Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

5.0 out of 5 stars Children at play during WWII

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

Full confession: I bought “Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window” almost four years ago and it sat on my shelf ever since. It is one of those classics of Japanese literature that I thought I ought to have read–pretty much every Japanese person I know has read it and recommends it–but I wasn’t looking forward to the actual reading. It looked like one of those sugary sweet books that might make an impression on an 8-year old girl but not on a 40-year old guy.

After reading it, I am reminded once again that classics are classics for a reason. And just like “Anne of Green Gables” there are some books that resonate past age and gender.

From the first page I was hooked on the stories of Totto-chan and the unusual Tomoe school that she attends. Even more so when I read that this book is entirely non-fiction. Author Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (Totto-chan herself) assures us that each event is as true as she remembers it, even if her memory is the fuzzy memory of an adult looking back on her childhood.

The books is written without an ongoing plot, but consists of little snacks of story like “Winnie the Pooh” and “Anne of Green Gables.” Kuroyanagi presents those events that stick out in her memory, that made an impression on her or that she learned something from. The stories can be as irrelevant as her first time in a swimming pool, or when her dog accidently bit her while they were playing a game, to more poignant episodes like the funeral of a friend. Her alter-ego, the child Totto-chan, does progress through the years of the book, but there is very little linking of the story.

And just as wonderful as the little stories is the existence of Tomoe school itself. During the hardships and horrors of WWII, a time when Japan was at its very worst both ideologically and economically, this idealist Kobayashi Sosaku created a progressive school that encouraged children to think and feel, to love life and music and nature. To really appreciate how amazing that is you have to juxtapose it with the fact that in the rest of Japan children were being trained to be tiny drones, obeying ritual and form and submitting their own personalities to the will of the state. Truly, for the fifty students of Tomoe school, Kobayashi created an island of calm in the midst of a sea of madness.

Some of Kobayashi’s ideas would be too radical even today, like having all of the children swim naked together so that they wouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies and so that the physically handicapped children would grow up without complexes. Some of his ideas are pure simplicity, like his rule that every lunch consist of “something from the hills, something from the ocean.” Some of them I can see in progressive children’s education today, like schools that allow children to pick their own course of study and progress at their own rate, rather than trying to enforce a single curriculum on a diverse student body. Kobayashi’s ideas only work in a small school like Tomoe, with fifty students spread across first to sixth grade. But for those fifty lucky students it was life-changing.

Another piece I loved about “Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window” was the epilogue. Kuroyanagi catches up with some of her old friends–each of whom was a character in “Totto-chan”–to see how they are doing as adults. Predictably, they have lead different lives. One became a world-class physicist. One an expert on orchids. But most were just housewives and office workers like the rest of us. But they all looked back fondly on their days at Tomoe school, as would I if I had been lucky enough to attend.


Tales of the Metropolis – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 3

5.0 out of 5 starsGhosts of Taisho and Heisei

Tales of the Metropolis – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 3

My only disappointment with “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan – Volume 3: Tales of the Metropolis” is that it is the final volume. I could easily read another ten volumes or more in this remarkable series by Kurodahan Press.

Japan’s history of weird and uncanny tales (not to be confused with horror stories) is probably more rich and extensive than any country on earth. As explained in the forward to this volume, “Earthquakes, Lightning, Fire, and Father,” Japan has a history of destruction and renewal, of a populace keenly aware of their own mortality with a horrific death only an earthquake away. Combined with the Japanese sense of art and aesthetic, this has led to the evolution of a style of weird storytelling that is both haunting and beautiful. Kurodahan’s “Kaiki” series is one of the few chances English speakers have ever had to experience this literary heritage.

To be honest, “Tales of the Metropolis” was the volume I was looking forward to the least in this series. My tastes tend to run to the earlier Edo period weird stories which are cruder in execution than the careful, refined prose of the Taisho era, but somehow more real and vital. Edo period stories are like traditional campfire stories, told by people who believed they were passing on a true story. Taisho era writers were fully aware that they were writing fiction.

But those writers knew what they were doing and were able to build on and refine Japan’s storytelling traditions. “Tales of the Metropolis” collects tales from some of Japan’s greatest writers, with stories ranging from 1915-1996. Names like Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Tanizaki Junichiro, Edogawa Rampo, and Kawabata Yasunari should be familiar to anyone with an interest in Japan. Some of the other authors may not be as well known, but they are carefully curated to deliver a slice of the best of Japanese weird fiction.

From the first page I was swept into this collection. Some of the stories here I have read before, like Kawabata’s “The Arm” and Tanizaki’s “The Face.” Both come from that tradition of “erotic-grotesque nonsense” that focused on the objectification of body parts, human deformity, and the celebration of the bizarre. Kawabata’s story is sensuous and nostalgic, while Tanizaki’s tale jams together modern technology and Japan’s yokai tradition for an unsettling effect. Rampo’s “Doctor Mera’s Mysterious Crime” is an interesting story featuring the author as a character.

But the stories that really affected me were the ones I was reading for the first time. Toyoshima Yoshio’s “Ghosts of the Metropolis” tells of a haunted Tokyo packed with billowing ghosts with an unmistakable debt to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Minigawa Hiroko plays a lovely game of “Who’s dead here?” with the story “The Midsummer Emissary” about a chance meeting between three people and the nature of lingering desire. Endo Shushaku’s “Spider” is a classic modern haunted taxi story with a twist ending that I wasn’t expecting. Yamakawa Masao’s “The Talisman” could have been an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

My favorite in the volume was Akae Baku “Expunged by Yakumo,” a brilliant retelling and “finishing” of Lafcadio Hearn’s story “In a Cup of Tea” that began the first volume of the “Kaiki” series. Akae managed that delicious writer’s trick of leaving the reader in suspense as to whether this is a fiction or non-fiction story. Is there really an undiscovered ending to Hearn’s famous unfinished tale? Akae skillfully weaved a personal ghost story into this quest for the understanding of “In a Cup of Tea,” and the sequel here made me appreciate the original all the more. Brilliant stuff.

The translations for the “Kaiki” series have improved with every volume. I am a translator myself, and so I can be nitpicky when it comes to awkward phrases or poor word choice. Almost every story in “Tales of the Metropolis” accomplishes the goal of reading as if it was originally written in English. I got so engrossed in the tales I forgot I was reading translations, which is the mark of a job well done.

Hopefully Kurodahan Press will be able to publish further volumes of this series in the future, or a companions series in the same style. Anyone interested in weird fiction or Japanese literature is going to want the entire series on their shelf.

Book Girl and the Famished Spirit

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than expected

Book Girl and the Famished Spirit

I had never heard of Mizuki Nomura or the “Book Girl” series before picking this up, and to be honest my expectations were low. I don’t have a lot of experience with the Japanese light novel genre, but what I have read so far has been dreadful. But I like Japanese ghosts, and I like yokai, and I like books, so “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit” seemed like something I might enjoy.

This is the second in the Mizuki’s “Book Girl” series, and there are eight in total along with some random short stories and sundry. From what I have read, Mizuki picks a work of classic literature to structure the story of the “Book Girl” light novels around. For “Famished Spirit” that book is Emily Bronte’s moody classic Wuthering Heights. There is also quite a bit of George MacDonald’s The Day Boy and the Night Girl woven in as well. If you haven’t read those books, you are at a distinct disadvantage story-wise, but you can still muddle through.

The story is part Scooby-Doo mystery, part literary exploration, and part teenage love drama. The titular Book Girl is Tohko Amano, a type of yokai (translated in this book as “goblin.” Points off right there for lazy and inaccurate translations) who doesn’t eat food but subsists exclusively on eating books. Real books, paper and all. Tohko is friends with the student Konoha Inoue, and they make up the only two members of the schools Book Club. Mystery falls in their lap one day when strange, coded messages start showing up in their book club mailbox, and a mysterious ghostly figure roams the school halls. In the best tradition of YA adventures, Tohko and Konoha are drug into the mystery, long-buried secrets are uncovered, and only an encyclopedia-like knowledge of Wuthering Heights will win the day.

Without the background of the first book I was a little lost in the beginning of “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit”; there are several plot threads that I don’t know if they are continued over from the first book Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime or not. For example Konoha Inoue is secretly the author of a best-selling book that he wrote under a pen name. So is Konoha rich? Famous? And what about Tohko. Is this a world where the existence of yokai is known and accepted? Or does she hide her true nature?Or are these questions we just aren’t supposed to look into too deeply?

But even without that background, I was impressed with “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit.” It was interesting that in the back, in the Afterward, Mizuki talked about changing the story halfway through, and it shows. The first half is just light fluff, exactly the kind of thing I have found in Japanese light novels. Then out of nowhere the story plunges into depth and darkness, becoming far more serious than I had imagined. Severe child abuse. The isolation of adoption into an unloving family. Exploration of identity. There is some intense psychological horror going on in the story.

Unfortunately, Mizuki didn’t go back and re-write the first half to fit better with the second, so you end up with a disjointed reading experience. Mizuki is clearly a more powerful writer than is let on, and I am interested to see how the “Book Girl” series progresses. Does it become lighter, like the first half, or heavier and darker like the second? I suppose there is only one way to find out!

Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1

5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient and Modern Japanese Weird Tales

Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1

As someone who is no stranger to Japanese weird tales—I have an MA in Japanese Folklore and run a website where I translate stories based on the hyakumonogatari kaidankai ghost-story game—I found “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan” to be a unique treat and a wonderful experience. I have a whole library of books in this genre, both in Japanese and in translated English; but this is the only one I have that combines ancient weird tales with modern writers’ takes on the classic storytelling style.

The important subtitle of this book is “Tales of Old Edo,” not “Tales from Old Edo.” Along with stories by the great authors of Edo period weird tales, like Lafcadio Hearn (Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan), Ueda Akinari (Ugetsu Monogatari), and Okamoto Kido (“Strange Tales of Blue Frog Temple”), there are modern masters like Miyabe Miyuki (Crossfire) and Kyogoku Natsuhiko (The Summer of the Ubume). Some of these tales I knew very well, particularly the old classics. Some of these I was reading for the first time. But whether I knew them or not, I found the mix of old and new to be fresh and appealing.

None of the entries here could be mistaken for horror. Although populated with ghosts and monsters, Japan’s storytelling tradition lends more towards strange experiences and odd phenomena than chills and thrills. Kurodahan Press was very careful in choosing the term “uncanny tales” for the title. There are nine stories collected in total, along with two essays on Japanese weird fiction, a short manga story, and an introduction by Robert Weinberg. Each of the stories has a different translator, some of whom do a better job than others, and which affects the quality of the stories.

I loved the 1959 story “Through the Wooden Gate,” by Yamamoto Shugoroi. There supernatural undertones are subtle, and much of the story must be read between the lines. I also enjoyed the 1938 “Visions of Beyond,” by Koda Rohan which takes you through page after page of various fishing techniques before finally getting to the story of the haunted fishing pole. Miyabe Miyuki’s 2000 “The Futon Room” was a touching story of sisterly love, and Kyogoku Natsuhiko’s “Three Old Tales of Terror” where a perfect recreation of the Edo style hyakumonogatari tales that were designed to be short and told around candlelight. I don’t know that I would have chosen Lafcadio Hearn’s “In a Cup of Tea” out of all of his available stories, but it is a good one that I hadn’t read for awhile. I liked the inclusion of Hearn’s essay “The Value of the Supernatural in Literature.”

The translations in “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan” where never bad, although there was variation in quality. Some of the translations seemed stiff and formal; more like an academic exercise than a book designed for pleasure reading. I spotted a few mistakes here and there, worked my way through a few clumsy turns of phrase that must have sounded better in Japanese than in re-worked English. But on the whole the various translators did a good job, and I found myself forgetting I was reading a work in translation and just disappeared into the story.

Kurodahan Press has a series of three books in this series, and I intend to pick them all up. The only disappointment is this is one of those books I would have loved to have participated in the making of not just in the reading of! Great stuff all around.

The Buddha in the Attic

4.0 out of 5 stars We, the Japanese

The Buddha in the Attic

Being married to a Japanese woman, and having lived for many years in Japan, I have always been interested in the stories of those who came before, those people who endured all the hardships and paid all the dues so that my wife I and could live happily in the US without anyone batting eye. I am fully aware that it wasn’t so long ago that the government could have ripped her from me and sent her to a concentration camp in the desert.

“Buddha in the Attic” is ostensibly the story of the Picture Brides, those women who made the long voyage across the ocean betrothed to a man who they had only ever seen in a picture. Most of the photographs were lies, taken twenty years earlier when the men were still young, and most of the fairy tales of riches and an easy life were nothing but lies. These women found themselves facing a hard life in a country prejudiced against them. But author Julie Otsuka expands the story with every chapter, moving beyond the Picture Brides to encompass all the Japanese women in the Pacific coast; the maids, the prostitutes, the wives, the mothers. And finally she expends her scope to include all of the Japanese, forced to abandon their homes and property, rounded up like cattle, and shipped to concentration camps in the desert.

This was not the easiest book to read, something due entirely to the writing conceit adopted by Otsuka. It is impossible to call “The Buddha in the Attic” a novel. It is much more like a long-form poem. In an attempt to show the group experience of the women, she starts every sentence with “we” or “Some of us.” The paragraphs read like lists, sounding something like:

“We worked all day in the field. We brought tea to the elegant ladies in their big houses. We washed laundry in hot water until our hands blistered. We went on shopping trips to the finest stores. We cooked three meals a day for a mining camp. Some of us wore the same kimono every day. Some of us wore pants for the field. Some of us had new underwear and white gloves. Some of us never washed the dirt from our hair.”

That’s not an exact quote, but it gives you an idea. When I read the first chapter, I was intrigued with the style. But with the second chapter, when I realized she intended to write the entire book that way, I was annoyed. Then finally I got into the rhythm of the writing. But I never really grew to like it.

Otsuka’s writing style creates too much of a sense of a faceless mass, of a wash of humanity that you can never connect with because they have no names and no faces, no individuality. The style does allow for scope; telling no individual story means that she can cover decades and thousands of lives in a scant 150 pages. But I wish that Otsuka had left her style in places, and broke up the repetition with something more personal. I have seen the same subject handled more personally, like in the film Picture Bride or from the Chinese point-of-view with The Poker Bride. I think “The Buddha in the Attic” would have benefited from a few of those kinds of individual stories.

One chapter I really enjoyed was the final one. I have read quite a bit about the Japanese concentration camps of WWII, but always from the Japanese point-of-view. “The Buddha in the Attic” is the first book I have read that deals with the white Americans who woke up one day to find the classrooms empty, the stores closed, and their towns and cities entirely stripped of the Japanese population that once lived there.

A Zoo in Winter

5.0 out of 5 stars Dreams of manga

A Zoo In Winter

Although I love his work, I don’t know much about the person that is Jiro Taniguchi. I don’t know how much of “A Zoo in Winter”, a story of a young manga artist finding his inspiration, is autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or just plain fiction. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Because true or not, “A Zoo in Winter” (a direct translation of the Japanese title “Fuyu no Dobutsuen”), is an fantastic, touching comic book.

The story begins in 1966, with a young man named Hamaguchi working for a small fabric wholesaler. Hamaguchi has dreams of being a designer, but all he gets is grunt work. After the boss’s daughter uses him as a cover for her elopement, Hamaguchi leaves Kyoto for Tokyo, and a job as an assistant to a popular manga artist. An assistant’s life is also grunt work, coloring in whites and blacks, doing background detail and toner, but Hamaguchi finds himself drawn into the lifestyle. Like all of the assistants, Hamaguchi has aspirations of publishing his own comic, but with his uneventful life, he finds he has nothing to write about. He can drawn beautifully, but he has no experience. An artist named Kikuchi decides to show Hamaguchi the dark side of life, saying “You need to experience a whole load of stuff to write powerful manga,” but it isn’t until Hamaguchi meets Mariko that he finally gets his inspiration. Mariko is sick and physically weak, but her enthusiasm and love are exactly what Hamaguchi needed.

Taniguchi is one of the most versatile artists I know. He can create ultra-masculine, adrenaline surging works like “The Summit of the Gods” and “The Ice Wanderer”, and then with the same hand produce sensitive and romantic works like “A Distant Neighborhood”. If there is a common thread to his writing it is that his stories are all firmly about human beings. Whether scaling a mountain or overcoming their own emotional captivity, Taniguchi’s characters are fully-realized and emotionally connected.

“A Zoo in Winter” falls firmly in the “sensitive and romantic” camp. Whether Hamaguchi is a personal avatar or not, he represents the fear of reaching out for a dream with full knowledge that the end result is most likely failure. While at the fabric factory, he has no initiative of his own, and his life is directed by those around him. When circumstances land him in Tokyo working as a manga assistant, his first impulse is to just fall into a comfortable zone, without taking risks or following his own dreams. He watches others reach out and fail, before understanding that it is the trying, not the succeeding, that is important. And especially with Mariko, whose poor health almost guarantees a bitter ending to their romance, Hamaguchi refuses to give up, taking what time he has with her.

His art, of course, is phenomenal. Taniguchi has a distinct, realistic style that is still recognizable as “manga.” He forgoes any impressionism, and creates ridiculously detailed backgrounds for his characters to move in. There is a reason why Taniguchi is a multiple-Eisner award nominee.

At 231 pages, “A Zoo in Winter” is long enough to tell a complete story, but still leave us hanging on the final page wanting more. The ballad of Hamaguchi and Mariko doesn’t quite finish, and it is up to the reader to speculate on whether their ending is happy or melancholy. On the final page Hamaguchi musses that it would be nice if real life were as easy to plot out and conclude as a manga, but that real life is more complicated. I wonder if that is the message Taniguchi wanted to send as well.


4.0 out of 5 starsThe God of Soldiers

Caterpillar DVD (Region 3) (NTSC) (English Subtitled) Japanese Movie

The first few minutes of “Caterpillar” do not promise a great movie. Shot on what looks like digital video, with bad special effects of a burning building that look like they were done on someone’s home computer, I figured this was yet another low-budget Japanese horror film.

I was wrong.

Nominated for Golden Bear (director) and winner of the Silver Bear (Best actress) at the Berlin International Film Festival, “Caterpillar” is an intense anti-war film, heavily political and nothing even approaching a horror film. Director Wakamatsu Koji made the film in response to the re-release of Mishima Yukio’s militaristic right-wing movie Patriotism, showing the harsh reality of Japan’s military cult of WWII.

Nominally based off of Edogawa Rampo’s banned short story of the same name (Found in Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination), “Caterpillar” shares only the briefest of association with Rampo’s tale. Wakamatsu changed the setting from the Russo-Sino war (where Japan was the victor) to WWII, and swapped the aggressive roles of the husband and wife.

The caterpillar of the title is Kurokawa Tadashi (Katsuya Keigo), who marched bravely off to war and returned a living torso, lacking arms, legs, hearing or speech. His neighborhood honors him as a living God of Soldiers, but his wife Shigeko (Terajima Shinobu) knows a different side of Kurokawa. Lacking anything else, Kurokawa has been reduced to a being of sensations. He eats. He sleeps. And he wants sex. All the time. Shigeko endures as a good wife should, but her hatred of her caterpillar husband overtakes her. To humiliate him, she dresses him in his uniform and hauls him through town in a horse cart, so that everyone can pay homage to the God of Soldiers.

Wakamatsu allows no glory to be shown in war. In Rampo’s story, the caterpillar sustains his injuries in combat, but in “Caterpillar” it is heavily implied that Kurokawa was injured while raping and killing Chinese farm girls in a burning building. Kurokawa is a decorated war hero, but his behavior mocks and degrades his commendations. His wife Shigeko shows the face of a good wife in public, but behind doors we see the suffering she endures. When Shigeko carts Kurokawa around town as a living idol (reminiscent of Johnny Got His Gun), he is the horror of war personified.

I have seen “Caterpillar” as described as having “explicit sex,” but surprisingly this isn’t true, Wakamatsu is an acclaimed Pink Film director, and although he made films like Go, Go Second Time Virgin, he also has to his credits “Violated Angels” and “Angelic Orgasm.” With “Caterpillar,” even though there a sexual element, there is no nudity or titillation. All of the sex scenes are shown from a distance, from a side-view, where you can see Kurokawa’s limbless body hunching on his wife.

“Caterpillar” is a surprisingly great film; very different from what I was expecting. Terajima Shinobu deserved all of the awards she won in the roll of Shigeko, and director Wakamatsu Koji showed once again that Japan’s Pink Film industry is one of the best proving grounds for talented directors.

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