Ichiro

5.0 out of 5 stars The Mythology of War

Ichiro

“Ichiro” is exactly why I like comics. Ryan Inzana makes skillful use of the medium to weave a compelling story of Japanese mythology, race relations, family relations, and the folly of war. With his clean and simple visuals he describes complex ideals and deep emotional truths that wouldn’t have had the same impact in novel form.

On the surface, Inzana mixes the ancient fairy tale of the Tanuki Teakettle with a contemporary–and very real–story of a young half-Japanese boy named Ichiro, who has suddenly had his world upturned. Hi American father died long ago in the Iraq war, and his Japanese mother, struggling to make a living in the U.S., takes Ichiro back to Japan and contemplates returning to a country Ichiro barely knows. While his mother interviews for a job, Ichiro is thrust together with a Grandfather he doesn’t remember, who takes the boy on a tour of Japan, from Tokyo down through Hiroshima and ending in Izumo to witness the Kami Mukae festival where all of the gods of Japan gather once a year to meet in Izumo Shrine. But along the way, Ichiro is flung into a fantasy world of magical creatures and yokai, Japanese monsters, and a war between Heaven and Hell.

One of the things that impressed me right away with “Ichiro” was its authenticity. I know nothing of Inzana’s background or ethnicity, but he gives the feel of drawing from person experience and background knowledge for this comic. I did my Master’s Degree in Japanese folklore in Hiroshima, and I was getting nostalgic looking at his artwork. Inzana also perfectly capture the awesome power of the Hiroshima Peace Park. It is very difficult to go there and come away unchanged.

Ichiro is certainly changed by the experience. He begins the story as a military-loving, father-worshiping young man who clings to his father’s war experience like a totem, wearing a “Kill `em all and let God sort `em out” t-shirt and his father’s sunglasses. When he sees the devastation of Hiroshima, he starts to hate America until his Grandfather reminds him that Ichiro is also American, as was the father he idolizes. There are no easy answers, and Inzana doesn’t offer trite or candy-coated wisdoms to ease the bitter pill the conflicted Ichiro has to swallow. I know exactly how he feels.

The fantasy elements begin about halfway through the book, when a confluence of circumstances finds Ichiro whisked away to mythical Japan, into the underworld of Yomi where the monsters live. Yomi has been at war with Ama, the home of the gods, since the Heavenly Bridge was broken and forces conspired to set the two kingdoms against each other.

Inzana impressed me with his ability to flow the story so freely between modern day and mythical Japan. Although there is some foreshadowing, Ichiro’s is spirited away so suddenly you can’t help but get whisked away along with him. His depictions of the Japanese underworld and its inhabitants pass my accuracy test as much as his scenes of Hiroshima. He draws heavily from the Yamato Shinto pantheon from the Kojiki, including Amaterasu, Susano, and the god of war Hachiman. He also populates his fantasy kingdom with kappa, tengu, Aobozu, and a host of creatures from traditional Japanese folklore.

While the fantasy element tells its own story, there is a clear metaphor; the cracking of the Bridge of Heaven is a terrorist attack. The heavenly kingdom of Ama blames their old enemy of Yomi, and wages war against them even though evidence for the attack points elsewhere. The god of war Hachiman counsels against the pointless war, but as a loyal soldier he does as he is told. Both sides become embroiled in a ages-long cycle of attack-and-revenge, attack-and-revenge. I didn’t have to look too hard to see the US/Iraq war, Colin Powel, George Bush, and the Twin Towers. But the metaphor is not heavy-handed and in your face. Inzana much too subtle a storyteller for that.

Inzana’s art, by the way, is fantastic and equally as powerful as his writing. He has his own style that involves loose, fluid brush strokes. I found it entirely fitting that his art style is rarely black-and-white, but relies heavily on shades of gray, just like the ideology that makes up his story. The whole tone of the comic and the art is personal, and you can tell that this comic means something to Inzana.

I have read that Inzana uses his color palette to distinguish between the real and fantasy Japan, and that is the only thing I regret about my black-and-white advanced review copy–I realize I am not seeing this work in its full splendor. The comic looks fantastic as it is, and I think it works perfectly fine in black-and-white, but as skillfully as Inzana handles the story and the art I am sure he handles the colors impressively.

It says on the back cover that this is Ryan Inzana’s second graphic novel. I had never heard of him before “Ichiro,” but I will be looking up his previous work as well as keeping an eye on him in the future.

Country Delights – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 2

5.0 out of 5 stars More Japanese Weird Tales

After enjoying the first volume in this series, Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1, I was eager to read volume two. While I was quite familiar with many of the tales of old Edo, I didn’t know what to expect from “Country Delights.” There are a few famous names here, and some stories I know, but most of the book was new territory. And, as promised by the title, delightful.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” Kurodahan Press assembled a collection of classics and modern authors, of the ultra-famous and the not-so-much. Some of the authors will be familiar to anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Japanese literature—like Natsume Soseki (Botchan), also also known as “that guy on the old 1,000 yen bill,” Izumi Kyoka (Japanese Gothic Tales), and Yanagita Kunio (The Legends of Tono) who almost single-handedly created Japanese folklore studies. Many of the authors I had never heard of, but that didn’t mean their stories were any less fascinating. In fact, in the later stories it was interesting to watch the waning influence of Edo-period storytelling and seeing obvious Lovecraft-influences slowly creep in.

There are nine stories in total in “Country Delights,” and one short comic. In his introduction, Robert Weinberg suggests that you read all of the stories before reading Higashi Masao’s introduction, which I heartily agree with. There are lots of surprises here that you don’t want spoiled. Most of the stories are fairly short, and the longest, “Midnight Encounters, (1960)” runs ninety-four pages. The oldest story is Izumi Kyoka’s “Sea Daemons (1906)” and the most recent is “Reunion (1993)” by Takahashi Katsuhiko.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” none of the stories in here could be classified as “horror.” These are weird fiction, more unsettling that shocking. Most make use of traditional settings and Japanese ghosts and monsters, but some favor exotic locales.

My favorite story in “Country Delights” was “Sea Daemons,” which is no surprise as I really like Izumi Kyoka. This story of a poor coastal fishing village and their battle with something from the dark of the ocean was chilling and sad. “The Kudan’s Mother, (1968)” by Komatsu Sakyo was also intriguing, telling the story of a cursed house during the firebombing of WWII. “The Clock Tower of Yon, (1961)” had the most Lovecraftian feel, with the exotic French setting and the hordes of Tibetan cats. I know there is a sub-genre of Lovecraft-inspired Japanese fiction, but this is the first story I have read in that vein. Not every story was a winner. I thought both “The Mummy (1942)” and the comic “Only You (1992)” were lackluster.

The translations in “Country Delight” were a marked improvement over the previous volume. Whereas some of the translations in “Tales of Ole Edo” felt stilted and academic, the translations in “Country Delight” were just pure reading pleasure. I caught a few mistakes, and reading the “Legends of Tono” translations was a big awkward as I have translated those myself and know the different choices I made. But on the whole you could just disappear into the story and forget you were even reading a translation.

Overall this was another great volume from Kurodahan Press, and I am looking forward to volume three.

Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan

4.0 out of 5 stars Sacred Mummies

Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan

The self-mummified monks of Japan are an obscure phenomenon. They are little known in Japan. Unless they live in a town that has one, your average Japanese person is unlikely to know that they exist. My wife had never heard of them, nor had any of my Japanese friends. They are obscure enough that even someone like me—who purposefully seeks out rare and obscure phenomenon and once planned a trip just to see a mummified kappa and traveled to Omine-san to train with the Shugendo monks—was only vaguely aware that they existed.

Which is why it was a treat to read Ken Jeremiah’s book “Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan.” Often it takes someone like Ken Jeremiah—someone obsessed enough with a single, obscure phenomenon, to take the necessary time to research and write up the story—adding to the available body of knowledge so that someone like me can learn a little more.

Self-mummification happened during a time when ascetic practices were taken to the extreme. The practice was considered to be the holiest of holies—a transformation into Buddhahood while still inhabiting your physical body. Monks attempted the transformation for centuries; the oldest known self-mummified monk is from 1128 and the most recent from 1878. For a period of up to 3,000 days monks would prepare both physically and mentally, reducing their diet to little more than pine needles and resin, and meditating constantly in dark caves. When they were ready, they would be buried alive. After a suitable period, their bodies were dug up, and if mummified then the transformation was consider to be successful and they were venerated. If the body had decomposed, then it was felt that they had not achieved Buddhahood.

“Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan” is a somewhat misnamed book. While it does go into the history of the seven self-mummified monks of Yamagata, Japan, there really isn’t enough information on them to fill out a book. Instead, Jeremiah adds chapters on various practices of mummification, on Kobo Daishi and the Shugendo religion and the various beliefs that influenced the monks, and on asceticism and self-immolation practices worldwide. Being interested in these subjects, I enjoyed the additional chapters, although there are better and more complete books available. But if you aren’t familiar with Japanese religion then the extra chapters make for a good background as to why these monks would do this.

In all honesty, I can’t say that “Living Buddhas” is a particularly well written book. The chapters could be better organized and the transitions smoother. Some of the chapters can be a slog to get through. Jeremiah mixes history with personal belief, and I laughed out loud when I saw pseudo-scientist Graham Hancock (Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization) quoted quoted as a reliable source. The last chapter in particular, “The Nature of Life and Death,” is more of a personal essay and seemed out of place.

But given the obscure nature of the subject matter, I am willing to forgive a lot. Jeremiah’s book is the most complete you are likely to find on the subject, if not the only book available. I am grateful that he took the time to research and write it. And now I have a new stop to see on my magical mystery tour of Japan.

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni

5.0 out of 5 stars The Importance of Being Oni

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present

One of the oni’s supernatural powers is shape-changing, and that is entirely  appropriate for a creature that has transformed so completely across the  centuries. From a powerful, invisible entity worshiped as a god, to one of many  of Japan’s assortment of monsters known as yokai, to the sexy and frivolous Lum  from the popular series Urusei  Yatsura, and to an emotional children’s book character in “The Red Oni who  Cried;” the oni has played many roles in Japanese society.

Noriko Reider  (Tales  of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan) takes us on a tour of the various  masks the oni has worn over the story of Shuten Doji, and an exploration of  female oni and the morphable mountain oni called yamauba, to oni in modern manga
and anime. A few stories are looked into in detail, like the aforementioned  Shuten Doji (of which Reider supplies a full translation as an appendix), and  the legend of Sakata no Kintoki, also known as Kintaro the golden boy, who was  raised by a yamauba. Reider looks at modern anime like Spirited  Away and Inuyasha  for a modern take on oni.

I have read several of these essays before,  from the “Journal of Asian Folklore Studies.” Noriko Reider is a prolific and  interesting writer on Japanese folklore, and her works were a main resource when  I did my own MA in Japanese folklore. For “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni,” Reider has  edited and reworked her essays, adding elements here and there, for an  imminently readable study on this important Japanese figure. Even though I was  familiar with some of the information, there was still much to learn about oni.

There is history here, and interpretation. There is the oni as outsider,  and speculations on the origin of the Shuten Doji legend being a shipwrecked  Spaniard and his crew. Or metal workers in the Oe mountains. There is  sexualizing of the yamauba figure from an old hag to the voluptuous woman of  Utagawa’s prints. There is the oni as metaphor and symbol, such as the use of  oni during WWII to portray the Allies, or as a sympathetic allegory of the  outcast burakumin caste in Nakagami Kenji’s “A Tale of an Oni.” Throughout all  of Japanese history the oni has played the role required of it by Japanese  society.

“Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” is a scholarly book, and Reider  assumes readers will have a functional background in Japanese folklore. She does  not spend a lot of time on definitions of words like kami, marebito and  mononoke. She assumes readers will be familiar with Japanese folklore heroes  like Minamoto no Raiko, Kintaro, and Abe no Semei. I think you could still get  something out of “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” without this background, but there  is more to be gained if you have a foundation.

Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

4.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Illusion of Gardens

Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form

The study of the Japanese Stone Garden is the study of Japanese religion. The two are as inseparable as the symbolic architecture of Catholic Cathedrals and the Bible. There are no rocks in a Japanese stone garden, but only icons of Mt. Horai, home of the immortals, or great turtles swimming in the cosmic ocean, bearing the Earth on their backs. As author Stephen Mansfield states, Japanese gardens are works of religious art.

Which is why “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meanings, Forms” is much more than a guide to the garden. Mansfield does his best to give you a crash-course on Buddhism and Shinto, on why stones in particular are of importance to Japanese religion, and how those views have been shaped by contact with China and India. He takes you on a tour through the symbology of stone, showing what to look for and how to recognize certain arrangements and what their meanings are.

The book is split into two sections. The first, “Introduction to the Japanese Stone Garden,” takes up the bulk of the book and lays out all of the religious motifs and meanings, as well as the nature of Japanese stone gardens. He is quick to point out that the term “Zen Garden” is entirely American and has no meaning in Japan; these are gardens linked with Buddhism, but rarely with the Zen sect. He also talks about some of the standard design elements of the garden, the use of borrowed scenery and framing. I particularly enjoyed the talk on modern stone gardens, and how modern materials and techniques have shaped new gardens.

The second section, “Japan’s Exquisite Stone Gardens” is a picture-tour through some of Japan’s most famous and beautiful stone gardens. The focus is really on imagery, although some text is provided for each photograph along with a brief history of each garden. I have been to several of these gardens, and I think the photographer did a masterful job of capturing their elusive beauty.

Of course, having been to several of these gardens in real life, I also know what an illusion the photographs are. While they look like visions of serene peace, and in some distant time they must have been, now they are loud, rambunctious places packed with tourists and all the support industries of food hawkers and souvenir stands. I would love to see the Ryoan-ji pictured here, austere and unembellished. In real life, your attempts to contemplate the stones are interrupted by jostling crowds and blaring loudspeakers that give a pre-recorded history of the temple and the garden nonstop.

And that is really the only complaint I have against this book (and books of this kind). While the author does mention the reality of crowds and noise in the text, I would have loved to have seen a picture of these gardens packed with tourists and sellers as they are in real life. Because anyone going to Japan seeking the serenity they find in this book will be sorely disappointed.

Japanese Ghost Stories

3.0 out of 5 stars Japanese Psychic and Paranormal Phenomena

Japanese Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings, and Paranormal Phenomena (Tuttle Classics)

The title for “Japanese Ghost Stories” is somewhat misleading. In fact, this book is a new edition of the previously published Supernatural and Mysterious Japan: Spirits, Hauntings and Paranormal Phenomena. The only thing different is the title and cover.

There aren’t a lot of ghost stories in this book. In fact, “Japanese Ghost Stories” is the type of book one might pick up in a New Age bookstore, right next to “Forbidden Secrets of the Pyramids” and “How to See Leprechauns.” The author, Catrien Ross, is a self-styled Scottish shamen who runs QRQ in Nishi Hachioji Japan, a “healing center” for “healers, alternative thinkers and futurists.”

With that in mind, “Japanese Ghost Stories” is a decent little book on with some good information on psychic phenomena in modern Japan as well as some nice ghost stories and haunted places. The book is heavier on psychics than ghosts, with quite a bit on mystic healing which is Ross’s own forte. She goes into detail on psychic photographs, ki energy research and feng shui. As a firm believer, there is no skepticism in any of these stories, and Ross presents every story as if it were accepted fact.

Which is not to say that there are no ghosts to be found here. The “Strange but True” chapter contains some nice weirdness, such as the grave of Jesus Christ in northern Aomori prefecture and the living mummies of Gassan mountain. My personal favorite sections were “Modern Day Hauntings” and “Edo Era Tales.” Unfortunately, at only 160 Ross doesn’t have enough space to go into any detail, and tends to rapid-fire stories at you in quick succession. One page might have four or five haunted places with just the names and a one-sentence synopsis given.

While I had heard many of the stories before, Ross is well-informed and added some new bits and some new stories, as well as some haunted places to check out. Her take on the famous “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” was very nice, with some history of the tale and how it was adapted by various media.

Overall, not a great book on the Japanese supernatural, but not terrible either. Anyone interested in weird phenomena and strange happiness will enjoy it, but anyone looking for a book on actual Japanese ghost stories will come away disappointed.

Tenken

5.0 out of 5 stars Susano-o, the dragon Orochi and the Princess Kushiinada

Tenken

It is very rare that I come across a comic book that I think truly deserves the name “Graphic Novel.” For 99% of the stuff out there, be they American or Japanese, the term “comic book” works just fine. They are serialized ongoing adventures, light entertainment and a genre I really love. They are comic books.

Yumiko Shirai’s “Tenken,” on the other hand, is a true Graphic Novel. Conceived and created over a ten year period, “Tenken” is a complex and complete story, rendered in beautiful inks with a deft hand that walks the thin border between illustration and art.

A blend of science fiction with Japanese mythology, “Tenken” mixes the ancient legend of Susano-o, the dragon Orochi and the Princess Kushiinada with an unnamed dystopian future marred by the cycle of war and recovery.

Set sometime after the “dirty war” when the planet has become tainted by a mysterious pollution called “fukashi” (the term can mean “invisible” in Japanese, although I am not sure if that is the allusion here.) Fukashi taints the Earth’s soil, but it has been discovered that (in shades of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) bamboo has the property of being able to draw the fukashi from the soil, thus cleansing it and making it safe for farming. The bamboo turns blue in the process, and becomes a giant poison stick that needs to be dealt with. Only those over the age of thirty-five have the job of clearing the fukashi forests, which is generally fatal.

At the opening of the book, we meet Manaka, the boss of a construction crew that uses clean bamboo for high-rise construction projects. One day he meets a teenage girl named Saki who wants to work for him. Saki claims to be a village girl fleeing an arranged marriage, and Manaka asks no questions. She loves to work the high-rise jobs, but has an overwhelming fear of being underground. Manaka and his crew is getting ready for the Tenken festival, and annual event marking the marriage of the Princess Kushiinada to the handsome “Master Orochi.” This is a special year for Tenken, as every fifty years there is a special festival, and rumors of a “hidden festival” where a chosen girl is actually sacrificed to the dragon rather than just playing the part. Of course, it is not long before Manaka and Saki are caught up in this, and are quick to learn that legend is not always divorced from reality, and it is up to Manaka to discover and embody the lost character of the legend, Susano-o the dragon slayer.

Blending ancient mythology with Science Fiction is a somewhat classic combination (think Stargate), but Shirai keeps the focus more on the myth than the future. She is dealing with the primal here, the Earth-forces and hungers of the gods that stay constant no matter how much the humans advance and retreat. The Susano-o legend has been dealt with before in Masamune Shiro’s Orion, but this is a much more serious and somber take.

I loved “Tenken.” There was a nice balance here of story, and Shirai’s artwork is lovely. She has very a nice painterly feel, full of smudged inks and emotion combined with controlled line work. She does a great job with the facial expressions, and pulls all the possible drama out of a scene.

The only possible difficulty I can see with “Tenken” is that it assumes a familiarity with the Susano-o/Orochi/Kushiinada legend. To a Japanese audience, this would be so familiar that it no more needs to be explained than “A guy named Noah with a Really Big Boat” would need to be explained to Western audiences. That makes the bar of entry higher than normal manga, but worth it.

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