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...