Buddha and the Boozer

Habushu, an Okinawan snake alcohol. Image: Wikipedia

Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?

I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English in Japanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”

But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:

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Halloween horror recommendation: In Light of Shadows with Izumi Kyoka

Cover scan via Google Books. But like I explain below, just find a paperback.

[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).

In Light of Shadows includes three short stories:

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Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki

Image via Amazon

[Rushed and delayed by travel… sorry for late publishing. I mean this review as a direct follow-up to my post from last week, about pre-regret for my will-have-wasted hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft Classic. Maybe I’m stretching that connection, but I’m glad to have read this book when I did]

I’ve spent the last week traveling (again, ugh, I’m tired), so I grabbed an old Japanese travel account to read along the way: the Heian-Period Sarashina Nikki, written by an unnamed Kyoto courtier identified to history only by relation to her father – the daughter of Takasue or “Lady Sarashina” – and given the fanciful title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by translator Ivan Morris for the 1971 Penguin English edition (Morris recommends against the earlier translation, though I am pretty indifferent to his own. I did not read the newer 2014 translation from Arntzen and Moriyuki).

As travel writing, it didn’t much capture me – the Lady maybe makes for a frustrating companion on the journey with her timid, weepy, and, above all, passive personality. But having read the book, I don’t know why Morris even introduces it as “one of the first extant examples of the typically Japanese genre of travel writing” when the autobiographical nikki – “diary” – instead focuses much more on the Lady’s stationary existence reading “tales” late into the night by lamplight (and when she does travel, she relates it to her beloved fiction, for example, imagining her favorite characters while waiting for a ferry at Uji!).

In that adjusted context then, the book becomes much more interesting for her passive personality than in spite of it by offering an early examination of the value of a life overtaken by fantasy and escapism. The Lady struggles with niggling regret (to accompany torrents of despair over more serious issues like death) that she wasted too much of her life reading frivolous fiction when she could have instead sought worldly success in the imperial court or (especially) spiritual enlightenment on the path to the Buddha. But then by the end she had me wondering: did she even consider those more noble pursuits worthwhile either?

First though, a quick annotated summary-by-quotation of the parts relevant to fantasy escapism:

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A quick note on Montaigne on nostalgia

Alas, Janus, you creepy double-dude
Source: Wikimedia Commons

[not a scholar, just a casual reader who read that, and wrote this, still half-asleep]

After my post last week about time and nostalgia in the anime short Daicon IV, I was glad to come across this passage about the topic while trying to put myself to sleep with Montaigne’s Essays. Via the Screech translation of Book 3, Essay 5, “On some lines of Virgil”:

I turn very gently aside and make my eyes steal away from such stormy, cloud-wracked skies as lie before me: which, thanks be to God, I can contemplate without terror but not without strain and effort; and I find myself spending my time recalling periods of my past youth:

[Quoted from Petronius’s Satyricon:] “My mind prefers what it has lost and gives itself entirely over to by-gone memories”

Let babes look ahead, old age behind: is that not what was meant by the double face of Janus? The years can drag me along if they will, but they will have to drag me along facing backwards. While my eyes can still make reconnaissance into that beautiful season now expired, I will occasionally look back upon it. Although it has gone from my blood and veins at least I have no wish to tear the thought of it from my memory by the roots.

[Quoted from Martial’s Epigrams:] “To be able to enjoy your former life again is to live twice”

I understand the sentiment, but I do not feel it myself. Like I said in the previous post, I don’t enjoy nostalgia. Maybe I’m still just too young to relate to an “old” like Montaigne. But I think it goes a little beyond that. Plenty of young people feel the creeping appeal of nostalgia and crave some idealized past (hello, HD remastered re-releases of every classic video game ever). Instead, the difference might not be one of age, but rather wealth.

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Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

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How to read Leopardi? No, seriously, I’m asking! The paradox of choice in translation

Who’s that clever boy?
Image source: Wikipedia

[I am not a scholar or anything close… instead just a confused consumer trying to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in English and finding that it is much harder to choose a translation than I ever expected. But, I hope this post can maybe function as an un-academic bibliography of Leopardi translations, and for my own purposes, a purchase guide for leisure reading.]

Have you heard of the paradox of choice? The concept comes from the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by psychologist Barry Schwartz, who popularized the idea among casual audiences with this 2005 TED Talk. It proposes the counter-intuitive behavioral economics hypothesis that consumer welfare might decrease when the market presents them with too many similar products because the costs of choosing the utility-maximizing option between those products will increase.

…or to eliminate the economics jargon and talk like a normal person, trying to pick the perfect product out of dozens can become stressful, especially for anxious people with what Schwartz calls “maximizer” personalities who fixate on ideals and feel prone to regretting their choices.

Of course, the concept has faced some substantial criticism by economists and the early experimental results have failed to replicate like so many other psychological studies popularized by TED (and then even if it did replicate, I’m not sure how much choosing between 6 jams or 24 can tell us about more serious decisions like purchasing a car or health insurance plan).

However, despite the weakness of the empirical results, I think Schwartz does propose a subtle insight that can apply to our most complex, difficult choices: in economics jargon, taking the time to consider the opportunity costs of a complex decision itself carries an opportunity cost. And in ordinary language again… instead of agonizing over a tough choice by trying to find the best one, you could just make a quick pick and go on to enjoy your day (the easy-going “satisfier” personality type identified by Schwartz).

Simple everyday experience can probably provide better examples of the idea than any experiment every could. Most grocery shoppers won’t worry much about grabbing one of the 175 varieties of salad dressing mentioned in Schwartz’s TED Talk, but they might have trouble choosing which of the 80 Vanguard ETFs they should invest in when planning for their retirement (if they’ve even settled on Vanguard out of dozens of investment companies!). Or to use an example from my own life abroad in Japan, I spent hours researching different remittance options to send money back home to America. But when I finally committed to one, I regretted my choice within a few weeks after I discovered that I could have saved money with a different company. It was the paradox of choice in action: the large number of complex options confused me, and when that confusion produced a suboptimal decision, my nagging “maximizer” personality dragged on my guilty conscience.

For the purposes of this post though, I have a much more trivial example of the paradox: which of the 40-some editions of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s translated works should I read in the office between class periods? The question sounds simple, but then my “maximizer” personality strikes again; I’ve spent the last week reading about how to read Leopardi …instead of, you know, actually reading him. And then as I re-read this post before I hit “publish,” I can’t help but wonder if all of that choice hasn’t driven me insane…

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Being human, or animal, in Kemono Friends and The Island of Doctor Moreau

Why do you say so?

[There’s so much more I want to say, but this topic got too big sooo… eh, hit publish and move on.]

A deserted island centered on an active volcano, the ruins of civilization hiding an abandoned laboratory, a dangerous forest where animal-human hybrids lurk, and a sole survivor trying to escape back home to make sense of it all.

Am I describing H.G. Wells’ 1896 sci-fi horror classic The Island of Doctor Moreau or the beloved children’s anime Kemono Friends, or … oh, I guess the title gives it away, so um… both, apparently!

Of course, I’m exaggerating the similarities. Kemono Friends is a cute and friendly and upbeat while Doctor Moreau is lurid and horrifying and intensely pessimistic. For all of their differences though, I couldn’t resist the urge to re-read The Island of Doctor Moreau after watching the first three episodes of Kemono Friends’ second season. It’s one of my favorite books, so how better to pair it than with one of my favorite anime?

Along with The Time Machine, I think Doctor Moreau is Wells’ most philosophically interesting scientific romance. It goes beyond the simple moralizing tale against the cruelty of vivisection (surgery performed on living subjects, often without anaesthetic in the 19th century) described on the dust-cover to explore deeper issues rocking late-Victorian Britain after the publication of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution; issues like the social control function of religion, the fragility of scientific and civilizational progress, and the uncertain status of humanity in the animal world.

For now, I’m most interested in that last issue for its connection to Kemono Friends. As a simple children’s show, Kemono Friends doesn’t engage in the same sort of serious philosophizing as Doctor Moreau. But like the novel, it does imagine a world populated by human-animal hybrids, whose very concept recognizes a categorical difference between the mixed groups (by analogy: you can hybridize a golden retriever and a poodle to make a golden doodle, but you can’t hybridize two purebred golden retrievers). However, in light of evolution’s assertion of a common origin for all animal species, that’s a pretty heavy-duty assumption! The question that Doctor Moreau asks explicitly, Kemono Friends asks implicitly: what distinguishes the human from the animal?

So let’s set off on a Japari Safari to explore what it means to be human among the adorable anime(-al) girls of Kemono Friends…

…and what it means to be animal on the blood-splattered operating table of The Island of Doctor Moreau.

[A couple quick housekeeping notes: I read the public domain, plaintext HTML version of Doctor Moreau from Project Gutenberg. It doesn’t have page numbers… so I guess Ctrl + F is my citation method. On Kemono Friends, I’m restricting myself to the first three episodes of season 2 because it’s currently airing and I just don’t have the time to rewatch the whole first season. Both seasons follow the same formula though, so they are quite similar thematically. **Edit: maybe they aren’t, see the comments!** And yes, yes, I know I’m being silly trying to compare a low-budget children’s anime to a classic of English literature, but as Doctor Moreau itself concludes, in a post-evolution world we all have to distract ourselves from our animal existences somehow. And Good God knows I’m bored.]

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Michel de Montaigne is serious litera– Ha! Farts!

Fart War
Out of place and out of time, but I imagine farting is about as universal to human experience as anything can be. (Waseda University Library)

I’ve been busy with work travel this week and I haven’t had much time to write. However, I want to keep up the habit of this weekly media diary, so I thought I’d share a funny quote from the Screech translation of The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne (a work of serious literature and philosophy):

“To show the limitless authority of our wills, Saint Augustine cites the example of a man who could make his behind produce farts whenever he would: Vives in his glosses goes one better with a contemporary example of a man who could arrange to fart in tune with verses recited to him; but that does not prove the pure obedience of that member, since it is normally most indiscreet and disorderly. In addition I know one Behind so stormy and churlish that it has obliged its master to fart forth wind constantly and unremittingly for forty years and is thus bringing him to his death.”

Yay! Serious literature and philosophy! He cites Augustine, after all!

For context, in this chapter Montaigne presents his understanding of the placebo effect. He describes how the “will” can overpower the body and make it act against its nature. He spends most of the chapter exploring erectile dysfunction (seriously serious literature!) with stories about how most men suffer from it as a simple matter of self-confidence. He even recounts how he once helped a friend who struggled to consummate his marriage by giving him a magical medallion that worked like medieval Viagra. Of course, Montaigne confides in the reader that it was all a ruse: the medallion was a “piece of lunacy” with no real power beyond ~imagination~. Montaigne makes a show of regretting the deceit, but hey, results is results.

In the fart passage, Montaigne is defending “disobedient” body parts (Screech gives the helpful euphemism “that sphincter” for butts) that act against the will, with a sort of humanistic “don’t judge” message. He is also describing how some rare few people can control their farts ~with their minds~.

… yeah, that’s it. Lovely book by the way. Churlish is a fun word.

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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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.

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