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.

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.

Fire on the Plains

4.0 out of 5 stars Sick Soldier

Fires on the Plain – Criterion Collection

Many people talk about the realism of Ichikawa Kon’s anti-war film “Fire on the Plains” (A poetic translation of Japanese title “Nobi,” meaning the burning off of fields during harvest season). Personally, I don’t think “Fire on the Plains” is realistic at all. It is an expressionistic film, filled with metaphoric imagery and subtle allusion. It is a bleak film, but also a dark comedy filled with gallows humor. In some ways, with the dead-eyed soldiers feasting on human flesh, it could even be a zombie movie.

Based on the novel Fires on the Plain, PFC Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) is caught in a no-man’s land of being a sick soldier. Stricken with tuberculosis, he is too weak to help out with the manual labor of digging air raid shelters, yet too healthy to be treated at the field hospital where a small staff are tending to battle-wounded soldiers. All through the movie Tamura wanders, sometimes joining up with small groups of lost soldiers. He has the charmed luck of the survivor, often being the only one to walk away after all his short-time companions are killed.

One of the most interesting things about “Fire on the Plains” is that it has no point. I think this is the first war film I have seen where the soldiers aren’t pursuing an objective. They have no hill to take. No rendezvous appointment to keep. No enemy to kill. They aren’t even really trying too hard to survive. Tamura and the rest are all just the flotsam and jetsam of war, moving from place to place on the tides of battle. Thoroughly defeated, there is some vague notion of evacuation, but as the promised port lies across the enemy-held territory, they know that attempting the journey is tantamount to suicide. Many of them try anyways.

With nothing driving them, “Fire on the Plains” is made up of moments. Tamura encounters soldiers in various stages of degradation and despair. But the dark moments are peppered with oddball humor. In a Charlie Chaplin homage, a line of soldiers discard their boots for slightly better pairs then passing their leftovers to the soldier behind them. Last in line, Tamura ends up barefoot. In another scene, which was straight Monty Python, some officers seeing a corpse lying face down in the mud and wonder if they will end up like that, to which the body promptly lifts up its head in a classic “I’m not dead yet!” moment.

The only real criticism of “Fire on the Plains” is its one-sided perspective. The Japanese soldiers suffer greatly, yes, but there is little sense that these same soldiers were once raping, enslaving, murdering, and eating the Filipino population before the US came and fought them back. There are only some feint allusions to this, such as Tamura’s senseless killing of a young Filipino girl–an act which shows us that Tamura is no more heroic or decent than the rest–or in the Filipino female soldier’s slaughter of a surrendering Japanese soldier. Without knowing some of the history behind this film, the Japanese soldiers come off as too sympathetic. Sure, they are just the useless grunts ordered to fight by their nation, but it was these same useless grunts ravaging the population just a few months earlier.

The Criterion DVD for “Fire on the Plains” is not bad. There is a booklet essay, an interview with Donald Richie, and a video piece with Ichikawa Kon and actor Mickey Curtis who played one of the soldiers. The picture and subtitles are all up to the usual Criterion standards. There is no commentary track, which is disappointing, but otherwise this is a solid DVD.

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.

Double Victory

5.0 out of 5 stars Something to fight for

Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II

What do you do when you are called on to give your life to defend a county that doesn’t recognize your rights as a human being? That is the question that filled the mind of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in the US during WWII. Back. Filipino. Mexican. Japanese. Indian (both kinds). All were denied the full rights of citizenship from a county that didn’t allow for immigration based on racial lines, and stated that applicants for naturalized citizenship must be “white.”

In choosing to fight for the US, ethnic minorities were hoping to achieve a “double victory;” one victory against the Axis powers, and another against prejudice and injustice at home. They hoped that by volunteering to fight and die for the US, by struggling alongside white people, that they would finally be recognized as full-fledged human beings and that their blood sacrifice would buy them the rights they so desperately deserved.

Ronald Takaki’s “Double Victory: A Multi-Cultural History of America in World War II” is a deeply-affecting book, that tells the stories of the many people fighting for this double victory. In each chapter, Takaki tells the story of a different group, starting with black men and women, then Native American Indians, then Mexicans and Latinos, then the Chinese and Filipino, then the Japanese, and then the Jews. Each chapter is filled with personal stories and interviews, about the particular hardships and prejudices affecting each group, and the similar reactions.

There are so many specific images and stories in “Double Victory” that will stick with me. The Japanese American child, born and raised in the US and speaking only English, who had to start each day of school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while behind the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp. The Japanese American man who fought in the US army during WWI entering the concentration camp in his full military uniform with honors as a silent protest. The black veteran returning from the war, wounded, and being told he had to sit in the back of the bus. The black soldiers who were told during training to be careful not to stray off base, because there were lynchings going on by people who resented seeing black men in US army uniforms.

I was born long after these events, and it is difficult to understand the thought processes of the time. In times of war and desperate need, I can’t imagine turning away an offered hand just because it is the wrong color. But that is exactly what happened. I can’t imagine the US legally discriminating and handing out citizenship on the basis of color, but that is what happened too.

And other countries noticed. Propaganda from Germany and Japan was full of examples of the US’s racial policies, showing how the hypocrisy of “freedom” only applied to those of the correct color. The Alien Land Law act. The Chinese Exclusion act. The Zoot Suit Riot. All of these were wrapped presents to Adolph Hitler and General Tojo. Our promise of democracy was revealed to be the sham it was.

I have read Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb so I am familiar with his take on the racist nature of the war against Japan, and why it differed from the war against Germany. Takaki is a persuasive and interesting writer, who sheds light on some forgotten or purposefully buried corners of US history.

By all but the strictest definitions, I am a white guy. But my grandmother was a Cherokee Indian, my wife is Japanese, and my best friend is black. After reading “Double Victory,” I realize how much I owe to those people who came before me who fought for their rights, and for the rights of their children’s children, and who built the future that I know live in. This book put many things in perspective, and let me appreciate how far we have come. And how far we have to go before the true double victory will be achieved.

Caterpillar

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.

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

4.0 out of 5 stars Japan’s Golden Age of Manga

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

I have been aware of kamishibai for a long time, but actually known very little about it. I mainly knew that my favorite manga artist, Mizuki Shigeru, got his start as a kamishibai artist before transitioning over to the new manga market. I knew that much of the visual language of kamishibai got its start in kamishibai. But not much more. Eric Nash’s “Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Paper Theater,” I found that the gaps in my knowledge were even greater than I could have imagined.

I had no idea that Japan had an active and popular superhero genre years before Superman burst from the pages of Action Comics in 1938. I had no idea that the concept of a cape-wearing, flying, super-strong and invulnerable hero was actually a Japanese creation, not an American one. I had no idea that kamishibai was so popular in Japan that when television first appeared it was known as “electric kamishibai” and that post-WWII MacArthur enlisted kamishibai men to teach Japan in simple terms about things like Democracy and Land Reform.

Nash has done a game job gathering and researching old kamishibai paintings, and telling their story. He starts with the history of emaki illustrated scrolls, and follows the kamishibai art form through transitional periods such as the Depression years, the War years when kamishibai was enlisted for political propaganda for a pro-militarized Japan, then the post-War era when it was used again for politics from the opposite side. He covers Mizuki Shigeru and his emergence in the artform, as well as a few other famous creators and creations.

Of course, “Manga Kamishibai” is first and foremost an art book, and Nash includes several complete adventures, all bright and beautiful. Included are he superhero story “Prince of Gamma and the Sea Monster,” the supernatural “Metamorphosis of the White Fox,” the ninja adventure “Ninja by Night,” the Samurai fable “Tange Sazen,” the political post-Hiroshima “Prayer for Peace,” the Twilight Zone-esque “Mystery Train,” and many more. All of the complete adventures are annotated to give the flow of the story.

The only real problem I had with “Manga Kamishibai” was Nash’s attempts to link kamishibai to modern and unrelated pop culture phenomenon. A ninja jumping off a roof is “evocative of the high-wire acrobatics in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“” even thought that is a Chinese film, not Japanese. The samurai Tange Sazen, with his missing eye, is “Popeye-like.” A scene from “The Prince of Gamma” has “the wistful crepuscular quality that characterized Steve Ditko’s end panels of Spider-Man.” There is almost nothing that Nash can’t draw a line back to some familiar modern character, no matter how fuzzy or illogical.

It comes off like Nash is an expert in American, and not Japanese, pop culture, so he tries to associate the unfamiliar images with something he can recognize that makes sense to him. This also means that less time is spent on some of the topics a more Japan-focused book would be interested in, like original panels of Mizuki Shigeru’s famous “Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro” instead of other Mizuki work. Or even a short section on kamishibai collectors. Do they exist? How many of these works of art have survived?

I am grateful for this book. It was a huge eye opener and I enjoyed it very much. Some of the text could have been better, and some of the focus could have been better, but having an imperfect book on the subject is much better than none at all.

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