Saturday, September 13, 2014

The death of the iPod

I mean that in two senses.  I dropped my iPod Classic on the concrete floor of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas a few weeks ago.  Broke the hard drive.  Not repairable.  It felt like a part of me had died, plus then I had to listen to insufferable modern country music while waiting for the plane.  That felt like all of me was dying...

I replaced it immediately, because I had a long plane ride to Japan ahead of me, followed by six weeks there, and then a long plane ride back.  I needed an iPod, and since I love music, and own a great deal of it, it had to be another Classic.  I debated switching to a Nano or a Touch, but to be honest I don't give a fuck about album art - it just wastes space - and so the big screen and the swipe function are just useless, and a bad trade for more disc space.  I want the disc space.

I'm glad I bought the machine when I did, now, because I learn that Apple has discontinued the Classic.

This is typical Apple behavior, and why I hate being a Mac user in exact equal proportion to how much I love being a Mac user.  I'm only a Mac user in the first place by accident - at the moment I finally had enough money to buy my own computer, and was starting grad school so I needed one, it was still much easier to do Japanese in an English environment on a Mac than on a Windows machine, so I bought a Mac.  (This was back in the Kotoeri days.)  Then about three months later Windows figured it out.  If I'd waited three months I probably would have gone the cheaper route... 

My Apple love/hate is intimately connected to the big part Japan has played in my life.  I was born in 1969:  my formative experiences with cars and electronics were all in the '80s, when American cars sucked, and Japanese cars didn't.  My parents had American cars up to about 1985, and they were all lemons, every single one of them.  Always breaking down, not to mention guzzling gas and taking up far too much space.  I learned to drive on one of these boats.  My parents finally got sick of it, like so many Americans did in that period, and started buying Japanese cars.  Reliable, well-designed, compact, economical. 

In other words, my formative experience with any machine that mattered was this:  America could only make shit.  Japan made good stuff.  The Walkman?  A godsend.  Then I went to Japan in the late '80s, and got used to the idea that pretty much everything could be reliable, economical, and attractively-designed.  Not that you can't find cheap disposable shit in Japan, too, but even the cheap disposable shit does what it's supposed to do. 

The only exception, as far as I'm concerned, has been Apple.  Apple stuff is well made, does what it's supposed to do, is reliable, and is economical when you take the long run into consideration (certainly not cheap up front).  And it's attractive.  Which should be standard, but usually isn't.  That's why I've stayed a Mac user all these years.  Mac stuff feels to me like Japanese quality and design sense.  Computer use (not tech obsession) is a huge part of my life, and it's nice to have that kind of peace in that area.  Every time I have to use a Windows machine it's like I'm back in the worst, most American situation:  it may be cheaper, but it's chaotic, jury-rigged, and buggy.  Like our economy, our infrastructure, our politics.  We pay for cheap in all sorts of ways.

That's what I like about Apple.  What I hate is just as persuasive, though.  I hate the attitude - the hipster arrogance, the young snottiness, the design-journal aesthetic absolutism.  In 1999 when I bought my first computer Apple had convinced us all that color was the answer, that the whole world was blooming, and that boring white was the enemy.  Then a couple of years later color was gauche, pure white was the thing, and let's just forget we ever thought any different.  Still have a grape iMac?  What's wrong with you?  And don't get me started on those "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials - those alone were almost enough to make me switch to Windows.

Part of the absolutism is their policy of making old stuff obsolete.  As a Mac user I've had to learn to live with the sneers of young Mac store tech personnel - if your laptop is more than four years old you might be told that "we don't work on vintage machines."  Like, crawl off and die, you cheap old fart. 

The iPod Classic is now an example of this.  A great product, great enough to become an important part of your life.  Indispensable.  I could wish it were a little sturdier against concrete airport floors, but still, all things considered, it's pretty reliable.  But it doesn't fit with their vision of what we should be doing, so fuck it.  Apple invented the portable mp3 player, but now they don't want us to own our music anymore.  That's passé.  They want us to cloudstream it.

Never mind the fact that if I was using a cloud stream philosophy, I'd be SOL for the six weeks I'm in Japan.  And never mind the fact that when I'm not moving, I still like CDs, still like to have physical copies of my albums, with the liner notes and art and stuff.  I'm certainly not the only one.

In short, the Classic fits my life the way I want to live it.  Apple has decided, however, that they're no longer interested in people who live their lives the way I live mine.  They're only interested in people who live their lives the way Apple wants them to live them.  That's the thing that bugs me about Apple.

They're kind of totalitarian.  I guess we knew that back in 1984, though.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises)

Ghibli's had a productive couple of years, and now they're taking a little break, I read.  We're still catching up.  Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) came out just after we left Japan last summer, and I hadn't seen it in the States.  I've been looking forward to seeing it with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

The dread came as soon as I learned what it's about:  the early life of Horikoshi Jirō, the guy who designed the Zero fighter plane for Mitsubishi, the one that became so notorious during WWII.  I'll note here that I'm not at all familiar with Horikoshi's life story;  but the theme alone made me worry that in his old age (he's announced that this is his last film, but didn't he say that about Ponyo? I'm not actually too sure he's totally retiring) Miyazaki was going to turn to nationalism.  Under the Abe administration Japan has been swerving to the right to a worrisome degree, and a rightward, nostalgic turn in old age is a known issue with Japanese artists, so I half expected this;  but Miyazaki has always had such a multicultural, all-embracing aesthetic that I particularly didn't want to see him go in that direction.

On that score, the film isn't nearly as bad as I'd expected.  It makes Horikoshi into practically a saint in his personal life:  impossibly virtuous, in a Traditional Values sort of way, which is a typical strategy for rehabilitating right wing nasties ("but he loved dogs and cherry blossoms, so how could he be evil?").  But the movie resolutely avoids the political issues surrounding the war.  It's not an apology for Japan's actions.  It doesn't condemn them either, and that's a problem if you're looking for one. 

But it seems that what Miyazaki's aiming for is a portrait of a guy who's essentially apolitical, who just wants to make airplanes, and not think about what they'll be used for.  Jiro in the film is actually disturbed by the knowledge that his planes will be used for war (which is a certainty, given that his company is working on military contracts).  This comes up a couple of times.  I wish it had come up more.  That's the theme this film could have centered on:  the conscience of an artist or inventor who can't control the uses to which his work will be put.  Or who can control them, but only at the expense of the work itself.  There's a deep ethical issue there, but Miyazaki raises it only to essentially shrug it off.  So while the film isn't the nationalist thing I was afraid it would be, it does mostly dodge the moral issues raised by its subject matter.

On the other hand, it's not as good as I'd expected either.  It's a film about airplanes, about flying, intended (ostensibly) as a final statement by an animator who has made fantastic films about flying in the past.  Think of how integral the imagination of flight is to Nausicaa, Laputa, Spirited Away.  Think of Porco Rosso (my favorite Miyazaki film of all), which isn't just about flight but, like The Wind Rises, about airplanes as machines.  Think of all that flying and you're bound to expect this film to be, if nothing else, a triumph of glorious visuals.  But it's not.  It's pretty enough, and there are certainly some wonderful moments.  But really nothing we haven't seen Miyazaki do before, and often better. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Shibasaki Tomoka: Haru no niwa (2014)

The 151st Akutagawa Prize, for early 2014, went to Shibasaki Tomoka 柴崎友香, for “Haru no niwa 春の庭” (Spring gardens). 

Shibasaki was born in 1973, and debuted as a writer in 1999;  this was her fourth time as a finalist for the A-Prize, and the first time was in 2006.  In other words, she’s not a new writer, not by a long shot.  She already has quite a following, so as with Kashimada Maki, this is a case of the Prize machinery recognizing an established writer rather than launching a new one.

It’s a longish story, 140 pages in book form, long enough that the book doesn’t need a bonus story to fill it out.  It’s told mostly in the third person, and mostly from the point of view of a thirty-something guy named Tarō.  For long stretches, though, we’re actually inhabiting the point of view of his neighbor, Nishi, as she narrates episodes from her life with minimal interruption from Tarō.  Then, at the end, Tarō’s elder sister comes in and starts narrating in the first person, so smoothly that it makes you wonder if we are supposed to understand everything that went before as being the sister’s account of Tarō’s life.  But then Tarō, we’re made to understand, doesn’t say much, and there’s no indication that he tells his sister most of what we learn through the narrative.  So what’s really happening is that the narrative point of view is shifting without warning.  And retrospectively that encourages us to think of Nishi’s stories not as reported speech (they’re not set off in quotation marks) so much as just another shift in point of view.  The novel is experimental in that sense, but not in a confusing way.  The reader is never lost in personlessness.

Tarō lives in an old, tiny apartment in a wealthy section of Setagaya-ku, Tokyo;  his building is surrounded by large old houses, many built in a Western style.  Tarō’s building is going to be torn down soon – his lease is almost up, and he won’t be allowed to renew it, and one by one the other tenants are leaving, and their units are left empty.  It’s a picture of a neighborhood in constant renewal, in a city that’s in constant renewal – there’s always something being torn down, always something new being put up.  Everything’s temporary, and therefore everything’s superficial, including relationships.

Tarō is divorced and living in a very detached manner.  His interactions with his coworkers and neighbors are kept at the level of good manners, meaning arm’s length.  He’s constantly exchanging gifts with them, but on his part at least they’re never particularly heartfelt;  they’re usually regiftings.  He’s been divorced for three years, and it’s clear that he still has the scars;  his father, meanwhile, died ten years ago, and he’s plainly still grieving.  He keeps the mortar and pestle, with which he ceremonially ground his father’s bones at the funeral, in his kitchen cupboard. 

Tarō gets to know two of his neighbors.  One is Nishi, a single woman the age of Tarō’s older sister who lives on the second floor of his building.  The other is known only as “Mi” or Snake – the units in this building aren’t numbered, they’re labelled according to the Chinese zodiac, a hint at the depersonalization that city living brings.  (Nishi is “Dragon” and Tarō is “Boar.”)  Mi is the age Tarō’s father would have been, so Tarō, who’s from Osaka, is in Tokyo surrounded by surrogate family members.  Who he keeps at arm’s length.

Nishi is the source of most of the action in the story.  She’s a mangaka and book illustrator, and has a sort of mischievous side to her.  She’s obsessed, it turns out, with a large Western-style house that she can see from her veranda.  It’s a typical Setagaya mansion (in the English sense, not the Japanese) from the postwar years:  wrought iron gates, stained glass windows, all the pretenses at Western-style fine living.  Of course it’s a glaring contrast to the tiny rooms she and Tarō live in, but it’s more than that to her.  We gradually learn that she has been aware of this house since her high school years in Nagoya, because it was once inhabited by a famous director of TV commercials and his stage-actress wife, who published a coffee-table book of photos of the house and themselves.  When Nishi moved to Tokyo she ran across the house listed on a real-estate site, and while of course she couldn’t afford to buy it she managed to find an apartment overlooking it. 

That’s stage one of her obsession.  Stage two is creepier.  A young family moves in, parents and two small kids, and Nishi finds the daughter in the street one day crying.  She returns the kid to the house, and uses that as an opportunity to make friends with the family.  The mom is from Sapporo and doesn’t know anybody in the city, so she’s happy to meet Nishi, but Nishi is really only interested in exploring the house.  But of course she doesn’t tell them this – she only tells Tarō, over long drinking sessions at a local bar.  He limits himself to one, she has seven or eight at a time.

To say she’s stalkerish is fair, although she never does anything particularly dangerous.  She’s just a little creepy about it.  Tarō doesn’t call her out on it, and in fact even allows himself to be dragged along in her obsession, visiting the family for dinner one night with her.  And at the end of the story, when Nishi has moved out of the condemned apartment building and the family in the Western house have suddenly been transferred to Kyushu, Tarō sneaks into the backyard and buries his father’s mortar and pestle in the garden…

Set out like this, a few clear themes emerge.  First is Tarō’s wounded state.  His divorce has left him damaged enough that when Nishi makes a clear offer of friendship (and perhaps more), he hardly pursues it, but then again can’t be bothered to reject her.  And his grief over his father’s death – well, it really only manifests itself in his reminiscences of his father, but then he goes and buries the mortar and pestle, and we realize that all this time maybe he’s been looking for closure.  …This theme is clear, but it’s presented in a very muted way.  We get Tarō’s thoughts, but never his feelings.  And that, of course, is a tried and true literary technique, but it works best when the power of the unspoken feelings is transferred onto something else, as in Kawabata’s work.  Poetry, scenery, something.  That doesn’t really happen here.  There’s no outlet for Tarō’s emotions, and no back access to them for the reader.  Maybe that’s the point.  But it means that this work, which could have great emotional depth, stays mostly at the surface.  I think of it as iyashi-kei in a way:  it’s clearly dealing with wounds, but not in such a way as to disturb the reader’s placidity.  It’s calming.

Another theme is the transiency and anonymity of life in Tokyo.  Especially for the non-wealthy.  I read Tarō’s choice to bury his father’s mortar and pestle in the garden of the Western house as being a way for him to give his father a little bit of permanence (that house won’t be torn down), as well as a little bit of glamor and beauty that would otherwise be unattainable for him.  Meanwhile Tarō himself remains as anonymous as his name, and the little community of Snake, Boar, and Dragon is totally dispersed at the end of the book.  But this theme, too, is handled with such calmness that it leaves the surface of the reader’s emotions wholly undisturbed.  We’re not encouraged to be angry about this, or even particularly saddened – anonymity and transience might be precisely what Tarō wants and needs in life.

I found it a bit of a puzzling book.  I’m not sure what level it’s supposed to work on.  It doesn’t seem to connect to any contemporary social issues.  Its portrait of urban anomie is hardly new, and not particularly powerful.  Its treatment of grief is determined, but not particularly eloquent.  The book reads as assured, the work of an author who knows what she wants to do;  but it didn’t really move me.  Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tezuka Osamu: Message To Adolf

The last of my summer Tezuka reading, I think.  Another one I read in English, because we had it around in English, because Mrs. Sgt. T taught it.

I'm trying to think deep thoughts about this stuff, trying to give it the intellectual attention it deserves, when really I know, deep down inside, that Tezuka isn't holding my interest.  Message to Adolf was better than most, though.  It's really his best argument to be taken seriously.  If you only read one Tezuka, make it Atom;  if you read two, this should be the second.


Mrs. Sgt. T likes to compare Tezuka to Steven Spielberg.  The first time she said this I felt a light go on.  It's a great comparison. 

Both are artists who started out in fields that got no critical respect:  they were purely popular art forms.  Already there are problems with the comparison, because Tezuka's field as a whole (manga) got no respect when he started, while Spielberg's field as a whole (movies) already got a lot of respect;  but he was working in the most popular end of that field, so I think the comparison holds up if you don't get too nitpicky about it.

And both proved to be extraordinarily gifted in those fields:  innovative craftsmen, inspired storytellers, raising what they were doing as close to the level of art as it could get, within the constraints of a totally popular art form.  Tezuka's influence on every genre of manga (and anime) is legendary, while Spielberg is usually said to have essentially invented the summer blockbuster action movie.

And then they wanted to be taken more seriously, so they started changing their art, making art for grown-ups. Tezuka started drawing things like Ayako, Buddha, and Adolf;  Spielberg made The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Munich.  And that's where the trouble began, because it's never been clear that either has all that much to say.  They can bring tremendous craft (art in the sense of skilled work) to bear on their subjects, and through that they can make work of great emotional power, but the ideas behind that work are often simple and/or a bit confused.  And so in spite of all their aspirations to be taken truly seriously, they'll always be remembered best for their lighthearted early work.  (And, the missus notes, it's a coincidence but also maybe inevitable that in their bids for seriosity they both turned to WWII/Holocaust themes - loading the dice, really.)

They're both tremendous entertainers, maybe the best ever at that.  And many of us have no problem calling that art.  But they had this itch to please more demanding critics than I usually am, and they weren't as successful at that.  Although, to be fair, I seem to be in a very small minority in thinking that about Tezuka.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tezuka Osamu: Princess Knight

So, more Tezuka.  This too I read in English because it was around.  Princess Knight (Ribon no kishi リボンの騎士) is one of the classics - and as hard as I am on Tezuka, I should note that I'm really glad that so much of his work is being published in translation.  It's important that this stuff is made available, so fans and scholars can start to understand the history of manga, not just the contemporary stuff. 

This is entertaining, but to a fault.  It's one of those patented Tezuka frenetic plots, with a new twist on every page.  That keeps it moving, but curiously it doesn't exactly keep it from getting static.  Stasis is boring, and constant movement is just as static as constant stillness.  The plot twists are exhausting.  Sometimes the reader might wish to be a little less entertained.  But that's Tezuka.  I've come to expect this.

But chances are you don't read this today for pure entertainment.  You read it for its tremendous influence on girls' comics in Japan.  You read it for its still daring, still hard to completely process gender-bending.  You read it for the deliriously girly art - it's like a constant sugar rush.  There's so much that's important and interesting here on a conceptual level, in terms of influence and significance, that it's almost churlish to criticize it for not working better on the pure reading level.  It's an essential manga.  How can one ask for more?

The Takarazuka-style androgyny and critique of gender roles is the best-appreciated aspect of this work.  Certainly the most important aspect of it.  To that I'd add that it's also a great example of Japanese Occidentalism.

It's Occidentalist in the sense that it's appropriating its story materials entirely from the Western fairy-tale tradition.  Mostly (and this is particularly obvious in the art) from Western fairy-tales as popularized by Walt Disney, of course.  But it's not just a pastiche of Disney, because it goes places Disney would never go;  not just the gender thing, but also Tezuka's decision to include both God and the Devil as characters.  Right alongside Greco-Roman deities.  Theologically it's a mess, and that's a perfect example of Occidentalism:  to Tezuka, the Christian god and devil are on the same level as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  They're colorful, exotic myths, and he uses them to colorize and exoticize his story, just like Western writers will appropriate Eastern religious imagery with little sense of the weight of meaning and association attached to it.  Those of us who care about such things are sensitized - have tried to become sensitized, and rightly so - to Orientalism by Western artists.  But there's an equivalent Occidentalism in Japan that doesn't get talked about quite as much.  The power differential being so different both within and without Japan, it's not fair to say that Occidentalism is an equal and opposite thing to Orientalism, and they certainly don't cancel each other out.  But Occidentalism is a definite thing.  And Princess Knight is a perfect demonstration of it.

Which makes it kind of a strange read.  Because for long stretches it's so Western looking and feeling that it's easy to forget that it's Japanese in origin.  But then Satan will pop in with his curly mustache, and he'll turn out not to be a scenery-chewing villain but rather a Father Knows Best kind of paterfamilias, and you remember, oh yeah.  This isn't Disney.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Matsuura Hisaki: Hana kutashi (2000)

Matsuura Hisaki松浦寿輝’s story Hana kutashi 花腐し (“Flowers Fade,” perhaps; the grammar is old, since it’s a quote from an ancient poem) shared the 123rd Akutagawa Prize, for early 2000, with Machida Kō. 
This is more like it.  The main character, Kutani, is a middle-aged guy who runs a small  He’s been asked, by a shady creditor, to do an odd job as a jiageya, a kind of small-time thug employed by landlords to scare off recalcitrant tenants so the landlords can redevelop the property.  (Itami Jūzō lampooned the species memorably in Minbō no onna.)  The story takes place in a seedy back street of Kabukichō, where he supposed to lean on a guy named Iseki, the last tenant in an apartment building.
design firm that’s on the edge of bankruptcy because his partner and friend cheated him and then ran off.
Iseki resists, and there’s a shoving match, but then things go a different direction.  They end up having a drink, and then basically they spend the rest of the story talking – over beers in Iseki’s apartment, over whiskey at a bar, while walking the mean streets of Shinjuku in the rain.  Iseki’s a wonderfully dicey character – we meet him, at night, an old guy lounging around his apartment in a track suit and sunglasses, and while supposedly the phone service and utilities have been cut off for the whole building, he’s got electricity, water, and internet.  Kutani eventually figures out that he’s growing psychedelic mushrooms in the apartment and selling them on-line;  in fact, there’s a local Kabukichō prostitute in the next room, tripping. 
What follows is a little Murakami Haruki and a little Hunter Thompson.  Kutani is having a midlife crisis – not only has his friend betrayed him and his business slipped out from under him, but he’s suddenly being assailed by memories of a girl he used to live with, who betrayed him (with his friend and business partner) and then drowned.  He’s down on his luck and crowded by bad memories.  And Matsuura is careful to make all this resonate with the national situation at the turn of the century:  Kutani’s situation is held up as symbolic of an economy, a nation, that has never recovered from the bursting of the bubble. 
Iseki, meanwhile, is a total cynic, whose prescription is essentially turn on and drop out.  Friendship, business, striving, straight society:  it’s all a mug’s game, a waste of energy.  Why not take a little mental vacation?  Psilocybin is what Japan needs right now, he says.
This story boils down, then, to the seeker-guru pattern.  Kutani’s got a problem, Iseki’s got a solution.  Not just drugs – in fact Kutani never trips, he just rapes the girl who is tripping (bummer) – but more than that his bracingly nihilistic take on contemporary Japan.  As committee member Kōno Taeko observed, though, this makes the story feel about thirty years old – like a post-Ampo college student’s dorm-room rap.  In terms of message, then, the reader’s take on this story will depend on how well the reader feels a 1967 solution fits a 1999 problem.  (Some things never change, says I…)
As a narrative it’s somewhat redeemed, though, by good writing and decent plotting.  Kutani’s a pretty passive character (shades of Murakami) but his reminiscences of his dead girlfriend are well written, with nice detail.  And the way Matsuura parcels out information gives the story more suspense than it should have – at first we just think Kutani’s a jiageya, and it takes a while for us to realize it’s his first assignment, and that he’s not really a punk.  He’s just trying to get by.
The omake story is Hitahita to ひたひたと (“Pitter-Patter,” as of little feet).  It’s more experimental.  Hana kutashi is told in the third person, while this one switches back and forth between third and first.  In fact, the indeterminability of the protagonist goes beyond that:  it’s a middle-aged guy named Enokida, but he slips around between various stages in his life.  The story is set in a dilapidated old part of Tokyo called Susaki, which once housed a famous pleasure district;  the protagonist is now wandering around the neighborhood, which it seems he has a life connection with.  At some points he’s a man in late middle age, reflecting back on everything, but at other times he’s a young boy living there with his father and a bunch of caged birds, at other times he’s a young man living there with a prostitute girlfriend, and at other times he’s a man in early middle age, revisiting the area as a photojournalist.  It’s not even clear if these are all the same guy, or if any of this really happened, because as the story is presented, these aren’t memories, but actual things happening now.  The protagonist is actually slipping back and forth between these moments/selves in real time.
Like Hana kutashi, there’s a prolix side to this, wherein Matsuura spells out his message pretty clearly.  Here it’s the idea that time doesn’t flow, doesn’t go by, but is actually omnipresent:  our past is always there to be seen and re-experienced, if we just notice it.  But as with the other story, he’s a cagey enough writer that he only says this – only makes it clear that these are all the experiences of a single character, reliving various stages of his life in a kind of kaleidoscopic sentimental journey – near the end, after we’ve already been intrigued by the postmodern decenteredness of his individual consciousness.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Machida Kō: Kiregire

Machida Kō 町田康.  Kiregire きれぎれ.  2000.  Co-winner of the 123rdA-Prize, for early 2000.  The title story was the winner.  The title could be translated as “Fragments,” and rarely was a story more aptly titled.  Kind of painfully obvious, actually.  Not the only thing painful about this story.
This is one that, I think, makes best sense in terms of authorial biography.  The author, in 2000, was already a celebrity:  an ex-punk rocker who had gone solo and branched out into acting (TV, film, commercials) and then writing.  He published a couple of books of poems before turning to literary fiction.  He wasn’t necessarily a youth-culture figure in 2000 – he was 38 – but he was already a cult figure, and his prose was, evidently, building up something of a buzz.  And now’s the time to confess that I never noticed any of this personally:  with my spotty-at-best knowledge of Japanese rock history, I never heard of him, and never read him until my A-Prize spelunking took me back to early 2000. 
 It’s cynical to say that giving the prize to him was an attempt by the Prize committee to stay relevant.  So I’m not going to state that categorically.  But I will say that this is the only way I can wrap my head around it.  Because (echoing what some of the committee members themselves said) I can’t see the attraction of this story otherwise.
Yes, it’s fragmented.  Plot summary is not going to be real helpful here, but it basically seems to be about a failed/failing painter and the mess that is his personal life.  Poverty, unhappy marriage, dissolution, rivalry.  It’s hard to make sense of it all on a plot level, though, because it’s narrated (by the painter) in such a, well, fragmented, stream-of-consciousness way.  Not in and of itself a bad thing, or a good thing, just a thing.  It’s all in what you do with it.
 What Machida does with it is, essentially, indulge his fondness for wordplay.  “Wordplay” seems to promise too much, though.  He’s amusing himself with words, surely;  but as a reader (one who normally delights in wordplay, I assure you!), I seldom felt much joy in it, much sense of play.  I wasn’t amused, dammit.  It’s all very clever, smart, whatever, but the reading experience – hacking through this writer’s digressive, distractable, attention-grabbing style to try to get a handle on what the hell he’s actually trying to say – was dreary where it should have been fun.
Maybe it didn’t have to be fun.  Wordplay isn’t always about pleasure, of course.  Kuroda Natsuko gave me similar headaches through her relentlessly inventive/destructive use of language.  But as hard as I found it to admire Kuroda I could at least see, or imagine, what she was aiming at.  I could recognize something worthwhile there, and occasionally appreciate some of her more baroque constructions.  (I’ve taught her, in small doses, a few times since writing my review, and I’ve mellowed on her considerably in the process.)
 I don’t see anything like that with Machida.  He’s not fun, but neither does all his language-twisting seem to be aiming at some radically new mode of expression, so that he can get out something that needs to be gotten out.  The loser failed artist who makes life miserable for himself and those around him is a pretty hackneyed literary trope, after all – a Naturalist chestnut, really, but he doesn’t seem interested in any of the edifying excoriation of self that they brought to the idea.  The impression is of a bored narrator playing with the reader’s head for no reason other than because he can.
 Reading that makes it all sound very punk, right?  But no:  it’s far too self-indulgent for that.  “Self-indulgent” is a word I try not to throw around lightly:  I believe most art is profound self-indulgence, and that’s a good thing, since the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, etc.  But self-indulgence was one of the critical terms that punk (and its champions) used to define itself against the stuff that had come before.  ‘70s classic rock was about excess, about self-exploration, about drama, while punk was supposed to be a return to basics.  Discipline was at the heart of it, even at its most corrosively antisocial:  attitude as a weapon, musical fun subordinated to power of statement.  But I don’t get that here:  no big artistic statement, no rebellion against society.  Just boredom, and wanking.  Punk is supposed to be anti-wanking.

Anyway.  I don’t get this story. 
 I don’t get the other one in the volume, either:  Jinsei no hijiri 人生の聖 (“Saint of Life”).  There’s no point in summarizing.  It’s more of the same, essentially.  This one revolves more around worklife;  at some points the narrator seems to be working, or remembering working, as a salaryman, while at other points he’s a janitor, and then sometimes he’s begging.  But like the first story it displays a combination of wilful pointlessness and resolute tediousness:  it’s literary nonsense, but with none of the delight that term promises.  Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tezuka Osamu: Ayako

I've been reading some more Tezuka.  I teach him, he's major, and I should read more of his stuff.  I always feel that way, even though by this point I've probably read more by him than any other mangaka:  I've read Phoenix, Buddha, Jungle taitei Leo, Dororo, Shin Takarajima, all complete, plus several volumes of Black Jack and Mighty Atom.  That's enough to know more or less what I think of him, but of course there's always more, and since I teach him (in small doses), I should know it.  So, more Tezuka.

Ayako 奇子 was serialized in 1972-1973, and was, like Dororo, part of Tezuka's response to the more mature, adult-oriented manga that had appeared over the course of the '60s.  Even more than Dororo this one tries to escape the kiddie-comic ghetto that Tezuka had owned for so long.  This one's even more ambitious:  Dororo was working in established manga genres, while Ayako is a bid for comics-as-literature.  I.e., no samurai, no spaceships, no monsters;  a few gangsters, but mostly this is an attempt at realism.  Multi-generational family drama, set against the historical backdrop of postwar Japan.

Dirty realism, or naturalism in the sense of dealing with humanity in a state of nature, unreconstructed, filthy and mean.  He's telling the story of a wealthy rural family in northern Japan that's resisting postwar land reform, and all kinds of democratic reform, by becoming more and more insular and inbred.  Literally.  It's a family at war with itself - we get murder, incest, rape, all sorts of nasty stuff.  All of this Tezuka ties to larger political things - not only the question of rural landownership, but also Occupation politics, spying, political corruption, and the Economic Miracle.  Whew.

I kind of wanted to love it.  I love the ambition.  But I didn't feel like Tezuka's heart was in it.  I know he loved the Russian novelists, and that this is supposed to have their grand scale, but the particulars of the story are largely drawn from contemporary Japanese film and/or fiction - Kurosawa's The Idiot and The Bad Sleep Well come to mind, along with Yokomizu Seishi's Inugami-ke no ichizoku.  And the lurid details of the family's degradation feel tossed in just for cheap thrills.  It all hangs together plot-wise, and Tezuka's smart enough that it's all nicely integrated in terms of subtext, but the nihilism feels unearned, adopted from early '70s underground manga because that's what the revolutionaries liked. 


I read this in English.  I almost never read manga in translation, because, well, I can read them in the original.  But we happened to have this in English lying around, and I had a bout of insomnia, and I read it straight through in a day.  Interesting experience.  I read manga in Japanese, but not as fast as a native reader of Japanese can, which means that while I may be getting the same verbal experience, I'm not getting the same visual-verbal experience.  That is, I'm not apprehending the visual-verbal synergy at the pace at which it's designed to be apprehended.  That picture-and-text-at-a-glance thing that, really, comics as a medium is all about, I'm just a step too slow to really get when I'm reading in Japanese.  So it was interesting to read Ayako in English.  I kept wanting to check the original for language, of course, but meanwhile I felt like I was getting a more direct take on the comicsness of the thing than I sometimes do...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Anno Moyoco: Kantoku fuyukitodoki

Anno Moyoco 安野モヨコ initially serialized this between 2002 and 2004, and the book came out in 2005.  Kantoku fuyukitodoki 監督不行届 - it's been translated as Insufficient Direction, which is a great handling of the title.  

Anno is best known as an author of women's and or girls' comics, often with a really sexy flavor;  this is a little different.  It's about her first year or so of marriage, and it just so happens that she's married to Anno Hideaki, director of Evangelion, etc. etc.  So this is a celebrity marriage memoir in manga form.  The subtext is that since Hideaki is Lord God King of otaku, for Moyoco the first year of marriage was a crash course in otakudom;  but the punch line is that she's constantly realizing how fundamentally otakkii she is herself, so it's not a big leap for her. 

This manga works perfectly on every level.  As a gag manga about newly-married life it's funny and
sad and wise in all the right places - it hits all its marks.  As a meditation on otaku and their ways, from inside the citadel, it's thoughtful and perceptive (and it does its homework - it's accompanied by an exhaustive glossary of the titles and terms that come up in the comic).  And as a piece of manga art it's brilliant.

That's what I enjoyed most about it, I think:  the art.  Particularly the way she's chosen to draw herself and her husband.  In the manga she calls him kantoku-kun - Director-boy - and she draws him with a wickedly accurate but inexcapably affectionate caricature.  It's recognizably him, with the wispy beard and the glasses and the Ultraman poses, so it has all the specificity needed to make an effective parody of an individual, but it's also abstracted enough to make him everyotaku, and in some ways everymiddleageddoofus.  I.e., there's universality there.  And it's funny:  she's such an expert artist that even though he's drawn in a really cartoony way every gesture, every pose, every facial expression communicates.  It's human.

Meanwhile she draws herself as a big baby in a onesie and a bib;  she calls herself Rompers.  This is the genius, the fascinating bit.  There's a weird and wonderful disconnect between the two characters:  he's cartoony, but as I say realistic enough to be recognizable as a middle-aged dude, while she's much more cartoony, and as a big baby who's nevertheless introduced as a 30-year-old professional comics artist, she's pure sign.  There's no indication that the other characters see Rompers as a baby - no baby jokes at all.  There's no way in which Rompers can be taken as a physical representation of the author, no attempt at self-portraiture here on an external level.  And yet in nearly every frame we have the two of them side-by-side, interacting as a married couple.  It's gleefully surreal.  Here's Rompers trying on wedding dresses, here's Rompers having a beer, here's Rompers lying in bed with Director-boy. 

It's surreal, and it's funny, but it's also tremendously effective.  What it's doing is giving us, in the same visual field, an external view of her husband and an internal view of herself.  We see her husband as she sees him, and we see her as she sees herself.  It's first-person in a way that I've seldom seen in a comic - it's a wonderful device.  And it's made possible, again, by Moyoco's tremendous drafting skill - even though Rompers is as cartoony as a Peanuts character in terms of line and level of detail, Moyoco achieves a tremendous nuance of expression with her, somehow conveying totally adult mannerisms, reactions, emotions. 


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Igarashi Daisuke: Kaiju no kodomo

Igarashi Daisuke 五十嵐大介, Kaijū no kodomo 海獣の子供 (Sea-creature children, although the official title of the translation is Children of the Sea, and I can see why).  It was published in five volumes between 2007 and 2012.  I read the first two when they first came out, and here are the notes I made for myself then:

This is still in progress, but I’ve read as much as has been published, and I can’t wait for more.   

It’s about an adolescent girl names Ruka who lives in a fictionalized version of Enoshima/Kamakura, and two boys, Umi and Sora, who have been raised by dugongs and have mysterious powers in the ocean.  Sounds hokey, very girly, but somehow it works.  The writing is good—a mix of myth, science, science-fiction, environmentalism, and adolescent angst—but the art is superb, and carries it.
Ruka’s father works at the aquarium, while she lives with her mother (parents divorced).  Other characters include a foreigner named Jim Cusack who also works at the aquarium, and is Umi and Sora’s guardian, although he can’t really control them.  Ruka is independent-minded but dreamy and moody.  Her father is kind of bland, always working;  her mother is clearly a beach bum who got pregnant too young.  Jim is fascinating:  tattooed all over with traditional designs from each island culture he’s lived with;  speaks Japanese.  And Umi and Sora are enigmas, constantly disappearing from the story, going off to speak with fish, etc.  The plot is moving kind of slowly—something about fish vanishing, usually in a cloud of phosphorescence;  Sora just disappeared at the end of Vol. 2, although we don’t know if it’s forever.  There are vague hints of climate disturbances (an echo of global warming), and international research bodies with unknown agendas who want to examine the boys.  

But what you really read it for is the art.  Igarashi has possibly the best draughtsmanship of any manga artist I’ve read, certainly recently.  All his shapes—people, buildings, landscapes—feel really solid and real, like he really understands the principles of sketching.  But they’re all rendered in this shaky, impressionistic style—if there’s a pen equivalent to watercolor, this is it.  It gives the whole thing a dreamy, gauzy quality that perfectly fits the aquatic themes.  And what really makes it work is that his tone, which could have been cloying, especially with this kind of art, is actually quite dry and reserved.  Anyway, it’s a masterpiece of visual tone. 

Well, I guess I could wait to read more.  I didn't get around to finishing it until now.   Partly that was intentional - I have a bad memory for plots, so as much as I love serialized fiction I don't really enjoy reading it in real time, because I've always forgotten what's going on by the time a new installment appears.  So when I get hooked on a current title I tend to put it aside until it finishes, or at least until enough volumes pile up to make it worth coming back to.  That's what I did with this.

Then it took the author an extraordinarily long time to come up with the last volume - 4 came out in 2009, and 5 not until 2012.  And I can see why - he obviously had trouble with the ending.  And in this case my plot-centric reading strategy kind of didn't pay off.  The ending is a letdown.  That is, it's hardly an ending at all.  Things go along pretty well through Vol. 4 - we learn more about Ruka's mother (she's not a beach bum at all), and about Cusack, and a couple more interesting secondary characters are introduced.  But Igarashi can't seem to figure out how to wrap it all up.  He keeps adding new layers of subtext - the aquatic sea is the cosmic sea, science is recapitulating myth, death is rebirth, the microcosm is the macrocosm - until the only way he can end it is with page after page after page of wonder-filled, text-less illustrations of Ruka cavorting with sea creatures.  And then it all resets - summer vacation ends and Ruka goes back to school.

So, yeah, I was right, but I forgot I was right.  You read it for the art.  Which is impeccable, all the way through.  The long textless passages of Vol. 5 remind me of some of the flights of fancy in Tezuka's Phoenix for sheer wordless eloquence.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Kono Fumiyo: Ballpen Kojiki

Bōrupen Kojiki ぼおるぺん古事記 (Ballpoint-pen Kojiki) (3 vols., 2012-2013) is the third thing I've read by Kōno Fumiyo こうの史代.  I've read Yūnagi no machi sakura no kuni 夕凪の町 桜の国, which has since been translated, and one volume of Sansan roku さんさん録.  To be honest I wasn't too impressed by the earlier works of hers, although I've had others argue to me, persuasively, that Yūnagi no machi is important and good.  I find myself in somewhat the same position on this one.

Here's what it is.  It's a manga adaptation of Kojiki, the Record of Ancient Matters, some of the oldest surviving writing in Japan and a repository of the archipelago's most ancient myths.  Myths that form part of the foundation of modern Shinto, I should add:  this book has religious as well as historical and literary significance.  Kōno is aware of all of this in her manga adaptation;  perhaps too aware.

Kōno is a good example of the contemporary phenomenon of literary manga.  In the last couple of decades the manga phenomenon has spawned an ecosystem of criticism, awards, galleries, and other kinds of institutions devoted to encouraging and preserving serious manga, challenging manga, manga with artistic and literary ambition and merit.  I see this as a Good Thing.  It doesn't militate against popular, mass-oriented manga, but instead often celebrates it - we're seeing a kind of incipient high-low culture divide within manga, just as happened with film in the 20th century, but so far I don't see the high attacking the low or seeking to delegitimize it.  So:  no minusses.  And the plusses are big:  there's more of a place for ambitious, challenging manga than ever before.  Kōno is someone who works this territory, and this work inhabits it nicely.

Which means that she's essentially free to be difficult with this manga, and difficult it is.  Primarily (although not only) in terms of the language.  She keeps the original language intact, as much as possible.  This is a huge thing. 

The language/writing system employed in Kojiki is famously difficult, but also tantalizing, since it holds out the promise of preserving the Japanese language at its earliest recordable stage.  Kojiki and a few other key contemporary documents have for this reason been fetishized for centuries for their language as much as, in in some ways more than, for the stories.  At its most extreme this has shaded over into a worship of the language as a form of kotodama - word spirit or sacred word, an idea that the language of the text itself is truth, is magic, is power, above and beyond its capacity to convey information.  Of course this is not a totally strange concept to anybody familiar with other holy books in the world...

When I say she keeps the original language intact, what I mean is that she more or less sort of faithfully reproduces it as the narration and dialogue of her manga.  What she adds is the illustrations, but her illustrations are essentially just acting out the mostly-unchanged original text.  Now, anybody who's looked at the Kojiki in the original will notice that the text she presents is not completely unchanged - she changes the notoriously enigmatic original orthography into something that much more closely resembles modern Japanese.  But the grammar she leaves more or less intact, and since Kojiki Japanese is at least as distant from modern Japanese as Beowulf English is from modern English, that presents huge potential problems for her readers.  She adds extensive footnotes to help the reader, but it's still not easy.  And I'm a premodernist - I have no idea how much patience your average manga reader will have with this.

So it's difficult in that sense:  it's just plain hard to read the language in it.  Luckily the illustrations are fabulous, really fantastic, and for the most part she has employed the visual language of comics well enough that you can almost follow the story without understanding the language.  But still, the total package is one that makes the reader work.  She could have jettisoned the original language and just retold the stories in a pure-manga format, with modern Japanese dialogue, and made it totally accessible to the modern reader, but she doesn't do that.  That would have allowed the reader to forget the source;  in her version, the reader is constantly brought into close contact with the source.

In some ways that's exciting (to me as a premodernist).  But to be honest it's also a bit worrying.  In places it does feel that she's privileging the original language so much, and so reverently, as to invest in it a little of that old-time kotodama religion.  This is most glaringly apparent in how she handles the names of the gods.  Now, there are a lot of gods in Kojiki.  There are whole chapters that are nothing but catalogs of gods - gods who appear once and never again, all of whom have extremely long tongue-twisting names that moderns inevitably have problems remembering and distinguishing.  Most of the time these long names can be broken down into meaningful elements - i.e., there's some debate as to whether these are names or titles, or whether at this point names can even be distinguished from titles.  And there's great scholarly debate on this.

What this means for her is that there are excuses if she wants them for sidestepping some of the linguistic difficulty with this text.  She could have used an abbreviated form of each god's name, treating the rest as a title to be rendered in more easily understood language, once and then dropped.  But instead, for each god she uses the full, incomprehensible (mostly) name/title each time.  She knows this is hard on her reader - she puts a square around each god's name each time it comes up to make sure the reader can separate a god's name from the rest of the sentence - but she does it anyway.  That's (a).  And (b) she includes all the catalogues of gods - all those gods who pop up once and never again.  It's like the begats in the Old Testament.  There's no reason to include this stuff - except that it's Holy Writ, right?

This is what I mean when I say that it feels like she's being reverent to the original language in a way that goes beyond historical fidelity and shades into religion.  And given the way some of these myths were used by 20th century imperialists and nationalists, and given the current revival of the right wing in Japan, this gives me serious pause.  I see nothing in this manga to make PM Abe, or the Yasukuni crowd, the least bit uncomfortable, and that's worrisome.

Which is a shame, because it's a smart manga, and a beautiful one, and an experimental one.  It's all drawn with ballpoint pens, for example - none of the tones or CG shortcuts or different kinds of pens for different kinds of textures that most manga artists consider essential to their toolkit.  She's doing it all with ballpoint pens.  And there's a really interesting parallel she makes between her tools and the myths - because of course one of the early stories is about the heavenly spear dripping liquid into the primordial sea, and this makes land.  The symbolic connection between the ball of ooze on the end of the spear and the ink-covered ball on the end of her pen is made quite early, and it's really a beautiful connection between form and content.  But there, too, it's not hard to feel a kind of religious impulse at work - maybe the decision to use only ballpoint pens proceeded from the perception of this parallel.  Given the long history in Japan of sutra-copying as a form of religious offering, it's possible to see the self-imposed strictures Kōno assumes in creating this manga as a kind of spiritual discipline...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Los Lobos 1985-1986: An Essay in Discography

What I think of as the third phase of Los Lobos' career comprised the aftermath of How Will The Wolf Survive? and the run-up to and recording of their second album, By The Light Of The Moon. This took them two full years - the first album came out in late '84 and the second didn't come out until January '87.  And in that, they're once again not quite following the template for rock band careers.  They should have taken no more than twelve months to produce a follow-up.  How Will had been a critical favorite and almost a hit on college radio and the like - I was in high school at the time, not particularly immersed in underground music papers, and I remember reading and hearing a lot about it.  A late-'85 follow-up would have been a smart move, commercially.  But they took their time, and did it right.

In the interim they were touring heavily on that first album.  Nothing from that period has been officially released, but there's a perfect candidate for it on youtube:  a Canadian TV special filmed in Montreal on 4/22/85.  This is prime Lobos, and what's more it's full of rarities:  "Buzz, Buzz" (a Hollywood Flames oldie which they'd later record in the studio), the Howlin' Wolf classic "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy," "Mighty Old Love" (a cover, but I can't figure who of), "The Town I Live In" (Thee Midnighters), and lo and behold, two years before they reimmortalized it, "La Bamba." This show is nothing short of a revelation.  The authority with which they rock Howlin' Wolf, the depth of the groove they get into on "Mighty Old Love," and the way they snap it straight into "La Bamba."  They're unstoppable.

Their cover of "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy" actually made it to vinyl, but not this rendition.  They performed it live with Roomful of Blues on the latter's 1987 album Live At Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel.  Worth tracking down, but it's not quite as satisfying a version as the one from Montreal - it's shorter, and all those extra horns don't add anything that Steve Berlin's not already delivering on his own.

What the Roomful of Blues collaboration does is remind us just how much the band's critical acceptance was matched by their peer acceptance.  It's one of a long series of guest appearances that the Wolves made on other people's records, or that other people made on theirs.  In the period in question there are two others that I know about, each significant in its own way.

One is their collaboration with Ry Cooder on the traditional "Quatros Vicios," which he recorded for the Alamo Bay soundtrack in 1985;  it's widely available because it's on the El Cancionero box, but to me it's a little disappointing.  Rosas and Hidalgo get to sing, but Cooder himself handles the
accordion and bajo sexto parts - which is like asking Eric Clapton to sing on your record, but handling the guitar part yourself.  People wouldn't be making that kind of mistake much longer.

The other is the song "All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints," which closes off Paul Simon's Graceland album, released in 1986.  This would never show up on a Lobos compilation, but the thing is, it should.  Steve Berlin insists that the band wrote it, the music at least (he says nothing about the lyrics), and it's easy to believe him, because it sounds nothing like a Paul Simon song, and a hell of a lot like a song Los Lobos would have been working on to follow up "Will The Wolf Survive."  It has that kind of suspended-over-percussion gentle verse going into that chimey, anthemic chorus.  And of course the boys supply all the instrumental work on the song.  Regardless of how things went down between the artists, it's a great record, tight, crackling with energy, and I've always thought it was a key part of their '80s work. 

I know of one other rarity from this period, which is also easily obtained courtesy of the Cancionero box.  We've already heard their cover of the Fats Domino song "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" on the 1983 PBS special that celebrated their e.p.  They laid it down in the studio in 1986 for the soundtrack to the film A Fine Mess

There's a little live Lobos from '86 around, to complement the Montreal show.  I like this segment from a show in San Rafael on 11/21/86: not only does it include more cool covers ("Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher"! "Tequila"!), but it has them jamming with Carlos Santana.  Not quite a passing of the torch - there's not really a whole lot of similarity between what Santana does and what Los Lobos do.  But still it's a cool moment.

And that brings us to the second album, recorded in 1986 and released as the New Year (which would be Los Lobos' miracle year) of 1987 began.  By The Light Of The Moon was a much-labored-over album, by all accounts, and in the end all that work was overshadowed by the fluke success of La Bamba later in '87.  And that's an entirely different phase of the band's career.  So I like to try to hear the second album the way I heard it when I first bought it, when it first came out:  in isolation, with no inkling of what would come after.  Taken on those terms it's a beaut.  It's clearly trying to hit most of the notes the first album hit - you have the chiming-guitar anthem ("One Time One Night"), the rockabilly bruiser ("Shakin' Shakin' Shakes"), a Spanish number ("Prenda Del Alma"), and a bunch of chugging r&b with a Latin flavor.  But it feels no less original for that - rather, it just feels like this is a band that has staked out its territory, and knows how to work it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Horie Toshiyuki: Kuma no shikiishi (2000)

Horie Toshiyuki 堀江敏幸  shared the 124thA-Prize, for late 2000, with Seirai Yūichi.
The title story, Kuma no shikiishi 熊の敷石, is the winner:  a novella whose title could translate as “The Bear’s Paving-Stone.”  I’d be tempted to translate it as “Bear Paving-Stone,” for the pun, but there’s no pun in the original.  Rather, it’s a direct translation of a French proverbial expression, “le pavé de l’ours,” which comes from the story in La Fontaine’s Fables about “The Bear and the Gardener.”  A lonely gardener made friends with a lonely bear, and things were going well for a while, each doing the other favors, until the bear took it upon himself to chase away all the flies.  One landed on the sleeping gardener’s nose, and no amount of shooing would drive it off.  So the bear picked up a paving-stone from the garden and chucked it at the fly.  And killed the gardener.  Because bears aren’t too smart.  The moral being:  be careful about your friends. 
The effect of the story, for the Japanese reader (or any non-French reader, really, this one included), depends on not knowing that proverb, though.  The story begins with a dream of the narrator’s about rambling in a forest, then realizing that the path he’s on is actually the backs of bears, all running toward a hill in the forest.  I.e., the bears themselves are (in the dream) paving-stones.  The dream isn’t commented on or explained, and only at the end do we have the narrator coming across the French idiom and learning its meaning and reflecting on how it fits his life…

The story is mostly flashback.  The present-moment frame is the morning after the dream.  The narrator wakes up in a house in Normandy.  He’s a guy in his 30s from Tokyo who makes a living translating from French to Japanese.  He was on a research trip to Paris, buying books and making notes on what might translate well before he approaches publishers, when he had a free couple of days and decided to call up an old friend, Jan.  Jan is about to leave the country for Ireland, but he invites the narrator out to Normandy to visit him for the afternoon, and the narrator ends up spending the night, and staying on a couple of days to work alone in the empty house after Jan leaves.
The bulk of the story has us following the narrator as he rides the train from Paris, meets Jan, and drives around the vicinity of Avranches.  Much of it is their conversation.  Jan is a photographer, and they drive picturesque granite quarries, the monastery of Mont Saint Michel, and various villages and cafés and country lanes.  Their talk runs to books – Jan brings up Jorge Semprún, and it’s at this point that the narrator realizes that Jan’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  They also talk about Émile Littré and his Dictionary;  the book the narrator is scoping out for possible translation is a biography of him, and he’s amazed at the coincidence that he’s now in Avranches, because that’s where Littré’s family was from. 
The story ends with the narrator in Jan’s house after Jan’s departure.  He finishes his work on Littré, and in the process runs across the idiom that gives the story its title.  He finds a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables and looks it up, and takes from it the moral about being careful about one’s friends.  And as he’s eating lunch with Jan’s landlady before she drives him to the train station, he wonders if perhaps he wasn’t a bear to Jan’s gardener – doing him harm by forcing him to talk about things too personal or difficult for him, such as his grandmother’s experiences in the Holocaust.
I loved this story, and I loved it more the farther I got into it.  It’s unprepossessing.  The style is light but subtle – just off balance enough to force you to pay attention.  And the characters and their relationships are realized with the same graceful touch.  It helps that the situation and the setting are unfamiliar, so that we have to trust the narrator but we don’t know how much we can.  Horie himself is an accomplished French translator, so when he has his narrator getting together with an old friend like this out of the blue, staying at his house with no warning, we trust that maybe this is the way friendships work in France, or in Horie’s France.  And when Jan opens up, we assume the two friends must have a history to justify it – but we’re never told that, so we’re free to speculate all sorts of relationships.  And then at the end we find that the narrator wonders if he has been presumptious.  Like, it was a weird relationship all along, but the narrator never considered how weird.  And why not?  Because things always get weird for expats?  Because after all these years he’s still not sure he understands how the French do things? 
Jan’s landlady tells the narrator over lunch that Jan had talked about him before he came.  Saying that you can’t believe national stereotypes – we always hear that Japanese are workaholics, but I have a Japanese friend who’s as happy-go-lucky as they come.  And the narrator turns it into a nice joke – he’s adroit that way.  But for the reader it sinks in:  this story is about the fragility and unknowability of friendship at all times, but particularly across cultures.
There’s more going on than that:  I’ve only touched on the Holocaust theme, for example, which is handled very deftly and lightly, but with reverence.  And there’s the way photos and dream-images bleed into each other – there’s a lot of thinking about how the images captures thought, or transcends it.  It is, in short, a very deep story, but told with a wonderfully delicate and light touch.  This is the work of a master.

The other two stories are somewhat less memorable.  The first, “Sunauri ga tōru 砂売りが通る” (The Sandman goes by) has the narrator getting back together with the younger sister of a deceased friend, on the third anniversary of the friend’s death.  She had been a child when the narrator knew her, but now she is an adult, divorced, with a daughter of her own.  Most of the story involves the three of them walking on a beach;  we also get reminiscences of the friend, the woman’s childhood, and the narrator’s time in France.  The second story, “Shiroato nite 城址にて” (At the ruined castle) takes place during one of the narrator’s earlier trips to France.  He visits a (different) friend in Normandy, and the two of them climb the wall into a historic site where an old castle is being excavated and rebuilt.  They’re caught by the crotchety caretaker and separated.  The narrator ends up wandering alone in the dark, broke, almost panicked before the friend and his wife find him.  These stories share the title novella’s prose style and its way of balancing the perspective of a lone individual against his need for others and/or others’ need for him.  They’re not quite as moving, but then maybe that’s why they didn’t get the Prize.