When I was a small boy I remember my father having a bookshelf full of hardbacks. And the one I remember most clearly, for some reason, is Shōgun, James Clavell’s 1100-page whopper. I can still recall the smell of it.
I had always been mystified by the book. I remember it being on Dad’s nightstand, with a golf-club bookmark through it. I remember its cover as the first place I ever saw the handle of a Japanese sword. And when I was older, I remember finding endless copies of it at op-shops, usually for somewhere around the two-buck mark. (more…)
In terms of travel books written about Japan, this is a classic. It’s a pretty simple work: Ohio-born outsider tools around the Seto Inland Sea and, in the manner of a flâneur, offers his take on the place. Pre-gallery Naoshima. Pre-bridge islands. A world of fishing boats and lazy afternoons.
Let’s put it in perspective from the outset: the area that he’s talking about is glorious. It’s hazy and hypnotic, and completely suited to romantic introspection if you’re a traveller who’s impressed by views. I mean:
Right? Right. It’s somewhere I wanted to learn a lot more about.
The problem is that through this book, you learn a lot more about Donald Richie than you do the area. And what you learn, ultimately, is that he’s pretty much a dickhead. (more…)
Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition by Junji Ito.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
If someone hadn’t read any manga before, and you really wanted to fuck with them, you’d probably show them some Junji Ito. I mean if you wanted to warp them irreparably you’d throw them a bit of Suehiro Maruo – that’s a Wikipedia link, but I’d be leery of actually Googling the dude if you were at work – but if you just wanted to weird them out, it’d be Ito all the way. Because this is pretty much the initial reaction to his work:
I have a bit of a thing for Japan – I’ve played taiko and I learn the shakuhachi – so I am probably predisposed towards this comic. It’s created by someone who obviously is keen on the collection of islands, and often reads like it’s written for people who share that enthusiasm.
Imagine a ten-sided house. Add to it murder mystery enthusiasts, each bearing a famous crime writer’s nickhame. Add a sprinkling of weird fiction ghostliness and gothic murder. Then kill everybody. (more…)
Originally published in 1993, this revised edition of Lost Japan is Alex Kerr’s examination of aspects of Japan that are slowly disappearing. It’s an exploration – admittedly by an outsider, though a long-term resident – of the parts of Japanese culture which, after hundreds of years, are vanishing in the wake of economic miracles and crashes, and with the rise of technology. (Kerr would later write about different forms of downturn in Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, though that work is concerned with modern declination.)
Kerr‘s an interesting fellow, and the aspects of his biography woven into the book’s structure intrigue: born in Maryland, he grew up in Yokohama, and studied such that he could be thrust back into Japanese life. Organised Japanese studies seemed to disagree with him, so he struck out on his own, on a path which led to a love of art (and time as a dealer), associations with Texan developers, and guardian angel for a house in the Iya Valley – as well as figurehead for a trust designed to fight the effects of depopulation in rural areas. (more…)
I’d read a couple of Mitchell’s books many years ago, and it wasn’t until I picked this one up, looking for some transport reading that I realised (given its Japanese subject-matter) I was predisposed to liking it. The enjoyment it’s given has me kicking myself at leaving it on the shelf until now.
The four years of research required to create the book are well-spent; the historical verisimilitude is pretty much untouchable. Precision of detail is paramount, though it’s not forced down the reader’s throat. The Sakoku era – when foreign contact was forbidden, only ended with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ – is faithfully rendered. The outpost of Dejima – the only place trade was available, near Nagasaki – is brought to life without the distancing one usually finds in novels writing about the past. Some of the island’s denizens are a little more stereotypical than you’d imagine – especially the wanking monkey named after William Pitt – but nothing breaks the mood. (more…)