[Something different for Halloween, but quick and insubstantial again because between the holiday, a funeral, and a job-search, I’ve been out and about more than usual. Bleh]
Let’s get the recommendation out of the way quick: In Light of Shadows (2005) is excellent.
To build on his first volume of Japanese Gothic Tales (1996), translator and professor of Japanese literature Charles Shiro Inouye adds three more short stories by Izumi Kyoka to the Japanese “gothic” writer’s neglected English-language corpus-in-translation.
In Japanese Gothic Tales (which I recommended last year), Inouye had an academic argument to advance regarding Kyoka’s overlooked significance in English-language scholarship of modern Japanese literature. As such, Gothic Tales offered a representative sample of Kyoka’s massive literary output: one famous story (“The Holy Man of Mount Koya”), one excellent one (“One Day in Spring”), and two shorter, weaker stories that Inouye’s superb critical essays nonetheless used to create a convincing, holistic image of Kyoka’s progress from his earliest works (“The Surgery Room”) to his later career (“Osen and Sokichi”). However, having already established Kyoka’s importance in his first volume of translations, with his second, I suspect that Inouye then had more freedom to prove Kyoka’s brilliance for this follow-up volume.
And yes, the selections from In Light of Shadows are brilliant, perhaps only beaten still by “One Day in Spring” from Japanese Gothic Tales (though I am biased; as a shinjuu genre fan, I loved that story to death).
[This is a direct continuation of my post from last week …and maybe just an excuse to practice translating Japanese. For the purposes of this essay, I want to maintain a narrow focus on a single, critical chapter early in the series, so I’ll assume some familiarity with Girls’ Last Tour. I love it though, so I might write more later.]
Huh, I really did just need to wait a few more days for warmth. After the freezing, drizzly graduation ceremonies last week, winter and spring seem to have settled their miserable transition just in time to enjoy the vernal equinox, a public holiday in Japan. Three days ago, I had to defrost my windshield for the last time during a sub-zero morning before work. But on my way home today, the thermometer on my car hit 26 degrees Celsius while soaking up sunlight in a low-albedo asphalt parking lot …not the real outside temperature, but the automatic AC turned on! I guess winter’s finally dead then. It’s warm!
In last week’s post, I commiserated with the despairing heroine Mio from Izumi Kyoka’s short story “One Day in Spring.” Mio suffers from time consciousness. She could tolerate the misery of winter as long as she felt that she could not escape it. But when spring fluttered along and invited her to take a hopeful glimpse at a warm paradise, she could no longer bear her suffering. She treats hope like a sickness which steals away her ability to enjoy the present pleasures of the spring day while she ruminates on an uncertain future. Will she reach her paradise, and if so, when? For those last few days of winter, I felt much the same way: spring had tempted me with a little warmth, but it was still too cold now. I just had to wait, but hope made me impatient…
But now that my mood’s improved with the weather this week, I thought that I should look at a more positive portrayal of a warm paradise from the “Bath” chapter in Girls’ Last Tour (Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou; anime episode 2; manga volume 1, chapter 3). It’s a perfect encapsulation of the whole series’ style. As the manga’s author (pen name: Tsukumizu) describes it in this interview, “[Bath] condenses the appeal of Girls’ Last Tour into one story.” The sisters Chii and Yuu travel across a frozen, post-apocalyptic wasteland, find an abandoned power station still producing hot water, and enjoy a break from their aimless journey with a nice bath.
But beyond calming effect of the simple slice-of-life adventure, Girls’ Last Tour asks light philosophical questions about how to best enjoy life. It comes to a counter-intuitive answer: abandon hope. Like Mio, Girls’ Last Tour perhaps sees hope as something more harmful than good. Hope looks to a better future, but an excessive focus on that future can limit enjoyment of the present and the ability to cope with suffering. Mio cannot suppress her anxious fretting over time and dies for it. But Girls’ Last Tour has a much more positive solution: try to stop thinking and embrace “hopelessness” (in Yuu’s words), if only for a little while. It’s an appeal to escape time consciousness and focus on the present. As Tsukumizu puts in an address to her fans: “whilst going about your day, I would like you to notice the virtues in everyday life.”
[Some quick housekeeping notes: I’ll refer to the manga for quotes as a matter of convenience, since I have the book in front of me right now. Because the anime script lifts lines almost word-for-word from the manga for the “Bath” chapter, they should have identical interpretations anyway. With that said though, I sometimes don’t like manga’s official English translation from Yen Press (I think the anime subtitles have much more subtle translations of the same lines), so I’ve produced my own as some just-for-fun language practice. It resembles both the manga and anime official translations — with some of my own colloquialisms — so I hope it will suffice.]
[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.
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.”
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.