Pale blue scarf

2013-08-16 11.01.32

When I first got this out of its box, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. From the initial look and feel, I thought it was a furoshiki (a square cloth used for wrapping bento boxes) which would have been pretty cool. But then I opened it up further, and was clearly a scarf … or was it? It’s a little long and wide to be a scarf, but not wide enough to be a furoshiki.

Hmmmm ….

I got this courtesy of Biken International and JapanExpo. Biken International does an exhibit called The Wabi Sabi Exhibition that showcases traditional Japanese arts and crafts at the JapanExpo. For those who don’t know, Wabi Sabi is a Japanese art style that emphasizes simplicity and natural materials. However, this scarf is neither.

It’s hard to review a scarf. Fashion is personal, and one person can absolutely hate something that someone else absolutely loves. There are two real components to a scarf—design and material. For me, this scarf fails to wow on either front.

The fabric is nice. I thought it might be silk, but after handling it a bit more I don’t think it is. It feels more like a type of nice cotton. I like the pale blue color. It reminds me of some of the indigo dyes you see in Japan.

The real issue is the design. There is a row of Japanese crests that I found pretty, but the main design is a gilded bird that looks conspicuously European. I’m not sure what kind of bird this is. A cockatiel? I’ve seen this type of design before, with the fancy bird and the golden chain, but I can’t exactly remember where. It looks out of place on the scarf, and odd attempt to blend Japanese and European design that just doesn’t click.

Ultimately, by trying to hit too many targets the scarf fails. It’s too “stuck in the middle.” It isn’t European, it isn’t Japanese. It isn’t a scarf, it isn’t a furoshiki. It needs to go one way or the other.

Oh, and the ultimate test of this scarf. After looking it over for review purposes, I gave it to my wife to see what she thought. She was unimpressed, and her reaction can be summed up as “Meh.” She also would have liked it better if it had been a true furoshiki, because at least then we could have gotten some use out of it.

NOTE: After talking to my wife some more, we figured out this is neither a furoshiki, not a scarf, but a tenegui, a type of hand towel common throughout Japan used for wiping your hands and neck during the hot humid summers. Neither of us had seen a tenegui this fancy–usually they are cotton towels with shop names on them or some kind of design.  Tenegui are usually disposable, because you use them to wipe up sweat and dirty water.  But if you are in the mood for a fashionable one, well … this might be up your alley. But I would almost feel bad using it for its intended purpose.

The Color of Earth

5.0 out of 5 stars What does she mean by flower petals?

The Color of Earth (The Story of Life on the Golden Fields)

I have had “The Color of Earth” sitting on my “to be read” pile for far too long. When I finally picked it up, I was instantly drawn into the story of the young Korean girl Ehwa and her widowed mother, and the earthy village they live in. I didn’t put it down again until the last page was read, and I found my hands itching for the next volume.

Drawn from his own mother’s memories, artist Kim Dong Hwa has created what he calls “ochre-colored earth stories.” They are tales from a time when people were more innocent, and in touch with the world. The stories are nostalgic, but real at the same time; like the smell of flowers mixed with dirt.

The first panels of “The Color of Earth” is a pair of elephant beetles mating. As the male mounts the female, a challenger comes crawling up to take the top position. When local men compare her mother, a widowed tavern-keeper, to the promiscuous beetle, six-year old Ehwa first learns the sting of town gossip. Ehwa also discovers that she doesn’t have a “chili pepper” between her legs like the boys, and wonders if she is deformed. Both of these are six-year old Ehwa’s first encounters with the mysteries of sex, and are the beginnings of a journey into adult-hood. A journey that will take her through her first and second loves, the changes of her own body, and the realization that her mother is a human being, and a woman.

The other characters of the village are just as real. Dongchul, a boy the same age as Ehwa, is a typical country blowhard, more interested in the contents of everyone’s pants than anything else. Boongsoon is a tough-talking girl who matures faster than Ehwa, but regrets that she isn’t as pretty. Chung-Myung is a young monk who has known nothing but the monastery, but finds that as he ages there are other flowers than the venerable lotus that draw his attention. And Ehwa’s mother finds that her daughter growing up has granted her some more freedom, as she waits patiently under night-blooming gourd flowers for her lover the traveling artist to come and visit. With every visit he leaves behind a single calligraphy brush, and her hope is that when he leaves his last brush he will stay forever.

One of the wonders of “The Color of Earth” is how poetically lyrical Dong Hwa has portrayed all of these experiences. From a girl’s first period, to a boy’s first wet dream; Dong Hwa stays far away from treating these subjects as vulgar, and draws the frankness and reality of life with beauty. He uses the art style of simple, linear characters drawn over hyper-realistic backgrounds, giving the full impact of both impressionistic and realistic styles. When dealing with a woman’s body, a single line on a blank panel gives all the detail necessary, although the next panel might be a scene of the rural Korean countryside with every flower drawn in perfectly.

“The Color of Earth” really is a tremendously good comic. I haven’t read too many Korean comics (or manhwa as they are called), and the ones I have read seem like Japanese copies. “The Color of Earth” is nothing of the sort, and is authentic and beautiful in every way.

Pandora: End of Days

3.0 out of 5 stars Great art. Now needs more story.

In the interview in the back of “Pandora: End of Days,” artist Jim Song Kim talks mostly about his love of Survival-Horror games. And that is telling, because the comic he created with writer Peter J. Ang feels just like the loose plot and cut-scenes that you would find in a Survival-Horror game. And there also lies the problem.

In an actual video game, in between the plot breadcrumbs and cut-scenes you get to move the characters around, search for clues, shoot zombies, and generally have a good time. The story elements are not intended to carry the game, just enhance what is there. Imagine a game from the “House of the Dead” franchise with all of the game play removed and just the plot points and cut scenes bound together in a comic book. That is pretty much what you get with “Pandora: End of Days”.

The formatting of “Pandora: End of Days” reflects these video game dreams. Originally a web comic, “Pandora” consists of widescreen panels with a ratio more like a flatscreen TV than a horizontal comic book. Almost every page is a single-panel splash page meant to be read one at a time as if clicking through a powerpoint.

The plot is typical of the Survival-Horror genre. A beautiful, blonde, high school girl from New Jersey named Katie has an archeologist father involved in a shady deal with the conglomerate Obari Corporation. Katie’s day discovered some buried tombs with sarcophagi 50,000 years older than Egypt complete with warning label. He cautions the Obari Corporation not to open them, but the greedy suits decide to have a public unveiling of the new discovery, and thus unleash a zombie-plague on the unsuspecting New Jersey. Katie’s father succumbs to the plague, but not before revealing to Katie that he left notebooks and a powerful relic at the apartment for her for just this occasion.

The strength of “Pandora: End of Days” is the art is gorgeous. Kim created a moody, powerful style combining computer-assisted line drawing with rendered grayscale textures and backgrounds. Kim is clearly a student of Japanese comics, and works in the typical “manga”-style, and does it well. He has a good grasp of figure and face. The zombies are grotesque and reptilian and appropriately frightening. Kim could use some variation in his panels and more personality in his facial expressions, and he would benefit greatly from reading “Understanding Comics”. He is good, but he is a little too in love with showing off his own talent on big splashy scenes.

The problem is the story, or lack thereof. The plot and characterizations are just far too thin to maintain an interest. Every single person in here is flat as cardboard, with no life or personality. People show up and get named just in time to be eaten or forgotten. There was not a single character I cared about, and even after reading the comic I had to go back and check what the main character Katie’s name was for this review. I had already forgotten. This level of simplistic story works fine for a game, but lacks the weight and depth to carry an actual comic book. All style, no substance.

Jim Song Kim in particular has some potential, although he needs to study the storytelling of comics and not just the splash pages if he is serious about succeeding in the genre. And “Pandora: End of Days” has potential as a comic. I like Survival-Horror, and doing a Survival-Horror in the manga style sounds pretty cool. But that pretty surface Kim works so hard on needs to be backed by solid story, characters, and plot.

Japanese Ghost Stories

3.0 out of 5 stars Tattoo artists interpretation of traditional  Japanese ghost stories

Japanese Ghost Stories (English and Japanese Edition)

Gomineko’s “Japanese Ghost Stories” is essentially an art book. The project is the brainchild of Gomineko Press’ Crystal Morey who created a contest for her largely-tattoo artist customer base; she would present a traditional Japanese ghost story, that her customers would make artwork for, with the winner getting some free books. After the first of these contests proved successful, she followed up with another, and then a gallery show, and then finally this book showing the results.

There are four stories in this volume: “Ushino Toki Mairi” with a candle wearing woman pounding nails in a tree to gain divine vengeance for an untrue love. “Okiku,” one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories involving an abused serving girl and ten heirloom plates. “Kiyohime,” also known as “The Legend of Doji Temple” which tells the story of a woman whose forbidden lust overtakes her and she transforms into a serpent. And “Shitakiri Suzume,” known in English as “The Tongue-cut Sparrow,” involving a bird, a greedy wife, and a big box of demons. All of the text is in both English and Japanese.

Each story is more of an explanation of the story rather than the story itself. It is more of a one-page recap that tells the gist of the story and some of its variations. Each story is then followed by the customer submissions, between 15-29 per story. Each submission is a full-page, full-color illustration usually in the tattoo-style that attempts to get the feel of the story in a single piece of art.

The art varies greatly in quality, if not in style. To give you an idea of the caliber, far too many of these artists list their home page as MySpace or DevientArt) For a contest like this, I was surprised at how many of the submissions resembled each other. Because all of the artists hold the same job – they are all tattoo artists – most of the works are done in that thick-lined stained-glass style that is suitable for tattoos. I like that style of artwork. I like tattoos. But I would have liked to have seen more creativity in the interpretations. At least one submission came right off the promotional artwork for Ju-on, and a few more were almost direct copies of famous ukioyo-e prints of the same stories.

There are some standout pieces. Texas-artist Jon Claeton’s Old West interpretation of “Okiku” was inspired. Sergi Besa from Brighton, UK did an old-school sailor tattoo of “Ushino Toki Mairi” with a sweet face and rosy cheeks that was a nice change from the blood-weeping hags everyone else drew. Sara Alonso, also of Brighton, UK, did a very beautifully composed piece of “Okiku,” with each of the nine plates being a scene from the story. Horimasa, from Gunma, Japan, did a fantastically simple and effective painting of “Okiku” with nice striking reds and blacks. All in all, “Okiku” seemed to inspire the best submissions.

But ultimately the forgettable and the mediocre outweigh the good stuff. Crystal Morey had a good idea, and I applaud her efforts. I would have personally liked to have seen more balance between the stories and the art, with an attempt made to tell the stories, not just tell about them. A bit more quality-control on the art would have gone a long way as well, with fewer, better selections making for a stronger book.

Melancholia

3.0 out of 5 stars Attack of the Clones

Melancholia

“Melancholia” is part of the six-part V-cinema series called “Series Kyofu Yawa” (“Series Horror Night Tale”) that includes Demon Hunting, The Last Coffin, Legend of Ogre, and In the Site. The series is a try-out for new talent, and director Takaaki Ezura is making his first feature here

The Kyofu Yawa series is extremely low-budget, filmed on digital video and staring mostly amateur cast. The level of filmmaking and action is about the same as a cheap TV movie, and no one should mistake this for a feature film. At 90 minutes “Melancholia” is a pretty short flick.

The story follows a group of friends who gather one last time at a park that will soon be developed into a housing complex. One of the girls is moving away, and the friends are saying goodbye. The girl moves in with her aunt and uncle, and things start to get weird from there. In her new house, she hears noises coming from a room that she is forbidden to enter. Meanwhile, her old friends are being visited and murdered by the same girl, who appears to be able to be in two places at once. Eventually, secrets start coming out and she learns that she is a twin clone, created by a mad scientist who wanted to do a study on human morality and raised two genetically identical people in different circumstances to see how they would come out.

I have seen a few of the Kyofu Yawa series, so I know what to expect and keep my expectations low. For what it is, “Melancholia” isn’t horrible. The cloning story adds some interest to a standard doppelganger plot, and the director and actors do their best in the confines of the budget. I have seen much, much better low-budget horror flicks, but I have also seen worse.

For the lead actresses, Kyofu Yawa likes to recruit from the world of Japanese bikini models, and making an appearance here is Hikaru Kawamura. Hikaru looks pretty, but her acting mainly seems to consist of grabbing her head and screaming. I don’t see a long movie career in front of her.

Also, anyone seeing “bikini model” should not get the wrong idea. There is no cheesecake and Hikaru remains fully dressed as does everyone else. Anyone expecting a gore-fest had better look elsewhere as well, as the killing happens mostly off-frame.

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.

The Quest for the Missing Girl

5.0 out of 5 stars A Mountain of Glass and Steel

The Quest for the Missing Girl

After falling in love with Jiro Taniguchi’s art on the brilliant The Times of Botchan, I was interested in checking out some of his solo work. He is a beautiful artist, but can he write?

At 334 pages “The Quest for the Missing Girl” is a heavy book, both in size and content. The pace is more like a novel or a modern Clint Eastwood flick than a comic, moving forward with a slow determination towards the inevitable climax. Taniguchi tackles social issues affecting Japan, be it from the loss of attachment to nature, to the demands of society over personal passion, to teenage prostitution, all wrapped within a gripping and heroic narrative.

The missing girl of the title is Megumi, a 15-year old Tokyo girl who didn’t come home one day. In a panic, Megumi’s mother calls Shiga, a solid mountain man who lives his life as far away from Tokyo as possible. Once upon a time, Shiga was best friends and climbing partners with a man named Sakamoto. Both men were in love with a woman named Yoriko, whose only condition for marriage was that her husband gives up the mountains to be with her. Shiga’s passion for mountains was too great, but Sakamoto accepted. However, after marriage and Megumi’s birth, Sakamoto wanted one last climb to the Himalayas. Shiga refused to partner with him, and Sakamoto died. Shiga, full of guilt, swore to watch over Megumi and protect her.

So when Megumi goes missing, Shiga comes down from the mountains and into the wilds of urban Tokyo, as the proverbial stranger in a strange land. Shiga is more accustomed to the direct dangers of mountain climbing, and lacks the skills necessary to navigate lying wealthy businessmen and the underworld where young girls are rented by the hour. But he is a dogged pursuer, and follows the trail towards Megumi even when it leads to conclusions he would have never thought possible. The men and girls of Tokyo are unbalanced as well, not able to deal with a man who cannot be bought and does not give up. There is a last mountain that Shiga must climb, but steel and glass is much more slippery than the honest earth he is accustomed to.

I found “The Quest for the Missing Girl” to be a gripping read. Tanigushi has crafted a perfect noir detective story, moving down from the mountains, through the labyrinthine streets of Tokyo and finally back up to the world of skyscrapers and privilege. I have read a lot of modern Japanese detective novels, and I would put “The Quest for the Missing Girl” up there with any of them.

Shiga’s an interesting character; pure like the nature he loves but haunted by past failures as well as his own middle-age. In Tokyo he is completely out of his element but the same willpower that drags him up mountains pushes him through the story. I loved the subtle emotion Taniguchi brought to the story as well. You can feel Shiga’s sense of loss with Megumi, seeing what he gave up because he would not give up his personal passion. The scenes with Megumi’s mother Yoriko and with Megumi’s friend Maki are especially touching. Maki is a cynical street kid, but breaks down wondering why no one cares about her as much as Shiga cares about Megumi.

Action-wise, it is rare that a comic has me on the edge of my seat. I usually only get that out of seeing a movie. I don’t want to give anything away, but the final scene was an absolute page-flipper that had me literally holding my breath. The realism Taniguchi brings to his art gives the scenes a much greater impact than more cartoony styles.

Needless to say, I loved “The Quest for the Missing Girl” and will be checking out more of Taniguchi’s work. Great stuff.

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