The Good Life

Kei is wearing outrageous trousers, with a plaid pattern sure to induce a migraine if I watch too hard. He stares at his golf ball intently, and then out towards the distant 18th hole as if planning a big project. But those days are gone.

“I got into anime in 1988,” says Kei. “That’s a generation ago. My son wasn’t even born then, now he’s in college. But twenty years is enough, you know? I’ve done the late nights and the lean years. I want to enjoy myself now. I want to get out. I want…” And with this he whacks the ball several hundred feet down the fairway. “I want to play golf.”

Kei cashed in his shares in the studio he started, a few months after he resigned as chairman. Now he’s comfortably well-off. I, however, am just about to collapse from heat prostration. I volunteered to be the caddy. I’ve never owned golf clubs, and his little trolley looked easy to pull along. That was before I realised that it’s summer here in Australia.

Kei lumbers off towards the ball’s last known location. I stumble along behind him, dragging the clubs.

“Yeah,” he continues. “I went to the conventions. I went to the premieres, but that was my job. I don’t sleep in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis pyjamas.” He judiciously selects a club, and sidles up to the ball.

“Did you see the balance sheet for the company?” he says, glancing back for a moment.

With another WHACK, the ball whooshes towards the green. Kei ambles along in its wake, the club slung over his shoulder.

“I cashed out at just the right moment. The buyers got twenty pieces of intellectual property. All the copyrights and whatnot. Those things are little money-earning machines if they use them right.”

Yes, I say, but there was a certain controversy about the lack of actual money in the company funds when he left.

“Do you actually know what companies are for…?” he asks me carefully.

I hem and haw for a while… and realise that I really don’t.

“I’ve done my job. I’ve put in the hours. Now I want to enjoy it,” he says. “My company was a success. But now I want to have my piece of that success and retire. If I worked in a bank for twenty years, you wouldn’t be looking at me like that. Just because I worked in anime, you think I should drop dead at a drawing board. Give me the putter.”

He squares up and eyes the eighteenth hole at close range.

“No way,” he mutters. “I did my time. I worked for years for poverty wages. And when the going was good, yeah, I had thousand-dollar bottles of wine and lunches to die for. It was my company! That was my reward!

“I started with nothing! The people who bought my company have got twenty franchises, twenty revenue streams. Yeah, maybe there’s no actual money there, but there’s brands, and titles, and future format potential. There’s a damn sight more than when I started. Deal with it.”

The ball drops into the hole with a plastic clatter.

(This article first appeared in NEO #72, 2010)

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Togo in America (1911)

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements. Available now in the UK and soon in the US.

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The Americans were even more overwhelming in their reaction, leaving Togo taken aback at their enthusiasm and their energy. The pushy welcome began on the night that the Lusitania docked, when Togo found a midnight reception committee determined to whisk him onto land before dawn. Soon after, he faced a gesticulating, yelling wall of journalists and photographers, from whom his American minders selected a lucky foursome to take his picture. Togo stood to attention and stared grumpily into the cameras, only to discover that the paparazzi wanted him in a multiplicity of poses and aspects. He seemed particularly galled by the constant strobing of camera flashes. One single image, it seemed was not enough, and Togo suffered an excruciating fifteen minutes of man-handling and exhortations, until Chandler Hale, the Third Assistant Secretary of State, came to his rescue.

‘I have been beaten by the zeal of those cameramen,’ quipped Togo. ‘It is rather easier to fight the world squadrons than meeting those men.’

Faced with his customary silence, the American press filled in the blanks for themselves, with ruminations on the loneliness of command in the mysterious East, or patronising conjecture about what Togo might have said, had he been in a position to utter more than a few phrases. He was taken on a train to Washington, by a welcoming committee that plainly assumed he had never seen a train before, and whose excited fishing for compliments on American railways he found rudely obtuse.

The New York World concentrated on Togo’s encounter with local telephone exchange workers, whose place of work he visited on his way to the railway station. Dismissed as ‘Hello Girls’ in the early 20th century, switchboard operators were subject of contemporary gossip – a woman on the other end of a phone line, ready, in a certain sense, to do one’s bidding, and hence something of an erotic frisson. They were also habitually condescended to as bimbos, hence the World’s scoffing at the New York switchboard operators’ failure to remember to greet Togo with the correct cheer, which, the reporter assured his readers, was Banzai: ‘Ten Thousand Years’.

Other American crowds were soon educated by their press as to the expected form of address, and Togo was greeted with wild cries of Banzai everywhere he went. This verbal assault did not even escape him when riding in a government limousine, since on one occasion he found himself in an impromptu race with a car full of hysterical (and possibly drunken) flappers, who yelled Banzai at him and waved their handkerchiefs while the Admiral looked on in surprised amusement. At no point did Togo risk shaming his hosts by pointing out the unwelcome truth, which was that Banzai at the time was a military salute more appropriate to the gruff, tough army, whereas the more cultured Navy tended to salute with calls of Hoga: ‘Respectful Congratulations’.

The attention was clearly getting to Togo, as was the press’s constant demand that he say something, no matter how ill-informed or unfelt.

‘I have been frequently asked what I thought of America,’ he said with a rare scolding tone. ‘But isn’t it asking me too much? I have landed here only this morning, and I have nothing to tell.”

Structuring Absences

From 1990 to 1992, I lived in a world without television. The first year was in Leeds, living in student digs, getting up to speed in Chinese and Japanese. Then, I was in the Far East in the days before the internet, when a simple question and answer to distant correspondents was a two-week round trip by aerogramme. Snippets of news drifted in, spied in arcane newspapers, mentioned in letters from home. Isaac Asimov died. So did Freddie Mercury. And entirely without my realising, the Soviet Union collapsed. I got home to discover that the Cold War was over, the map had been redrawn and Red Russia had been swept away.

Which is why, perhaps, I feel a certain affinity for the hapless sometime hero of David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – the Dutchman who finds himself at the edge of the world, in Dejima, that foreign field that was the easternmost terminus of the great Dutch trading empire. Dejima, as prominently featured in last year’s The Secret of the Sword, was a fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbour, where foreign devils from Europe were quarantined by the Japanese. In Secret of the Sword, it was the finish line, the protagonist’s symbol of ultimate escape. In Thousand Autumns, it is a prison in all but name, from which de Zoet yearns to fly free. It all depends on which side of the bridge you’re on.

I have heard Mitchell called an acolyte of Haruki Murakami. Is this because he is the only Japanese author reviewers have heard of, or because they see in Thousand Autumns an echo of Murakami’s parallel narratives and structuring absences? Mitchell’s book is obsessed with those moments where the world can change with the tick of a clock, and in the long, seemingly eventless periods where nothing busily happens, even as the storm gathers. There are parallels, seemingly inadvertent, with today’s financial crisis, as de Zoet discovers his money is worthless, and, yes, there are echoes with the early novels of Murakami, such as Hear the Wind Sing, in which the text would curve oddly around an unspoken gravity well, daring the reader to deduce what it was.

Jacob de Zoet is on Dejima, under duress, stuck with an unpleasant multinational band sailing under Dutch flags. Moreover, he is there at a crucial moment in history, when the world order of the 18th century crumbles suddenly into the world order of the 19th. Overnight, literally, at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century, the Dutch East India Company, that association of wily merchants and privateers who had fought against Coxinga and wheeled and dealed in the China Seas, was suddenly no more. Within a generation, the Dutch in Asia were replaced by the British, commencing a whole new era in Asian history. Mitchell’s text is swimming with period dialogue and concepts, knee-deep in Dutchness, as the world de Zoet once knew is revealed to disappearing forever.

And there is a romance, of sorts. There are many women in de Zoet’s life, although we only see one close up, and she is somehow beyond his reach. Sometimes, one wonders if the Thousand Autumns is not a single novel but a file containing three abortive attempts to begin. De Zoet himself is marginalised after the first third; his Dejima frustrations forgotten as Mitchell’s story takes on more fantastical elements, eschewing his pin-sharp reconstruction of Dejima for tantalising speculations about the monastery of a fictional wacko sect. Elements come to the fore of a Tokugawa-era Handmaid’s Tale, as Mitchell slaps the reader with the realisation that a heretofore minor character is far more central than one thought. It is, in a sense, a remarkably Japanese experience, confronting the idle reader with the abyss of meanings unexplored. To the attentive real-world linguist, every day in Japanese feels that way, drama or not.

But this is Mitchell’s theme throughout, a surgical metaphor of trauma and healing, hinted in the opening gore of a troubled birth, and picked at throughout like a scab. None of us ever really knows which character we are truly playing, or in whose story. What De Zoet believes to be his own failings as a traditional hero are later revealed to be crucial links in a chain of events that change a number of lives. And in the final, moving time-lapse sequence, encompassing decades in a page like some prose version of the end of Zardoz, we see de Zoet getting the only reward he can expect in this life, but maybe not the next.

Rah Rah Rah

Teenager Ayato Kamina believes that he has grown up in the last city on Earth – Tokyo, protected by its defensive shield from an alien attack 15 years earlier. But Tokyo is really under alien control, its citizens are dupes of the invaders, and the “creatures” that are assaulting it are actually the human resistance trying to break through.

No, this is not a manga. This is a novel based on the first five episodes of a 2002 Japanese cartoon, itself a derivative respray of Neon Genesis Evangelion, with a twist straight out of The Matrix.

Writer Hiroshi Ohnogi unwisely uses multiple first-person viewpoints for people who all sound exactly alike. This makes very little sense unless you’ve already seen the scenes it recounts, with Ohnogi hoping his readers’ memories of the TV series will fill in blanks like, you know, description, background and characterisation. In his Afterward (sic), he boasts that he got the writing job because he went to school with the director. The translation isn’t even sure what tense it should be in, which doesn’t help.

(This review first appeared in DreamWatch magazine sometime in 2008. I think they were hoping that as a Japan specialist, I would find some redeeming feature in the book, which is truly one of the worst I have ever read).

Johnny Chinaman: Admiral Togo and the British

Free lecture at the Japan Foundation, Russell Square House, 10-12 Russell Square, London

7th July 2010, from 6.30pm

Launching his new biography with an illustrated talk, author Jonathan Clements will examine the turbulent relationship between a Japanese war hero and the people of Britain. Feted as the ‘Nelson of the East’ after his victory over the Russian fleet in the battle of Tsushima, Admiral T?g? Heihachir? (1848-1934) returned in triumph to the UK, where he had studied as a youth at a Kent maritime college.

The young T?g?’s English schoolmates had taunted him with the nickname Johnny Chinaman. He later lived in Greenwich, and worked in an Isle of Dogs shipyard on the next generation of Japanese warships. He also stayed with a family in Cambridge, where he was once mistaken for a juggler. Returning to the Far East, he became infamous in the letters page of the Times, when he controversially sank a British-registered transport. All this, however, was forgotten when he sank the Tsar’s navy at Tsushima 1905: the high point of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, followed by his celebrated world tour, which brought him back to the UK 99 years ago this month.

This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To reserve a place, please e-mail your name to eliza (at) hauspublishing.com.

Justice is Blind

A much-loved movie icon in the 1960s, and a familiar face on Japanese TV in the 1970s, Zatoichi defined an era in Japanese period drama. The name was a pun, meaning either Ichi the Fourth-Ranking Disabled (a reference to samurai-era guilds), or Ichi the Master of the Sword. He was one of many itinerant onscreen trouble-shooters, but he was special – a blind warrior who occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, a sometime minstrel or masseur, a lover of booze and gambling, and a “hero” who would often not even take part in the final confrontation. When Zatoichi blew into town, he was a hero who led by example, whose greatest victory was helping others help themselves.

(From my article on Fumihiko Sori’s remake ICHI — you can read the rest of it here).

Attack of the Space Leeches

We shall, as is traditional, have to call the show in question Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. The Japanese had left two episodes of it with the TV channel. Bigwig the producer was so important that he could only schedule the meeting during his lunch hour, which was why the opening teaser played out to the room over the sounds of him grazing on a salad.

I watched as the superheroes gathered onscreen to save the world from alien parasites. Across the table, a figure we’ll call Gothboy thumbed listlessly at his cellphone. Bigwig shovelled another forkful of salad into his mouth as a Martian general threatened to conquer the Earth.

We hadn’t even got to the theme song, before Bigwig slapped both hands on the table, leaned forward and called the meeting to order.

“Right,” he said. “What can we do with this?”

He was blocking my view of the screen. I leaned to the side to get a better view.

“We could replace the music?” said Gothboy.

Behind his head, the jaunty theme song had kicked in. It had been a number one hit in Japan, but Gothboy had better ideas.

“This would be really great with Cradle of Filth rocking out on top of it,” suggested Gothboy. “Or someone similar. My mate Dave’s got a band that’s a bit like them. They might be cheaper.”

“We could replace the original language?” suggested a woman who had been sitting so quietly behind a potted plant that I hadn’t even noticed her.

“Yes, Fiona!” said Bigwig. “We could get someone famous to do the voices!”

“Jordan?”

“Someone famous.”

We were still only a couple of minutes into the first episode. The people around the table had given it all of thirty seconds before launching in to ways of how they might change it.

“Can you translate it?” Bigwig asked me, all of a sudden.

“Not translate-translate,” added Fiona. “He means: translate it so it’s good.”

“I can translate what people are saying…” I began.

“Yeah, I don’t want to know what they are saying. I want you to write a script that’s better than that.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer,” I ventured, “to know what they are saying first? Then you would know if you wanted to change it.”

Bigwig, Fiona and Gothboy exchanged sidelong glances.

“We want it to be good,” affirmed Gothboy.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said, “that a million Japanese viewers tell you it’s good already, without any interference.”

“We’ll make it better,” said Bigwig.

“But still faithful to the original,” added Fiona hastily.

“Faithful to the original,” continued Bigwig, “but with more Zhzhh.”

“And change the names,” said Gothboy. “So they sound less… Japanese.”

“And we’ll put some music on it from Cradle of Filth,” said Bigwig.

“Or my mate Dave’s band, if they’re cheaper…” said Gothboy, carefully.

I stared at them open-mouthed.

“Trust us,” said Bigwig. “This is what we get paid for.”

“Otherwise,” said Fiona with a snort, “We’d be out of a job!”

“You haven’t even seen it!” I protested. “Did you buy it just to change it?”

Gothboy’s cellphone erupted in a disco version of the James Bond theme.

“Better take this,” he said. “It’s important.”

(This article first appeared in NEO #71, 2010)