Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira

Akira, Vol. 1Akira, Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 1980s—the latest, the last golden age. The length and breadth of our politics, our pop culture, even our high culture, was laid down in that decade. Everyone now is either trying to overthrow it or recapture it or some incoherent combination of both, but we are all oriented toward it.

Comics has a privileged relation to the 1980s as well: traditional historicization aside, it is comics’s true golden age. The top Goodreads review of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk manga Akira puts the work in precisely that context:

The importance of ‘Akira’ is difficult to express, but it certainly rivals US contemporaries ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and it ran far longer than either title, giving it an epic scope and grandeur that exceeds both of those seminal works. If it was a decision between: Katsuhiro Otomo, ‘Domu’ and ‘Akira’; Frank Miller, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’; or Alan Moore, ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’; I’d say that Otomo created the best and most influential works of the 1980’s. That ignores some huge titles, like ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘Maus’ and ‘Raw’ and ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Yummy Fur’ and ‘The Incal’ and ‘Les Cites Obscures’, etc… but I’ll stand by it, with all due respect.

With all due respect, as a matter of literary judgement, I simply can’t rate Akira over Watchmen or Maus or (what I’ve read of) Love and Rockets or Les Cités obscures, nor even over The Dark Knight Returns, though I concede the latter may only be my own nostalgia talking. Over The Incal‘s oppressive metaphysics, though, certainly—and over anything (save the aforementioned Mausterpiece) in the miserable R. Crumb-Chester Brown line. And, while I claim to be no manga maven, I also can’t rate it over the shōjo and josei works only that have only recently been translated, some of which preceded it and all of which are literate in a way it can only dream of being: The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter.

The two crucial points being made in the quotation above, though, are that 1.) the comic-book 1980s was a decade of miracles, one when, as they used to say, “BAM! POW! comics grew up!”; and that 2.) Akira was perhaps more influential than any other work of the period—not necessarily better but more influential—on how we think and how we see, even if only as a part of the broader cyberpunk movement.

First, what is Akira‘s role in comics’ maturation process, this 2000-some page epic about eternal, evolutionary, revolutionary youth? For one thing, like Frank Miller’s own manga- and BD-inflected work of the same period—the oft-neglected Ronin is the key text here—it signals the breakdown of the international barriers: Otomo brings both a drawing style and a storytelling ethic from the west. Gone is the cuteness and the address to the audience of even some of the mature work of Tezuka; they are replaced by an immersive style of impossibly detailed drawing—a world unto itself. The characters are concerned only with one another and with their conflict rather than with us; as one critic incisively observes, Otomo’s characters look at each other.

Just as Alan Moore and Frank Miller eliminated the Stan Lee editorial voice avuncularly conscripting the reader into the fan club in favor of wordless pages or narrative captions that drop us directly into the characters’ stream of consciousness, Otomo provides only action and dialogue in a self-contained fictional cosmos. If many landmark ’80s comics have a postmodern political attitude—irreverent toward all authority, all metanarratives—many of their formal innovations ought to be classed by contrast as neo-modernist: they raise the fourth wall to seal themselves off as bounded art objects, recursive and complex—incitements to the apophenic insomnia Joyce wished to induce in the critic.

So mighty is Otomo’s storytelling craft that it paradoxically consumes attention even as it commands it, which neither Miller nor Moore, neither Jodorowsky nor Peeters, would be willing to do. In other words, you are never tempted to linger, but only to speed on. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that one of Akira‘s six 400-page chapters can be read in the same time that it takes to read one of the 32-page chapters of Watchmen: about an hour. This reflects Otomo’s absolute mastery of layout and composition; he never puts an obstacle athwart the onrush of your eye across his collapsing cityscapes. Language does not get much in the way either: vast swaths of pages, all violent action, go by with no more demanding words than onomatopoeiac sound effects, grunts and profanities from the characters, and the heroes and villains crying one another’s names.

The characters are accordingly not personalities-in-the-round but archetypes for the conveyance of story energy. The emotion of the book comes not from our devotion, necessarily, to any one figure, but rather our absorption of the affects they convey. When the hero confesses to his antagonist at the climax, “All I wanted to be was your friend,” we are moved less by the particulars of their relation than by our own knowledge of how that feels. The narrative vortex spins around these affects, not the characters who embody them.

Such anti-literacy—very much against the Anglo-American “spirit of 1986,” which saw comics strive for and often attain the density of the 20th-century novel—bears upon Akira‘s theme of energy washing away all hierarchies. I called Akira “cyberpunk” above, as everyone does, but why? There are barely any computers in the book, no hackers, no consensual hallucinations, no sojourns in the data stream. In fact, as with much ’80s pop culture, it recapitulates the fantasies and anxieties of the 1950s: military testing, nuclear explosions. Tokyo is destroyed on no less than four occasions in the course of the narrative—the final time by American bombs.

Far more in evidence is the punk sensibility. Akira is about a group of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo who are drawn into a top-secret government conspiracy rooted in Japan’s attempt to train psychic children as super-soldiers. This has unleashed forces beyond any one agency’s control. The work as a whole dramatizes our small cast of characters in confrontation with the social and psychological transformations brought about by the vast psychic abilities of the titular Akira and of the novel’s overall anti-hero, Tetsuo.

What allies Akira to cyberpunk is its dominant attitude of political cynicism, a refusal of allegiance to state and society. In the book, the state collapses under the assault of forces it cannot tame or rationalize, and power is whatever can be won by rival gangs in the jungle of the city. While other cyberpunk texts place more stress on the role of the corporation in such a decomposed postmodern polity, Akira nevertheless gives us the basic lineaments of what has perhaps excessively been called neoliberalism.

Otomo’s metaphysics, too, uphold energy against the institutions. At the climax of the final chapter, one of the uncannily aged psychic children who haunt the text explains to one of its protagonists that the most powerful psychics, Akira and Tetsuo, are only channeling and expressing a kind of universal life force:

MIYAKO: Say rather, it is the world of the spirit…freed from the shackles of the flesh.


MIYAKO: Life in all its countless evolutions. Do you not think evolution too vast and grand…to be mere environmental adaptation?


MIYAKO: Akira may have wanted to alter the course of human evolution…

KANEDA: What for?! Isn’t evolution programmed?!

MIYAKO: Cannot the human spirit choose its own currents?

KANEDA: You mean humanity wanted to evolve again?

MIYAKO: The results…are for your children to see.

The line about escaping the prison of the flesh evokes cyberpunk’s gnostic motif as well as its glam-despair over the neoliberal dystopia. The book’s message is that energy, passing through youth, transforms society whether anyone likes it or not. In that case, the appurtenances of literature, or of a more formalist—in the sense of defamiliarizing—approach to comics storytelling à la Alan Moore, could only get in the way, like the old lumbering Cold War nation-state with its secrets and bureaucracies.

From Marvel Comics’s colorized version of Akira, issue #38, via readcomiconline.to

After the world-spirit strips off the flesh of our anti-hero and his nation—and there is much Cronenbergian body horror in Akira too: evolution figured grotesquely as bulbous, venous carcinogenesis—there is a chance to rebuild. As the punkest theorists of the high theory era warned, deterritorialization will be accompanied by reterritorialization. Though our surviving heroes leave the letter “A” for their sign, it stands for Akira—power—not anarchy. They throw the Americans out of Japan, reconstitute the sovereign nation, and ride through a cityscape restoring itself around them in one of the best endings of a graphic novel I can remember, its implicit nationalism aside.

Akira cannot exactly be read—only withstood. A work singularly obsessed with the ruins of modernity is one of the popular monuments of an age we have lost or are losing; it showed us images that allow us to see the present already under the sign of apocalypse. That it is the Futurist manifesto of comics modernism makes it an object all the more fascinating in our fallen present.


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Riyoko Ikeda, Claudine

ClaudineClaudine by Riyoko Ikeda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 2018 English translation of Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 shōjo manga about the brief life and tragic loves of the eponymous protagonist is being hailed, to quote Wikipedia, as “one of the earliest manga to feature a transgender protagonist.” While I’m sure this is literally true, it might be a bit misleading. The word “transgender,” while it was coined in 1965, was not to my knowledge in popular or common use in English at the time of the short graphic novel’s creation, and the then-more-common word “transsexual” is supplied in the book’s English-language dialogue (I am not aware of the nuances of corresponding Japanese terms). Further complicating matters, even “transsexual” is anachronistic for the book since Ikeda’s setting is early 20th-century France and her narrator a psychologist of the period: at this time, concepts like “inversion” might have been used by the sexual scientist to describe Claudine’s dilemma.

I emphasize all of this history at the outset because this slim, sturdy paperback edition of Claudine from Seven Seas Entertainment is a beautiful one, but it lacks much in the way of contextualization—contrast the informative introduction supplied by the translator to the recent translation of another shōjo masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas. Readers coming to Claudine for the first time and expecting a text in line with contemporary thinking on gender, a positive transgender representation, will certainly be disappointed. The book is too good, qua comics, though, to be simply hurled across the room in frustration.

claudine2This impassioned and operatic tragedy is structured by the three amorous involvements, and the three corresponding encounters with the psychologist narrator, of a young aristocratic woman named Claudine. Claudine begins at the age of eight to identify as a man, despite her mother’s objection and her society’s rejection. In adolescence, Claudine falls in love with the family’s hapless maid, Maura, a relationship doomed because of its cross-class as well as cross-gender nature. Later, Claudine becomes attached to the high- school librarian as well as to the librarian’s romantic vision of literature that is incarnated in this very book’s very emotional texture. Claudine’s final, fated love is for a dancer at university (a girl encountered twice earlier in the novel), and the severance of this relationship brings Claudine to a crisis. For despite Claudine’s insistence on an innate male identity, French society does not permit her to live as a man; consequently, her lovers tend to terminate their affairs by insisting that, to quote the librarian, “But, Claudine. You’re a girl…”

There is still more plot than I have recounted in this 100-page book, including the suggestion that Claudine has inherited “inversion” from the aristocratic family’s beloved patriarch. This hint that, like the psychologist’s concluding narration (“With her imperfect ‘body,’ Claudine nevertheless gave her everything and dared to love a woman”) and the book’s climax in self-slaughter, will not endear some contemporary readers to this supposedly pathbreaking but also sensationalistic and potentially exploitative story full of “queer tragedy” stereotypes.

On the other hand, Ikeda’s romantic narrative invites such sympathy, and her art style is moreover so beautiful—a dazzling performance full of architectural splendor and decorative verve: Ikeda stipples and she hatches; she puts patterns in the flowers and the cobbles and the sconces; flames and flora dance fatally across the pages—that Claudine has to be hailed as a fine graphic novel, a superb example of comics. It should be seen in its multiple historical contexts, and queried as to its ideological character, yes, but also appreciated as a work of art we are lucky to have in a quality translation and edition.


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Moto Hagio, The Heart of Thomas

The Heart of ThomasThe Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Consider two articles published within the last week. In one, Marie Doezema explains the role played by the philosophers of 1968, who tutored several generations of intellectuals (including my own), in legitimizing pedophilia in late-twentieth-century France:

After May 1968, French intellectuals would challenge the state’s authority to protect minors from sexual abuse. In one prominent example, on January 26, 1977, Le Monde, a French newspaper, published a petition signed by the era’s most prominent intellectuals—including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, André Glucksmann and Louis Aragon—in defense of three men on trial for engaging in sexual acts with minors. “French law recognizes in 13- and 14-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” the petition stated, “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned.” Furthermore, the signatories argued, children and adolescents have the right to a sexual life: “If a 13-year-old girl has the right to take the pill, what is it for?”

Meanwhile, Katie Herzog observes that an opposite but also repellent phenomenon transpired in late-twentieth-century America, the Satanic panic, a broad and largely baseless outbreak of social paranoia over widespread ritual child abuse, fueled by religious fundamentalism and pop-psychology:

In total, the recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse phenomenon lasted for about 15 years. At the time, Talmadge says, questioning the dominant narrative was akin to heresy. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence backing up these claims; everyone believed, and those who didn’t largely kept quiet.

Looking back on it now, it seems almost impossible that millions of Americans would blindly believe that satanic cults were stealing away with kids during the night, but this was not the first strange wave to hit the U.S., nor will it be the last. From the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare, moral panics, as they are frequently called, pop up.

In these two episodes from recent history, we see an almost comic fidelity to national stereotypes: the French intelligentsia advocates troublingly amoral libertinage, while the American populace loses its collective head over the threat of witches’ sabbaths and black masses. And both of these stories take on a new relevance today, with the just exposure of sexual abuses, and the potential for this exposure to overreach and become unjust, consuming so much of our cultural attention. Is there any way out of this impasse, any intelligent and humane approach to the complexities of desire, any safe course to chart between the Marquis de Sade and Cotton Mather?

All of these questions came to my mind as I read a brilliant, thought-provoking, and troubling masterpiece of a graphic novel from beyond the borders of the U.S. or France. Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas is a manga that was serialized in the early 1970s and published in an official English translation (by Rachel Matt Thorn) by Fantagraphics in 2013. As a work of shojo manga, it was addressed to an audience of adolescent girls. A complex and melodramatic tale of love in a German boys’ boarding school, The Heart of Thomas is widely credited with beginning the “boys’ love” subgenre of manga, as this Atlantic article explains:

The Heart of Thomas is, in fact, one of the seminal works in the boys’ love subgenre of shojo manga (manga for girls). Boys’ love manga are manga that feature male homosexual romance, written (mostly) by women, (mostly) for women. Today in Japan, the genre is well established and popular…

The Heart of Thomas opens with the suicide of a student named Thomas Werner. He has killed himself due to anguish over his unrequited love for his classmate, the dark-haired prefect and perfect student, Juli; Juli is desired in turn by his roommate Oskar (a clear Wilde analogue), as well as by a host of underclassmen. Complications ensue when a transfer student, Erich, arrives at the school—Erich, it happens, could be Thomas’s twin, and much of the plot depends on suspense over whether or not the tragic missed connection between Juli and a smitten classmate will replay itself.

Along the way—and a long way it is, at a novelistically satisfying 500+ pages—a host of psychological and symbolic complexities present themselves, from Erich’s oedipal attachment to his mother (he wears an engagement ring in her honor) to the cruel abuse Juli has suffered at the sadistic hands of the rebel-atheist upperclassman Siegfried (his Wagnerian name echoing the fascist racism of Juli’s other abuser, his grandmother, who scorns him for his Greek patrimony and dark hair). While the narrative is melodramatic and theatrical, it also manages to be measured in pace, with languid adolescent yearning its dominant affect. Hagio creates a little world, an Occidentalist fantasia of European queerness, and lets her cast wander through it, and through their own psyches, on their own time; the effect is absorbing and mesmerizing.

But what can it all mean? The Heart of Thomas in particular and boys’ love in general has no corollary that I know of in contemporaneous American pop culture, comics or otherwise (and it should be said that American comics of the same period, mainstream or underground, offer nothing to my mind as long or complex as what Hagio accomplishes here). The aforementioned Atlantic article concludes that boys’ love manga allows its young female audience a panoply of potential identification beyond what was customarily allowed girls:

The boys’ love genre, then, freed Hagio and her audience to cross and recross boundaries of identity, sexuality, and gender. The reader can be both sexual aggressor and victim; both self and other; both gay and straight; both male and female. Bodies and character flicker in and out, a sequence of surfaces, tied together less by narrative than by the heightened emotions of melodrama—jealousy, anger, trauma, desire, friendship, and love in the heart of Thomas.

Likewise, James Welker, in a 2006 article for the feminist journal Signs, theorizes thusly:

Nonetheless, through…the deliberate ambiguity of the beautiful boy, the reader is encouraged to see not just a girl but herself within the world of boys’ love and, ultimately, is encouraged to explore homoerotic desire, either as a beautiful boy or as herself, either alone or with others, either as her fantasy or as her reality.

In support of these theses in feminist and queer theory, I note that Hagio draws on the traditions of aestheticism and decadence, especially in the decorative splash pages that introduce each chapter, each reminiscent of Beardsley, Mucha, and the Jugendstil movement. Images of angels and roses abound; when Erich learns his mother has died, he is pictured, Sebastian-wise, with a breast full of arrows.

All this classic queer iconography aside, though, The Heart of Thomas feels like a book of great chastity, a word several other Goodreads users have astutely used—a work almost of asexuality. It is Platonic in the most literal sense as Juli comes to understand his physical attraction toward the base and brutalizing humanist Siegfried as a fall into sexual degradation, while his love for the ethereal beauty of Thomas/Erich is in fact a desire for the good as such. Hence the book’s denouement: he becomes a priest, espoused not to man but to God. In what I take to be an explicit allusion to the Phaedrus, Juli even describes what his abuse by Siegfried has cost him as his wings, and he moreover says that he sees all the children in the school as bearing invisible wings, just like the soul as Socrates describes it to his young disciple in the course of his caution against the consummation of desire between men, between tutor and pupil:

Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came, for she cannot grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy, may acquire wings in the third of the recurring periods of a thousand years; he is distinguished from the ordinary good man who gains wings in three thousand years:-and they who choose this life three times in succession have wings given them, and go away at the end of three thousand years.

Juli has “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy,” i.e., an orientation toward the ideal, and so we can presume that his metaphorical wings are budding again by the novel’s final sequence. The Heart of Thomas is in this way not about desire or gender or sexuality at all, but about eros at its most abstract, even eros at the very threshold of agápē, give or take a stolen kiss in the dark.hagio1

I am not the only critic to come to the conclusion of spiritual asexuality in the case of Thomas, according to Welker, by the way, and he diagnoses us as suffering from “lesbian panic”:

In spite of the connections drawn on the pages of these magazines, the possibility that these narratives might be seen to actually depict homosexuality remains broadly denied. To allow that the narratives might truly be about homosexuality—between these girls-cum- beautiful boys—would be an apparently unthinkable invitation to read the narratives as lesbian.

While I take the point, and also appreciate the rhetorical necessity for a queer-affirmative cultural politics to redeploy the language of pathology against its pathologizing enemies, I also reserve the right to query the secular sacralization of the sexual as such, whether straight or gay or bi, our total commitment to desublimating love into desire in every last circumstance, even when confronted with narratives that plainly have metaphysical or spiritual aims, as Hagio’s narrative does.

The Heart of Thomas, therefore, is one answer to the question with which I began: how to address eros artistically, in all its gender and age complications, without either foreclosing complexity (like American puritans) or promoting exploitation (like French libertines). This masterful piece of fluid comics storytelling, visual beauty, and literary artistry, charts the middle way with consummate intelligence. Hagio’s spiritual flight burns the unseemly out of the book; what could have been disturbing—an adult’s erotic reverie over the entanglement of early adolescence, perhaps as commended by the philosophers of cultural revolution—becomes a hymn about the journey of every soul amid the violence of time, desire, and death. And because these latter inevitabilities are unflinchingly acknowledged in the story, Hagio’s work is as free from puritanism as it is from libertinism. The Heart of Thomas is a book of and about love.


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Yukio Mishima, Patriotism

PatriotismPatriotism by Yukio Mishima

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the twentieth century’s most renowned stories or novellas, Mishima’s Patriotism of 1960 narrates the ritual suicide of Lieutenant Takeyama and his wife Reiko following a mutiny in the Japanese Imperial Army in 1936. The lieutenant’s friends are the rebellion’s leaders, though they have excluded him from their plans, because, he speculates, of his recent marriage to the young Reiko. But Takeyama concludes that he can neither fight against his comrades nor join their rebellion—his last act before suicide is to write a note affirming loyalty: “Long live the Imperial Forces”—and so he chooses seppuku, and his wife chooses to accompany him.

The paragraph above gives nothing away: the entire plot is told in the story’s own first paragraph, a journalistic recitation of the facts in the case. The remaining pages elaborate on those facts, and it is the manner of Mishima’s elaboration that discloses his values and sensibility. Biographically speaking, Mishima was a nationalist and reactionary; he himself committed seppuku following a failed rebellion in 1970, echoing this story’s events. Though I have long known him by reputation, this is the first work of his that I’ve read, and I am extremely impressed.

It might be considered strange than this story is so popular and renowned. I didn’t read it in this particular edition, as listed on Goodreads; I read the same translation (Sargent’s apparently is the only English version) in an old 1980s intro-to-lit-style textbook that I pulled from the free shelf at the college where I teach. Aside from Yeats, Pound, and maybe one or two others, Mishima is the only author of the extreme right in the book—and Yeats and Pound are represented by superficially apolitical poems, whereas Patriotism is a song of self-annihilating ecstasy, an entranced prose-poem in favor of nationalist love-death, of the subsumption of woman in man and man in nation (or, failing that, in oblivion). Why should Mishima have fared better, especially with this story, than most other artists of reaction, who have largely been marginalized by liberal civilization?

First and most importantly, Patriotism is beautifully written, a quality that comes through even in the translation’s slightly stiff English. Mishima writes with grace and control as he leads us through the lieutenant and Reiko’s preparations for death. After the opening chapter’s recitation of events and the second chapter’s similarly summary style, which gives us the history of the couple’s brief marriage, the story proceeds essentially in real time—it doesn’t take much longer to read than its events would take to accomplish. The lieutenant and Reiko bathe, and then, at the center of the story, they make passionate love, love made all the more ecstatic due to death’s proximity. Mishima’s prose is precise, metaphorical, and elevated in register:

The natural hollow curving between the bosom and the stomach carried in its lines a suggestion not only of softness but of resilient strength, and while it gave forewarning to the rich curves spreading outward from here to the hips it had, in itself, an appearance only of restraint and proper discipline. The whiteness and richness of the stomach and hips was like milk brimming in a great bowl, and the sharply shadowed dip of the navel could have been the fresh impress of a raindrop, fallen there that very moment.

The long scene of the lieutenant’s suicide is even more remarkable, as Mishima, without ever breaking the story’s heightened tone, depicts the scatological horror involved in slicing through one’s own midsection:

But, suddenly stricken by a fit of vomiting, the lieutenant cried out hoarsely. The vomiting made the fierce pain even fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide its wound, and the entrails burst through, as if the wound too were vomiting. Seemingly ignoarnt of their master’s suffering, the entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they slipped smoothly out and spilled over the crotch. The lieutenant’s head dropped, his shoulders heaved, his eyes opened to narrow slits, and a thin trickle of saliva dribbled from his mouth. The gold markings on his epaulettes caught the light and glinted.

Mishima may write best from Reiko’s viewpoint, however. Patriotism is of course noxious to the gender ideology of liberal capitalism, but Mishima’s sympathy with the young wife is nevertheless absolute, enabling postmodern readers to understand her self-conception (or lack thereof) even as they recoil from it:

Ever since her marriage her husband’s existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself. But now, while her husband’s existence in pain was a vivid reality, Reiko could find in this grief of hers no certain proof of her own existence.

This brings me to the second reason to value Patriotism: the thoroughness and clarity of Mishima’s writing has a conceptual dimension. The dominant view of the arts in America today is that any given work should promote some kind of communal, pro-social values, whether those of the left or the right. But another argument says that art is a way to explore with sympathy every potential of human nature, necessarily including those we may have rejected for perfectly good reasons. To read Patriotism is to understand not only what a man of Mishima’s sensibility believed, but why and how he lived that belief. This is literature’s contribution to knowledge, and Patriotism contributes richly.

Finally, though, literature must have some irony or ambivalence—otherwise it is disposable, mere propaganda or pornography. Patriotism dances with both propaganda and pornography, but the hesitations are there to be read too. (This kind of observation is liberal criticism’s revenge on fascist art, it should be said.) I will end with the story’s chief ambiguity. Perhaps the nuances of the political context are insufficiently clear to me, but doesn’t the main situation of the story call into question the title? Despite the lieutenant’s loyalty to the Imperial Army, professed as his dying declaration, his suicide is not straightforwardly patriotic; straightforward patriotism would involve making a decision and acting on it, choosing either the Imperial Army’s or the mutineers’ vision of what Japan should be and trying to realize it. Patriotism may secretly avow a different devotion: Death may be the patria to which the lieutenant—and Reiko; and Mishima—are most loyal.


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Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Murakami is a polarizing figure; I like polarizing figures, because the lack of consensus about their merits deprives my adolescent contrarianism, which resists all consensus indiscriminately, of its fuel, and, in consequence, I have to make up my mind freely. To my free mind, Murakami is a writer of extraordinary gifts and terrible limitations.

I certainly enjoyed this novel. Murakami can be a mesmerizing storyteller. “Can be” because this particular novel has three distinct modes, one of which is not at all successful. It begins as a wryly oneiric domestic drama in which the protagonist, Toru Okada, starts to experience strange events and to meet strange people after his cat goes missing. I found the novel’s first quarter or so, in this gently Kafkan idiom, wholly seductive and genuinely unpredictable, because it is guided not by generic rules but by authorial sensibility. The novel’s second mode narrates incidences from the Second World War through the eyes of several of Okada’s interlocutors. In these sections, Murakami writes with a traditional kind of novelistic clarity and authority, owing more to the realist and historical commitments of, say, Tolstoy than to magical realism; there are harrowing set-pieces in these sections (the skinning of Yamamoto, the execution of the Chinese deserters in baseball uniforms, the slaughter of the zoo animals) that I doubt I will forget.

The novel’s disastrous third mode, however, features an indistinctly narrated mystical battle between the protagonist and his brother-in-law, an evil politician who is holding the hero’s wife captive and who is also poised to hypnotize Japan into some return to the era of imperialism. This fantasy-novel stuff is both morally simplistic and dramatically unconvincing—the hero apparently has to kill the politician in his dream-life, which will have the effect of slaying him in reality. If this is a metaphor for “killing the fascist in oneself,” as Foucault or somebody once said, Murakami does not make this clear; the end of the novel reads more like a duller version of A Nightmare on Elm Street than like any kind of serious novel about a person’s inner struggle with his or her own authoritarian and violent tendencies, as in, say, Coetzee’s or Ishiguro’s fiction. (Now I know, by the way, where David Mitchell gets his vices.) As I neared the end of the novel, I was hoping for a very different sort of ending, one where the protagonist realizes that he himself is the villain. But the externalization of absolute evil in the figure of the hero’s brother-in-law is the kind of genre-fiction trope that explains why some people still hold genre fiction in low regard.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is very much a novel of its time: the mid-1990s. It has an end-of-history faith in the power of storytelling to commemorate and redeem, to remake the self and the world. The best parts of the novel resist this tendency by insisting on loneliness and isolation and fate and pain, as well as on how these terrible necessities may be resisted through small gestures and careful artifices. The worst parts indulge in the exasperating garrulity and quirkiness that mar so many other global fictions of the period, from Rushdie to Wallace to Gaiman, as if storytelling, even storytelling without purpose or relevance to human reality, were a virtue in itself. This would be so much better if it were a shorter novel, or, even better, two shorter novels: a work of domestic surrealism and a work of wartime tragedy. But fantasies of good vs. evil and their psychic battle over the body of a prostrate woman/nation can surely be left on the adolescent bookshelf.

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Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of ShadowsIn Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Japanese novelist Tanizaki’s important essay on aesthetics, one of the great twentieth-century manifestos, though that term suggests a brawling and list-making modernity that Tanizaki is at pains to eschew. In fact, In Praise of Shadows belongs, roughly, to the anti-modern wing of modernism as it mourns those ways of life destroyed by industrialization and electrification. “Shadow” is Tanizaki’s master trope for what cannot survive in the bright world of omnipresent electric light and shiny mass manufactures. Everything from the dim interiors of Japanese houses to the lacquer on their dishware to the cosmetic teeth-blackening of aristocratic women is encompassed by the image of the shadow: a lack of visibility that sets off all the more beautifully that which is revealed. At Brainpickings, Maria Popova has gathered a number of beautiful quotations from the essay; I will borrow only one, a very famous passage on differences between Japanese and Western toilets, which suggests the (I want to say “brilliant”!) thoroughness of Tanizaki’s aesthetic assessment of life:

The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.

Popova, though, likes to keep things upbeat at her site, so she understandably avoids the less salubrious aspects of In Praise of Shadows. For Tanizaki is not “one of us,” a good postmodernist talking about culture; he makes it clear that he is talking, in fact, about race. The basis of his argument is an acceptance of the racial aesthetic hierarchy that places whiteness at the top; but he finds the whiteness of white people, the norm itself, to be excessively bright and beautiful, which, he implies, has led the whites into the vulgarity of their gadgets and neon; on the other hand, the “Orientals” (the term is Tanizaki’s—or his translators’) have had to evolve the art of shadow precisely to draw out their own more latent whiteness. Another quotation, much less cheering than the rest:

If whiteness was to be indispensable to supreme beauty, then for us there was no other way, nor do I find this objectionable. The white races are fair-haired, but our hair is dark; so nature taught us the laws of darkness, which we instinctively used to turn a yellow skin white. I have spoken of the practice of blackening the teeth, but was not the shaving of the eyebrows also a device to make the white face stand out? What fascinates me most of all, however, is that green, iridescent lipstick, so rarely used today even by Kyoto geisha. One can guess nothing of its power unless one imagines it in the low, unsteady light of a candle. The woman of old was made to hide the red of her mouth under green-black lipstick, to put shimmering ornaments in her hair; and so the last trace of color was taken from her rich skin. I know of nothing whiter than the face of a young girl in the wavering shadow of a lantern, her teeth now and then as she smiles shining a lacquered black through lips like elfin fires. It is whiter than the whitest white woman I can imagine. The whiteness of the white woman is clear, tangible, familiar, it is not this other-worldly whiteness. Perhaps the latter does not even exist. Perhaps it is only a mischievous trick of light and shadow, a thing of a moment only. But even so it is enough. We can ask for nothing more.

I saw someone in a comment suggest that this is a satire of nationalist discourse, and Tanizaki’s tone throughout is indeed diffident and mischievous and provisional, a kind of literary darkness. (The only one of Tanizaki’s novels I’ve read, Naomi, playfully allegorizes the East/West conflict through the story of an engineer’s sexual obsession with a westernized teenager in a narrative that strongly anticipates Lolita, whose themes are, of course, similar, but with Europe as the superannuated “east” and America as the progressive “west.”) The afterword by co-translator Thomas J. Harper explains that Tanizaki’s literary mode belongs to a longstanding Japanese tradition:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.” Indeed it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.

This observation implies the problem with too sharply (much less racially) differentiating East from West in artistic matters: Westerners too have long been dissatisfied with the techno-modernity that, for whatever complex of reasons, launched itself from Europe. The problem with techno-modernity, as Tanizaki well knows, is that you can neither live with it nor live without it; again from the translator’s afterword:

Mrs. Tanizaki tells a story of when her late husband decided, as he frequently did, to build a new house. The architect arrived and announced with pride, “I’ve read your In Praise of Shadows, Mr. Tanizaki, and know exactly what you want.” To which Tanizaki replied, “But no, I could never live in a house like that.”

One of the main elements of aesthetic modernity in the West has been an attempt to sing our own praises of shadow, from the Gothic and the Romantic to stream-of-consciousness and beyond. Insofar as techno-modernity is committed to a rationality that is hostile to the aesthetic itself, all artists are in the same position, and art itself (even if it must accept its segregation from everyday life) may be the only available repository for those images and affects that progress casually destroys. Tanizaki puts this well on the final page:

I am aware of am most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind. But we must be resigned to the fact that as long as our skin is the color it is the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allows at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Many will mock this position or call it by insulting names; for instance, if I remember Habermas’s political typology from The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity correctly, this acceptance of modernity on the condition that it is supplemented by the aesthetic might be called “right Hegelianism” (if you’ve had the good fortune to avoid grad school, let me assure you that this is not a compliment). But the various attempts to re-aestheticize the everyday via the force of the state (nationalism, fascism, communism) usually proved worse than the alienation they attempted to remedy. The autonomy of art is admittedly a compromise, but remains, even now, the only viable solution I can see: art and literature as containers for the darkness that progress otherwise dispels. A novel may be not only a darkened mansion, but also a lacquerware soup bowl or a toilet in a garden.

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