Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Literary Tourism and Letters of Recommendation

Posted in Books,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 22nd, 2017

Over the past decade, I have practiced a particular form of readerly tourism. When I travel somewhere that is the setting for a novel, I bring the book along and read a few pages while sitting in the specific location. For example, in 2014 I spent part of an afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Later that same year I sat on a park bench in downtown Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.

This past September I was in London for a few days. As part of the never-ending exercise of attempting to turn myself into a well-read human being, every summer I read one enormous classic of world literature. For 2017, the choice was Dickens’s Little Dorrit. And so on a brisk, sunny September morning, I rode the Underground to Monument station, walked south across London Bridge and headed for Little Dorrit Playground, a small modern park for children in the neighborhood where much of the story takes place. As I sat on a bench, reading a chapter from the novel, a young mother played with her toddler daughter on the climber and swings.

From there I walked across the street to the site of the old Marshalsea debtors prison, the central setting of Dickens’s story. Only the southern wall of the “College” remains, along with some historical markers describing the significance of the site.

A few months later, at the height of recommendation letter season, I find myself recalling a specific passage from the novel. Pancks, the comical ‘Grubber’ (bill collector) who haunts the impoverished neighborhood of Bleeding Heart Yard, is repeatedly figured as a kind of overcharged motor (“a little steam-engine with more steam than it knew what to do with”). Later in the novel, Dickens gives Pancks a memorable opportunity to demonstrate a powerful sense of working-class resentment against the capitalist class in the figure of his boss, landlord Casby. But the passage that comes to mind now is where he talks about the relative value of personal references in determining the creditworthiness of individuals.

‘As to being a reference,’ said Pancks, ‘you know, in a general way, what being a reference means. It’s all your eye, that is! Look at your tenants down the Yard here. They’d all be references for one another, if you’d let ’em. What would be the good of letting ’em? It’s no satisfaction to be done by two men instead of one. One’s enough. A person who can’t pay, gets another person who can’t pay, to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs, to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking match. And four wooden legs are more troublesome to you than two, when you don’t want any.’ Mr Pancks concluded by blowing off that steam of his.

And so, yes, I’d be happy to write that letter of reference for you–and for you, and for you too. The more, the merrier. Meanwhile, I’ll be dreaming about what book to read next summer–and where it might take me.

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Hosono Haruomi: The Reluctant Frontman (11/15/2017 @ Nakano Sun Plaza)

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 15th, 2017


After opening sets by manzai duo Knights and the Suzuki-Suzuki brother-sister musical impersonator team, Hosono Haruomi took to the stage at sold-out Nakano Sun Plaza. The 70-year-old revealed a surprising new look: his head is now topped with an unruly shock of white hair. Backed by a talented young band that included the wonderful and seemingly omnipresent Takada Ren on a range of stringed instruments、Iga Wataru on bass, and the duo Good Luck Heiwa on keyboards and drums, Haruomi played a characteristically low-key but quite satisfying set. I’d seen him perform live before with YMO and also with Yano Akiko, but this was my first solo Hosono concert.

Much of the material featured his recent bent toward cover versions of standard numbers, played in Western Swing style: “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Tutti Frutti” “L’Amour,” “Angel on My Shoulder,” “Suzi Q.” This is the style found on his solid new CD, Vu Ja De, as well as on its predecessor, HoSoNoVa (2011). Several times during the night, Hosono spoke of his love for boogie-woogie tunes–a predilection that especially came forward during the final part of the evening, when stride pianist Saito Keito took over on keyboards.

There were also nods to the “soy sauce music” of Hosono’s early solo career, with songs like “Pom Pom Joki” from 1976’s Bon Voyage Co. and “Pekin Duck” from 1975’s Tropical Dandy. The evening closed with an all-hands-on-stage final encore of “Koi wa momoiro” from Hosono House, his 1973 solo debut album. Perhaps it was only to be expected that the set list included no nods toward any of Hosono’s great bands: Apryl Fool, Happy End, YMO, or H.I.S. He did, however, play a moving tribute to the recently deceased Endo Kenji, a cover of his friend’s “Nezumi Kore wa Taiheiyo Da.”

Hosono has never liked being the front man: he feels more comfortable playing bass at the back of the stage than standing at the mike down front. He joked when his set began that he wished everyone in the audience would stop looking at him, and he seemed delighted when he left the stage for a couple of numbers midway through to give the backing band its turn in the spotlight. Then, when it came time to bring the main set to a close, he introduced the last number by saying, And this next song, thank god, is the last one. But he carries the unwelcome burden of fronting the band well: his easygoing humor and self-deprecation have their own unmistakable charisma. And his inimitable baritone voice (well, actually, imitable, as the Suzukis showed in their opening set) remains fully intact.

Here’s a preview of Hosono’s just-released new CD, which is well worth your while:

[Update on 11-22-2017]: Here’s a Japanese-language review of the concert, including video:
Hosono Haruomi 11-2017 Nakano Sun Plaza concert review

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Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 5th, 2017

About a decade ago, when I was writing Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Prehistory of J-Pop, I had the idea of trying to organize the release in the U.S. of a series of compilation CDs of a variety of Japanese popular music genres: city pop, folk-rock, etc. I even pursued informal conversations with a record label about doing this, and they showed a fair amount of interest. But then I thought about it seriously and realized that once I got to work on a project like that, it would take over my life for the next several years. As much as I liked the idea of having the CDs out there, I wasn’t all that eager to surrender control over my life. So it never happened.

But now the good people at Light in the Attic Records have stepped up with a fine compilation CD, Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973, which collects a nice cross section of the genre. They’ve done an excellent job of curating, combining well-known tracks (Happy End’s “Natsu nandesu,” Hachimitsu Pie’s “Hei no Ue de,” or Yoshida Takuro’s “Aoi Natsu”) with some quite obscure treasures (Yamahira Kazuhiko & The Sherman’s “Sotto Futari de,” for example). Kagawa Ryo passed away earlier this year; I wish he’d lived long enough to see his first official U.S. release: the brilliant 1971 song “Zeni no Koyoryoku ni tsuite,” with fierce backing from Happy End, is included. The compilation also introduces terrific recordings by Asakawa Maki, Kato Kazuhiko (as a solo artist), Kanenobu Sachiko, Hosono Haruomi, and The Dylan II, among others. The CD comes with excellent liner notes on each of the artists, plus English translations for the lyrics. If I have any complaint with this set, it’s that I wished they also included the original Japanese lyrics in the booklet, but that’s a minor detail.

Even better: the label plans to bring out more reissues of Japanese popular music in the coming years. I’m so glad that somebody finally got around to doing this, that they did it so well–and that it didn’t have to be me.

Track Listing
1. Curry Rice (Endo Kenji)
2. Sotto Futari De (Yamahira Kazuhiko & The Sherman)
3. Anata Kara Toku E (Kanenobu Sachiko)
4. Rokudenashi (Fluid)
5. Arthur Hakase No Jinriki Hikouki (Kato Kazuhiko)
6. Natsu Nandesu (Happy End)
7. Man-in No Ki (Nishioka Takashi)
8. Yoru Wo Kugurinukeru Made (Minami Masato)
9. Konna Fu Ni Sugite Iku No Nara (Asakawa Maki)
10. Mizu Tamari (Nunoya Fumio)
11. Boku Wa Chotto (Hosono Haruomi)
12. Aoi Natsu (Yoshida Takuro)
13. Takeda No Komori Uta (Akai Tori)
14. Marianne (Gu)
15. Ware Ware Wa (Saito Tetsuo)
16. Sugishi Hi Wo Mitsumete (Gypsy Blood)
17. Hei No Ue De (Hachimitsu Pie)
18. Zeni No Kouryouryoku Ni Tsuite (Kagawa Ryo)
19. Otokorashiitte Wakaru Kai (I Shall Be Released) (The Dylan II)

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Pointillism and Limited Animation

Posted in Art,Film,Japanese film,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 15th, 2016

albertina

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit “Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh: Ways of Pointillism,” a remarkable exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (open through 8 January 2017). It was an eye-opening show on a couple of levels.

First, it disabused me of a vague notion I had carried around for decades that modern painting originates with Impressionism–that, in other words, twentieth-century visual art descended more or less in a direct line from Monet, Renoir, and company. The Albertina show argues forcefully and persuasively that we should look rather to Pointillism, which arose in direct opposition to Impressionism, as the seminal moment. It was Pointillism that finally liberated the painted image from any obligation to represent the external object as it appeared to the painter. Its aesthetic was governed instead by an autonomous logic that governed the interrelationships between dots of different colors arranged across the surface of the canvas. Moreover, as the impressive range of paintings assembled in the show demonstrates, virtually every major figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western painting went through a Pointillist phase: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and more.

Second, it suggested that the bifurcation in post-1960s Japanimation styles between full animation (represented most famously by Miyazaki Hayao) and limited animation (e.g. Tezuka Osamu’s work for television) was a rehashing of a debate that happened in oil painting nearly a century earlier. I have in mind here the argument Thomas LaMarre makes in his brilliant 2009 book, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. According to LaMarre, full animation attempts to direct attention away from the gaps between the different planes of the animated image by centering itself on the movements of characters, drawn in loving detail against lush backgrounds. This technique generates a panoramic perspective that provides the illusion of a certain, albeit ambiguous, sense of depth. Limited animation, on the other hand, collapses the different planes of the animated image into a single flat surface to produce an effect that LaMarre calls “superplanarity”: all movement and energy now diffuse across the horizontal surface of the image rather than simulating some sort of depth.

According to the Albertina exhibit’s explanation, Pointillism aimed at something similar. Countless dots are arranged in non-hierarchical order across the surface of the canvas, each carrying an equal value. Through the contrasts and harmonies of different colors situated in relation to one another, a visual energy is unleashed across the flat plane of the image. The painting comes alive in the eye of the viewer with a kind of luminous oscillation that vibrates between the dots spread across its flat surface.

LaMarre critiques previous theorists who have tried to link the ‘superflat’ aesthetic of limited animation to Edo period visual art, usually assuming an essentialist West vs. Japan binary to link Japanimation to a seemingly ahistorical national aesthetic. The Albertina exhibit suggests that even within the ‘Western’ canon of painting, a similar conflict has long been at work. In their gorgeous works from the 1880s and 90s, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac produced a visual logic that Tezuka Osamu would have appreciated.

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A Very Short Story

Posted in Fiction by bourdaghs on the October 26th, 2016
  • “The Day Gordon MacRae Died”

    Oh, what a beautiful morning. I’ve spilled coffee all down the front of my white shirt. It’s an enormous stain the shape of Oklahoma—tipped on its ass, panhandle up. And it’s time to step up to that microphone, expose my soiled garment, respond wittily to three unwitting panelists. Surrey, surrey with your fringe on top: get me out of here. Now.

    oklahoma

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    Godzilla vs. Hegel

    Posted in Film,Japanese film,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 11th, 2016

    Yesterday afternoon, we attended a nearly sold-out screening of Shin-Gojira (Godzilla Rusurgence), the new reboot of the Godzilla movie franchise directed by Anno Hideaki (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) and Higuchi Shinji. The film argues —- almost passionately — for the bureaucratic state apparatus as the highest form of subjectivity. In fact, the narrative is much more interested in how successful bureaucracies function then it is in how monsters appear in the world in the first place. Or, oddly, with how they look: in the first part of the film, Godzilla strangely resembles a Chinese lion-dance costume.

    The directors borrow the narrative and editing style of the old NHK “Project X” series, celebrating the triumphs of Japanese corporate history, down to the camera angles and use of text captions to identify key players. The old family-romance melodrama subplot that characterized the original Godzilla series is completely replaced here by story lines driven by characters’ desires to rise within state bureaucracies. As with the original films, clearly this monster is a commentary on contemporary Japan, especially 3/11 (some shots of Godzilla’s destruction eerily match footage of the tsunami water sweeping through urban streets). But the fantasy here is that the state rises to the occasion, even as the actual Japanese state’s failures during the Fukushima nuclear accident are savagely parodied.

    And it’s not just any old state that is being celebrated as the triumphant end of history: it’s specifically the military state. Tsubaraya Eiji started out doing special effects for wartime propaganda films like Hawai Mare oki kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, 1942). After the surrender he took his skills over to the Godzilla series, with its inherently pacifist message. But with this latest revision, things come full circle: Shin-Gojira is an unabashed celebration of Japanese military bravery and can-do prowess. We cheer as a vast bureaucratic network of scientists, technocrats, politicians, and military brass pull off an improbable victory, solve the problem, and neutralize the monster.

    One of the nicest features of the new film is the way at key moments it deploys some of the indelible soundtrack music composed for the original series by Ifukube Akira. And there’s another very nice moment at the end when the soundtrack falls dead silent and we simply take in the horrible spectacle of the destroyed monster. Then the final credits roll — interminably long credits in the contemporary Hollywood style (the audience at our screening sat quietly to the end, watching them all). With the credits, we’re reminded that this film itself is also the product of a massive bureaucracy composed of committees, crews, technicians, programmers, and financiers. In other words, with Shin-Gojira, form equals content: the film is a successful bureaucratic product about how successful bureaucracies produce results. It’s the perfect Hegelian aesthetic resolution.

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    Marxist Theory and Practice from Japan

    Posted in Fiction,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the August 26th, 2016

    One welcome trend of recent years in my field is the wave of new translations that finally make available to English-language readers the history of Marxist and anarchist culture in modern Japan. With a few notable exceptions, Japan’s long and remarkable traditions of proletarian literature, leftist cultural activism, and Marxist philosophy were largely ignored by Japan Studies specialists.

    In part, this was a matter of scholars and translators’ personal preferences. But it was also a structural bias: as a Cold War form, Japan Studies arose as part of an ideological campaign to situate Japan as a poster-boy for successful modernization without revolution. The ‘Japan’ that this discourse created as its object was inherently adverse to Marxism, and any Japanese writer who partook of it was by definition inauthentic.

    This tendency generated a distorted canon of modern Japanese literature and thought that is only now being rectified. One of the most important new publications is For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2015), a remarkably ambitious anthology edited by Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk. It includes a wide range of pieces, including fiction, essays, and children’s literature.
    FieldBowenStruyk
    Combined with Zeljko Cipris’s recent translations of Kuroshima Denji, Kobayashi Takiji and others, the sampling of Japanese proletarian literature available in English has expanded enormously.

    On top of that, the past several years have brought new English-language versions of the work of a number of Marxist literary and social theorists. Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013), edited by Ken C. Kawashima, Fabian Schaefer, and Robert Stolz, includes a number of essays and excerpts from one of the most interesting Marxist theorists active anywhere in the first half of the twentieth century. Abe Kobo has long been familiar to Western readers as a writer of surreal existentialist fiction, but his career as a cultural theorist for the Japan Communist Party has always been underplayed–until now, with the publication of The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō (Columbia University Press, 2013), edited and translated by Richard F. Calichman.
    Abe Kobo
    More translations are in the pipeline, too: a collection of essays from the early postwar “Politics and Literature” debate should be out from Lexington Books next year, while other scholars are working on new translations of seminal theorist Uno Kozo. I’ve made my own modest contributions to this new tendency: my translation of Karatani Kojin’s The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke University Press, 2014) presented the author’s most ambitious attempt to rethink Marxist theory in tandem with anarchism (more English translations of Karatani’s works are also forthcoming), and I tried my hand at one of Kuroshima Denji’s early proletarian literature short stories.

    The way we in the Anglophone world study Japanese literature is changing and as a result the object of our studies is acquiring new layers and angles. The exotic and apolitical Japanese literature generated during the Cold War is being supplemented with something new that is actually something old. And this something old may well end up contributing something else that is new, as we struggle around the globe to figure out what comes after the failed doctrine of neo-liberalism.

    New fiction: “When a Derelict Angel Speaks”

    Posted in Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 29th, 2015
  • My short story “When a Derelict Angel Speaks” has just appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, Vol. 5, No. 1. Enjoy!

  • When a Derelict Angel Speaks
  • Michael Bourdaghs

    It takes a second for Steve’s head to clear. He squints at the alarm clock on Cheryl’s side of the bed; 2:17 a.m., its glowing red digits proclaim. The chirping noise that woke him, he realizes, is the bedroom telephone, but Steve hesitates. Should he answer? Once upon a time, late-night phone calls promised excitement. Back then, a telephone ringing after midnight might have meant friends insisting he join them for a nightcap, or an old girlfriend feeling lonely. But now Steve has turned forty, gotten married, become a father. He’s acquired a mortgage and a cocker spaniel, and as a result the realm of possibilities fornocturnal calls has dwindled. The phone ringing now is either a wrong number or a death in the family.

    Then again, it might be Kurt. In fact, probably it’s Kurt: a ghost floating outside the gravitational field of ordinary clock time.

    (Continue reading here)

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    Kuroshima Denji’s “The Two-Sen Copper Coin”

    Posted in Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 3rd, 2014

    My translation of a 1926 short story by the proletarian literature author Kuroshima Denji (1898-1943) has just appeared online at The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

    The Two-Sen Copper Coin

    It was when spinning tops were all the rage. Tōji dug up an old top his older brother Kenkichi had used and gripped the three-centimeter nail pounded in to form its stem between his left and right palms to make it spin. His hands were still not very strong, so the top only stayed spinning for a little while before it toppled over. Since early childhood, Kenkichi had been the sort to get obsessed over things. He had polished the top and replaced the slender, wire-like stem it came with using the three-centimeter nail. It spun better that way, so it was a strong competitor in top battles. It was already some twelve or thirteen years since he had used it, but the top was still sturdy, shiny black, and it was heavy, as if it were made of good hard wood. It was well oiled and coated with wax. The quality of its wood and everything else were completely different from the sort they sell in stores nowadays.

    The top was so heavy that Tōji had trouble making it spin. He spent half a day trying to make it spin on the floorboard of the doorframe without any success.

    “Ma, buy me a top string,” he begged his mother.

    “Ask Pa if it’s okay to buy one.”

    “He said it’s fine.”

    His mother was the sort to make a fuss about everything. In part, this was due to their strained household budget. Even after it was decided that they would buy it, she made a point of first looking through the storage room, to make sure that they didn’t have an old string used by Kenkichi.

    Read more here.

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    War Trauma in a Comic Novel

    Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the October 20th, 2014

    There’s an unsettling moment in Sasaki Kuni‘s novel, Bonjinden (The Life of a Mediocrity、1929-30). Sasaki (1883-1964) was a celebrated humor writer, as well as a translator of Mark Twain, Cervantes, and others. I’m not aware of any English translations of his work. When I read earlier this year that Kondansha had brought out a bunkobon (pocketbook) edition of Bonjinden, I picked up a copy.

    凡人伝

    The hook with which the novel begins is that, although we have countless biographies of great men, we have few of mediocrities. In a mode somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse, the first-person narrator launches into an account of his schooldays, first off in the provinces where he suffers abuse from classmates for the sin of being the headmaster’s son, and then at Meiji Gakuen, a Christian mission school in Tokyo. We follow the misadventures of our anti-hero and his chums, including their crises of faith–but it’s all played for laughs. References to actual historical events allow us to place the story at around the time of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5.

    The unsettling moment comes near the end. The hero is teaching at a school way out in the provinces where there is an elderly teacher who happens to bear the same family name as he–a telling detail. To avoid confusion, their colleagues call the protagonist “Young Kawahara” and his senior colleague “Old Kawahara.” Old Kawahara is a former soldier, a veteran of the internal warfare that erupted at the time of the Meiji Restoration. His junior colleagues at the school joke about his main claim to fame as a warrior: his heroic capture of the enemy commander’s leg.

    Young Kawahara has heard his colleagues talk about this. One evening, he goes to visit Old Kawahara at his home and nudges him into telling his war stories. Old Kawahara obliges and relates how he came across the corpse of the enemy general on the battlefield. Somebody else had already taken the head, so he lopped off the leg. It’s a gruesome image, but the scene is played for laughs.

    But then things get serious. Old Kawahara’s face grows dark, and he starts to tell of another battlefield incident, one that he’s never previously recounted for his colleagues. He was on patrol duty one night near Aizu, enforcing a curfew, when a beautiful young woman appeared in front of him. One of his fellow soldiers yelled out to Old Kawahara to cut her down. He tried to let the woman escape. But just as the woman turned to run away, his comrades saw what was happening and yelled out that he was a coward. In a moment of panic, Old Kawahara slashed out with his sword across the woman’s back. He later learned that it was all a misunderstanding, that the woman was an innocent bystander.

    As she fell to the ground, the woman glanced back at Old Kawahara with a vengeful look that has haunted him his whole life. Decades later, he still has nightmares about the woman he killed. She was about twenty, Old Kawahara tells Young Kawahara. He’s certain that she is the reason both his own sons died at the age of twenty: she placed a curse on him so that none of the children in his family would live beyond the age of twenty.

    It’s a chilling scene, unlike anything that has come before it in the novel. But soon the narrative shifts back into a comic mode. Old Kawahara has one child left, an unmarried girl who will soon turn twenty. He begs Young Kawahara to marry her immediately so that by the time she turns twenty, she will no longer be his daughter (her name will be shifted from the family registry of Old Kawahara to that of Young Kawahara) and hence will escape the curse. The whole story seems to have been a set up to trick Young Kawahara into marrying the daughter. In fact, Young Kawahara is only too willing to do so, and so the narrative reaches a happy ending.

    In other words, this horrific story of traumatic war memories is used as a comic device. I can’t help but wonder how this sequence struck its original readers back in 1930. There were earlier fictional works in Japan that depicted the horrors of war, but almost always the violent scenes in them depict Japanese soldiers as the victims rather than the perpetrators of atrocities. By the late 1930s, and especially after 1945, we started to get many novels that depicted ugly battlefield incidents, including those committed by Japanese troops–but I can’t think of a work that puts such a scene to use for comic effect.

    I suppose it makes a difference that the war depicted in Bonjinden is a civil war rather than a foreign war. But I still can’t quite get my mind around the way the scene is used in the novel. Did this sequence disturb readers in 1930 Japan, or did they simply fly past it without a second thought? Was the scene warning them about horrors to come, or was it preparing readers to laugh them off?

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