I am a Yokai Professor

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes you are

If anyone can give themselves the title of “Yokai Professor” it is Mizuki Shigeru. He is the greatest living authority on the Japanese folklore monsters, and has dedicated his life to preserving the ancient legends along with adding bits of his own.

“I am a Yokai Professor” is one in a recent series by Shogakukan that mixes some of Mizuki’s older work with new material, and repackages the master for a new generation. The books are not typical manga size, nor are they the full-length of some of Mizuki’s Yokai Encycopedias, but a sort of half-way size between the two.

In “I am a Yokai Professor,” Mizuki takes a biographical look at the events that made him the leading authority on yokai. It starts with his first experience of the mystical, with a flower that he thought could change into a bird, and the influence of his neighbor Nonnoba who taught him all the local folklore and revealed to him the secret world of yokai. From there Mizuki presents small memories from his childhood, like his favorite collections (found animal bones, pura models, bugs, and all the usual treasure of a young boy) and his dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete.

From there, Mizuki presents the yokai he has had personal experience with, such as the crying Kawaakabo (Red River Baby) and the bizarre Kurobozu (Black Monk). For Mizuki, the yokai are all those mysterious sensations and noises that people encounter but that most people dismiss as tricks of nerves or senses. To Mizuki, as he explains, these strange feelings and sensations are the realm of yokai, open to those willing to experience it.

He gives two longer comics presenting “true story” encounters sent in by readers. One is a young boy taken to the underwater realm of a kappa, and one is a boy who is given an accidental glimpse into the spirit world and protective ancestors. Mizuki follows this up with personal memories and photographs of traveling the world looking for mystery, and finding the monsters of Africa, Europe, New Guinea and Easter Island. Finally, there is a longer story of an encounter on Easter Island, and one of Mizuki’s “Yokai Quizzes” to test yourself against the Yokai Professor.

All of the artwork is by Mizuki and done in his signature style. If you are not familiar with it, Mizuki is the absolute master of a technique known as the “masking effect,” where cartoonish figures are presented in detailed and realistic backgrounds (ala Herges’ “Tin Tin”). Some of the pictures in the “Yokai I have Met” section are reprinted from his “Yokai Encyclopedias,” and some of the other material is new.

Because I love Mizuki Shigeru, I liked this glimpse into his childhood and his personal thoughts about yokai. If you are just starting to get to know the master, then “I am a Yokai Professor” might not be the best place to start, as the book assumes familiarity with the man who has entertained and educated generations of Japanese children.

Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World

4.0 out of 5 stars Urban Vinyl

Ah, what a wonderful invention plastic is! Nearly limitless possibilities, able to be shaped into almost any form, take on any color, and endure across the centuries. As functional as it is fantastic. Of course, it was only a matter of time before artists took this malleable material into their capable hands, and created something that the inventors of the plastic would have never imagined. In this case, it is toys.

“Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World” supposes to tell the story of plastic, and its journey from function to fantastic, from commerce to art. Supposes to, because unfortunately the book seems to have fallen victim to a loss of focus, or possibly a conflict between writer and editor. Instead of this history of plastic, and their connection to Japanese culture, what the writer wanted to write about was an artistic movement called Urban Vinyl, originating in Hong Kong and then spreading to Japan and the US. That’s his passion, and it shows.

The first half of “Plastic Culture” is rough. It begins with a very brief history of plastic’s invention, and its use in toys across the years. There is some brief connection with Japan, introducing the Kaiyodo model makers who perfected the garage kit. There is a half-hearted section on using toys for marketing purposes as mascots, mainly mentioning McDonalds Happy Meal toys and the Olympics. Trying to swing the story back to Japan, Sanrio is covered with their successful line of Hello Kitty figures and other characters. These articles are all short on text, and heavy on pictures, jumping rapidly from section to section without much logic or interest. Its pretty boring, and not very well researched. Then, on page 43, author Woodrow Pheonix begins the section on Urban Vinyl. And it all changes.

The Urban Vinyl movement began in Hong Kong, with a couple of young talents started taking apart GI Joe figures and putting them back together street-style, dressed in the latest Hong Kong fashions and with an attitude that GI Joe never imagined. These two, Michael Lau and Eric So, exhibited their work at galleries, and inspired other artists to see toys as a medium of expression, rather than just playthings. The movement jumped across the water, to Japan with its ingrained toy culture, and then to the US underground comics scene, where artists like Dan Clowes (“Ghost World”) and Archer Prewitt (“Sof’ Boy”) began teaming up with Asian designers to produce unique figures combining all of their talents and visions. Into this comes Takashi Murakami, famed for his Superflat exhibition and one of Japan’s greatest modern artists, who sees the concept of creating original works of art in toys, rather than just reproducing existing works in plastic. Yoshitomo Nara, another prominent Japanese modern artist, follows suit. Its fascinating.

If this book had been called “Urban Vinyl,” and started with Lau and So in Hong Kong, then been given enough depth to explore the artistic movement completely, it would have been incredible. Woodrow Pheonix has a real passion for this movement, and a deep insight into what makes it tick and how the pieces fit together. His interviews with Murakami and Nara really made me reconsider the way I see toys, and it was great to here these two giants of modern art put forward such opposing yet complementary viewpoints on Urban Vinyl.

But it wasn’t, and so “Plastic Culture” is really only half a great book. That second half is really something, and worth picking up the book for. It makes me want to learn more about Urban Vinyl and hopefully someday Pheonix will get to write the book that he should have. I will be first in line to pick it up.

Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide

4.0 out of 5 stars Night parade of 100 demons

Japan is a monster country. While other countries may have their vampires and wolfmen, their unseelie courts and ogres and giants, Japan is home to a traditional eight million different varieties of spooks and lurkers in the dark. Japanese children obsess on them and memorize them the way American children do dinosaurs, and you would be hard-pressed to find a child without at least one of the ubiquitous tomes detailing their haunting places and special attributes.

“Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide” (subtitled “A survival guide for foreigners”, although this is only subtly written in Japanese), is one of the few books available on this traditional aspect of Japanese culture. Emulating such books as The Zombie Survival Guide, it takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the bizarre menagerie. It acts like a video game guide, giving statistics such as height, weight, favorite food, method of attack, surviving an encounter, etc…A total of forty-six yokai get the treatment, from the famous beasties like the kappa and tengu, to the lesser-knowns like the dorotabo and the hashi hime.

This is very much a “flipping book”, not to be read in one sitting but going through checking out the yokai who catch one’s eye. Every entry is accompanied by an illustration, by Morino Tatsuya. Morino was an assistant to the yokai-master Mizuki Shigeru, and while his ability is not at Mizuki’s level he does a good job with the style. All of the illustrations are in color, and are often accompanied by older artwork such as ukiyo-e prints and toys featuring the various yokai.

When reading this book, I was of two minds. One the one hand, it is pretty cool to have an English-language introduction to yokai in any form. One the other hand, I would have been so much better to simply translate any of Mizuki Shigeru’s numerous beautiful and authentic books dealing with the subject. The idea of a “survival guide” works great when dealing with a familiar topic like zombies, but seeing as how most Westerners would be unfamiliar with yokai a more straight forward book might have been better.

People just looking for a fun and casual book will find this a treasure, however. Yokai appear quite often in Japanese video games and anime, and this kind of book would be a perfect resource to those who want to learn a little bit more about what they are seeing. It would also be a great guide book for role playing gamers who want to introduce a Japanese flavor to their campaigns.

The Narrow Road to Oku

oku

5.0 out of 5 stars Simply beautiful

“The Narrow Road to Oku” is about as close to perfection as one can get. First you have Matsuo Basho, Japan’s greatest poet, chronicling his hundred and fifty day journey into Oku to visit the grave of his mother, who had died the previous year. Translating this masterpiece is Donald Keene, possibly the greatest modern interpreter and translator of the Japanese mind. If this wasn’t enough, Miyata Masayuki has taken Basho’s poetry and created stunning works of Kiri-e, torn paper art, that provides a visual to match the written imagery.

“The Narrow Road to Oku” was the last of Basho’s five travelogues, and he finally attained the essential balance between observation and inspiration, between prose and poetry. Along the narrow road he and his traveling companion, student Kawai Sora, experienced the highs and lows of ancient Japan. The Tokugawa Shrine at Nikko, the famed Bridge of Heaven at Matsushima and the ancient Ise Shrine were all stops on this fantastic voyage. As well as these wonders, he encountered poor prostitutes and fishermen, giving them equal time to his poetic genius.

Miyata Masayuki, as he has with other books in this series such as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and “Love Songs from the Man’Yoshu,” has created delightful and whimsical artwork that enhances rather than distracts from Basho’s musings. There is a hint of Ukiyo-e in his style, but not enough to consider it redundant. The art is fresh and lively. sometimes powerful and bittersweet.

The original Japanese text is preserved alongside Keene’s translation, which I think is essential of a work of this type. “The Narrow Road to Oku” is 100% authentic, and 100% beautiful. Definitely a treasure in my library.

Botchan: A Modern Classic

botchan

5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best Japanese novels ever! And its funny!

Lighthearted. Fast moving. Hilarious. These are not adjectives usually associated with classic Japanese literature or with Natsume Soseki, an author whose image graces the 1,000 yen note in Japan. Soseki’s intense novel “Kokoro” (which translates as “heart” or “spirit”) is famed for its insight into the Japanese soul. But he was a young man once too, who laughed and loved and mocked, and this early comic novel is no less penetrating for its sense of humor.

“Botchan” is the classic City Mouse tale. Botchan is a Tokyo boy, through and through. Lazy, unmotivated, and spoiled by the housekeeper who raised him, he suddenly finds himself needing to make his own way in the world when his father dies and his older brother inherits the fortune. Thinking school is easier than work, Botchan takes his brother’s offer to pay his way through university. Life is good so far, but even Botchan must graduate, and he finds himself educated and assigned as a middle school teacher in a rural town in the island of Shikoku, Japan’s most rural island. Arrogant and sure of his superiority over the hicks, Botchan quickly runs afoul of the locals and winds up in a merry war with both students and co-teachers.

Reminiscent of the best of Mark Twain’s yarns, “Botchan” is layers upon layers of wit and hijinks. A short, snappy novel, the narrator’s own self-assurance blinds him from the mechanisms against him that are so obvious to the reader. All the townspeople are pure characters, each with their own Botchan-given nickname such as “Porcupine,” “The Hanger-on” or “Redshirt.” Twined into the story is Botchan’s protective elderly maid, Kiyo, who’s blind support and admiration of Botchan only feeds his swelled ego, yet adds a touching element of humanity to the tale.

Added to all this is Soseki’s brilliant insight into the Japanese school system. Over 100 years later, little has changed and I laughed out loud as Botchan experienced things that I experience every day as a teacher at a Japanese high school. To see a Japanese person, especially one as revered as Soseki, voicing the very thoughts in my head is an absolute pleasure. Anyone wanting an authentic insiders look into Japanese society and culture would do much better laying down their copy of “The Enigma of Japanese Power” and picking up a copy of “Botchan.”

J. Cohn’s translation is perfect, preserving both the humor and the insight, and manages to portray the class differences of the Tokyo and Shikoku dwellers without resorting to cheap tricks like using Southern US accents and such. He must have a great sense of humor himself, and I look forward to more translations from him.

Insightful and penetrating, a window behind the hidden doors of Japan, “Botchan” is also hands-down the most entertaining Japanese novel I have ever read. Highly, highly recommended.

The Bamboo Sword: And Other Samurai Tales

bamboo

5.0 out of 5 stars War and Peace and Love

There has been a renaissance lately in the samurai genre, from directors like Yamada Yoji (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) and Kurotsuchi Mitsuo (The Samurai I Loved). All of these films have something in common, in that the stories and style are drawn from the same source, namely the short stories of Fujisawa Shuhei.

Fujisawa was something of a romanticist, writing stories of a distant past that he never personally experienced. Born in 1927 and dying in 1997, Fujisawa was a personal witness to the rise and fall and rise and fall of Japan, both in WWII and the Bubble Economy era. As opposed to these eras of conflict, Fujisawa’s stories generally take place in the 200-year span of peace known as the Edo period, a time when the military ideals of the samurai had faded, and when only a few still held on to the principals of the aristocratic warrior class.

“The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales” collects eight of Fujisawa’s short stories in this genre. It was the sixteenth collection selected for the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, a Government-funded project that encouraged the translation and publishing overseas of works of literature that were considered to be core to the understanding of the Japanese people and contributed to world culture. The title story of the collection, “The Bamboo Sword” became the basis for the Oscar-winning “Twilight Samurai.”

Instead of the great movers and shakers, the power players, Fujisawa focuses on the low-ranking pawns, the members of construction crews and horse groomers, those who technically held samurai status but without the money and prestige of their lords. He has the ability as an author to take us back into this time, to open the hearts of characters torn between their stated duties and the need for personal honor and integrity. There are comedic stories (All For a Melon) and touching stories (Kozuru), and stories of honor lost and regained (The Runaway Stallion).

Translator Gavin Frew has done and excellent job here, and deserves props as well. Like the very best of translated works, one quickly forgets that this was not originally written in English.

Every story in the collection is, in a world, brilliant, and some of the finest Japanese literature that I have ever read. I have been impressed by the recent movies I have seen based on Fujisawa’s work, and I am even more impressed by the original stories themselves.

The only sad footnote to this collection is the holder of the rights to the remainder of Fujisawa’s stories is refusing to allow translation and publication, for whatever reason. Hopefully, as the renaissance in Fujisawa-based samurai films continues to gain popularity in the West, they will see the benefit in releasing these beautiful works of fiction to an appreciative audience, regardless of nationality.

Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes

knife

5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Japanese knife skills

Many of the fancy cuts and delicate arrangements in Japanese cooking require a certain set of tools. One can imitate them with Western cooking equipment, but never really perfect them. Central to these techniques are the three single-beveled Japanese knives; the yanagiba, the deba and the usuba.

“Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes” is an introductory book to these three essential knives and their use. Written by celebrated chef Nozaki Hiromutsu (who has many cooking books available in his native Japanese) and Kate Klippensteen (Cool Tools: Cooking Utensils from the Japanese Kitchen), the book is about one-third knife history and information, one-third knife skills course, and one-third cook book with recipes.

I enjoyed all of the different elements of “Japanese Kitchen Knives.” I have read about some of the knife techniques, such as the sanmai oroshi three-piece filleting technique in that Japanese cooking bible Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, but it was much easier to follow here with the photographs and step-by-step guide. In fact all of the photographs, by Konishi Yasuo, are lovely to look at and contribute greatly to the quality of the book. Some of the other techniques, like the kazari-girl forms for cutting decorative vegetables, I was especially happy to see. I have been imitating the cuts for some time now, but never perfectly and never with the correct technique.

The recipes in “Japanese Kitchen Knives” are up to the usual great standard one can expect from Kodansha. Some of them are quite unusual, such as “Braised Tai Head with Turnips.” Instead of just throwing away a fish head it is nice to use it for a delicious recipe. The “Vinegared Mackerel” I have eaten several times at Japanese restaurants, but never made for myself, so I was also happy to see that recipe.

The last few chapters of the book covers some of the more specialty Japanese knives, such as the massive soba chopper soba-giri and the unagi-bocho use for preparing eels. There is also a chapter on the maintenance of your knives and some advice on buying them which I found very helpful.

Sadly, to get a decent set of even those three most basic knives is expensive so for the time being I can only look dreamily at this book. But “Japanese Kitchen Knives” is a great guide on what I need, what to buy, and how to use the tools when I get them!

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