Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


A Blue New Year?

Posted in Jazz,Music by bourdaghs on the December 30th, 2011

The year 2011 took a heavy toll on Chicago blues: the deaths of Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith contributed to the sense that an era was passing rapidly. Will the art survive, and if so, in what form? Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune published an important series of extended pieces over the course of the year on the present state of the local blues scene, well worth checking out:

“21st Century Blues: Can an Ancestral Art Form Survive?” (June 5, 2011)

“Chicago Camp Teaches Kids Blues 101” (August 20, 2011)

“Playing the Blues in Black AND White” (November 26, 2011)

“Is This the Twilight of Blues Music?” (Dec. 28, 2011)

In fact, there is a rising generation of excellent mid-career blues artists–Michael Burks, Shemekia Copeland, Sean Costello and Larry McCray immediately come to mind. Alligator Records just celebrated its fortieth anniversary and is still going strong (as also reported by Reich in the Trib). We are also blessed with the continuing presence of many strong veteran performers: we have tickets to see Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE up in Evanston on January 28, for example. In other words, the music is hardly dead–but it is, as Reich reports, in critical condition.

The City of Chicago has, incidentally, just announced that the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival will be held June 8-10.

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The Current Reading List

Posted in Books,Fiction,Film,Japanese film,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the December 28th, 2011

A few things I’ve been reading as of late:


Jim Harrison, True North (Grove Press, 2004). I’m a belated convert to Harrison’s fiction: I’ve known about him since a girlfriend in high school recommended him, but only started reading his work in the last few years. I inadvertently read Returning to Earth, the 2007 sequel to this, first and found myself mesmerized. So it was with high expectations that I picked this up–but I ended up mildly disappointed. It’s quite good, yes, but not at the level of Harrison’s best. Why? I guess I felt emotionally distant from the characters and from the whole notion of taking historical responsibility for one’s familial past. It’s a fine novel, but Harrison has produced more compelling work elsewhere.

Kirino Natsuo 桐野夏生, OUT (Kodansha, 2002; two volumes). My first foray into the land of Kirino, though I did see the fine film adaptation of this novel a few years back. The suspenseful plot (will our heroines be arrested for their heinous crimes of murder and corpse dismemberment?) works well, but most of all I like the gritty details of contemporary life that Kirino captures better than her more “Literary” peers: what it feels like day after day to endure a shitty night-shift job and a dead-end family life. Despite the, uhm, moral shortcomings of all the major characters, this reader ended up kinda liking them as people.

Steven Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). An excellent study of one of the most fascinating figures from Japan’s 1960s, covering his work in poetry, sports writing, guerrilla theater performance and experimental film. Ridgely presents a sophisticated and highly readable study of the multiple ways in which Terayama creatively redrew the boundary between fiction and reality.

How ’bout you? Read any good books lately?

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Revisiting Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature

Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 27th, 2011

Last week the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy hosted a symposium on “Globalizing Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature,” commemorating the publication of the English translation of Bungakuron (1907), Sōseki’s remarkable attempt to construct a fully scientific theory of “literature” complete with mathematical formulas and graphs, one that was supposed to be valid at all times and in all places.

In her talk, Noami Mariko (University of Tokyo) spoke on the role of emotion (small f) in Sōseki’s theory, in particular the indirect experience of emotion by the reader of fiction, tracing through the ways Sōseki put this theory into practice in his 1912 novel, Until the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Joseph Murphy (University of Florida) also explored the relation of Sōseki’s (F+f) formula to his fiction, especially the early story “Tower of London,” and talked about the missing, perhaps subconscious, possibility of (non-F, non-f) as an implicit possible permutation of the formula.

In the afternoon sessions, Atsuko Ueda (Princeton University) situated Bungakuron in the context of late nineteenth century literary histories, as well as the tradition of rhetoric studies that Soseki relied on–and the implications his transcending the categories of national language and national literature holds for contemporary area studies scholarship. Saitō Mareshi (University of Tokyo) raised the question of what kagaku means in the context of Bungakuron: science or discipline? He also traced Sōseki’s use of keywords from the Chinese literati tradition of rhetoric, looking in particular at what was at stake in Sōseki’s switch from that vocabulary to the mathematical language of (F+f). I followed with a talk exploring Bungakuron as a theory of world literature, reading Sōseki against his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, as well as Pascale Casanova’s more recent attempt to theorize a “world republic of literature.” The final speaker, Komori Yōichi (University of Tokyo), explored the specific scientific contexts on the work, noting its connections to early twentieth century atomic theory, as well as the productive gesture Sōseki made in creating a horizon in which embodied sense perception and intellectual understanding were synthesized into a single entity within the bracketed space of (F+f).

We had lively discussions throughout the day, and the symposium was very well attended. My thanks to the organizers, my co-presenters, and to all who participated.

In the meanwhile, the Modern Language Association has announced that the volume has won the 2011 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature. From the award citation:

Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), provides English language readers with major critical works by Japan’s foremost novelist of the twentieth century. Sōseki aspired to a grand and systematic explanation of literature, focusing on literature’s effects on readers. Based on the cognitive psychology of his day, his account explores how the content of the literary work generates emotional responses. Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy have done a superb job of supplying the contextual information necessary for today’s non-Japanese reader to appreciate the subtlety and significance of Sōseki’s work.

On top of that, the Japan Times newspaper has just named it one of the “Best Books of 2011.” It’s gratifying to see this project, begun with my colleagues six or seven years ago, reach fruition in this way. Our goal from the start was to get people reading and talking about this remarkable book, and it feels like we’ve accomplished that.

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Eight Terrific Japanese Pop Songs from 2011 (Part Two)

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the December 26th, 2011

The list continues:

4). The Beatniks, “A Song for 4 Beats)
Takahashi Yukihiro (late of Sadistic Mika Band and Yellow Magic Orchestra) has been making some remarkably lush-sounding music lately, especially with his new unit, pupa. Here, he reunites with Suzuki Keiichi (late of Hachimitsu Pie and Moonriders) under the moniker The Beatniks. The specific beatniks name-checked in the lyrics: Jack, William, Neal, Allen, and Harry.

3). Tokyo Incidents (東京事変) “Atarashii bunmei kaika” (新しい文明開化)
Shiina Ringo and company continue to crank out excellent tunes that range across the spectrum from jazz standards to noise punk. Here they mine the J-Rock vein with wonderful results. The guttural growl that Shiina lets loose at about 0:17 pretty much made my whole summer musically.

2). Kuwata Keisuke (桑田佳祐), “Sore yuke baby!!” (それ行けベイビー!!)
Kuwata debuted this number during his post-illness comeback appearance on last year’s Kohaku Uta Gassen, NHK’s New Year’s Eve spectacular–that’s where this footage comes from. The chords he uses in the main verse sections are utterly unlike anything he’s written before, while the chorus brings him back into more familiar territory. Brilliant songwriting.

桑田佳祐 復帰 by plutoatom

1) Saito Kazuyoshi (斉藤和義), “Zutto uso datta” (ずっとウソだった)
Certainly the bravest song by a major Japanese pop star this year. In April, Saito created a sensation when he went live on Ustream with an updated version of his top-ten 2010 hit, “Zutto Suki Datta” (It Was Always Love). The new title was “It Was Always Lies,” and the revised lyrics mounted a fearless attack on industry and government for selling the Japanese public on the myth of safe nuclear power. The original video went viral (you can watch it here), but perhaps the most emotionally satisfying version was this one, performed live in Fukushima at a September outdoor music festival.

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Eight Terrific Japanese Pop Songs from 2011 (Part One)

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the December 25th, 2011

Given my current listening post in exile, I’m hardly in a position to claim anything like a comprehensive grasp of today’s music scene in Japan. But here are some songs I’ll remember 2011 by. What a year it was….

8). Ando Yuko (安藤裕子), “Kagayashiki hibi” (輝かしき日々)
I’d been trying to get myself to like Ando’s work for a couple of years. The process got considerably easier when I heard this song, the theme song for the NHK television drama 「カレ、夫、男友達」.

7). GODIEGO (ゴダイゴ), “Walking On”
I especially like it when old guys (and gals) put out good new music. GODIEGO were enormously popular in the 1970s and early 1980s. Mickey Yoshino, Steve Fox and friends are still at it, and I found their new single very attractive.

6). Sakanaction (サカナクション) “Bahha no senritsu o yoru ni kiita sei desu” 『バッハの旋律を夜に聴いたせいです。』
A young (well, from my perspective) band that’s been firing on all cylinders the past few years. I like the intelligent lyrics about the emotional impact of listening to Bach late at night. And talk about hooks: the two breaks that insert fragements from Bach always make me smile (especially the second one).

5). Coma-Chi, “Say NO!”
One of several terrific protest songs to appear in the wake of 3.11 and the Fukushima disaster. Chuck D of Public Enemy famously called hip-hop the “CNN of the ghetto”; here, it serves as the CNN for post-Fukushima Japan, when the public found itself unable to rely on the government and mass media to learn what was really happening with the nuclear meltdowns.

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You Still There?

Posted in Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the December 25th, 2011
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