Viz have been very savvy in their selection of novels to translate and publish in the English-speaking world, with the end result of the Haikasoru imprint being a range of books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so far. Admittedly, some were more impressive than others but each and every one of them has been deserving of reaching a wider international audience.
Which brings us to the first short story collection (not counting the excellent Stories of Ibis), which showcases some shorter pieces whose length wouldn’t justify stand-alone releases. Tellingly, these are not comprised purely of Japanese writers: the selection appears to be based on general cultural themes rather than the basis of the contributors’ nationalities. It’s an unusual move for the publisher, but I daresay it makes the end results even more interesting and their rationale makes sense when you read the stories themselves.
I’m momentarily breaking from the usual (sporadic!) routine of blogging about animated supernatural serial killers, robots and weird books to chip in my views on a different sort of media. I’m not sure how many of my readers are fellow UK residents, so bear with me if this unfamiliar to you, or that my intro is a bit long-winded if it isn’t.
One of my favourite TV shows at the moment is a quiz show called Q.I.. A recent episode has apparently sparked a bit of controversy but in case it gets out of hand I want to give my own view on the incident. I encourage others to comment below if you want, whether you’re from the UK or Japanese side. Heck, I’d be overjoyed if Stephen Fry himself had time to read this.
Tokyo Sonata is a domestic drama from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has made his name in the horror genre with the likes of Kairo and Bright Future. This film then is a marked departure for him but it is also unlike most titles in Japanese cinema that I’ve seen on international home video release. Its quietly powerful realism and topical themes make it, for me, one of the most important Japanese films of recent years.
If there’s one thing I find fascinating about contemporary Japan it’s the presence of contrasts that are baffling to an outside first-time visitor. This has been heightened in the past decade or two by fundamental changes that are inexorably altering the society’s status quo, so the ramifications for its defining features of harmony, tradition and smooth routine are quite striking.
I’m not an Akiyuki Shinbo completist as I am with some other directors. As dazzled as I was by Petite Cossette and Bakemonogatari I was never tempted to watch Maria+Holic or Dance in the Vampire Bund for instance but his signature style has led me to respect him enormously. Following the two seasons of ef, in which his influence crept in quite noticeably, I realised how those wonderful ‘Shinbo-isms’ are as immediately recognisable as the trademark quirks of Hideaki Anno.
Arakawa Under The Bridge is very much in Shinbo’s comfort zone: it reminds me a lot of Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei with its pun-riddled wordplay, sketch-based storyline, zany characters and of course that artistic obsession with colours, composition and geometry. The source material of the two shows doesn’t share the same writer so I wonder whether the production team are being selective with the projects they take on. The similarities go even further, and mostly in a good way too.
I’ve been interested in twentieth-century history for as long as I can remember – before my fascination with Japanese popular culture even began I was drawn to the issues surrounding the atomic bombings of 1945. Fumiyo Kouno is one of many writers and artists who have taken on the subject but her approach is one that conveys the human cost of the events in an unusual way. Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is a short, surprisingly sweet but nevertheless powerful work.
Her graphic novel is not an historical document. The whimsical slice-of-life angle doesn’t prevent it being meaningful though: fundamentally, history is about people and the relevance today of the events that occured then. This story is therefore very relevant even though the individual stories of this event are fictional; it also manages to convey hard-hitting subject matter with subtlety and restraint.
As far as fans of sharp, contemporary Japanese psychological thrillers are concerned, Ryu Murakami is often the first names that spring to mind. Quite rightly too considering he wrote the original novel of Audition and has several of his other works published in English in recent years: I have to say I really enjoyed Audition and can easily see how it was made into such a popular film (which, to my shame I STILL haven’t seen). In the Miso Soup is in some ways pretty similar but interesting in aspects I never expected; I don’t see it as such a good contender for on-screen adaptation though.
The story follows Kenji, a young freelance Tokyo tour guide who takes an American businessman called Frank around town on a ‘sex tour’ of the city’s nightlife during the lead-up to New Year’s Eve. There are one or two things that seem amiss with Kenji’s new customer from the start but Kenji rejects the alternative of a quiet time with his girlfriend in favour of some much-needed work. He soon begins to regret his decision to accept this lucrative offer when a darker and more dangerous side to Frank begins to emerge.
The weeks following my return to the UK have been a little bit blurred (the first couple of days were blighted by the inevitable jet lag and family-related stuffs have cropped up too) so trying to get my final thoughts on my stay in order took longer than hoped. It’s a bit tricky trying to be objective when this has been my first proper trip abroad – I’ve never been exposed to anything other than a North-European climate for instance, and strongly believe that mastering the language would’ve made things easier. You can get by in Japan if you only speak English but it’s a lot more straightforward – and rewarding in some ways – to converse with people in the language they’re more fluent in.
Culture shock is a funny thing; in this case it was doubly shocking in that, for all the things that took me off-balance, there was quite a lot that I found to be pretty intuitive and easy to adjust to. If you’re too lazy to read what follows after the jump, I found that the society is very different from the one I grew up in but in terms of individual people there aren’t many differences at all. I also didn’t want to come home…as in, apart from seeing my family and friends again, I really didn’t look forward to coming back.
I must admit I was a bit disappointed that the weirdness and wonderfulness that is Harajuku’s fashion and cosplay scene was dampened by the rain (that infamous bridge was pretty short on photo opportunities) but the surrounding area is still worth wandering around. It made for an enjoyable afternoon, not least because I walked back into Shibuya to sample the Tokyu Food Court again and discover how certain things are cheaper here than back home. It plays into my guitaku tendancies if nothing else.
The best thing of the past couple of days is the fact that it’s the Sanja Matsuri festival, one of the annual events that are held in the local area. I mentioned previously that Taito City, and Asakusa in particular, are pretty quiet and laid-back but in the last couple of days it’s become much, much livelier.
After the epic shopping spree in Akihabara (my OST and Jpop/Jrock album collection is mushrooming) I decided to do a bit of conventional sightseeing in the areas of the city that are more (in)famous among ordinary tourists. This involves more walking and photography and less spending of money, and helped give me a clearer impression of the place. Two of the most well-known names are Shibuya, a lively shopping district with the enormous pedestrian crossing and Shinjuku, which has a nice contrast between insane public transport mayhem in the railway station and a stunning public garden that sits in the middle of the urban sprawl.
Away from Shinjuku is the even trendier district of Ginza, which is where you’ll find high-rise office blocks and high-price department stores. This time around we decided to walk from Ginza through Ueno to get to Asakusa, just in time to see the Taito city festival processions. As I type this the usual sleepy, small-town feel of Asakusa has turned into a crowded festival atmosphere with (so I’m told) three million locals and tourists descending on the area.
The humidity has dropped a bit but the whole timezone thing is still messing with me in a number of areas (don’t ask). If nothing else I’ve had my first taste of the notorious Akihabara (advice #1: take money) and took the train out to Machida. A severely pic-heavy post follows but to kick things off here’s the sight that greets me in the morning.
Asakusa with the temple (hopefully visiting tomorrow) and a peculiar little kids’ theme park.