what i’ve been reading in japan


Still from The world after 800,000,000 years

Since I’ve had several long flights and a bit of free time before the semester, I’ve been reading a lot of extracurricular work recently. On the flight out I read Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, which I didn’t like as much as his The Last Temptation of Christ. However, I do have a favorite passage:

“Winter shrivels up the mind and body of man, but then there comes the warmth which swells the breast. As I walked I suddenly heard loud trumpetings in the air. I raised my eyes and saw a marvelous spectacle which had always moved me ever since my childhood: cranes deploying across the sky in battle order, returning from wintering in a warmer country, and, as legend has it, carrying swallows on their wings and in the deep hollows of their bony bodies.”

Zorba was followed closely by Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. It’s a brilliant novel on every level and a not-so-heavily cloaked critique of Stalin’s murderous regime. It’s investigations of the sudden and violent exercise of unchecked power and the fear and irrationality that spiral out of this like a mist are frighteningly similar to the cultural currents circulating in the United States right now which are producing a kind of mind that, like Ivan Nikolayich’s vision of the Black Cat walking on two legs, can’t tell what is real and what is not. However, The Master and Margarita ends with a kind of eruption of imaginative power that, as writing, is redemptive in itself. There seems to be slim sight of this kind of eruptive power in the United States right now.

I’ve also been reading quite a bit of Japanese literature, including Haruki Murakami’s novel A Wild Sheep Chase, which has the main character falling in love with the shape of a woman’s ears (she’s an ear model), and Underground, his stunning collection of interviews of the survivors of Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin gas attack of the Tokyo subway system. There’s also a series of interviews with former, and current, Aum members who describe their time in Aum leading up to the gas attacks (none of these people had any suspicion that the sarin attacks were going to occur). What’s totally fascinating to me is the number of people interviewed who cite a Japanese book about the prophesies of Nostradamus as a formative moment in their apocalyptic thinking. The incredibly pernicious power of an otherwise entirely inconsequential historical personage is mindbending to me. It’s like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — when is that farcical and worthless piece of mental garbage going to disappear? Sadly, “Not so long as language persists” seems to be a probable answer. Let’s hope that historical progression can bring us to the point where both these texts lose their purchase entirely.

But let’s hope that more people begin reading Kenzaburo Oe’s brilliant but genuinely tough A Personal Matter, and Fumiko Enchi’s Masks, a book that I read in college but decided to reread to see how my perspective on it had changed. I’ve also been reading the book produced to go with Takashi Murakami’s recent New York show, Little Boy — the third in his Superflat trilogy of contemporary Japanese (pop-inspired) art. The illustrations in this book speak volumes but the essays tend to be a bit on the reductive side as far as I’m concerned, limiting the actual effects of Superflat producers to rather sterile social commentary rather than presenting any of these works as the kinds of complicated aesthetic expressions that they can be in their own right (especially the works of Chiho Aoshima, Izumi Kato, Chinatsu Ban, Hideaki Kawashima, and Aya Takano). Of course, I think much of the best art is grounded in social commentary, but it’s got to be sharp stuff — the social commentator needs the unshaking hands of a surgeon — or else it falls off into the awful category of “the appropriation and subversion of conventions,” a trope which has itself become the most boring of all conventions.

I’ll end this longer-than-I-thought-it-would-be post with one of my favorite poems from Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of 100 Japanese poems. This is a poem by Sakanoe:

“Do not smile to yourself
Like a green mountain
With a cloud drifting across it.
People will know we are in love.”

Chiho Aoshima profile with images
Aoshima’s NYC Subway Project
Izumi Kato page in Japanese
Chinatsu Ban’s Telepathic Elephant Underpants
Crazy Aya Takano flash animation


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