Thursday, October 28, 2010

Delusions and Dreams of Tokyo

In Freud's essay, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva," he analyzes an uncanny short story about an archaeologist who becomes obsessed by a woman seen in a reproduced Roman plaque.  He imagines that she died in Pompeii, and his semi-delusional obsession becomes so great that he leaves for Italy.  Inevitably drawn to Pompeii, he is stunned to actually encounter the girl from the plaque - not a delusion, but an actual woman - in the place he had prepared for her in his imagination. It is eventually revealed that the woman he discovers is a childhood love whose memory he had repressed and redirected onto the plaque, whose image resembled her.

The essay is relatively early (1906) and the parallelism of psychoanalysis and archaeology continue t proliferate in Freud's subsequent work.  Jensen's story certainly resonated with Freud so powerfully because of its simple but powerful point: that we always find what we are looking for.  Without knowing it, the protagonist is guided along paths set for him long ago, and while in this case the ending is happy - he overcomes his sexual repression and the two characters find happiness - this still has the character of a compulsive symptom, no different from hysteria or neurosis.

What catches me even more effectively, though, is the image of Pompeii, the ultimate uncanny catastrophe, in which a city was simultaneously destroyed and preserved for all time.  There is no modern disaster that fits this mold better than the destruction of Japan during World War II.  In some cases, this preserved destruction is of the same, physical sort - think of the Peace Dome in Hiroshima, or even more the outlines of bomb victims engraved on concrete walls.  But there is simultaneously a mediated preservation - we can still watch films of the firebombing of Tokyo as it turns from routine disaster to complete conflagration.

In Tokyo, these preservations tend to be totally overlain, one might say repressed, by the reality of the modern city.  But they are always there - whenever I get into a conversation with a person over 60, and mention any aspect of Tokyo as a city, the firebombing is sure to be mentioned.  It is cited as the reason there are relatively few large trees in the city.  It is (more certainly) the reason so much of it seems cheaply and hastily assembled.  Its memory, in a negative form, is physically present at every point on the map.  And this is to say nothing of the real memories that still persist among older people, many of whom starved for years following the war.

Around and through these memories flow the present - but the boundaries are never quite clear.  Just as Jensen's archaeologist eventually found the present through the past, the long graven shadows of the firebombing, however persistent, can only point towards the future. Japan's obsession with history, while objectively justifiable, has not yet recognized itself as a struggle over the present.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Meditation Retreats

I'm close to missing the best time - Fall - but hopefully at one point or another I'll take advantage of one or more of these:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Talking to you is like talking to a Japanese person."

I ran into a friend of mine last night.  He's a Japanese guy, about my age, with a very cool job - he's a street calligrapher.  I haven't yet seen him in action, but as he described it to me, he talks to people for three or four minutes, then, using elaborate Japanese script and high-quality ink and paper, produces works that attempt to capture the essence of the person.  So, he's something like a mix of palm reader and poetic caricature artist

I'll be posting more about him and his interesting job soon. Last night, he was set up to do a few hours of work on Nakano Broadway, the shoutengai [shopping arcade] that I walk through on my way home from the station. I was headed home from school and feeling a little sick, so we didn't talk for long, but apropos of almost nothing, he told me that "talking to you is like talking to a Japanese person." He wasn't referring to my language skills - our conversations are usually a mix of English and Japanese.  He said it was more about my character or nature.

Such a strange thing to say to a person.  He's traveled abroad extensively, and I met him because he used to work at a guest house with a large foreign clientele, so he has pretty good grounds for comparison. I didn't press him on the issue, but just from what I feel about myself, I would hope he was referring to my somewhat reserved nature, my reflectiveness.  Of course, these are more ideals of Japanese identity than realities - practically speaking, he could equally well have meant that I was a falling-down drunk who hated his life, or that I was shallow Jersey Shore-esque Egg Man. Both of these are pretty uniquely Japanese, or at least could be seen as such.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Japanese Newspaper Marketing

Japanese newspapers are doing considerably better than their American counterparts, though their circulations are still falling fast.  I just found out firsthand one reason for this - aggressive door to door marketing tactics.  I was just offered a case of beer and two bags of rice if I signed up for a minimum of three months with Yomiuri Shinbun.  This is the third time (in two months!) I've had a door to door salesman offering me the newspaper, but this was the first guy who wouldn't be put off by the fact that I don't read Japanese that well.  He was keen to let me know that Yomiuri Shinbun doesn't use kanji beyond the sixth grade level (that is, beyond the 2000 kanji considered standard) and that it would be good practice for me.  And he actually carted in the beer and food, making it that much more difficult for me to turn him down.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Freeter Buys a House/ フリータ、家を買う: Welcome to Ideology

In America, cultural critics have generally become used to having to really work to show how cultural products reinforce norms or bad habits.  Often enough, there's a real dialogue about whether something is 'good' or 'bad' for the culture, or for building a more just and egalitarian society.  With its extremely sophisticated and competitive media market, and a jaded populace that tends to look askance at any message that's too straightforward, America tends to produce a lot of stuff that winks, nods, and ultimately means something totally different than it initially seems to.

That's not how things seem to work in Japan, at least not in the very conservative world of television.  Even a semi-satirical show like Bengoushi no Kuzu literally ends each episode with a moral lesson. Next up in the ideology sweepstakes is Furiitaa, Ie wo Kau - "Freeter Buys a House." According to the synopsis, this is the story of a kid who gets a job out of college, but hates his boss and quits. He can't find a new one, but begins stringing together part-time jobs, becoming a freeter (a Japanese term meaning, more or less, full-time part-timer). This causes his family - particularly his father - mounting distress. His mother protects and cares for him, until one day his sister can't take it anymore and berates him about the stress he's so inconsiderately causing everyone around him.  He has a revelation and decides to dedicate himself fully not just to finding a full-time job, but to saving the 100 man yen (1 million) needed to buy himself a house and, presumably, become a grown-up.

The show's premise reflects a common, damaging trope of contemporary dialogues about Freeter - that the employment problems increasingly bedeviling Japan's youth are due to their own moodiness, laziness, and unwillingness to sacrifice. Look at the poster above - his loutish ways are literally tearing the family apart! I haven't read the book, and we'll see how the show itself develops, but don't be surprised if this becomes another forum for beating up young people as scapegoats for macroeconomic and institutional problems.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Best Albums of 2010

So Far. Thanks primarily to my new membership in a private torrent tracker that shall remain nameless, and the fact that I graduated and have more free time now, this has been my biggest music year in a long time.  This is a very personal list, just what I'm listening to a lot, not encompassing everything that I consider "Good."

1. How to Dress Well: Love Remains
2. Pocahaunted: Make it Real (Heavy rotation for months)
3. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
4. Die Antwoord: $0$ (Original version, I haven't heard the commercial release yet)
5. Yeasayer: Odd Blood
6. Philip Jeck: An Ark For the Listener
7. Emeralds: Does it Look Like I'm Here
8. Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights (I only just got this, but I have a feeling it's a grower)
9. Twin Shadow: Forget

Umm, looks like I only have nine.  Luckily there's plenty more time left to get this polished up.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kanji - Violent Language

Practicing Kanji is a constant reminder of the fact that language is how we mediate between our violent natures and our desire for at least temporary peace.  For instance, the word for "policy," 政策 (seisaku), combines the symbol for government, which literally derives from "correct with a hand," and the symbol for "plan," which derives from the idea of long strips of wood or bamboo being used to whip a horse (that is, as a way to guide it).  And of course, all policies are ultimately enforced by the implicit threat of violence, aren't they?

Obakemono thanx

Some fine fellow posting as Quailo over at the Obakemono forums has photoshopped my translations below onto a much better scan from Pink Tentacle. Now that, my friends, is what I call teamwork.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Yokai Autopsy 1: The Blackhair Cutter

As promised, I'm working on translations of Shigeru Mizuki's "Yokai Autopsy" Book.  This is really my first time translating anything, so I'm learning as I go, but I'm too much of a writer not to have taken some creative liberties.  Also, my apologies for the iffy image quality - I'll be looking for a scanner.  In the meantime, you can click through to get a larger version of the image from Flickr.

Here's the first one, the Kurokami Kiri, or "Blackhair Cutter":


(Note: Sorry for the wonky formatting below - I can't figure out how to fix it.)

Opening Text (Top Right): The Blackhair Cutter stealthily chases dark-haired women who travel by night, cutting their hair without ever being noticed.  Noone has ever seen the form of the Blackhair Cutter.

Inset: Magnified Diagram of the Black Tongue: Small Prickles emerge from its surface, easily holding on to hair.

Kitaro (Main character of GeGeGe no Kitaro, who appears throughout this book to provide commentary and jokes): "So it's like a trap tongue?"

Inset: The Black Nails: From the center of each finger emerge nails like razors.

Daddy Eyeball (from the cast of Kitaro): "I don't have black hair!"

Inset, Bottom of Right Page: The Blackhair Cutter lives at the edge of drainage ditches.

Rat Man (ditto): "Ditches, eh? He's dirtier than me!"

Anatomy (Clockwise from top left):

Scroll Tongue: Extends quickly to wrap up hair.

Black Brain: A dense organ occupied with trickery and the pursuit of women.

Sleeping Powder Holder: The powder produced here is blown out of the monster's mouth, and he cuts their hair while they sleep.

Black Heart: Pumps hair pigment around the monster's body.

Stomach: The stomach is small and easily filled, so the monster throws away hair that it can't eat.

Hair-Breaking Bowels: The Blackhair Cutter's digestive organ sends the nourishment and pigment from hair to the heart.

Strong Pelvis: The pelvis supports the heavy body.

Pummelling Guts: The guts are called into action to break up the hard-to-digest hair.

Strong Acid Pouch: Produces juice for dissolving hair, which it secretes to the guts.

So, in summary: A yeti-like creature who chloroforms women and eats their hair.  I'll refrain for now from digging too deep into the sexual connotations of this construct, or even less the connotations of a Black Brain occupied with trickery and the pursuit of women.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Darkness at the Edge of Rap: On the Death of Eyedea

Update: Some personal sources from MN are saying that apparently the death was by overdose. The exact words were "accidental overdose," but just how "accidental" these things are is always hard to pin down one way or the other. Again, though, my speculation below has more to do with what his music represented than the literal truth of whatever happened to him.

I only saw Eyedea perform once, opening for Atmosphere in 2001 or so.  I was mostly impressed by the mind-boggling DJ Abilities, who would go on to make one of the definitive contributions to turntablism on Fantastic Damage.  If Eyedea was always a little too conventional for my taste, that just shows how far to the edges those tastes tend to run - with his lightning-fast sprints and poetic flights, Eyedea sat right between conventional backpacker rap and the experimental stuff that remains my main jam to this day. He is, though, the first big death out of that cadre of rappers (who would have thought he'd be outlived by Cage?), so today's news really means something to me.

To treat him first as an individual: Though at the moment there's no news about cause of death, I'm willing to bet he killed himself.  That kind of speculation may be out of place, but just think about his records. They had a pretty dark vibe overall, from the resentful bitterness of Firstborn to explicit references to overdosing on E and A.  And his aggression was always a bit of the Holden Caulfield, angry-at-the-world variety (He was really young, but "Birth of a Fish" from Firstborn exemplifies this). The photos of him with his hair draped over his eyes seemed fully fitting. Some powerful art came out of whatever demons haunted him, but as in all these cases we have to ask whether it was worth it.  Even if it turns out he didn't take his own life, those records were probably made by someone who struggled with depression, anxiety, and resentment. Serious artists in the business of looking at society are so often driven at least a little over the edge by the exercise.

But beyond that pure speculation, I wonder whether Eyedea's death can be considered a kind of convenient period at the end of the whole experimental/backpacker scene that flourished in the early part of the 2000s.  The only really interesting and relevant records that have come out of that scene recently have been Why?s, and of course those are not rap records.  The really good rap records these days have a much less serious vibe than what Eyedea was involved with in his heyday, and it's a shame (with the notable exception recently being Black Milk's Album of the Year). We also lost Rammellzee recently, and if anyone should remind us of the depression, shadow, and weirdness at the heart of hip hop, it was him.  Eyedea was a child of Ramm, without question, and the fact that they went pretty close together is . . . well, Eyedea himself would probably say it was a coincidence in a cold and uncaring universe, while Ramm is probably on high doing the numerology of their respective end dates right now.

For whatever reason, and as harsh as it may sound, Eyedea died as the style he worked hard to champion was at a low ebb.  Or is it?  The same energy, and the same hype, is now surrounding weirdo R&B groups like Twin Shadow and How to Dress Well, who crack open the shiny, often upbeat core of R. Kelly Songs and George Michael crooning to find the darkness and even dread within.  And you'll notice one thing - on balance, the artists making the cleaner, more commercialized versions of both hip hop and R&B tend to be black, while the people deconstructing those genres and making them more difficult tend to be white (yes, that's a generalization. Sorry).  I think part of it is that more white artists have the ability to let their art live at the relative margins, while a lot of black artists feel the drive to hit the very top of the industry, and are willing to clean up what they're really feeling.  As crazy as this sounds, what artists like Eyedea were doing was, at least in part, rescuing the really dark, painful, even twisted roots of black music - the pain of being black in America - from the cleaning up, or on the other hand hyperexaggeration, it often got from the music industry.

So, that's my overthought exploitation of a real man's very sad death. If your life's work is to interpret America - and if you're a rapper, that's your job description - and you take it seriously, you will confront darkness at every turn.  Eyedea did that for us, so spend some time enjoying his work and considering the depths that it came from.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tokyo Journal 2: Hobbyist Nation

For a minute last night I thought there was some sort of brutal brawl going down in the park down the street from me.  As I got closer, I realized it was just several pairs of young men working on their (typically loud and mock-violent) comedy routines.  Everywhere you go, there are people playing saxophone in bicycle parking lots or doing karate on side streets. For such a cramped place, they make the most of it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Japanese Horror-Ween 2: Fuyuko Matsui

Note: I'm now blogging at  It's more attractive, and it focuses more on cool stuff like noisey music, weird art, and fiction.  Check it out!

Fuyuko Matsui (or, in Japanese, Matsui Fuyuko) is a young and fast-rising Japanese artist who produces images that are both explicitly gruesome in a very modern way, and moody, dark, and subtle in the tradition of a certain kind of Japanese ghost story. She is known almost as much for being beautiful and putting a lot of work into self-presentation as she is as an artist - she shows up on the cover of magazines much as would actresses in the U.S.  Naturally, her fame is based on drawings of ghost dogs ripping the living flesh from screaming women:

To see even more, including undead snakes, for chrissakes, try her official site as well as this strangely meticulous livejournal entry (do people still use that?).

I'm really of two minds on Matsui.  As a genre fan, her work is mind-blowing - it's smart, meticulous, titillating, and disgusting.  It takes you to another world just as effectively as the work of people like Rom Villaseran or Brecht Vandenbrouke (see, you learned about THREE artists today!).  But I think that ultimately it's genre work, not Art with a capital DEEP, and the idea that she's some kind of celebrity is a little disquieting.  I don't gather that she's really of the Andy Warhol/Lady Gaga school, where her fame is somehow meta-commentary, and it seems unlikely that such gruesome work would form the foundation for fame if she wasn't also a pretty lady. But nonetheless - this is some great work for those of us with morbid minds.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Yokai Autopsy! Shigeru Mizuki makes every day Halloween.

Do they know it's Halloween in Japan? You're god damn right they do.  Though it doesn't seem as out of control as things tend to be in the States, there are displays of conventional Halloween goods in most every housewares store, and even better, bookstores are featuring the work of Japan's spookiest manga-ka, Shigeru Mizuki.  Mizuki might be the most famous manga artist to remain largely unknown in the states - his Gegege no Kitaro has been made into anime every year since it appeared in 1959, and I there's a new live-action film coming out soon (if you've ever complained about constant remakes in the U.S., be thankful you're not Japanese).  

Gegege is the story of a ghost-boy who works to defend humans from yokai, traditional Japanese ghosts, goblins, and demons. I've never actually read Gegege, but I found something even better.


The publisher's blurb describes it as a book of "Monster Autopsies," which is exactly what it sounds like - diagrams of internal organs and natural weapons of yokai, along with descriptions of their abilities.

There's no way I was passing this up - there's nothing I love more than a fantasy bestiary. I haven't played Dungeons and Dragons since I was 13, but I could still sit for hours reading through the Monster Manual.  And Barlowe's Guide to Extra-Terrestrials was a completely mind-altering experience for me as a kid. There's just something about getting technical with fantastic creatures, providing plausible explanations for their freakiness, that really does it for me. And the yokai Mizuki chronicles are genuinely freaky.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Japan's Lost Decade through Economic vs. Culture-Tinted Lenses

I recently found the very interesting New Deal 2.0 blog, thanks to this post by Marshall Auerback. I find the content in itself - mostly an overview of recent Japanese monetary policy - fairly interesting.  But what really intrigues me is that this is billed as "What Happened to Japan" - that is, a kind of definitive statement of the last 20-odd years of disappointment.  Auerback provides enough economic data to make this a convincing claim, at least for a blog post - but only if you accept the centrality of central banking to macroeconomics.

I, of course, have a tendency to see things in a different light. I don't have ready to hand the stats that would back my assessment up (disdain for math being essential to my intellectual identity), but the ideas that surface again and again when I talk to Japanese people or read about the situation is that the economy has been crippled as much by cultural problems as economic policy.  Paramount among these is the inflexibility of the Japanese labor market, especially for educated young people.  I spoke last night to a guy in his mid-40s who lamented the fate of Japanese now entering their thirties, who had had the bad luck to graduate from college at a low point among low points.  I cited to him some statistics I'd heard recently saying things were rough for low-ebb graduates in the States, too, who needed 20 years on average to match the earning power of those lucky enough to graduate at high tide.

"Well, that would be great!" he marvelled.  "In Japan, if you get stuck on that lower rung, there's no way out, at all." He described what he saw as the lingering power of privilege and luck, rather than skill and performance over time, in determining who was hired and retained by prestigious Japanese firms.  As years go by, the sometimes ineffective, entrenched workers, who are keeping jobs from potentially more skilled or educated people continuing their part-time work as convenience store clerks, weaken their companies from within.  He also described the lack of immigration keeping educated and talented Japanese in "3D" jobs - Dangerous, Dirty, and Dull . . . though interestingly he sort of couched this as a good aspect of a low-immigration and egalitarian society.  This is not to mention, of course, the persistent love of Japanese corporate culture towards inefficient overwork for show.

Like I said, I don't have empirical evidence to back up these claims, except to the degree that my conversations with Japanese workers are that.  It's at least a widely spread perception, though, that Japanese corporate culture, and the system of social sorting more generally, is broken. Now, everyone hates their jobs, I know, but the real clincher here is that the people I talk to are eager to move to the U.S. because they perceive both work and daily life there are easier - and these are people who have lived in the U.S. and seen its complexity up close, and are well aware of the problems of social inequality.

I don't mean to suggest Auerback is wrong - I know enough economic history to grant the importance of central bank policy.  I just think it's interesting to compare my drastically different perspective.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

International Transport Vol. 1: Slowly Summoning the Motivation to Kill Yourself Quickly

Two things have happened to me recently.  I've moved to Japan, and my interest in music has returned to just about the highest level since I was an undergrad.  I think it's the removal of the pressure of school - I can actually have feelings again.  So, in celebration of my return to the world of semi-normalcy, I'm planning on putting together occasional mixes - specifically, for the purpose of showcasing Western underground music to my Japanese friends, and in turn, Japanese music to my Western friends. The first one runs from West to East . . . or actually, from East to . . . wow, these geographical labels really don't work well.  Anyway, it's a collection of dubstep, electro-pop, and fuzzy post-soul, all of it cold, melancholy, or some combination of the two.

In Japanese, very roughly:国際通商、第一目:自殺教育

Minds Like Knives, International Transport Volume 1


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Banality of Creativity

Yesterday, I went to the first day of classes at Geidai, my new institutional home. My role there is strangely liminal - as a 'researcher,' I have none of the responsibilities of a faculty member, but also none of the authority.  I attended the first meeting of my sponsor's graduate seminar, and will probably sit in on it again, because getting used to the flow of ideas in Japanese is one of my main goals here. I do worry about being mistaken, implicitly or explicitly, for a student, and I'm thinking I can remedy that in a way I enjoy - by indulging in new clothes with a patina of authority.

But some of the graduate students - a lot of whom are just first-year Master's students - already seem to be looking up to me as at least a source of advice, if not exactly expertise. I enjoy it, but of course I don't entirely believe my own hype, either.  It was less than five months ago that I was putting the finishing touches on the final deposit of my dissertation, and it would be self-serving to pretend I've really figured out either the intellectual or professional dimensions of academia. 

In fact, I just went through a pretty surprising first, putting the final copy edits on a journal article that will be coming out, it seems, pretty soon.  What surprised me was, like most things that are surprising, something that in retrospect seems obvious - at the end of months (years!) of careful research, reading and soul-searching about the Profound Message of an essay like this, there comes a long stretch of much less scintillating work of fine editing, things like getting your citations to match the journal's style sheet.  There are plenty of banalities here, things that bring the grand gesture down - for instance, my article begins with an epigraph from Moby Dick, but my copy editor politely reminded me that I needed to give the book an entry in my Works Cited.  Ditto for an offhand reference to Richardson's Pamela, and a passage where I compare the BPMs of a few hit rap songs (yes, I hope you're intrigued).

On the one hand, this is sort of deflating, if not quite humbling. By God, these are big ideas, why should I be bothered with such petty details? I wonder if Marx ever had to fix his italics.

On the other hand, though, it's productively gratifying to see how much work other people are putting into polishing my small contribution. All of these fixes, after all, are coming from editorial staff who are actually getting paid to find all the little details. For all my bigger problems with the academic publishing industry, to have it serving you, at least to some extent, really reminds you that what you've produced has enough value to be made precisely correct.

The dissertation process, which I'm remembering now as I go back through and start revising and reconsidering my project thus far, has a lot of the same elements - details of formatting are almost legendary.  But the journal process is even more intense, and I'm assured that putting a book together is even more of an exercise in fingernail-pulling. It's a bit of a wakeup call, and I lay at least some blame on ten years worth of undergrad and graduate instructors who never gave even lip service to this level of precision.  But of course, these are small potatoes, and I'm sure jumping all these hurdles will be totally worth it when I see my work in prestigious print.  Still - grad school probably didn't prepare you for this, kids.