Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


How to be an Ethical Music Fan in a Corrupt World

1). How to buy music: Never, ever order your music from Amazon.com or its woeful kin. Obviously. Your local record shop, should you be so lucky as to still have one, needs your business. Another alternative is buying directly from the artist’s website. It’ll probably cost you a couple extra bucks, but that’s a low price to pay for retaining the rights to your soul. Online retailers have replaced record companies as the Satan of the music industry. Don’t feed Satan.

2). How to listen to music: Here’s how you can pry something out of Satan. After you have bought the CD or vinyl or mp3 download, use a streaming service to listen to the tunes. If you don’t subscribe to a streaming service, try YouTube. They all pay shit royalties to artists and composers, but after you’ve already shelled out a fair price for your own copy, listening via a streaming service throws a few more pennies in the direction of the people who actually made the music.

3). How to find new music: Read. Good music writing teaches you about your own limits and points out a way past them. Criticism is being squeezed as badly by capitalism as any other branch of today’s music world. If you are so lucky as to live in a place where the local press runs music criticism, read it. Then like it and share it on social media: publishers count up those beans. And buy and read books. Your local bookstore has shelves bursting with excellent writing on music. You could start with Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Mark Fisher’s K-Punk, or Jim Walsh’s Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes, to name three random examples sitting on my desk right now.

Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments. We need all the ideas we can get.

Comments Off on How to be an Ethical Music Fan in a Corrupt World

Things You Find in a Japanese Used Bookstore

Posted in Books,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 28th, 2019

In his 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” Walter Benjamin writes that to a book collector, the attraction lies not so much in the fate of a book as a work, but rather in the fate of one specific copy of that book. For a collector, “the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him” (Harry Zohn trans.). In other words, a collector gathers up stories of encounters with books as much as she does books themselves. So here’s a story.

Last December we visited Tokyo. Our last afternoon in the city, I was killing time in Kichijoji and wandered into Yomitaya, a used bookstore not too far from the train station. After browsing the stacks, I had to check out the locked glass cases up front, where they keep the good stuff. Immediately catching my eye was an elegant letter, several pages thick and composed in classical style with a writing brush, sent by the novelist Nogami Yaeko (野上弥生子,1885-1985) to yet another novelist, Oba Minako (大庭みな子, 1930-2007). A remarkable find: modern Japanese literary history, connecting Natsume Soseki’s Thursday afternoon salon from the 1910s (where Nogami occasionally visited) to the revival of feminist writing in the 1970s and 80s, was sitting there right in front of me. The price tag said 150,000 yen, roughly $1400–well out of the price range of this collector.

But then I noticed a postcard sitting next to it, wrapped in clear vinyl: a New Year’s card, sent from Oba to Nogami. There was no price tag on it. It was almost time for me to leave and meet up with the rest of my family, but idle curiosity wouldn’t let me go. I approached the clerk at the cash register.

“I’m sure I can’t afford it, but how much is that Oba Minako postcard?”

The clerk at first didn’t know what I was speaking about. We walked over to the glass case and I pointed it out. She unlocked the case and pulled the vinyl wrapper out, looking for a price tag. Finding nothing, she slid the card out–and it turned out that there were actually two different New Years greeting cards in it, both from Oba to Nogami. But still no price tag.

The clerk explained that the owner of the shop was away just then, and he was the one who would know the price. She turned to another clerk and explained the situation. He picked up the phone and tried calling the owner to ask the price. I felt bad, because I almost certainly wasn’t going to be able to afford the thing. I did, however, start asking myself about how high I was willing to go. I had no idea what the price would turn out to be, but decided that I could spend up to 5,000 yen (roughly $45).

They couldn’t reach the owner on the phone, alack. I thanked the two clerks and made to leave the shop when their telephone rang, and of course it was the owner. The male clerk spoke for a minute or two with the owner, then opened up a file on his computer to confirm the details of the item.

He looked up at me and said, “3,000 yen.”

I had my wallet out in an instant, wanting to make the purchase and get out of there before they decided that the price was a mistake. How could I not buy them after all of that?

Below you can see images of the little scrap of Japanese literary history that I picked up in that used bookstore. I have no idea what I’ll do with them, but I knew in the moment there was no way I could leave that shop without them.


1984 postmark

(「新年おめでとうございます。一九八四年元旦。いつも伺ったときのことを思い出しております。大庭みな子」)
“Happy New Year. New Year’s Day, 1984. I always think about the time I visited you. Oba Minako”


December 1982 postmark

(「新年のよろこびをもうしあげます。元旦」)
“Felicitations on the New Year. New Year’s Day”

Comments Off on Things You Find in a Japanese Used Bookstore

What I Listened to in 2018

Posted in J-Rock,Jazz,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the December 27th, 2018

It’s that time of year: I’m enjoying reading people’s top-albums-of-the-year lists. So, for what it’s worth, here are the twenty 2018 albums I listened to the most, in alphabetical order:

Courtney Barnett, “Tell Me How You Really Feel”
Cero,”Poly Life Multi Soul”
Chai, “Pink”
Shemekia Copeland, “America’s Child”
Dave Davies,”Decade”
Ray Davies, “Our Country: Americana Act 2”
Dessa, “Chime”
Betty LaVette, “Things Have Changed”
Lykke Li, “So Sad So Sexy”
Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”
The Kinks, “Village Green Preservation Society” box set
Chris Mars, “Note to Self”
Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”
Noname, “Room 25”
Ohmme, “Parts”
Parliament, “Medicaid Fraud Dogg”
Ike Reilly, “Crooked Love”
Robyn, “Honey”
Stew and The Negro Problem, “Notes of a Native Son”
Walter Wolfman Washington, “My Future is My Past”

Comments Off on What I Listened to in 2018

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.

Comments Off on Literary Tourism and Letters of Recommendation

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

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

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.

Comments Off on Pointillism and Limited Animation

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.

Comments Off on Godzilla vs. Hegel

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)

    Comments Off on New fiction: “When a Derelict Angel Speaks”

    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.

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

    Watch and Listen to Yours Truly

    Posted in J-Pop,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the July 7th, 2014

    It’s become common these days for universities to videotape public lectures and make them available online. A few talks I’ve given in recent years are available for your viewing pleasure, should you be so inclined.

    Last October at the University of Chicago’s Humanities Day, I spoke about the curious life and career of Kasai “George” Jiuji, UChicago Class of 1913, and how his example might help us rethink the meaning of the Cold War and Japan’s role in it:

    A few months before that, I gave a talk at Boston University on “Misora Hibari and the Popular Music of Cold War Japan: Mimesis, Alterity, Cosmopolitanism.”

    Michael Bourdaghs, April 11 2013 from BU Center for the Study of Asia on Vimeo.

    In addition, a 2013 talk at Penn State on Natsume Soseki and “Theorizing Literature from Japan, 1907” is available online.

    Another 2011 talk I gave on “Psychology and Natsume Soseki’s Mon (The Gate)” at the University of Michigan is available here.

    If you prefer listening to watching me, a 2012 segment on Japanese popular music that I did for the public radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” is archived here. And if you want to hear what I sounded like as a callow lad of 19, you can hear the recently unearthed recording of a January 1981 interview with The Replacements (probably the band’s first-ever radio interview), back when I was a deejay for WMCN, Macalester College’s radio station.

    On the whole, though, the printed word remains my medium of choice.

    Comments Off on Watch and Listen to Yours Truly
    Next Page »