Call the Sushi Police

I’ve long given up expecting decent oriental food in the small town where I live, but sometimes even I get riled about the low expectations of the customers and the cooks. Exhibit A: the monstrous abomination that shuffled into view at the local sushi buffet, when the mainland Chinese who used to run it sold out to a bunch of Thais, and within days they were putting processed cheese on the maki rolls and leaving out platters of tuna sandwiches!

There are limits, and if there was such a thing as the Sushi Police, I would definitely have called them. In the anime series directed by Tatsushi Momen, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki are enforcers for the Japanese government, making sure that restaurants around the world are serving proper, traditional sushi, and none of these madcap overseas inventions. First screened in Japan in 2016, Sushi Police was commissioned amid a certain braggart mood in Japan that the Olympics were coming soon, and that the world was sure to become so obsessed with Japan that its far-flung corners would need an inspectorate to slap any slipping standards out of them.

One wonders, however, about where cultural policing disappears so far up itself that it becomes a cure that’s deadlier than the disease. Sushi started off as an utterly commonplace snack food in samurai-era Tokyo, slung together with fresh ingredients and a dash of sauce, no weirder than a hot dog… albeit usually not actually hot. And this wouldn’t be the first time that an “authentic” food had evolved abroad. As the name implies, one of my favourite varieties, the California Roll, has origins far away from bay-side Tokyo, and is all the better for it.

But in Japan there are super-high-end establishments for people much posher than you and me, which have a whole set of rules of their own. There are sushi bars that only run two sittings a night, where seats are booked months in advance, where you pay in advance and forfeit your money if you are five minutes late. There’s no reaching for the soy sauce here – the chef decides on the flavouring you need, not the flavouring you want. And in order to avoid offending the fine palates of your fellow diners, you are not allowed to wear any form of perfume.

Would the Sushi Police crack down on them, too, for being ridiculously snooty, or would they secretly approve of such white-collar crime?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. This article first appeared in NEO #207, 2021.

The AIUEO Song

‘“The AIUEO Song” was one of several films screened in the Japanese empire to teach the Japanese writing system to schoolchildren, released close behind the tunes “Flower of Patriotism” and “Our Unity” – there are accounts of all three being screened repeatedly. Digging around in the archives, Takashi Kayama has uncovered another version of the song, released on vinyl by Nippon Columbia in November 1942, and recorded by schoolchildren in Singapore, seemingly native Chinese speakers struggling to get the sounds exactly right.’

Over at the All the Anime blog, I delve into new revelations about the singalong Japanese lesson that forms an early highlight of Momotaro, Sacred Sailors.

Terminal Boredom

‘Suzuki excels at unreliable narration. In the Bradbury-esque “Night Picnic” (translated by Sam Bett), four creatures that identify as human beings pore over a library of forgotten books, comically and ham-fistedly trying to reconstruct what it means to be an Earthling. In “That Old Seaside Club” (translated by Helen O’Horan), a possibly drug-addled glimpse of seafront nightlife turns out to be the hallucinatory refuge of a doleful housewife, reliving a replay of her twenties heyday. In much the same fashion, in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (translated by Aiko Masubuchi), a woman’s recounting of her night-club experiences carries a niggling, growing sense that time is not working in the way it should, and that her perception of the passing of the minutes and the passing of the years might be confused.’

Over at All the Anime, I review the new collection of science fiction stories by the late Izumi Suzuki.

How Do You Live?

“Copper is adept at finding out things for himself, and the reader shares in his joy as he uncovers such things as the supply chain that puts a mouthful of Australian dairy milk onto his Tokyo breakfast table – the cows and the milkers and the factory and the freight train and the steamship… Uncle is there to point out that what he is actually talking about is the ‘relations of production,’ and gently tries to inform him about the basic principles of Marxist economics.”

Over at All the Anime, I’ve been reading the book of Hayao Miyazaki’s next film.

Koichi Yamano

“Yamano decried Japanese sf for living in ‘prefabricated housing’ of American construction, alluding to the powerful influence of US mass media on post-war Japan. Naming names, he argued that he saw no originality in the works of Aritsune Toyota and Fujio Ishihara, that Shinichi Hoshi and Ryū Mitsuse had reached the limits of the restricted conceptual areas they had established for their fiction, and that Sakyō Komatsu and Yasutaka Tsutsui, while achieving greater literary merit, were still merely ‘remodelling’ a paradigm established in the ‘US petit-bourgeois opportunism’ and ‘banal realism’ of authors like Robert A Heinlein, or the ‘optimistic logic of great powers’ he claimed to see in the works of Isaac Asimov.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the New Wave advocate Koichi Yamano, who also wrote stuff about princes from a sunken kingdom and a runaway haunted train.

Spirited Away at 20

‘”My favourite scene from Spirited Away is actually when they are wandering through the town in the beginning, because for certain audiences it creates an incredible sense of tension,” says Clements. “The English-language version doesn’t translate the signs all around Chihiro’s family in the street, but they are all goblin-market-level creepy. That’s not an opticians, it’s an ‘eyeball shop’, and it’s even advertising FRESH ONES just in…’

Over at BBC Culture, Arwa Haider interviews me about the long-term appeal of Spirited Away. Bit crazy for them to keep sticking my title in the pull-quotes, but a nice piece nonetheless.

Masami Fukushima

“Unfortunately for Fukushima, the authors he insulted in 1969 became the chief representatives of Japanese science fiction of the late twentieth century, and ultimately the custodians of its historical memory, turning his posthumous footprint into an occasional walk-on role in the memoirs of others.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the founding editor of SF Magazine in Japan, a critic brought down by karma…?

Grave of the Fireflies

“Grave of the Fireflies was rushed out unfinished, with one scene still uncoloured in the initial print – such a shameful embarrassment that Takahata’s career was proclaimed over (again), until Miyazaki rescued him by promising to be the producer of his follow-up. If Miyazaki is jokingly known as the Guy Who Keeps Trying to Retire, I might suggest that Takahata is the Guy Who Keeps Getting Told ‘You’ll Never Work in This Town Again.'”

Over at All the Anime, I review Alex Dudok de Wit’s BFI Film Classic on Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies.

Ryu Mitsuse

“Published shortly before his death, Ihon Saiyūki [“An Alternate Journey to the West”] was written from Mitsuse’s hospital bed, and reimagines Wu Cheng-en’s novel Xi You Ji [“Journey to the West”] — a.k.a. Monkey. Mitsuse’s version both demythologizes and remythologizes the text, stripping away the pious Buddhist tone of the original to suggest that the true story was not one of a medieval monk travelling to India in search of sacred scrolls, but of an agent sent to Samarkand in search of scientific and technical knowledge, accompanied by three condemned men whose sentences will be commuted if their mission is somehow successful.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the author Ryu Mitsuse (1928-1999).