Who Critiques the Critics…?

denison-cover-300x450Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Rayna Denison’s book Anime: A Critical Introduction, which delves into such matters as how nasty was the reaction to the video nasty Legend of the Overfiend; how classy is the whole output of Studio Ghibli; and how is anime sold at Japanese trade fairs?

Holy Ghosts

suterMy review of Rebecca Suter’s Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction, is up now on the All the Anime blog.

“[The book] does not shy away from Endo and his ilk, but as her beautiful and striking choice of cover image makes plain, she is not afraid of digging around in the maze of manga and anime in search of new and exciting comparisons.”

The World of Suzie Wong

cropped-the-world-of-suzie-wongThe World of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason is a glimpse of the world of 1957, when old soldiers could still talk of having had a “good war”, and the British Empire was still teetering on the brink. Kindle makes it possible for me to nab it within moments, although Suzie Wong is one of those subjects that I have heard mentioned all my life, but never actually encountered before – a bit like Fu Manchu and the Black &White Minstrels, it seems to have been airbrushed from history in more enlightened times.

Robert Lomax is filth in all but name (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a clueless wannabe painter in Hong Kong, who accidentally takes a room in the Nam Kok Hotel, which turns out to be a brothel. Readers of this parish may scoff, but are reminded that the Clements family also somehow managed to end up a few floors up from a knocking shop in Chengdu, so it’s not like it’s impossible.

mysterious_world_01Lomax falls for Suzie, a wilful, proud bar girl with a half-caste baby, and much of the story is taken up with their long, long, looonnng courtship, occasionally interrupted by other suitors and various dramas among the other bar girls. Mason has a matter-of-fact approach to dealings at the brothel, and that, coupled with the coy requirements of 1950s censorship, turn his account into a far less prurient tale than one might at first imagine. He certainly seems to know his way around the etiquette of the red light district, and has interesting observation about the peculiar protocols of the girls, who, for example, deride any sailor who doesn’t pick one girl and stick to her for the duration of his stay in town as a “butterfly”. It encourages comparison with Akasen Chitai (Red Light Zone), Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film, shot in a realist style in Toyko’s brothel district around the same time, just before prostitution was criminalised in Japan.

Curiously, the leading man is presented as somewhat ignorant of the East, which is exactly what I would expect from the average hack cranking out a Hong-Kong-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold novel. But Mason was an old Asia hand, having fought in Burma in the war, and drafted to learn Japanese as a POW interrogator. It’s thus all the more impressive that he is prepared to present his leading man as a callow, nice-but-dim posh boy, drifting from plantation job to would-be artistry in Hong Kong, and failing to read a single squiggle. I don’t think I would have been able to resist the temptation.

Meanwhile, his slice-of-life of 1950s Hong Kong presents tantalising glimpses of a small town overwhelmed by a massive refugee influx from over the border. Suzie herself is from Shanghai, and there are whispers throughout the book that the girls are women fallen on hard times, forced to seek any job they can in order to escape the even greater miseries of (we now know) the Great Leap Forward.

stepsLomax is just as much an outsider among the British expat community, which he regards as stifling and hidebound, not the least for its refusal to accept mixed-race marriages – when he approaches a consul for a wedding certificate for him and Suzie, the consul is actually surprised to learn that he is allowed to marry them. He also has some deeply odd things to say about oriental femininity, such as suggesting that the attitudes of Asian girls are designed to support masculinity, while those of European women are designed to destroy it.

Really. Presumably, by “destroying it” he means the unhelpful willingness of European women to have ideas and opinions of their own, thereby threatening to shatter the fragile worldviews of thin-skinned men.

I’d say that the book could never be written today (except that there’s one about Thai bar girls, called Paradise Lust, which is basically the same story, and many of the same observations, from fifty years later). But certainly modern readers would tut in indignation at the sense of entitlement of Suzie’s suitors, one of whom spanks her for daring to look at another man (like that isn’t her job). Although the book does attempt to present the girls’ case and the girls’ view, it is largely the tale of Chinese women available for rent, to largely uncaring and callous men, often cheating on their wives, who are themselves presented as ghastly termagants.

20081209173338484338368380There have been two unofficial sequels, both of which seek to tell the story of Hong Kong as a whole through Suzie’s eyes. One wonders what a modern author would do with the same material. Guo Xiaolu, for example, author of A Concise Chinese Dictionary for Lovers, might take the title literally, and tell it solely through the eyes and words of Suzie herself, thick with detail about the China left behind and the intricacies of the Nam Kok, but as numb and uncomprehending of Lomax’s world as he is of hers.

Suzie Wong was adapted for the stage within a year of its publication (starring William Shatner in the initial theatrical run, imagine!), and then turned into a film. The book was apparently a best-seller, which perhaps explains why Richard Mason doesn’t appear to have worked all that hard at being a novelist afterwards – he died in 1997, living just long enough to witness the Hong Kong Handover, but despite listing him as a “novelist”, his obituaries only seem to come up with four books to his name, of which Suzie Wong was the fourth. In 1962, at 43 years old (my age), his writing career was apparently over, presumably because he was quids-in for the rest of his life. I might be wrong – other mentions of him online suggest that he had a day-job working for the British Council, so possibly lost interest in writing anything else.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

The Troubled Empire

61YMFqnan3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have long been a fan of the Harvard History of Imperial China collection, but series editor Timothy Brook has presented a star turn in awarding himself the Yuan and Ming dynasties. With deliberate and playful provocation, he lumps these two later periods together, instead of following in the footsteps of most other researchers, who usually cover the Mongol century of the Yuan as an addendum to the fore-running Song dynasty.

His reason for this is climatic – Brook identifies nine distinct periods of drought, flood, pestilence and famine, each of which constitutes a “slough” in fortune that sorely tests the imperial regime’s ability to manage its state. In fact, he collates the Yuan and Ming because, between them, they span the period that we now know to have constituted the Little Ice Age.

But Brook also displays winning originality in his choice of sources. He begins and ends with gripping accounts of sightings of “dragons”, triangulating this catch-all term for water-spouts, comets, tornadoes and earthquakes with his new-found data on climate change and natural disaster. He also maintains this thread throughout the book, returning to insightful new views of big data, such as the fluctuating number of Ming-era paintings that depicted snowy scenes.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the Yuan and Ming dynasties had been well and truly picked over. With strong grounding in untranslated sources, and intriguing new uses for old materials (do you know the 16th-century Chinese word for a sailor’s gay husband? “Rice-paddy” over “woman” if you ever need it.), Brook excellently demonstrates that history remains an ongoing and evolving practice, and that there is always something new to say.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, and biographies of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan.

Zen & Now

pirsigIn the late 1960s, a thoughtful, troubled man on a motorcycle rode from Minnesota to California, in the hope of reconnecting with his young son. On the way, he reflected on his life in and out of a mental institution, the ups and downs of his career in academia, and the nature of “Quality” – what is it, and where do we find it in the modern world? Robert Pirsig eventually wrote up his experiences into his first book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Published in 1974, it became an instant classic.

Thirty years later, Mark Richardson retraced Pirsig’s tracks, revisiting the places of his epic journey, tracking down the surviving characters mentioned in the book, and meditating further on Pirsig’s life and work. Zen & Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is his well-crafted pastiche of the original. Where Pirsig rode the road and thought of Phaedrus, his alter-ego, Richardson travels the same path, and thinks of Pirsig himself – the strange history of the certified genius who now lives as a recluse and refuses to engage with his fans.

Richardson travels on a temperamental Suzuki with a GPS strapped to the gas tank, carefully replicating Pirsig’s original journey, even down to the wrong turns. He buys cold drinks from machines, and observes that there is nobody to tell him a story. Richardson’s world, a generation removed from Pirsig’s book, is one of mobile phones and shoes without laces, lonely pink-haired moteliers and former bankers trying to shake off the shock of 9/11. He rereads Pirsig’s book in the context of the 21st century, noting such little details as the protagonist’s lack of concern for where he poured away his dirty oil – ecology being yet another discipline that had yet to trouble the original Zen riders. He takes hundreds of photographs, spoilt by the capacities of a digital camera, whereas only a paltry handful of analogue pictures survive of Pirsig’s famous ride.

ZEN_coverRichardson doggedly tracks down as many of the people he can who appear in the book, many of them now doddering and old, and usually quite touched to find themselves visited by a man who has read about them in a famous book. His inch-by-inch recreation of the route allows him to exercise a stern, robust form of literary criticism, noting those places where Pirsig gently elided reality or rejigged a person’s character to suit his narrative. An amusing proportion of them have heard of Pirisg’s book, and even started reading it, but never made it to the end – that’s okay, it’s all about the journey, anyway.

Richardson also writes about the writing of the classic itself, charting its long road to manuscript form, and its sudden, meteoric success in the mid-1970s. There are details of Pirsig’s terrible enquiry letter, outlining his plans for his book and making it sound about as exciting as a Honda manual (no wonder 121 publishers weren’t interested), and the multiple draftings and redraftings, alongside wrangles at the publisher over the saleability of a 400-page “enquiry into values.” Mere months after its publication, Bantam are offering $370,000 for the paperback rights… and that was back when $370,000 was a lot of money. Pirsig probably never needed to work again, which makes his later fame only the more ironic, as his attempts to write a follow-up are plagued by hippies and hipsters, bikers and fakirs, all trying to get his opinion on matters of philosophy and, or course, engineering.

I’ve known for many years about the original book’s tragic coda – that Chris, the inquisitive young boy who accompanies his father on the famous motorcycle trip, would barely make it into his twenties before his untimely death in a San Francisco stabbing. But I hadn’t quite registered the other sad stories that a smarter reader might have picked out from the original manuscript, such as the fact that Chris had a younger brother, Ted, who has since disowned their father. Moreover, although there are ample clues in the original book, neither its author nor my younger reader-self made what now seems to be an obvious connection between the occasionally odd behaviour of the teenage Chris and the mental illness that hounded his father. Richardson’s biographical sections on the Pirsig family offer grim glimpses of troubled minds and tearaway teenagers, with Pirsig as a driven, silent man, eternally wrestling with philosophical abstractions, oblivious to the problems elsewhere in his family.

Just as Pirsig pastiched the 1948 classic Zen in the Art of Archery, Richardson pastiches Pirsig, finding moments of enlightenment and peace in the time it takes his hard-drive to defragment and his clothes to dry. There is Buddha-nature even in the technological present, but only insofar as Quality shines through. For the Zen thinker, hell dwells in the built-in redundancies and airy obsolescence of the instructions for an Ikea flat-pack.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Zen Haiku (US/UK), re-released this month by Frances Lincoln.

Big Game

“Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun…” (trailer)


Lame-duck American president Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson (“Call me Bill”) is travelling to a conference in Helsinki when Air Force One is shot down over Lapland by jodhpur-wearing Arab Bastard (he is Arabic, and a Bastard) Mehmet Kurtulus, a “grade-A psychopath” who plans to mount and stuff him. Back at the Pentagon, a bunch of aides wring their hands and send the SEALs all over the place, while the President goes on the run with a 13-year-old Finnish boy Oskari (Onni Tommila), interrupted partway through his traditional manhood ritual, which involves running into the forest with a bow and arrow and bagging the biggest possible game. He was hoping for a bear or a reindeer, but instead finds himself playing impromptu bodyguard to POTUS.

Meanwhile, the President’s real bodyguard, Ray Stevenson, is secretly working with the Arab Bastard, in a troubled and contentious partnership that usually involves shooting a henchman every time they disagree. Tracking the fleeing President and his teenage guardian, they briefly apprehend them, leading to a bonkers escape sequence in which Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun. They go to ground in an explosive shoot-out in and around the wreckage of Air Force One, which eventually seems to result in the blowing up of half of the Finnish countryside.

arab bastard no really its in the plot

As with writer/director Jalmari Helander’s previous film, Rare Exports, Finland itself is playfully stereotyped and archetyped to a wilfully silly degree. If the Americans are shouty morons with lots of guns and expensive tech that proves to be useless, the Finns are a bunch of earnest, grubby hunters with Bowie knives and trousers held up with string. They are enacting a portentous coming-of-age ceremony that involves running out into the woods and killing something. If Helander were not actually a Finn himself, we’d think he was a clueless hack, but since he plainly knows that Lapland isn’t actually a mere 45 minutes north of Helsinki, we can file his more absurd action-movie fudges as a deliberate invocation of a Finland of the mind – a sweetly childish playground of forest adventures and easily-outwitted bad guys, with time out to grill a sausage over a fire. He takes this to extremes with his landscapes, which replace the drab fells of the real Lapland with the breath-taking peaks of the Bavarian Alps, thereby hoovering up German film-fund money for a movie whose Hollywood action style is really a thin veneer over a multi-national Europudding.

With its 13-year-old protagonist and an 80-minute running time, Big Game is carefully targeted at the juvenile audience, despite its Die Hard trappings and the inevitable appearance of Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson’s favourite word, in a Yippie-kay-aye Moviegoer quotable that is long in coming but worth the wait. Helander’s script ultimately paints America as both an aspirational paradise and a corrupt rogue state, while its president is by turns baffled and charmed by Finland’s grim sisu resolve, and ultimately regains his self-confidence and poll rating through the acquisition of firearms and snark.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.   Big Game is released in UK cinemas on 8th May.

“a conspiratorial journey to mock Finland”

41CH3PO2YYL._SY445_Edward Dutton’s much-appreciated review of my Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland appears in the Scandinavian Journal of History 40:1, and decrees it to be “lively and humorous… a good introduction to Finland…[that] successfully negotiates the various problems that bedevil producing a history book aimed at undergraduates.” He pays it an immense compliment by assuming it should be let anywhere near an academic syllabus in the first place, but perhaps is already looking forward to arguing with his students about the terrible things I say about Russian tourists and fundamentalist Lutherans.

“Concis et tentaculaire”

ae3Over in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, Jonas Pulver inadvertently coins the superhero identities Helen McCarthy and I would use if we were fighting crime. I’m Concis, she’s Tentaculaire.

“…l’encyclopédie est aussi une excellente porte d’entrée sur l’environnement médiatique du Japon, à l’image du fonctionnement complexe du sponsoring et de la publicité, de l’intertextualité des œuvres, ou de l’influence des groupes de fans. Concis et tentaculaire, The Anime Encyclopedia se lit par sauts de puce, en se laissant porter d’un article à l’autre au gré des affinités thématiques. Le plaisir de la redécouverte y flirte avec l’inédit.”