Weird Japan: two fascist monuments in the samurai city of Aizu-Wakamatsu

[content warning: historical suicides]

In Rome or Wakamatsu?

[My main historical sourcing for this post comes from Reto Hofmann’s 2015 book The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy, 1915-1952 and Michael Lucken’s chapter “Remodeling Public Space: the Fate of War Monuments, 1945-1948” from the 2008 anthology The Power of Memory in Modern Japan. For the sake of convenience, I’ll cite them both by last name only (since you can search both on Google Books) and link any other sources when necessary. Aaand… ugh, stricken by inadequacy again. I regret that I cannot read Japanese better; I would have liked to learn more in the nearby museum. But eh, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered: the displays focused on the Boshin War, not the fascist connection]

It’s “Golden Week” in Japan, this year extended by some extra public holidays for the coronation Emperor Naruhito to usher in the new Reiwa era. So, I’ve been playing the tourist again with some short trips in Tohoku, including one to Aizu, a volcanic mountain basin in western Fukushima Prefecture best known today for its proud history celebrated in the small “samurai city” of Aizu-Wakamatsu. I’ll keep my disclaimer from last time — I describe weird things in Japan, not weird things about Japan. This is not a country profile. But ohhhhh my god, I found something really weird: two memorials dedicated to fallen samurai children …donated by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany!

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Bad poetry is good in Senryu Shoujo

Huh, there really is an anime for everything…

[This week in bad things I like anyway: the poetry in the spring 2019 anime Senryu Shoujo. It’s a fun and funny show, so even if my snob is showing regarding junk like metrical analysis, I mock the poems out of fondness. Better yet though, the mockery is part of the point! Senryu Shoujo succeeds because it doesn’t take its poems too seriously, instead incorporating them into the otherwise-bland high-school gag comedy to offer a light, loving parody of immature — and maybe even bad — would-be-poets. So, i’unno… with the recommendation and positivity out of the way, proceed with the snobbery!]

You’ve probably heard this before, right? Good artists copy, great artists steal?

It’s one of those apocryphal quotes that shows up everywhere but never seems to have a consistent form. Maybe Pablo Picasso said it about artists, or William Faulkner said it about writers, or Igor Stravinsky said it about composers? — none of those, nope! T.S. Eliot said it about poetry, in print even, from his 1921 collection The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

I won’t pretend to know what makes a good or bad poem with the same confidence as Eliot, so I’ll defer to his expertise here (plus, every aphorism has its opposite: Eliot may have made “something different” out of a line from writer W.H. Davenport Adams: “The great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil”). However, can we at least agree that the first poem from episode one of Senryu Shoujo might deserve an “immature” classification? As rendered by the official subtitles on HIDIVE, followed by the Japanese, a transliteration, and a line-by-line translation:

As the cherry blossoms bloom / I’m so happy / That we met


sakura saku / kimi to no de-a-i ga / ureshikute

cherry blossoms bloom / the meeting with you / is happy

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Cold in March, graduation in Japan, and the problem with time consciousness

Not much snow, but even seeing it crushed me

[It’s school graduation season in Japan, so I’ve been busy with stupid, ceaseless ceremony. I’m so tired and so cold, and so tired of being cold, and so tired of being cold in rural Japan. Something low effort this week then… time is criminal. As an additional note, I’ve drawn heavily from Dienstag’s neat book Pessimism: Philosophy, Spirit, Ethic]

It snowed yesterday, on March 14, a week away from the official start of spring. It all melted by the end of the work day, but when I saw about four inches (10cm) of the real heavy, wet stuff on my car in the morning, I just about cried. I’m so tired of winter in rural Japan. I want to feel warm again; spring is so close! But now, it’s still so cold.

The feeling of futile anticipation reminded me of a passage from Izumi Kyoka’s short story “One Day in Spring.” As spoken by the despairing lover Mio:

Those people you see out there working in their fields — when fall comes they brace themselves, each doing his best to not be overwhelmed by melancholy. There’s still strength in those dispirited legs. But in spring the strength is stolen away. They float up, as if they’ve been turned into butterflies or birds. They seem anxious, don’t they?

Invited by a warm, gentle wind, the soul becomes a dandelion blossom that suddenly turns into cotton and blows away. It’s the feeling of fading into death after seeing paradise with your own eyes. Knowing its pleasure, you also understand that heaven is heartless, vulnerable, unreliable, and sad.

[trans. Charles Inouye]

Let’s take the point about the seasons literally for a moment: I could bear winter without complaint as long as it seemed inescapable… clearing the thick mountain snow off my car every morning, shivering in my full winter coat during class in uninsulated rural schools, fumbling with clumsy jerry cans to refill portable heaters, de-icing the shower (…and the toothpaste…) in my unheated bathroom. It was so cold. And that was fine.

Oh, but now spring is coming! I’ve gone weeks without shoveling snow. I’ve floated through class with just a jacket! I’ve felt warm air blowing in from the sky again, instead of from a kerosene burner! I don’t even need to heat my toothpaste under the water before I can squeeze it out of the tube! I’m so close to escaping the cold!

But then winter clawed me back into its freezing hell one last time with that snow on the 14th, and then a second last time with another flurry this morning. March promises me rebirth into the paradise of spring, but that stubborn winter refuses to give up its grip and just die already. I’m impatient, anxious in anticipation, tired of winter for not going… But then I resent spring too, for not coming sooner. It’s still so cold.

Continue reading “Cold in March, graduation in Japan, and the problem with time consciousness”

A tourist’s brief impressions of Japan’s three largest anime hubs: Akihabara, Dendenmachi, and Nakano Broadway

Akihabara, before the crowds

Something very, very short again this week because I am exhausted after my vacation and gave up trying to write with a smartphone keyboard on the long, standing-room-only train rides home. I’m also a bit sore from so much touristic walking and don’t feel like writing a proper introduction so here’s a topic sentence: I’ll briefly compare my shopping experiences in Japan’s three largest anime merchandise hubs: Akihabara, Dendenmachi, and Nakano Broadway.

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Rem is objectively superior to Ram: evidence from some Akihabara window shopping

Emilia threads the needle

[ ~ objectively superior, but for what objective? ~ ]

It is (was) Christmas, so what better (worse?) time to celebrate some excessive commercialism!

I’m on vacation in Tokyo this week and decided to stop by Akihabara to see capitalism in action… just a weird capitalism catering to a niche set of hobbies all assembled together into a giant tourist trap. It’s a lovely place, but given the tight spaces and crowds, it’s perhaps more interesting to explore as living museum to gonzo commercialism than as a place to actually shop.

With the eye of a tourist rather than a shopper then (half the people there must have been tourists), it was fascinating to take Akihabara as a vast sample of what’s new and popular in the anime-mangasphere. On that, one thing stuck out to me after cycling through a few shops: the uncontested ubiquity of Re:Zero’s Rem and Ram.

Oh, but it’s mostly just Rem. And boy is she expensive.

Continue reading “Rem is objectively superior to Ram: evidence from some Akihabara window shopping”

Weird Japan: Lonely English authenticity in Fukushima’s “British Hills”

The manor house at British Hills. Can you spy Shakespeare?

I can’t stand the “weird Japan” genre of journalism. It has an annoying habit of unfairly conflating “weird things in Japan” with “weird things about Japan.” However, on a school trip with a class of second-year middle school students from a small Japanese village, I found something really, truly bizarre, the strangest place I’ve ever been. I wanted to call it the physical manifestation on Earth of the uncanny valley except I can’t use that metaphor because it’s on top of a mountain. It’s surreal.

Have you heard of British Hills?

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Growing up with Spirited Away’s excellence… and still being scared

Spirited Away, Scared 2

[I’ve been busy napping this week so have a sleepy, lazy, feel piece.]

I watched Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away again. I suppose that makes three times: once in some awful elementary after-school program, once in high school, and once now. Spirited Away sits at the top of my list of best anime movies and I recognize its complete, dreamy excellence. But growing up, I have never enjoyed it and, as an adult, I still can’t.

I think I’m already starting to feel the spell of that sleepy, lazy feel piece, so I don’t have a serious introduction this week… just a question. Isn’t that weird?

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It’s Halloween!, and what is scarier than true love? Romantic horror in Izumi Kyoka’s fiction

[Content warning: suicide in a literary context]

Japanese Gothic tales
Halloween was two days ago, but whatever…

A few weeks ago, a Japanese acquaintance asked me about my hobbies. I don’t really like the question. Especially coming from an older adult, it feels unfair. Am I supposed to answer “anime and grindy, definition-of-insanity online games” and then wait for that immediate, inevitable look of disappointment? I usually just abbreviate it to a generic “TV and games” to spare myself the embarrassment.

But oh! This time I had a respectable answer! Some real, serious literature! I had recently read Japanese Gothic Tales, a collection of four love-horror stories from the late-Meiji-into-Taisho period writer Izumi Kyoka (translated by Charles Shiro Inouye). Surely that would impress, I thought.

Maybe not. I probably realized my mistake too late. First, having escaped academia, few people really care about literature, especially boring, brooding gothic horror. Second, Kyoka has a reputation in Japan as a bit of an oddball for writing in an obscurantist, intentionally archaic style that few people can stand to read anymore. And third, I caught myself calling shinjuu — the genre of Japanese love-suicide stories common in much of Kyoka’s fiction — “cute.” My acquaintance looked shocked, but remained polite and disagreed before wandering off.

At first, I wondered if I had butchered my already broken Japanese. No, I thought, I know the meaning of “kawaii” well enough. I meant what I said in both languages. But then, I considered the implication of my statement. In calling a collection of love suicide stories “cute,” I had perhaps suggested that I thought the suicides themselves were cute. Ooo… oops. Yikes!

The moment was mostly just stupid foot-in-mouth awkwardness on my part, especially because my limited vocabulary in Japanese makes it difficult to explain the nuances of my thinking. But now that I’m back in an English language environment (hello… blog?) perhaps I can better explain myself. I still consider Japanese Gothic Tales just a little cute. But no… not like that. Not like a puppy or kitten or moe anime girl. I call the love suicide stories cute for the same reason I can’t help but laugh at the terrifying “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining. It’s too scary and too disgusting, so much so that I actually seem to wrap around and experience the opposite emotion. Staring at the full horror of Kyoka’s shinjuu stories, I could only think “this is cute.”

Do I still sound crazy? Let me explain…

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When Happy Sugar Life sours: the spoiled shinjuu ending

[Content warning: fictional suicide]

Happy Sugar Life Shinjuu 2
Hark! A shinjuu on the horizon!

[This post will assume that the reader has watched Happy Sugar Life. Also, I’m too sick this week to write a proper introduction or proofread… maybe I’ll clean it up later… … And two months later , I have!]

If you watched a certain yandere psychological horror anime during the summer 2018 season, you might recognize the general plot structure of the Japanese “shinjuu” (love suicide) genre. Shinjuu stories usually go something like this:

Step 1) Two fate-bound souls fall in love. This is true love. It is eternal, even beyond the duration of the lovers’ human lives, and cannot be replaced by anyone else.

Step 2) Some social contrivance makes it impossible for the lovers to be together if they elope. For example, one lover could already be married, or belong to the wrong social class, or lack the money to live independently, or be a prostitute in debt-bondage.

Step 3) The lovers elope anyway and society persecutes them.

Step 4) The lovers reassert their commitment to each other but realize that they cannot evade their pursuers forever.

Step 5) The lovers kill themselves, on the promise that they will unite in paradise or otherwise meet again when their fate-bound souls reincarnate in the mundane world (shinjuu stories often show significant influence from Pure Land Buddhism).

Happy Sugar Life is at its core a shinjuu story. The first minute of the first episode teases as much when it opens to two girls embracing with matching rings at the edge of a burning roof. Of course, Happy Sugar Life twists the shinjuu template with the addition of some fun anime tropes like moe and yandere (yes, yandere are fun! remember the mantra: n-o-t-h-i-n-g-w-r-o-n-g). And how well does it twist! The first nine episodes made for some of the best psychological horror anime I have seen, even better than many of the shinjuu classics from film, short stories, and Japanese theater (I exaggerate).

Unfortunately though, Happy Sugar Life’s conclusion sucked all of the momentum out of its excellent shinjuu narrative.  This post will explore how Happy Sugar Life fits the shinjuu template, and by way of analysis of the frustrating conclusion, give something akin to a series review.

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Exploring “Japanese Gothic Tales”

“The blues makes me happy.”

That is not a direct quote, but I remember some blues musician saying something like it on what was probably CBS’s 60 Minutes when I was maybe 10 years old (two minutes of lazy Googling did not turn up a firmer memory, so be content with the ambiguity!). At that age, I did not understand the statement. Why would a sad thing make someone happy?

A decade later, I have a guess: sadness is of course tautologically sad, but the act of accepting that sadness through a medium like the blues has cathartic value. Facing sadness might not make a person happy, but it might make them less sad.

I am not exactly sad at the moment, but I may be having one of those lonely moments that creep up on people living abroad. In the past month, my usual cure-alls have faltered: the anime this season is mostly bad, no games or TV interest me at the moment, my language study has once again plateaued, and several weeks of ongoing rain have kept me indoors. So, thinking of the blues and sadness, I asked myself what genre or medium peddles in loneliness? I had an oblique answer in another question: what better time to read a horror story than alone at night?

So on a whim, I decided to pick up Japanese Gothic Tales, a collection of four short stories by the late Meiji-into-Taisho-period writer Izumi Kyoka (and beautifully translated by Charles Shiro Inouye, professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University). Though half of the stories perhaps did not live up to the label “gothic” or even “horror,” the entire collection is some of the most interesting Japanese modern literature I have read.

Continue reading “Exploring “Japanese Gothic Tales””