What's Up, Spider Lily?

Higanjima is a multiple pun in Japanese. It literally means Equinox Island, or the Yonder Isle, perhaps even The Island on the Other Side. However, as noted by the characters when they first arrive on the notorious “vampire island”, it is also a reference to higanbana (Lycoris radiata), the red-flowered spider lilies whose poisonous bulbs are sometimes strewn at the edges of Japanese farmhouses to kill mice. Flowering around the time of the autumn equinox, spider lilies have become associated in Buddhist tradition with the onset of winter, and hence the threshold between life and death. They should never be presented to a living person.

In Japan, spider lilies are usually associated with graveyards. In Chinese and Japanese legend, they are said to be the flowers that grow in hell, and also the flowers that mark the path towards reincarnation. For this latter reason, they are sometimes presented as bouquets to the deceased at Japanese funerals. Another superstition suggests that if two associates will never meet again, spider lilies will be found in their path as they part. Hence the ominous tension that surrounds the characters as they come ashore at the island, to find that every path, in every direction, bears the flowering symbol of eternal separation and death.

Koji Yamamoto’s original 2003 manga Higanjima was soon snapped up as a game adaptation, turned into a text-based interactive adventure by Now Productions, released in Japan on the PSP in 2005. The action of the 15-rated game would be reflected in the later movie, with the player guiding Akira on his search for his missing brother. The manga story, however, extends far beyond the events in the movie, introducing numerous new forms of enemy, and setting up Higanjima as the perfect survivalist playground – an island that is literally off the map, infested with evil, and inviting return visits by adventurous heroes. Running at thirty volumes and still ongoing, it is also very popular in France, where many volumes have been translated as L’Ile des Vampires.

Higanjima the manga, and its game spin-off are grab-bags of horror ideas. It eagerly mixes the locked-room combat of Battle Royale with the viral horror of Resident Evil, with just a dash of the old-time religion of The Wicker Man, and presents that most tantalising of locations for the role-playing gamer – a private island of adventure, close to home and yet inhabiting a world of myth and magic. Continue reading

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Men in Black

With a gruelling shoot that spanned April 2007 to September 2008 after its leading man’s injury on set, filmed in the sub-tropical heat of Japan’s idyllic Ryukyu island chain, Kamui: The Lone Ninja recreates a lost world of fishing villages on the Inland Sea, a time when the samurai wars were done, and the people of Japan returned to their fields and their boats. It also evokes a savage era where all unwelcome influences were ruthlessly suppressed, and plays with the notion that the Japanese peasantry of the 17th century had formed secret societies of semi-magical assassins.

The son of a renowned left-wing artist, Kamui’s creator Sanpei Shirato (1932- ) was one of the last of the kamishibai painters, making panels of artwork for Japanese “magic lantern” shows. A narrator, or benshi, would tell a lively story to a crowd while pushing pictures through a lit frame. Soon after Shirato’s first kamishibai work, Mister Tomochan (1951), the advent of television destroyed the medium, leading Shirato to transfer his skills into comics. His early work included adaptations of the animal stories of Ernest Seton and works for girls, but it was as the creator of Ninja Bugeicho (Chronicle of a Ninja’s Martial Achievements, 1959-1962) that he achieved true fame. Even in his early days, Shirato was notable for his insistence on an external narrator, a voice outside the story itself that would comment on the action and steer the viewers like an old fashioned benshi.

His first big success in the TV world was Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru (Fujimaru the Wind Ninja, or Ninja the Wonderboy), broadcast in 1962. His original comic was called Ninja Clan, but in a tense compromise for Shirato the committed socialist, the show was renamed to establish a link with its sponsor, Fujisawa Pharmaceuticals. Each episode of the rollicking boys’ drama would open with a Fujimaru theme song that transformed into a jingle for Fujisawa. Notably, it would close with a live-action sequence in which a breathless interviewer would quiz Masaaki Hatsumi, an accomplished martial artist who claimed to know the secrets of the ninja world, and who imparted them to an entire generation of Japanese boys. Continue reading

The Borrower

Since this week is probably the best (and only) time to post anything I have about the Frank Chickens, another article from the vault, this time about Kazuko Hohki’s book Underfloor World (Rondon no Yukashita)

Kazuko Hohki is the driving force behind the Frank Chickens pop phenomenon, but also the author of a Japanese-language book about life in London. Hohki has taken her title, Underfloor World, from The Borrowers, the children’s book that drove her to come to England in the first place. It also influenced her album of the same name and my favourite Frank Chickens song, “Megalomaniacs”.

Underfloor World was first published in serial form, and has a helpful table of contents that facilitates ‘dip-into’ reading. Hohki’s own method of organising her material consists of subdividing the contents lists into seven extra categories: Life, Love, Work, Women, Japan, The World and ‘The Job’ (ie. her personal career). Within these seven areas, she covers an awful lot of ground, and with headings like ‘World Peace through Karaoke’ and ‘The Siberian Grandfather of Punk’, you know you’re going to be on a magic carpet ride to weirdoville.

The happiest readers will already be big fans of the Frank Chickens. You’ll get insider gossip on the band’s many line-up changes, and backstage goings-on as they perform around the world. Those readers who are not already Chickenised may find those sections tiresome, as it often takes it for granted that you will be interested in the band’s activities, or the solo acting career of Hohki herself. After reading a Tokyo Journal article about Hohki, I was under the mistaken impression that her book was a tourist guide to London’s less-known sites, whereas it is in fact a very personal emigrée diary. The title of her original column in Kachin magazine was “Kazuko’s Diary”, which should have been a hint, I suppose.

Hohki’s notes on English life are all the more interesting because they are a window on the way Japanese people view us, and her autobiographical asides are in keeping with a long-standing tradition in Japanese literature. I think I managed to inadvertently insult the author when I told her I’d be recommending her book to students of Japanese. She claims to have modelled her writing style on that of Yukio Mishima, and she certainly reproduces his deadpan, rather British, narrative structure. However, that’s where the resemblance ends.

For a start, Mishima was never this funny. It never ceases to amaze me how the Japanese sense of humour is so close to that of the British. If Douglas Adams ever had the chance to work with such a wonderful book designer, I’m sure that he, too, would include both an Afterword and an Afterafterword, a DIY secret society membership kit, and a fold-out activity section. Also, Hohki has binned Mishima’s pretty but tiresome practice of using hentaigana, extremely difficult characters where simpler ones will do. This makes it easier-going for a start, aided still further by the fact that her subject matter is often already familiar to English-speakers. So while you’ll be reading a book written by a Japanese for the Japanese, you may find that it’s much easier to relate to the material. Can you really resist a deadpan discussion of the British penchant for Irish jokes, or a Japanese view of what it’s like to live in East London? I know that I can’t, and if you’re one of the increasing number of readers who tell us they’re learning Japanese, Underfloor World would be a rewarding place to begin looking at the Real Thing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in Anime FX magazine, sometime in 1996, as part of a Japanese-language book round-up under the original title “The Real Thing”.

We Are Ninja (not Geisha)

In honour of Stewart Lee’s tirade against modern evils, and the possibility that the Frank Chickens might become comedy gods…

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The Frank Chickens are a trio, or a duo. Sometimes they’re more like an octo. But anyway, they’re all Japanese. Apart from the ones who aren’t. In fact, the Frank Chickens are a nebulous entity, born from the London Musicians’ Collective. They’ve had more members over the last ten years than Spinal Tap have had drummers, but the one unifying figure is the incomparable Kazuko Hohki. This one-woman entertainment conglomerate is a journalist, singer, dancer, puppeteer (don’t ask, but it involves Godzilla and Jack Kerouac) and educational psychology graduate. She also hosted Kazuko’s Karaoke Club for Channel 4 in 1987, whose quick demise brought sighs of relief from all over TV-land.

Hohki is a practised outsider, a professional gaijin if you will, whose concentrated weirdness has also received attention in her country of origin. She even wrote and starred in a Japanese sit-com called 90 Days Tottenham Pub, about the Frank Chickens’ ill-fated attempt to marry gay English aristocrats for a visa fiddle. There’s a lot of it about in Tottenham.

Hohki’s other claim to fame in her homeland is her concerted efforts to convince the Japanese that England isn’t all red buses and Harrods. Her book Underfloor World is a tourist guide for the Japanese non-tourist in the UK, presumably citing Tottenham as a major spot of perverse historical interest.

If you have ever seen the UK depicted on Japanese television, you will see something very different from ‘real life’. The Japanese media present a very idealised picture of our faraway land, selling Nescafé on the idea that it is drunk by tweeded Oxbridge undergraduates, with tourist programmes that concentrate on the more asinine elements of our national culture. Thus it is that Kazuko Hohki’s songs can really shock her  home audience, who are faced with tales about the wide boy ‘Johnny Reggae’, and the dreary everyday life of  ‘Living in Tottenham.’

Hohki lives in the no-man’s-land between her two ‘homes’, and she is equally uncompromising in her treatment of traditional Japanese stereotypes. ‘We are ninja’ is arguably their trademark, a poppy track that says while Westerners like to think of Japanese girls as demure geisha, these girls would rather be assassins: “You’re a ninja / I’m a ninja / Amidst the blinding sand / we disappear.” They also claim to feel up alligators on the train; not the kind of girls you’d like to meet among the cherry blossoms, that’s for sure. The real joy in ‘We are ninja’ comes when you find out the nonsensical chants in the background actually mean something in Japanese; this is another typically Frank Chickens touch, and it can lend a whole new level of appreciation to their music, not unlike discovering ‘Showaddywaddy’ means something obscene in Swahili. (It doesn’t, by the way).

There is similar in-yer-face bricolage in ‘Do the karaoke’, which begins like one more depressing Japanese ballad, but soon perks up when we hear “…I dumped my love in the Sumida river.” Some of the Frank Chickens’ best work is in a similar vein, not only because they can have a lot of fun mincing up the lyrics of traditional songs, but also because they can show off their musical ability. Some songs sound suspiciously like those 80s ‘electronic’ hits, where some muppet had just discovered what the green button did on his Casio, but there are also some marvellous tracks which incorporate traditional supporting instrumentals from the obscenely talented Clive Bell.

The Frank Chickens remain very much a live group, rather than studio performers. Occasionally the songs on their albums seem to be missing a certain something, and you can only find out exactly what when you see them live. Hohki makes no secret of her wish to be a permanent amateur, kicking her heels around the edges of  the Tokyo/London pop scene and doing her best never to become ‘too English’ or ‘too Japanese’. She told the Tokyo Journal that London is the best place for her to ‘be herself’, and her real vocation seems to be standing up in front of bemused foreigners and trying to get them to be as zany and free as she is. This is what you’ll see at a Frank Chickens concert, where you’re treated to their silly costumes, their insane dancing, and their nasty habit of dragging members of the audience up on stage to humiliate themselves. This is not a particularly ‘Japanese’ habit, unless you count karaoke bars as institutions of ritualised humiliation, but this is yet another thing that makes Hohki and friends so exciting. They are not exclusively Japanese or exclusively British, but they live in a strange world between both cultures, and that gives them an insight and appeal that calls out to the weird in us all.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in Anime UK magazine in 1995.

The Mongol Armada

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.

The attempted invasion of Japan was, with hindsight, the moment when the Mongols’ legendary invincibility was called into question for the first time – a sign that the tide of barbarian invasion had finally begun to ebb. The Mongols had experienced setbacks in the past, but had always, eventually, returned home with, at very least, the nominal submission of their enemies.

Logistically, the Japanese invasion project was no smaller than the Mongol enterprises to take the empires of the Tangut, Jurchen or the Southern Song. However, historically, it became literally world famous. It is in Marco Polo’s awestruck account of the plan to invade Japan that the island kingdom first enters European consciousness. When, 200 years later, Christopher Columbus waded ashore on a remote Caribbean island in search of ‘Cipangu’, he was merely the latest inheritor of Khubilai’s propaganda, convinced that Japan was an island of untold wealth, there for the taking.

Many Japanese accounts leap straight to the arrival of the first great Mongol fleet off the coast, and the heroic efforts by the samurai to hold them back. However, Chinese and Korean annals present a very different story, and show the size of the Mongol threat steadily growing throughout the 1260s. The first approaches to Japan were little more than honeyed words and oblique threats, escalating in severity as years passed without a direct Japanese submission to Khubilai.

The first signs of the Mongol invasion are rumours and tall tales from mainland visitors, the mere ghosts of direct contact, as careful Korean obfuscations kept the Mongols and the Japanese from making actual contact. Although history largely remembers the two great, apocalyptic battles in Hakata Bay and their almost supernatural ending, lesser accounts record a number of skirmishes long before the infamous days of reckoning. There were kidnappings and secret deals in the Korea Strait years before the Mongol armada officially set sail, and there was even a pre-emptive Japanese strike on the Korean coast, which saw part of the intended invasion fleet burned where it stood in the shipyards. Small parties of emissaries travelling aboard the ships of others, gradually transformed through the 1260s into an ambassador with his own honour guard and his own military escort: two ships, then a dozen, then hundreds.

If we piece together the scattered references to ‘Dwarf Pirates’ or the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ in mainland chronicles, we become witness to the inexorable gathering of a terrible storm. The question that remains for the modern historian to ponder is whether the Japanese or Mongols ever appreciated the terrible odds they both faced.

Jonathan Clements is also the author of Marco Polo, available now in paperback and on the Kindle (US/UK).

Leaping Through Clouds

There’s always something new to say about Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. And I don’t mean lurid innuendo about his private life, or schmuck-baiting insinuations about his sexuality. Finland’s beloved Marshal is orbited by a publishing industry that now includes a Mannerheim cookbook and a Mannerheim comic, with a history that touches on a dozen countries. He was a truly cosmopolitan figure, the “last knight” of the Tsarist aristocracy and a hero of the nascent Finnish nation. He saw the prophetic trench conflict of that grotty little war between Russia and Japan over Manchuria, and he witnessed the twilight days of two empires.

His epic ride across Asia in 1906-8 would have been the crowning glory of his career, were it not for the intervention of wider world events in his forties. But with a life overshadowed by his role in the Finnish Civil War and World War Two, his arduous reconnoitring of China remains largely forgotten. Across Asia, his mammoth account of his journey, was not published until 1940, and even then in a limited run of only 500 copies. It has taken until the 21st century for the scholar Harry Halén to publish a restored retranslation that brought Mannerheim’s Asian adventure to a wider audience, and several further years for someone to publish the inevitable companion, a modern travelogue that traverses Asia in Mannerheim’s footsteps – The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China.

Author Eric Enno Tamm is a journalist with firm ecological credentials and no fear of rattling cages. Applying for a visa in Vancouver, Tamm finds his path blocked by Chinese officialdom, but this only spurs him even more to imitate his hero. Forbidden entry as a Canadian journalist, he wings it in true Mannerheim fashion, by travelling under an Estonian passport. And off he goes, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving a trail of irritated guides, furtive contacts and frustrated jobsworths behind him, contrasting Mannerheim’s accounts of Chinese militarism with his own 21st century perspective on what China is doing to its own environment and citizens.

Tamm’s quest is resolutely, bullishly inquisitive. He is arrested and interrogated by the Turkmen police before he even reaches China. He pokes his nose into the activities of clandestine missionaries, quotes harsh criticisms from named sources, and chronicles ecological disasters along the way. He has an eye for the fabric of life in Central Asia: not only the subtle exclusion of Muslim locals from a hotel restaurant that does not serve halal food, but also giggling tourists in shorts blundering around a sacred mosque, and the zealots who think they should be murdered for it.

His journey is riddled with historical coincidences and parallels. He enjoys the allure of “new bottles for old wine”, such as the paradoxical insistence of Maoist doctrine on blind faith, or the suggestion that the Red Guards who once smashed temples of Confucius could only become such fanatics after being raised in an essentially Confucian culture.

Like Mannerheim before him, Tamm travels undercover. He gets annoyed with his interpreters and jumpy in the presence of the Army, ever unsure who has shopped him and who is watching. But he also meets the movers and shakers of his age, and powerful evocations of the past, such as his encounter with the great-great-grandson of the woman Mannerheim knew as the Queen of the Alai Kirghiz. Tamm’s text fleshes out Mannerheim’s journey with historical contexts and adds data unknown in 1906.

Tamm’s habit of adding tangents, breaking modern conversations with historical musings and flashbacks within flashbacks, creates a knowing pastiche of oriental story telling. Like the legendary Scheherazade, Tamm delays explanations and often throws in punchlines after long diversions. It is endlessly entertaining, but also a means by which some issues are first postponed, and then conveniently forgotten. It is, for example, unclear to me how he evades the canny diplomat Wang Jiaji, who rumbles him in Urumqi, and asks straight-up if he is “the Canadian travelling in Mannerheim’s footsteps.”

There is much written about photographs taken and images seen, but these are oddly absent from the book itself, at least in this hardback edition. For the full experience of “reading” Tamm’s journey, one must also have a web browser open to his richly appointed website of parallel resources. Tamm has shown himself to be a shrewd manipulator of modern media, and offers Tweets, Facebookery and a blog to enhance the experience. One wonders if The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds awaits a true destiny, perhaps after its US appearance, likely awards and hopeful best-sellerdom, when foreign rights buyers decide to incorporate pictures by both Mannerheim and Tamm into editions in French, Russian, Swedish, or Finnish – the most likely territories to jump at the chance for translation rights. I don’t see it coming out in Chinese in a hurry, though Tamm will take that as a compliment.

Tamm undertook his journey in 2006, and must surely have been planning to publish in 2008, on the centenary of Mannerheim’s return from the Far East, or 2009, the centenary of Mannerheim’s report on China. Perhaps because of the publication of Halén’s revised book, perhaps for complex reasons to do with award qualification and publicity, The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds has an official US publication date of 2011, but has sneaked out in hardback in its native Canada several months early, offering an irresistible temptation to anyone looking for an exclusive Christmas present for the Mannerheim fan in their life.

The book alludes to James Palmer’s Bloody White Baron as forthcoming, and includes Paul Pelliot’s Carnets de Route in its bibliography, although it does not dig too deeply into Pelliot’s rich veins of anti-Mannerheim invective. All of which I take to mean that Tamm’s book was delivered to his publishers at roughly the same time as my own – I only squeezed Pelliot in during the revision stage. If so, this would explain why there is no mention of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy in Tamm’s otherwise thorough bibliography. My book must have come out while his was going through galleys, which makes it all the more fun to find him elucidating points I only skim, or asking questions that my own book answers. Both of us break with tradition by making Mannerheim’s Asian trip the centrepiece of his life, contrasted with earlier writers who place WW2 in the foreground. Moreover, we are both unrepentant in our assertion that Mannerheim was a Tsarist spy, a concept that has been vigorously denied by at least one diplomat, although even at the time, I thought he protested a little too much.

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds is an anti-travel book, a guide to places no tourist in their right mind would ever want to see. Its author departs for home literally sick of China, coughing and spluttering, plagued by headaches and recounting multiple intestinal upsets. One sees, perhaps, what one wants to see, and Tamm has little time for uplifting local colour or heartwarming encounters. A trained observer of the land, but perhaps not of the people, he reads the environment well, even if his access to its inhabitants is limited. His book is a damning account of a China that looms over our future, a “coal-fired dragon” vastly more threatening than the tinpot empire derided by Mannerheim’s 1909 report, part of the onrushing, dark, satanic crescendo that Tamm calls the “din of the modern world.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

The Courts of Chaos

Just back from Saint Petersburg, one of the most amazing cities I have ever seen, on the trail of Mannerheim as always, and also putting together material for another book project, about the activities of Japanese spies in pre-Revolutionary Russia. By the side of the glittering River Neva, I dropped in on Alexander Nevsky, at his last resting place near the Nevsky Monastery on Nevsky Place, at one end of Nevsky Prospect, the glorious boulevard that stretches all the way across the city to the Winter Palace.

I walked the whole length of it, breathing in the ghosts of Mannerheim and Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and stopped off at the Moscow Station, just off the Square of the Uprising with its soaring star-topped column, to see the schematic diagram of the Russian rail system, a hundred feet across. It is like a subway map of the gods, a to-do list for Princes in Amber, a Cyrillic alternate-universe version of the London Tube, where the East London Line terminates in Sarmarkand, and the Central Line stretches on not to Hainault, but to Alma Ata. After a name change and a switch in wheels, it continues on to Beijing and Vladivostok — and there is something wondrous about standing in a train station that will take you to the Far East. Near the Church on the Spilled Blood, I bought a copy of one of my own books in Russian, as a gift for our host Alexey.

This was where Mannerheim commenced his two-year trek across Asia as part of what the Russians called the Tournament of Shadows, a journey that took him out across the Sea of Death to the edge of the world. At a cafe near the Museum of Russia’s Secret Police, I ate a meal that would have charmed Roger Zelazny, of dumplings from the Ural Mountains dipped in smetana, and dumplings from Siberia sprinkled with dill, seeing a slow transformation from west to east. Add soy sauce and chili, and you have jiaozi. Look east from Saint Petersburg, and the next border you cross can be China’s. Or Japan’s.

It’s hard to believe this was ever Leningrad. Someone has twisted the time streams, allowing the old imperial capital of Saint Petersburg to reassert itself with a vengeance, cramming the 20th century into the shadows. Golden, double-headed eagles shine on the tops of the lamp-posts, and the former Museum of Atheism has ben rededicated under its old name, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.