the world and his flock's desire for a more miracle-oriented religious experience.  Sokudō was raised in this small town to inherit this temple, but he spent a lot of time with a neighbor who happened to be a diviner with a large local following.  Now this diviner has died, and Sokudō discovers that among her patrons was his own wife, who had consulted the diviner after miscarrying Sokudō's child some years before.  Sokudō, we learn, had never conducted any ceremonies on behalf of the fetus - the thought had never occurred to him - but now he realizes that his wife has been troubled for years by worry about the fetus, and the death of the diviner brings these feelings to the surface.

A conversation early in the story hints at all this.  His wife asks him what happens after death, and the priest's response is, essentially, how should I know?  Somewhat taken aback, his wife points out that, well, you're a priest - shouldn't you have an answer to this kind of question?  He responds that he tells his various parishioners what they want to hear - that is, he gives them an answer geared to their level of understanding, something that will give them peace.  His own understanding of Buddhism and reincarnation is essentially a scientific one - he takes the sutras as metaphors for what contemporary science describes in terms of matter and energy coming together in the form of human bodies and then breaking apart again to take other forms.

This doesn't satisfy his wife, but she doesn't press it.  However, later she asks her husband to perform ceremonies for the fetus, along with the diviner.  In preparation, she makes a great net of twisted colored paper (using the wrapping that had come on gifts to the temple over the years).  At the ceremony, they hang this net over the altar - and as he finishes the sutra-chanting, the net sways and glitters in otherwise motionless dark air, looking like flowers in the heavens (or in limbo).  The wife takes this as a sign that the fetus has been properly delivered from limbo, or otherwise comforted, although Sokudō himself isn't quite sure.

There are subplots to reinforce the theme of priestly skepticism versus parishioner credulity.  In this post-Om period, Sokudō is particularly concerned about signs that some of his parishioners are taking up with shady new religious movements.  The diviner herself was harmless, but others may not be.  In the process of investigating this, he hears claims of spiritual manifestations.  He doubts them, of course - he experienced such things himself during his Zen training, but had been instructed to disregard them as distractions from true enlightenment.

So the tension here has, actually, two layers.  On one layer, it's the modern tension between the contemporary science-based materialist understanding of the world and a "superstitious" view of religion;  this layer exploits the irony of the priest, as the most educated member of the community, actually standing for a skeptical point of view.  But on another layer it's a tension that's always been at work between Zen and other sects of Japanese Buddhism - Japanese Zen poets were exploring this theme in the 15th century (David Pollack translates some excellent examples). 

Thematically, laid out like this, it's a pretty interesting story.  As a read, it was a little less satisfying.  The plot is elliptical and meandering, which isn't a problem per se (it's rather standard), but that shifts the focus to the language, which isn't quite all it could be.  Some images are quite vividly realized, but often the author's prose feels unnecessarily convoluted - not Ōe-level thorny, but a little hard to follow, and without the sense you get in Ōe of the difficulty being compensated for by precision.

The bonus story, Asagao no oto 朝顔の音 (The Sound of Morning-Glories), deals with some of the same themes from a different perspective.  The protagonist is a thirtyish single woman in a small town in the Northeast, working in a convenience store.  Uneducated, all alone in the world.  When she was young she was raped, twice, and one of the rapes resulted in a pregnancy.  She lost the child, and has no memory of the circumstances - there was some suggestion that perhaps she killed it, but she honestly doesn't remember.  Could have been stillborn.

Now, years later, she's tentatively opening up to a new relationship with a guy she met at work.  Encouraged by this new plateau in her life, she visits a diviner to get in touch with the spirit of her dead child.  She contacts something, and some memories come back - but she can't trust either.  Part of her, of course, doesn't want to know what she might have done.

The title refers to some morning glory seeds her new boyfriend gives her - supposedly from a strain of morning glories that has been unchanged from the Heian period.  She plants them below her apartment window, and as they sprout and bloom she begins to perceive them as a metaphor for her own revival. She even hears, or thinks she hears, a heavenly hum from them.  Near the end, after she has begun to suspect her own guilt, she tears them all out of the ground.

Not a bad story.  The prose has the same problems as the other, but it's still a searching exploration of popular religious feeling, guilt and hope, on the fringes of Japanese society. 

Not your typical A-Prize bait, this.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Yoshimoto Banana: Utakata/Sanctuary (1988)

Another Banana.  Thought I was done with her, but maybe not quite.  Utakata / Sanctuary うたかたサンクテュアリ (Effervescence / Sanctuary) comprises two novellas published in that order in Kaien in May and August, 1988, and brought together in book form in August 1988.  It was one of the big noises in the Bananamania years, but hasn't been translated into English yet.  Should be, if for no other reason than to complete our picture of that period.

Toriumi Ningyo (Birdsea Mermaid, but the name is explained – hippie parents) is college-aged, living alone with her mother.  Her parents aren’t married, and her father lives in the next town over (Tokyo ‘burbs) with Arashi, a boy a little older than Ningyo.  Ningyo has hardly ever met Arashi:  her mother has kept her away from him.  And her mother has told her that it’s likely that Arashi is her half-brother:  he was deposited on Ningyo’s dad’s doorstep by a woman he knew, and given his womanizing ways, Ningyo’s mother always suspected it was his.

Now Ningyo’s mom says, one day, that her dad has up and decided to move to Nepal  - and she (the mom) has decided to go with him.  To try again to make it work, evidently.  So Ningyo’s left home alone.  Almost immediately she meets Arashi, totally by chance, in Shinjuku one day.  He recognizes her from a family photo.  They begin hanging out, spending time together, and of course falling in love.  She thinks of him as a brother, but also as more.  Eventually they call Dad in Nepal, each separately, and he tells them both the same thing:  you’re not related.

But he also says that Ningyo’s mom isn’t doing so well in Nepal.  Arashi decides to go there himself, and he promises to send the mom back.  He does, but when she talks to him on the phone he’s so happy that she’s afraid.  The pain of love. 

Her mom comes back, completely depressed, and sleeps for days.  One day Arashi calls Ningyo at the coffee shop where she’s been writing a letter to him and says he had a hunch that her mother might do something dangerous, but she won’t pick up the phone.  Ningyo rushes home in time to keep her mom from slitting her wrists.

Her mom tells her that her own parents had an arranged marriage – they stayed together, but never warmed up to each other.  So she decided to give her all for love – for Ningyo’s father.  And even though they can’t be happy together – he doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to come back from Nepal – she has to accept him the way she is. And so does Ningyo.  Ningyo kind of thinks that’s nuts, but kind of understands.

Later she runs into her dad – he’s come back, and he’s going to get together with her mom.  His words of wisdom are that family’s family wherever you go, but wherever you go you’re always alone.  He also says that Arashi’s coming home.  The story ends on a note of hopefulness as Ningyo is flooded with happiness at the news.

Like everything I’ve read so far from the Bananamania years, this is a great little story.  Most of all it feels fresh, even if you’ve read many other later things of hers – maybe especially then.  You can still feel just how new it must have been to have a story like this being told in language like this.  Colloquial, direct girls’ language, but much more subtly and supply handled than most critics recognized, and a story that has a lot of elements of a girls’ romance story, but somehow ends up being just a little deeper.  Not so deep as to betray the genre entirely, but deep enough to keep up the gradual seduction of the skeptical.  At least, that’s how it seems to me.

What depths?  Well, more than in her other boom-period works, this story sets up a stark gender conflict.  The women who wait at home, tending the hearth, the men who go off wandering, lusting.  And when a woman (Ningyo’s mom) takes off wandering, hoping that will bring the man back to the hearth, it almost ends in disaster – she almost dies.  But in the end it seems to have ended in success – she lured him back after all.  Maybe her trip to Nepal was an act of primordial heroism, a Promethean journey to tame the man.

Men.  In my Banana class, most of the students seemed shocked – some pleasantly so, some not so much – at how drastically attenuated the role of men is in her work.  For the most part she just doesn't seem to have much use for them;  certainly she doesn’t have much to say about them.  (And what’s wrong with that, for a change?  How many male authors have nothing useful to say about women, but say it anyway?)

Here she does.  And if you know Banana’s ouevre you shouldn’t be surprised that when she does depict men it’s in a context of fairly essentialized gender roles.  Here the men are not only the goers-out-into-the-world (you expect them to come back from Nepal dragging woolly mammoths or something), but they’re also (especially the Dad) slobs, rough-spoken, abrasively sarcastic in their treatment of women.  Arashi maybe not so much – he’s more the Well-Mannered Young Man type of Banana male, right up until the point where he runs off to Nepal leaving Ningyo to keep the homefire burning.

But there’s also some entertaining specificity, though.  Ningyo’s parents are grown-up ex-hippies.  She doesn’t say this in so many words, but it’s clear from her name, and from the Nepal fixation.  This works perfectly in the book – it’s an excuse for some of the personal-relationship craziness – and it strikes me that in 1988 this may have been a new type in J-lit.  Banana’s a bubble-era writer, but I don’t think she was ever quite as comfortable with all that excess as contemporary crix assumed.

College student Tomoaki is at a beach resort, recovering from some unspecified grief.  Walking on the beach at night he meets a woman crying.  Every night – on the third night he stops and talks with her.  She’s Kaori.  They have tea.  She thanks him for interrupting her crying – it saves her.  They turn out to be from the same part of Tokyo.

He goes home.  Talks w/Mom about summer festival.  This sends him into a flashback of a previous summer festival, where he ran into an old high school friend, Tomoko.  It turns out that his grief is over her – they were seatmates in school, he always had a crush on her, but it was only after they met again at the festival that they became lovers.  And by then she was married.  It was her sudden suicide – he never suspected, although he knew she was desperate – that’s been haunting him.

Meanwhile he runs into Kaori in Tokyo.  They spend time together.  It turns out she was mourning the death of her husband in an accident – she’s about ten years older than Tomoaki.  They had been married for two years, dating for eight before that – a long relationship, the only one she knew.  And later in the book it turns out that she’s been mourning her baby boy, too, who died of illness while she was in the hospital with a mental breakdown over her husband’s death.  Grief surrounds her.  And it’s what binds Kaori and Tomoaki together.

Two later scenes wrap the story up.  One is with Tomoaki, Kaori, and her mother – her mother talks about how Kaori always was a weeper, and how she always let her, never told her to suck it up.  Her crying was special, cathartic, and contrasts, in Tomoaki’s mind, to how he had to repress his grief to keep his relationship with Tomoko hidden.

The other scene is a chance meeting (the story’s full of them) with Tomoko’s husband.  It’s not quite clear through this scene if he knows his wife was having an affair with Tomoaki, but he knows they were close.  And the tension sends Tomoaki into deeper reveries about Tomoko’s final despair, and her resentment of her husband.

It sounds like a depressing story, and it does have even more than the usual Banana modicum of death and mourning.  But, true to form, it’s about recovering from grief, not grief itself, so it tends toward light, if not lightness.  Given the title, one might expect it to be more or less a retelling of “Kitchen,” with somebody’s apartment creating a safe, sheltered space for healing.  But there’s no such space;  rather, I think the implication is that Kaori’s ability to cry, openly and abjectly, creates a kind of emotional sanctuary for Tomoaki, and his acquaintance with grief creates one for her.  It’s about mental space, not physical.  Still, it’s hard to see how this stakes out any new territory – something the rest of her work this year did.

What’s most interesting about it is that it’s told from the point of view of Tomoaki, the boy – her first story to center on a male protagonist.  More importantly, it’s told in the third person – a unique event in Bananaland, near as I can tell.  Although, truth be told, it’s easy to forget that as you read.  We’re completely inside Tomoaki’s head, and the quality of Banana’s prose is no different here than elsewhere.  All she does is change “I” to “he,” essentially.

As a book.  It’s two novellas, but it’s pretty clear that they were conceived of as a set, so how do they relate to each other?  They’re both love stories, after a fashion – and after Kitchen that might have been an expectation, but in fact they’re both more straightforward as love stories than most of what came after.  And they’re still not very straightforward;  the lovers in Utakata are apart for most of the story, and only tentatively together for the rest, while the pair in Sanctuary are hardly lovers at all – there’s a glimmer, but no consummation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Roman Polanski's Carnage (2011)

This was a huge disappointment.  Not because I had heard good things about the play on which it was based - to be honest, I had never heard of the play - but because Polanski's previous film had been one of his best, and the last film he'd made of a play was also one of his best. 

This one was not.  But I don't blame it on Polanski.  The things that we're safe in assuming he had control over - the filming, editing, mise-en-scene, and acting to a degree - were fine.  Expert, even.  But unobtrusive - there were no compositions that distracted from the dialogue, or even enriched the dialogue in a way that made me sit up and take notice.  The direction served the script.

That's where the problem was, and for that I think we can blame the playwright.  Although, since I know nothing about the play, I suppose it's possible that some of the flaws entered the script in the filming process.  What flaws do I mean?

Well, jeez, what have you got?  I mean, everything about it blew (to use a bit of film-scholar jargon - go ahead, you can look it up).  As a satire of the childrearing manners of wealthy white New Yorkers, it was less incisive than any one of about two dozen Law & Order episodes I've seen.  Come to think of it, when it tried to show how these parents' attitudes toward their children's behavior mirrored their expectations for adult behavior, the script was still sub-Law & Order.  And when these characters stopped in the middle of their arguments to pontificate about the nature of humanity and the conditions of our existence, well, let's just say I've been hit over the head with actual hammers that seemed subtler. 

Mrs. Sgt. T suggests that Polanski should still be held responsible for this excrescence upon his ouevre - he chose to make the damn film, after all.  I can't really argue with her.