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.