Review my novel, get presents!

Three weeks ago, I released my first work of literary fiction–a road trip adventure across America and deep into family and Jewish history titled The Golden State. The young heroes Matt and Becca embark from California to New York in search of a long-last family bracelet, only to find themselves entangled in a fight for the heart of America against a magical madman and white supremacist known as none other than ‘Cowboy Jim.’

[Read an exciting excerpt here!]

I’ve been so thrilled and appreciative of the support I’ve received so far for the book. Five star reviews are finally starting to trickle in on Amazon, which is so exciting to see. But I want more! More reviews! And you can help me with that!

Here’s how.

It may not be much, but I’d like to offer the follow ‘incentive’ to get more people to write reviews.

If you either A) rate & review The Golden State on Amazon, or B) write a social media post or blog post reviewing The Golden State (just a few sentences sharing your thoughts), I’ll send you a hand-written poem from Japan!

This is how it works:

Step 1) Write and post your review of The Golden State. Either a rating & review on Amazon, or a few sentences with your thoughts on any social media platform. It’s okay if you haven’t finished the whole book yet – it’s more important to get reviews out now!

Step 2) Email me a screenshot of your review to ericmargolis[at]yahoo.com along with your home address.

Step 3) As thanks, I’ll mail you a hand-written poem from Japan on beautiful Japanese stationery! (Yes, Japanese stationery is the best. Proof here.)

Here’s a little example of the kind of poem that I might share with you if you do me the favor of a review. Just imagine it looks way cooler and is on awesome stationery.

There are no fountains here

There are no fountains here

besides the cafe terraces and sliding doors

that gush people,

and the geyser of blue light trapped in the sky,

and the downpouring of the train as it erupts and crashes away,

and the shadows that creep up the office towers,

flooding down with the voices

into a collision of fountains

on a street where there are none.

Love it? Then you’ll get a poem just like it! Hate it? Then you’ll get a totally different poem, I swear!

In short: leave a review, get presents. A poetry present on unique stationary. What could be cooler? And you get to help me share word about my book. It’s a win-win. So please – even if you haven’t finished the book yet, write a review with what you’ve enjoyed about it so far. Thank you so much in advance, and you’ll be getting your dash of poetic joy very soon!

NEW NOVEL: The Golden State

The Golden State will be available for purchase in eBook and print format in the next few days!!

On what starts as a teenage summer road trip, Matt and Becca Rosen journey into a uniquely American hell…

Described as confidently written, historically sweeping, and stylistically adventurous, Margolis’s debut literary work provides unique and unsettling insight into the 21st century Jewish-American reckoning with the American dream.

In June of 2017, on the verge of embarking on a cross-country road trip with a close high school friend, I started writing. Characters and situations had been brewing in my head ever since I returned from Kanazawa, Japan the previous summer.

There was a famous architect living in Los Angeles, the patriarch of a huge Jewish family. His grandchildren had a strange encounter with magic and mystery after his unexpected death. One of the children in the intervening generation was living in Japan and struggling to decide whether to come home. Important moments of American history had to be involved. But was it about the grandfather? His children? Or their children? Ideas percolated, evolved. The architect turned into a filmmaker. The grandchildren became the heroes.

Nearly five years later, The Golden State is complete.

The first novel I wrote, Cadivel, was a YA fantasy. The Golden State is so many things: a road trip story, a coming of age story, a literary experiment, an exploration of American history, a confrontation with Jewish-American identity. The Golden State is the most serious and the most soaring story I’ve ever written. It spans over 100 years, four generations, three continents, and the continental 48 American states. It is the story of Jewish immigrants and their descendants, a reckoning with a complicated family history, and a reckoning with the uncontrollable, violent, and supreme forces of good, evil, manifest destiny, revenge, and love that have whiplashed back and forth across America since long before the day of its founding.

The concept is as follows:

When their maverick great-uncle dies and leaves behind a cryptic will, sixteen-year-old Matt and his older sister Becca leave their California suburb on a road trip to find a long-lost, magic family bracelet. Matt doesn’t care about his family, his Judaism, or history at all—only his great Goyish uncle who gave him a key to something greater. But as they follow the clues left behind by the bracelet to New York City and beyond, they discover an unexpected and disturbing relationship between the bracelet, their family, and a murderous white supremacist known only as ‘the Cowboy.’ Matt and Becca try to anticipate the Cowboy’s next move as they chase him on a whirlwind tour of American and family history. 

Sound interesting? Even a little? Well, The Golden State is coming to paperback and Kindle on Thursday, February 17th. Pre-order your copy on Amazon RIGHT NOW and stay tuned for exciting illustrations, images, and excerpts!

For now, I’m happy to present the cover as well as a very short excerpt:

“The Delaware Water Gap, Part 2”

This is gonna sound like a major tangent, especially at the moment of death and all. (Will our handsome hero survive the terrors of Hurricane Katrina, or will he perish in its awesome floods? After this commercial break!) Just bear with me.

I was never a huge music person. Becca had her lists; I mainly listened to whatever Will handed over. But I did have a pretty great ear in terms of memory, so I could play songs that I knew well in my head, whenever I wanted. Over the years, I collected a mini playlist of songs to listen to when I was bored. ‘Last Nite’ by the Strokes was one, Jeff Buckley’s rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ was another, ‘Let’s Get It On’ was a third. But whenever I got into a bad place, I played ‘Tirandote Flores’ by Eddie Palmieri. It’s a classic Latin jazz tune, one that Grampa Andy used to play in the car. Grampa Andy loved jazz and Latin jazz most of all. The song bore no real relation to anything, but somehow it bore the most significant relationship out of anything to me drowning in the Delaware River. I’ve always dug Tirandote Flores because of the distinct rhythm. My mind can get into its groove. There’s the rhythm of the drums intersecting with the cowbell, swaying horns, that dancing piano. Palmieri’s voice fills with longing at the change-up. It’s stuck with me, especially the accompanying image—‘throwing you flowers.’ I see a shower of flowers in my mind, thrown at someone, that someone depending on the situation. When I asked Paula Klein to the homecoming dance and she said no, flowers thrown at Paula. When we waited for the police after Becca got into a car crash, thrown at Becca. As I contemplated whether or not to try to kiss Christine, at Christine; when Mom told me Grampa Andy died, at Grampa Andy’s crushed corpse. But never until drowning in the Delaware River had I seen those tirando flores coming at me.

That’s all I saw. Thrown flowers, falling on me. Cowbell popping. Trumpets shouting. Piano dashing all about and Palmieri with his head bent in towards the mic, eyes sealed tight, lips that groan and sing.

Tirandote Flores has such a lust for life in it. But unlike a howling opera or agonized tango, it allows for dance. You’ve got the passion for life on the one hand, and the action that expresses the passion in the other. A balanced, tangible will to live. Grampa Andy taught me that there’s nothing more like living than a good Latin jazz tune, and this was the one that I knew best.

Maybe that’s how he went out. Dancing a chacha or mambo in his mind as the train exploded around him.

I swallowed water.

Turned up the Palmieri.

The thunder sounded like a city crumbling around us.

Stay tuned for more… Live on Amazon any day now!

Translating chaos: I translate “Loner Life in Another World”

A note: translating a light novel is a collaborative effort. Much credit goes to the rewriters and editors at Seven Seas.

I’m proud to translate a popular light novel series, Loner Life in Another World by Shoji Goji. It’s a highly controversial series, beloved for its, er, unique play on fantasy tropes as well as its manic, bizarre, and mind-boggling style of humor. And it’s despised for, er, these exact same characteristics.

One really really important thing that I want all fans and readers should know about this series: it’s difficult to translate.

A notable description of reading this novel in Japanese was something like (shout-out to manga translator Steiner): “squeezing a lemon directly on to your brain.”

Just how difficult? To get a baseline, first we need to understand what it takes to translate ‘standard’ Japanese fiction. And I put standard in quotes because there is no standard. But let’s say you’re reading a book that is just plain easy to read. It has clear language, concise prose, and you always know exactly what’s going on. Here are the basics of what it takes to translate that.

  1. Most words can’t be translated 1:1. A translator will need to choose words with a contextual understanding of Japanese vocabulary beyond a dictionary, freely moving between synonyms based on relative nuance.
  2. Most Japanese grammatical structures do not have direct equivalents in English. So a translator will need to completely restructure and reformulate each sentence from scratch by deciding on the best approximate grammatical equivalent, reordering information as appropriate.
  3. Proverbs, idioms, metaphors, allusions, names, numbers, punctuation, and suffixes cannot be translated 1:1. So a translator will need to come up with approximate equivalents depending on context.
  4. Japanese language has distinct features such as indirectness, euphemisms, self-deprecation, repetition, and politeness. None of these will make sense when directly rendered into English, so a translator will need to process these based on the purpose and audience of a text and decide how directly or indirectly to render these “Japan-isms.”

As you can see, translating Japanese fiction is already a complicated process. It’s worth noting that many light novels, not just Loner Life, are notorious for having surprisingly complex and/or maddening literary or pseudo-literary aspects not typically found in American commercial fiction. Many of the devices that I discuss below are found in plenty of novels and light novels. Loner Life is simply unique for combining so many of these traits will also being wacky on the surface.

To illustrate, I’ll dive into how Loner Life is made to be intricate and bizarre at each stage that I laid out above.

Words

Shoji Goji clearly loves language and wordplay. Many of the word choices are erudite and rare, and he regularly uses a little-known kanji (Chinese character in Japanese) with a “rubi” reading (or hiragana phonetic reading of the kanji) for humorous slang on top of it. So he loves to mix an archaic, literary word with modern slang. Goji also likes to use an out-of-date kanji when most contemporary writers would simply use hiragana. I compensate for this tendency by using luxuriant, over-the-top vocabulary whenever possible, but freely mixing it with the most absurd slang I can come up with.

Loner Life also pulls this vocabulary and slang from an incredibly wide variety of contextual sources: J-drama from the 70s, famous haiku, Sengoku war histories, little-known web comics, children’s fairytales. I need to put vocabulary that I already know from most sentences into a Japanese Google search just in case it’s also doubling as a reference to some famous or little known source material, which will substantially change the way I need to translate it.

Sentences

Throw grammar out the window, because Loner Life is narrated in ungrammatical first-person perspective. Now, this is common in Japanese and English-language fiction, but the main narrator Haruka-kun has a tendency to end nearly every single sentence he speaks aloud with a question mark. It’s a choice by the original author so off-the-rails that it is simply impossible to get away with in English. It doesn’t make sense for someone to speak every sentence ending in a question mark. But there is a real character logic here: Haruka-kun is an idiot-genius who breaks down into awkward cringe whenever he has to speak to other people. But his tendencies go so far that no reader could conclude that logic wins in the end. So I’ve translated his non-grammatical rants and frequent questions with an ever-evolving and adapting mix of rambling grammatical structures in English that are, on the one hand, viable for an over-compensating socially awkward individual, but also exaggerated to a humorous and at-times absurdist extent.

Proverbs and Puns

As mentioned above, Goji loves to layer meaning. Often a pun is an allusion is also a metaphor. Japanese pun is a rich subject because of the abundance of phonetic sounds in Japanese that could have multiple meanings. Vice-versa, there is the potential for a kanji or combination of kanji to stack together in different ways to produce a multiplicity of meanings. Goji abuses–I mean, uses–this power of Japanese. At times in the series, an entire paragraph may consist of puns, usually turning a reference to a common proverb, saying, or piece of pop cultural on its head by also sounding like something absurd/naughty/non-sequitur.

English is not as easy to pun in, and puns tend to sound a lot cheesier in English. My approach to this has been to process all of Loner Life’s various types of wordplay as ‘wordplay’ and respond with a flexible roster of options in English. I use puns when possible, jokes or references to bizarre or absurdist culture and pop culture, and silly but sometimes clever alliteration, assonance, rhyming, and tongue-twisters.

Cultural Linguistic Features

Loner Life also takes many of Japanese’s culture features to extremes. Dialogue tags are much less common in Japanese fiction, but usually you can tell who is speaking because of verbal tics like the degree of formality used and masculine/feminine sentence endings. Goji purposefully obliterates this with a massive roster of characters, none of whose names are remembered by the main character, and only a few of whom have any distinguishing verbal tics. I would have loved to come up with a better way to deal with this feature, but in the translation I’ve simply created verbal tics for certain unique characters like Vice Rep B, added dialogue tags when helpful, and then forgone them the rest of the time.

Loner Life is also no slouch when it comes to euphemisms and politeness, which are more common in Japanese and come off as stilted or strange when directly translated into English. Haruka-kun often flips between extremely polite and extremely coarse language, which needs to be exaggerated even more to have the same relative effect in English. I also need to emphasize dirty puns and sexual double-meanings to make them stand out like they do in Japanese, which I usually do by doubling down on the creeping naughtiness of a passage. (This becomes a much bigger issue in Volumes 3 and beyond, so you’ll have to wait to find out!)

I hope this provided some insight into my translation of Loner Life. It’s important to note that these literary and linguistic devices used by Goji are only half of the reason the novel is so tough to translate – the plot is also told deliberately out of order much of the time, with the narrator purposefully (or accidentally) withholding information because he is either too clever, too dense, or both. But I think this comes through very well in the English translation, so any readers will be well aware at why Haruka-kun is such a difficult but entertaining narrator to follow.

Being a light novel, the series moves very slowly at times, but it definitely evolves in an exciting way. So please look forward to Volume 2 coming out next June. And thank you for reading!

A Musical Menu For 2021

co-written by Gersham Johnson

The Musical Meaning of 2020 * The Best Music of 2019 and the 2010s * The Phonnys: Best in 2018 Music * The 40 Best Tracks of 2017 * The 20 Best Albums of 2016

This year, we’re proud to present a musical menu for 2021—the best songs, albums, and parts of albums formatted as a menu of delicious treats to enjoy. With hardly any consensus club bangers, culture-shifting musical moments, or celebrated albums to speak of, we felt like this format best encapsulated the year’s mixed grab bag of music as we wade deeper into the dog days of the streaming era: a little this, a little that, a little something for everyone. We’ve selected the tastiest treats we managed to find in the chaos. Bon appétit!

CAFÉ CRITIQUE’S 2021 MUSICAL MENU

The Playlist

Specials

Rolled Joint

Dora Jar — “Multiply”

A tightly rolled pre-dinner joint to open up your body and mind to incoming musical experiences. A hit of Jar’s eruptive, evocative guitars and quivering voice will prime you for a musical adventure of a meal. 

Mentos & Coke

Cherry Glazerr — “Big Bang”

Mix ‘em up and watch the fireworks. “Oil and water, they don’t mix,” but light acoustic guitars and heavy electric-electronic production definitely do, and light a brilliant fuse.

Toasted Sunflower Seeds

Big Red Machine — “Phoenix” (feat. Fleet Foxes & Anaïs Mitchell); “Renegade” (feat. Taylor Swift)

For the table. Absent-mindedly snack on these melodic yet light morsels. The hooks don’t seem immediate, but before long you’ve consumed several in a row and are still hungry for more. The glitchiness of the production sounds like real-time seed-toasting. Have as many as you’d like.

Bratwurst & Sauerkraut Grilled by Your Dad That One Time

Sam Fender — “Spit of You”

A barbecue staple and the only thing Dad and you will always have in common. The recipe is simple: A steady Springsteen backbeat framed by interlacing guitars, perfectly placed like the grill marks you know and love. Top it all off with optional-but-highly-recommended saxophone-flavored sauerkraut. 

Onigiri To-Go

Shishamo — “中毒” 

This jumbo rice ball is perfect for road trip take-away, with colorful harmonies, a playful guitar solo, and the wonderfully wholesome rock backing that only Shishamo can make. With a salty fish filling, there are traces of edge and spice within the sweet vinegar rice exterior.

Jeff Bezos’ Left Testicle

Bo Burnham — “Bezos I”

Jeffrey Bezos went to motherfucking space this year. He also fucked over hundreds of thousands of hard-working Americans and made them die in tornadoes and drink their own pee. Burnham very well may have been the only artist to truly capture the essence of the pandemic’s late-capitalist madness.

Beverages

Dom Perignon

Silk Sonic — “Leave the Door Open”; “Skate”

As smooth, crisp, and intoxicating as the finest champagne in stock, Bruno and .Paak came to party in 2021. This seemingly effortless recreation of dazzling funk, boogie, and Motown will get everybody dancing and feeling just a little sexy.

The Nighttime Negroni

Summer Walker (feat. Ari Lennox) — “Unloyal” 

The perfect cocktail companion for when you realize he just ain’t the one. Feel the gin, Campari and vermouth bump n’ grind in R&B glory, going down as smooth as Ari and Summer’s take-no-shit vocal runs. Even if you drink too much, you’ll never have enough.

California Cabernet

Lana Del Rey — “White Dress”; “Thunder”

A conversation over a glass of this rare Sonoma cabernet vintage will turn perplexing, boring, and philosophical all at once. It’s the subtle notes that make this: of minimal pulses of piano, simmering percussion, and melody that all hit differently in every verse. Like Lana’s whispered reminiscences, you may not fully notice as it washes over, but three glasses in and you’re crying about a past self that never was. Pairs well with fermented American Dream.

Brooklyn Drip Coffee

Indigo De Souza — “Darker Than Death”; “Real Pain”; “Kill Me”

Tortured and alt, with genuine passion, this homemade brew combines upbeat indie enthusiasm with utter morbidity. You’ll need to dive under the surface of Indigo De Souza’s catchy guitar riffs and surprising song structures to find the reaper waiting.

Cherry Icee in an Empty Movie Theater

Helado Negro — “Agosto” (feat. Buscabulla)

Equal parts cinematic and sweet, each sip is the same but somehow better than the last. Yes, it sucks that you had to go to the movies alone, but after each swirl of haunting background vocals you’ll have no choice but to succumb to the numbing pleasures of brain freeze. Perfect for immersing yourself deeper into a warm summer feeling of solitary fantasy.

Herbal Floral Tea

The War on Drugs — “Living Proof”

A meditative mug of herbal tea designed to calm the nerves and incite deep pondering. The structure, like the tea leaves, is organic: no verse/chorus repetition, just deeply personal introspection over rising and falling waves of piano. Take your cup over to the fire and feel the warmth of a blazing guitar solo overtake you.

Appetizers

Fig and Goat Cheese Spinach Salad

Snail Mail — Valentine (“Valentine”; “Ben Franklin”; “Headlock”; “Light Blue”)

A base of catchy pop, mixed in with lonely acoustic riffs, and topped with an unexpected dissonant emotional crunch. Snail Mail’s ruminations and lullabies form one of the most consistent albums of the year, particularly on the best four-song run of the year, which tells a story as it descends from the guitar-powered anthemic opening of “Valentine” into the mournful orchestral repose of “Light Blue.” 

Spicy Charcuterie Platter

Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (“Woman” (feat. Cleo Sol); “Two Worlds Apart”; “I Love You, I Hate You”; “Point and Kill” (feat. Obongjayar))

Delicious hard-hitting flavors served up cold. Little Simz lays down the sharpest, crispiest bars of 2021 over percussive, bass-heavy grooves. The smooth riding of “Woman” is a soft Camembert and the high-stakes strings and brutal delivery on “I Love You, I Hate You” is a sour gorgonzola. 

Tapas Grandiosas

C. Tangana — El Madrileño (“Demasiadas Mujeres”; “Comerte Entera” (feat. Toquinho); “Ingobernable” (feat. Gipsy Kings, Nicolás Reyes, & Tonino Baliardo); “Nominao” (feat. Jorge Drexler); “Te Olvidaste,” (feat. Omar Apollo); “Cuándo Olvidaré” (feat. Pepe Blanco))

Bite-size grilled calamari (grim underworld bops), piping-hot croquettes (horn-powered summer celebrations), buttery loafs (amorous swooning), and spicy chorizo (gnarly guitar earworms) all come together in one of the best albums and appetizers of the year. C. Tangana figured out the perfect blend of emotive songwriting and reggaeton bounce with these flavors.

Sports Bar Nachos

Iceage — “High and Hurt”

Rock music? In the year of our lord? It never gets old, just like this crunchy, cheese-beef-and-bean-drenched order of nachos. These nachos even come with a generous helping of gravelly moans and shredding guitars in the form of fresh jalapeños. Led Zeppelin, early Radiohead, The Rolling Stones—pick your favorite rock band and you’ll taste hints. 

Gen Z Pot Brownie

Michael Seyer — “Modern Loneliness”

To get you hungry for the main course, enjoy this pot brownie for the Gen Z generation, with a recipe we suspect was lifted from Mac Demarco. The flavor, like the feelings captured here, is ambiguous. But you’re not here for the taste, you’re here to relax, waltzing under the midtempo midnight moon.

Entrées

Praise Black Jesus Dumpling Soup 

Kanye West — Donda (“Jail”; “God Breathed”; “Off the Grid”; “Hurricane”; “Praise God”; “Jonah”)

Kanye may have added literally everything into this enormous (like stupidly big) bowl of hot and sour dumpling soup. Still, Donda has arguably the highest number of good-to-great songs out of any album this year, from hard-hitting booty-droppers like “Off the Grid” to the hypnotic, tearful trance of “Jonah.”

Bored Housewife Meatloaf

Kacey Musgraves — star-crossed (“cherry blossom”; “justified”; “angel”; “breadwinner”; “camera roll”)

A tender, sweet meatloaf made with all of the melancholy of a bad marriage. Your soon-to-be-ex-wife got experimental and threw everything she could find in there: euphoria, pettiness, sadness, optimism, and regret. “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” Kacey sings, so forgive her if every bite isn’t perfection. In the end, it’s all made with love.

XL All-Toppings Pizza

Billie Eilish — Happier Than Ever (“Getting Older”; “I Didn’t Change My Number”; “Billie Bossa Nova”; “my future”; “Happier Than Ever”)

This filling, nostalgic pizza pie from the famous local joint with a fifty-minute wait will speak to pizzas of pizzas-gone-by in your life and mine. Billie may have surprised fans with the understated ballads of Happier Than Ever, but this pizza is a work of art: its simplicity and honesty provoke genuine emotion at times, and it still hits hard with her characteristic thumping bass and brutal sarcasm. 

Pastrami on Rye with Unidentifiable Yet Amazing Yellow Sauce

Wolf Alice — “How Can I Make It Ok?”

This is one beefy sandwich, with as many layers as you can possibly stand. Pounds and pounds of stacked harmonic yells topped with a special reverb sauce so enticing it will leave you screaming for answers alongside singer Ellie Rowsell. This sandwich won’t tell any secrets, but it will leave you begging for more.

Sides

Leftover Turkey

Lucy Dacus — “Hot & Heavy”; “Christine”

Someone accidentally brought some delicious golden Thanksgiving Turkey into the shop: one devastating drama that even Adele could tip her hat to, plus a convincing imitation of an indie rock shout-along classic.

Chunky Mash

Faye Webster — “Overslept” (feat. mei ehara) 

Buttery warm mashed potatoes with bacon that’ll put you right to sleep with a smile. Faye Webster may be dreamy and slow to the point of nearly boring us, but we’ll happily consume these carbohydrates. 

Long Sour Roll

Panopticon — “And again into the light”

A never-ending roll of a variety of hard whole-wheat brown bread you’ve never heard of in your life, yet with a surprisingly flavorful crunch. It evokes the empty desert frontier and all the mystery of the universe as you continue to chew and munch on it, wondering if it tastes good, or if it is merely the eternal darkness lying before you.

One Overpriced Waffle feat. Maple Syrup

Tyler, the Creator (feat. Lil Wayne) — “HOT WIND BLOWS”

Red-hot rhymes drizzled all over an expensive-ass beat. The jazz-flute sample will soak up all the syrup if you’re not quick enough, so eat up. The best hip hop feature of the year is worth the exorbitant price on its own.

Milkshake-Dipped French Fries

Home Is Where — “Long Distance Conjoined Twins”

Salt-tinged scream-singing, as melodic as it is disarming. Peppy harmonica, as “Please Please Me” as it is emo. These things shouldn’t really go together, but they do. So why not supersize each and enjoy?

Desserts

Homemade Blueberry Pie

COIN (feat. Faye Webster) — “Sagittarius Superstar”

A slice of sticky blueberry pie, fresh out of the oven, baked by your significant other: warm, soulful, and full of sugary love. Don’t ask us how we got it in the restaurant.

Perfectly Burnt S’mores 

Lightning Bug — “September Song, pt. ii”

It’s hard to pick a favorite part when every ingredient is so sweet. Taste the thick-as-marshmallows shoegaze of guitar and synth. Or instead delight in the understated graham-cracker-crunch of the drums. Whatever your favorite part, enjoy it all while hot, and sit back as the melody dances like the rising smoke of the fire.

New England Orchard Apple Slices

Japanese Breakfast — “Be Sweet”

You can’t only have one. Put this on repeat as you dance around the orchard to the year’s most energetic bassline in an indie rock song. Sometimes going pop is a bad sign for alternative artists, but when the season’s melodies are this crisp and catchy, you’d be a fool not to pick them and consume straight off the tree.

Warm Ginger Cookie 

Katy Kirby — “Cool Dry Place”

Find a seat by the window at your local café, and watch the lovers and dogs pass by while savoring the warm crumble of autumnal folk rock instrumentation. Katy Kirby’s voice is so wispy it feels like it will disappear just as quickly as this cookie, so take your time. And please, enjoy the calm while it lasts—before the full band roars in.

Eric Margolis’s best articles of 2021

For the second year in a row, I’m happy to share the best articles I’ve written this past year. (Check out the best of 2020 here, including features on the Olympics, Terrace House, and working conditions in the Japanese film industry.)

Per my best count, in 2021, I wrote 48 articles, translated 4 volumes of light novels, 14 volumes of manga, and edited 8 volumes of manga as well. Compared to last year, I’ve shifted a bit away from journalism and more towards translation. I did less journalism, but substantially more translation, including a few special projects like this Kyohei Sakaguchi art book and this Christian Marclay Tokyo exhibit.

Check out what are, in my opinion, the ten best articles I wrote this year:

10. What makes beautiful Japanese? (Japan Times)

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2021/03/19/language/makes-beautiful-japanese-simple-morning-greeting/

This year, I wrote a number of articles for the Japan Times’ bilingual column, which helps Japanese learners advance their skills with articles that cross between English and Japanese. This article in particular should be interesting for anyone curious about linguistics, as it explores the unique words and structures that Japanese people find beautiful: namely, words of consideration and thoughtfulness for others.

While Yamato kotoba aren’t inherently beautiful, their usage aligns with what most people consider to be pleasant Japanese: expressions of empathy and consideration, the language of seasons and poetry.

9. A, Autumn by Osamu Dazai (Metropolis Magazine)

dazai osamu

I did two literary translations for Metropolis Magazine this past year – this mysterious, poetic short story for legendary author Osamu Dazai, as well as two unique shorts by poet Kanoko Okamoto. The piece is brief, and well worth a read.

“Just look at the mess that I’ve written.”

Have you ever swam in the ocean in fall? Broken paper parasols wash onto the beach, the remains of pleasure. Discarded paper lanterns decorated with the Japanese flag, ornate hairpins, paper scraps, chipped records, milk bottles, silvergrass muddied with red, all pounding and thrashing ashore.

8. Kengo Kuma, the architect of Japan’s Olympic stadium, thinks it looks just as good empty (Slate)

Police officers move towards their position ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games near the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23, 2021. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

One of my meatiest and densest articles of the year, this article will fascinate anyone who likes Olympic architecture, forward-thinking city planning, and mad geniuses. Kuma Kengo has a unique perspective on architecture and building a more human city that is endlessly fascinating. One might say that Kuma Kengo is about everything that the Olympics are not. Which is why this made for such a cool piece to write!

Far from the monument to a resurgent Japan that organizers’ envisioned, Kuma envisions that the National Stadium will be a part of an era of economic contraction and human intimacy. It’s a vision that runs counter to what the Olympics have been in practice, with a focus on growth and victory, and which local activists criticize as primarily an opportunity for corporate profit-grabbing with little benefits to citizens.

7. Cool Japan campaign at a crossroads (Japan Times)

Another hefty beast of an article, this feature-length investigation for the Japan Times dissects the long-standing efforts of the ‘Cool Japan’ campaign to promote Japanese culture abroad. Since it started in 2010-2011, I looked at the campaigns successes and failures, which is a mixed bag to say the least. For those unfamiliar with Japan’s efforts to look ‘cool’ abroad, the effort may seem sloppy. But to those familiar with the oft-negative reporting about this initiative, they may be surprised to see a fair number of successes.

Cool Japan initiatives have paid a lot of attention to capitalizing on and promoting this culinary boom. The Cool Japan Fund has invested in a number of food-related ventures abroad, assisting the Japanese Food Town in Singapore, helping Ippudo Ramen to expand its international chain and offering support to the U.S.-based Tastemade network to produce a series of videos that introduce Japanese dishes and tourist destinations. While the Cool Japan Fund has taken heat for losses that totaled ¥10 billion as of 2018, the culinary initiatives in particular have yielded both profits and inroads for Japanese cuisine abroad.

6. Anime from the left, and the far, far right (Unseen Japan)

I was very happy to get to write more pieces for Unseen Japan this year, which is a valuable source that takes a unique lens on reporting under-covered aspects of Japanese culture and society. This year, I explored the politics of many of anime’s biggest hits in a series ‘Your Anime Is Political.’ This is the article that kicked it all off, which sought to debunk the myth the anime is apolitical, and show the wide-ranging ways in which creators’ politics influence their art. Covered: Fullmetal Alchemist, Studio Ghibli, Attack on Titan, and more.

A common liberal-to-moderate-left leaning ideology seen in many popular and classic anime is what I’ll call ‘antifascist liberalism.’ These anime tend to have basic liberal values like portraying democracy as good and war as evil. They depict societies ruined by war and power-grabbing. The heroes fight against corrupt existing governments or conspiracies that use violence ruthlessly to achieve their goals. It’s a broad pattern that can be seen in anime ranging from Naruto to Grave of the Fireflies. It’s anti-war, anti-fascist, and pro-democracy.

5. What temples and shrines mean to an outsider (Japan Times)

This was a piece dear to my heart, as I got to combine personal essay with factual reporting about the unique possibilities of Japan’s “spiritual geography.” The way that temples and shrines influence the landscape and cityscapes of Japan is a world apart from where I come from in the US. So in this piece, I explored how someone who doesn’t believe in Shintoism or Buddhism can use Japan’s spiritual icons for personal and spiritual growth.

A Shinto shrine’s basic function is to serve as a house of residence for spirits. From that perspective, engaging with shrines is like going to an art museum for nature. Most often, a shrine is dedicated to a local nature deity, and requires a small trek up a hill or into a secluded grove of trees. Engaging with a shrine means interacting with and opening yourself up to the local landscape, whether it’s a spectacular seaside cliff or a hidden grove in the suburbs.

4. The world’s love affair with manga is just beginning (Evergreen Review)

For notable literary magazine Evergreen Review, I did a deep, deep dive into the explosive manga market of 2021. While I’ve reported about the state of the manga market before, this creative feature is geared towards literary readers with little knowledge of Japan or the world of manga/anime, so I highly recommend it as a starting point to understand just how deeply manga has infiltrated the US markets, not to mention American culture.

But this notion of cultural authenticity is simply untrue: Walt Disney was a major influence on Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, and countless mangaka since then have cited influences from all over the world. In anime, a lot of artwork has been outsourced to Korea for years and years. 

3. Ranking Japan’s best cities for immigrants (Unseen Japan)

Over the past year, I embarked on a data-collection project to examine the best Japanese cities to live in. As a result, I started a new series for Unseen Japan, and covered two criteria – the best cities in Japan for immigrants, and the most ‘green’ cities in Japan. This was a fun project for me to work on, as I can get obsessive about rankings and categorization. Plus the results are guaranteed to surprise you!

I assembled public data from 120 large cities in Japan, including at least one from all 47 prefectures, and all 23 Tokyo wards. You can read more about my full methodology at the end of the article. Heavily weighted factors include foreign population ratio, English language capability (although it is worth noting that many immigrants may not know English), cost of housing and living, and local amenities like parks and hospitals. Other factors include availability of jobs, public transportation infrastructure, sightseeing spots, and international schools. These factors tend to be basic essentials that most foreign residents would deem as attractive for their city.

2. An Afghan In Japan’s Plea to the World (Japan Times)

This is the most urgent article I worked on this year. With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, life has changed horrifically for millions of people. I worked with an unnamed individual in Japan to report on the dire circumstances facing Afghan people at home and abroad. It’s a painful, personal story, and it urgently demonstrates the need to help Afghans as much as we all can.

As Alex relaxed and ate in peace, Taliban fighters entered the city. They seized the Pul-e-Charkhi prison and released inmates, including captured Islamic State and al-Qaida militants. Afghan military planes and helicopters fled to Uzbekistan. President Ashraf Ghani relinquished power and, shortly thereafter, fled. By 8:55 p.m. local time, the Taliban had taken over Kabul’s presidential palace.

“I was just shocked,” Alex says. “I felt like someone pushed me from a high height to the ground.”

The events of August changed Alex’s life in more ways than one. New, inescapable emotions emerged: fear, guilt, anger. In the following weeks, crumbling mental health led them to seek help from a psychologist.

1. In Japan, His Disaster Art Saves Lives (The New York Times)

Last year, I was cheeky and ranked my New York Times “Terrace House” article number four on my own list. But this year, I have no doubt – this Kyohei Sakaguchi article is the best. It covers a fascinating artist and individual who has worked on extremely important issues like suicide prevention and the housing crisis. It covers the creation of art and how to live as an artist. Everything about this article came together in a magical, powerful way, and if I must say so myself, it’s quite an extraordinary one.

It’s easy to understand how Sakaguchi undertakes many different projects simultaneously — to him, everything is connected. He connects his vegetable garden to his art, his art to his depression, Kumamoto’s history and literary heritage to his writing, and so on. This connectedness comes with the support and stability of his wife, Ryoko, and their children, who, at 12 and 7 years old, are now old enough to understand Sakaguchi’s bipolar disorder.

Thank you for a great year and for reading many of my pieces. See you in 2022!

Moments captured on the Kumano Kodo trail

For well over a thousand years, pilgrims in search of spirituality and enlightenment have wondered the Kumano Kodo.

Deep in the heartlands of Wakayama Prefecture, buried in sea, fog, clouds, woods, cliffs, caves, hills, and valleys, gods have resided alongside humanity. Kumano, the ancient name for the southern region of the Kii Peninsula, has been a sacred site since ancient times. The rich natural landscape is believed to be the otherworldly abode of gods. And ever since the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, monks, lords, samurai, Emperors, and ordinary people have wandered the trails through its mountains and woods to various temples, shrines, and spiritual sites in the region, purifying themselves and attaining ever-higher levels of spirituality.

Nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination, but consider that in previous eras, noblemen would take retinues of hundreds of attendants with them to travel the trail. So in reality, the trail is not nearly as bustling as it used to be. Mysterious ruins encircle and enclose this mountainous trail.

I hiked 45 kilometers: a mere fraction of it. What follows are 22 photos taken on the Nakahechi Kumano Kodo, from the coastal city of Tanabe to Hongu Taisha, the final and central destination of these historic treks.

Dawn at Takajiri-Oji, a mountaintop village at 350 meters. The first site of ritual ablution.
Morning light burrows its way into the woods on the uphill trail.
With over 1,000 years of history, the trail is full of ruins new and old.
This appears to be a local rest or tea stop that fell out of service.
A rest under the yellow leaves and sunny sky of mid-November.
A peak through the leaves on the ridge of Mt. Takao, at over 700 meters.
A major rest stop connecting with the road for trout-on-rice, and radiant foliage.
A view of Chikatsuyu, a quiet countrysie town on the trail.
Idyllic scenes on the uphill climb out of Chikatsuyu.

Tsugizakura-oji, the site of a rare cherry tree grafted on to a Japanese cypress. The massive cedar trees here are 8 meters circumference and over 800 years old.

The last site of the Japanese wolf, which roamed these hills until around 1920.

Abandoned vehicles. A ruined home is nearby.
24 kilometers into my hike, the dying light of afternoon kisses the orange-green hills.
The next morning, the uphill climb resumes.
From 300 meters back up to 600.
Marking the start of the last major ascent before the gentle descent to Hongu Taisha.

The ancient site of an influential samurai family.

River crossing in the woods.
The downhill climb is complete, into a wood of bright red leaves.
Entering the village of Fushiogami.
Up a nearby hill, pilgrims can catch their first glimpse of the shrine.
I have never seen a village as quaint as Fushiogami.

The largest shrine gate in Japan, marking the sacred riverbed, its ancient trees, and its resident spirits. Seen from above and below.

I’m obsessed with Tokoname

A town on the Chita peninsula, closed in by two bays, drowning in clay.

The ancient pottery village of Tokoname is one of my absolute favorite places in Japan. I hope to write a full, comprehensive article of it, but after my third visit (and second this year), I needed to share some words and photos that capture a slice of what makes it so magical.

This is a town that exists in between life and death, birth and rebirth. Tokoname has been a center of pottery production in Japan since before the year 1,000, though it saw its heyday as Japan’s largest source of ceramics during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Today, ceramics galleries old and new line its winding, hilly streets.

But there’s something more magical about Tokoname than mere history and ceramics art. The village center, which is on a steep hill about a kilometer from the sea, feels like it’s drowning in earthenware–old armored tubes, toilets, jars and bowls, cutesy cat statues, ogling frogs, chipped fragments. While the town is old, and many of the buildings are dilapidated or completely collapsed, caved piles of earthen rubble, fresh flowers and greenery sprouts from these same ruins. Touches of sea breeze swim through these small, winding streets. The unliving earth, crafted into living art, is further animated by the fresh bursts of growing greenery and vivacious winds that pass through the town. In the 21st century, it has also seen more stylish, modern cafes and galleries pop up alongside longstanding potters and multigenerational homes.

On the busy city street that pedestrians use to enter the pottery village, dozens of smiling ceramic cats signify different wishes–for good health, good fortune, success in one’s studies, success in love, success in marriage. From there, there are three main designates ‘walking paths’ by the city through the galleries, old homes, and ancient kilns, and all the accompanying rubble, wind, and life. But in fact, there are countless unique paths through this little village. Tiny, nearly vertical hills cut new routes, and the slim space between hedge and fence serve as unexpected paths to get from A to B.

While the appearance and fairy-tale charm of the village is plenty, the ceramics galleries are quite special in their own right, with many prizewinning works of fine art alongside affordable mugs and bowls in austere wabi-sabi style and more contemporary, smoother aesthetics alike. Add in museums, the famous cat head “Tokonyan,” and some extraordinarily delightful cafes–especially the mellow Sugicafe and its fabulous gallery of photography and vintage cameras, and the quaint footbath cafe Tanpopo hiding under lush cherry trees. Tokoname is just such a charming, entrancing place. It’s not some crazy, mind-blowing tourist destination, but it mixes the appeal of history, art, rustic quaintness, while remaining a site of everyday life where kids play on the streets, dogwalkers greet each other in the afternoons, and commuters rush home on the evening trains.

Tokoname also spills out over to the sea, where the popular Rinku Beach faces spectacular sunsets over the water. An enormous mall, hot springs bath, miniature amusement park, and Costco round out wider Tokoname’s array of regional attractions.

These add some flavor and make a trip to Tokoname more well-rounded, with a trip to the ocean or the baths a mandatory extra. But it will always be the unique historical charm of the village itself that draws me. There’s something about the way that everything keeps piling up and up–flowers, bricks, ruined houses, unexpected stairwells, craggy trees, sturdy kilns–like a sacred burial ground for the art of earthenware.

I hope to be back again soon.

Two new manga, fresh from Japan

I’m so happy to announce that I’ve served as the editor for two fantastic, freshly-translated manga series for One Peace Books. I’m here to give you the scoop on these manga, why I chose them, the translation and editing process, and more.

I Belong to the Baddest Girl at School

by Ui Kashima, translated by Emily Balistrieri

Genres: Comedy, romance, school-life

“Be mine.” Unoki has always been bullied, and high school is no different. Right away, the top troublemaker, Boss Toramaru, makes him her personal errand boy. The only thing is…she thought she was asking him out?! So Toramaru is sure they’re dating, while Unoki is convinced he’s under her thumb. The stage is set for a rom-com of misunderstandings!

The first title, released a little over a month ago in mid-August, is a slapstick rom-com of misunderstandings. Both of the manga I chose to bring stateside have one thing in common, which was my deciding factor in selecting it for translation: they’re flat-out funny! Baddest in particular is filled to the brim with clever gags that center around the misunderstanding between the two main characters: Unoki, the bullied boy, and Toramaru, the gang queen girl.

Readers will love the gender-swap of a feminine, trembling boy under the tutelage of an empowered, unstoppable female lead, but both characters are equally under a spell. Toramaru has an adorable crush on Unoki, and Unoki is straight up terrified of Toramaru. The focus is on the humor, but their relationship slowly and consistently builds throughout the series.

Baddest has received really high praise from critics so far! “Fantastic storytelling debut,” “Hilarious and packed with great entertainment,” “rom com comfort food,” you get the drift. This series is really fun to work on, and has a fantastic translation by veteran manga translator Emily Balistrieri, who has been a genius at tackling some of the trickier puns and gags of the series.

You’ll love this series if you have a sense of humor, and that’s about it. Definitely check it out on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or pop into your local book store’s manga section and see if they have it in stock!

Multi-Mind Mayhem: Isekai Tensei Soudouki

Story by Ryousen Takami, manga by Honoji, translated by Matt Schley

Genres: Fantasy, action, comedy.

Bard Cornelius: the son of a nobleman of Mauricia, an empire located in a parallel universe. But Bard is no ordinary boy—he’s got three souls packed into one body! Aside from his own consciousness, he’s got Oka Sanai, a miserly samurai, and Masaharu Oka, a high school otaku who loves animal ears. With his extra knowledge of military tactics and business acumen, Bard’s ready to cheat his way to the top! Get ready to enjoy the manga version of this hit isekai light novel series!

This is the very first title that I acquired for translation, so it holds a special place in my heart. In finding titles to acquire for One Peace Books, we look for titles that have commercial viability, but also titles that have an inherent gem or quality that makes them worth translating. With Mayhem, that gem is the tug-of-war in the hero Bard’s mind between two opposing forces: an anime-obsessed high school boy who has an encyclopedic brain, and a fearless warrior samurai devoted to profits and unusual sexual inclinations. This results in all sorts of absurdities, but gives Bard an incredible set of skills and talents to overcome the challenges he faces in this medieval fantasy world.

Mayhem follows some of the conventions of the isekai (“other world”) genre, which has become possibly the most popular genre in the American manga market. But it feels a bit different from other isekai because the lead is still a native-born character in the fantasy world, rather than a transplant from Japan. The most enjoyable thing about this manga to me is watching Bard use his unusual knowledge to come up with creative solutions to problems – just by editing this story, I learned about gold-plating, sugar-making, and more.

This manga didn’t have the same complicated puns as Baddest, but it’s still an impressive work of translation by Japan Times anime-guru Matt Schley. He strikes the balance between realistic speech for a fantasy world, and making the dialogue as comedic as possible, because at its heart, this story is a comedic adventure through a fantasy world.

You’ll love this series if you love fantasy, fighting sequences, or have a thirst for adventure. Just as with Baddest, you can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or (hopefully) in book stores somewhere near you.

It would mean the world to me if you bought and shared both of these manga with family and friends. The more we sell, the higher likelihood there is of me being able to find more exciting manga to acquire and bring into English. I already have two more in the pipeline that are more sophisticated that I can’t wait to share with you. And if all these manga do good enough, hopefully one day I can do novels, as well.

There’s nothing more to be said. Just read, and enjoy!

Kuma Kengo is creating a more human architecture

Kuma Kengo, one of Japan’s most renowned architects and the designer of the new National Stadium for the Tokyo Olympics, isn’t exactly about the Olympic spirit. I wrote about this in a feature for Slate recently and you should definitely check out the story here for details about the National Stadium and all the thought and cool features that went into it.

But thanks to the generous folks over at the Japan Cultural Expo, I also got a chance to see Kuma’s massive body of work in full at the ongoing exhibit of Kuma’s designs at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo as a part of the Japan Cultural Expo.

Here’s the exhibit description for those interested:

“This exhibition features 68 designs selected from among Kuma’s projects worldwide, with a focus on those of a highly public nature, categorized according to five principles that Kuma has conceived – “hole,” “particles,” “oblique,” “softness,” and “time” – and presented in the form of models, photographs, and mockups. Another 74 exhibits, including video works and a mobile home displayed in front of the museum, will immerse viewers in Kuma’s vision. All texts introducing sections of the exhibition and individual works were written by Kuma himself.”

For the many of you not located in Tokyo, just google Kengo Kuma to see some of his outstanding work. As I discuss in the Slate article, Kuma is a self-declared enemy of boxes, striving to create architecture that brings people into a more dynamic, joyful world of walkable streets. Kuma’s architecture is all about the human – trying to create softer, warmer, friendlier cities built for people, not for cars or industry or efficiency – just places that strike chords with the essence of being human.

In order to give you a taste of just how great some of this architecture can be, I’m going to discuss the five main themes of Kuma’s work, as displayed in the exhibition, along with examples of his work that represents these trends.

The Hole

Kuma writes about how much of architecture has been about monuments- soaring, protruding buildings that rise outward and above. But the hole – a building that is concave and welcomes us in – is arguable a more ancient, primal, and human form of architecture that keeps us grounded and safe.

Kuma’s work emphasizes holes because they link spaces – the ground and the sky, or the inside to the outside. Kuma wants to use holes to vitalize and energize ordinary things.

Kuma’s Nagaoka City Hall, which uses a hole to create a pleasant space for communal gathering and exchange.

Particles

Kuma’s theory on and interest in particles is a bit difficult to understand, but basically, Kuma seeks to use particles as an alternative to hard divisions of space like walls or glass. Instead, smaller objects can create subtler, gentler divisions between different areas while also allowing for a degree of transparency. Kuma wants to create spaces where people can bounce around freely without being bound by hierarchies or groupings–and these spaces demand not hard walls or windows, but instead, small particles that separate us while still allowing us to be connected.

The Yusuhara Community Library’s atmosphere of particles creates a semi-translucent but still open space.

Softness

Kuma tracked cats in Tokyo to uncover new insights about urban design, and one fact he found out was that cats preferred either rough or soft surfaces. Texture is incredibly important for cats–and for humans, too. Smooth, glossy surfaces may look good, but they don’t evoke the tactile senses. Soft and rough surfaces are friendly, inviting, and much more related to the natural environment, which contains a wide variety of textures.

The Takayanagi Community Center uses traditional, soft Japanese materials like paper and wood for a textured, inviting space.

Oblique

Personally, this is my favorite principle of Kuma’s. In nature, there are very few right angles and boxes. Humans used to freely cross over the various surfaces of the earth, which incline in all sorts of ways. The way we live trapped in boxes is very unnatural, so Kuma proposes to use a wider variety of sloping surfaces to create more dynamic and yet also livable spaces.

The Dallas Rolex tower is oblique, unlike an ordinary office building. As a result, it fits more gently and naturally into its surroundings.

Time

This final theme of Kuma’s works is heavily based on the ideas of Jane Jacobs, who theorized that old buildings are valuable because they depreciate in value, allowing rents to decrease and dynamic communities to thrive in depreciated areas. Kuma builds on this approach and says that old buildings weaken and soften, and grow more friendlier and charming. New buildings are often hard and unfriendly. Dilapidation is its own value in architecture. Accordingly, Kuma encourages using recycled materials and reforming old buildings instead of strictly building new ones.

Tecchan Shimokitazawa is a yakitori restaurant built from an old two-story house. Kuma used old skis and snowboards to construct the interior counters and stairs.

I’m deeply interested in Kuma’s philosophy and think it could be applied around the world to create better, more human-friendly environments. I hope you found this architecture post interesting, and stay tuned for more in the future!

The Rains of July

This is the time of year that I feel homesick in Japan.

I mean, if there’s one time that the holistic experience of being — attitude, culture, weather, activities, atmosphere — is clearly better in the East Coast U.S. than Japan, it’s early summer. So many of my favorite things happen in the early east coast summer: fireflies, the first hot summer days, trips to the beach when the ocean is still cold, fourth of July barbecues, thunderstorms, summer vacations.

The swampy green of rainy July in Nagoya.

Late June to early July is, simply, a fantastic time of year on the east coast. School always let out for me around June 20th, and the feeling of euphoria is still residual, tied to my biological clock. When the calendar winds around to late June, I feel ready to relax, to explore, to enjoy. The mass of Fourth of July vacations and the excitement, partying, and atmosphere of collective relief and celebration. I love changes in culture and atmosphere between different cities and countries, but also between times of year–and midsummer is one of the most distinct times of year because it generates changes in behavior and being.

My homesickness emerges this time of year because the seasonal cycle is incredibly different in central Japan. Late June and early July overlaps with what is typically the height of rainy season here. On the one hand, rainy season really isn’t that bad. For a period of about six weeks, it rains, on average, every other day. Temperatures are very humid in the high 70s, but not uncomfortable. Heavy rain doesn’t fall that often. Some early summer festivals happen in July.

But the contrast compared to the east coast is simply too dramatic. This time of year in Japan is as ho-hum as it gets — with so much grey and rain, it’s an ideal time of year to get work done. Kids are still in school. There are no major public holidays or vacations. My heart is ready for the heart of summer – the beach, the mountains, traveling, barbecues, friends, hot days, days off – but those days are simply not here yet.

I’m not here to complain, however. In Japan, those who wait for summer are eventually rewarded, and all of the vacation and celebration of summer does happen in August. Sometime in mid-late July, the rains will dissipate, the skies will clear, and beach season will begin. Kids get off school. Adults get off work in mid-August. Summer festivals skyrocket. Fireworks. Swimming. Barbecues. It all does happen – just not yet.

Surfers flocking to the blue seacoast of Aichi in mid-August

But it’s a bit of a bitter feeling to have my internal, psychological clock mistuned to the turning of the clock here. It’s a form of cultural, emotional jetlag.

The uneven nature of the rainy season also plays a part. June, for the most part, was quite nice. Every rainy day we had was rewarded with a day of sunshine. But now it’s taken a turn for the rain is literally dumping out of the sky most days. Plus, seeing all my friends and family in America experience the joys of the height of summer definitely makes me feel like I’m missing something, as it is one of those magical times of year that simply differs from country to country.

I’m grateful for the realization. It helped me understand the distinct cultural/emotional ‘seasons’ that build up in each country, and how they’re different. Based on my experience, here’s a calendar of the the most ‘joyous times of year’ in the U.S. and Japan – and you’ll see that even when they overlap seasonally, the atmosphere can be very different.

Mid-March to early April:

  • U.S., Spring Break– A bit nebulous, but sometime between mid-March and early-April, everyone gets off and a chance to see family, travel, and celebrate religious holidays.
  • Japan, Cherry Blossom Season – A truly celebratory time of year as the entire Japanese peninsula erupts in a chorus of pink and white. Schools are out, families take trips, huge crowds picnic and drink under the flowers and celebrate the start of a symbolic new year.

Early May:

  • Japan, Golden WeekOne of the major weeks of public holidays in Japan, this is possibly the biggest travel week of the year. The weather is mild and pleasant as relaxation and spirited travel breaks out across the entire country.

Late May:

  • US, Memorial Day Weekend – the kick-off of summer, with warm, comfortable weather and a lot of family time.

Late June-Early July

  • US, Summer Break! School lets out, workers take off, families gather, major vacations happen.

Early-Mid August:

  • Japan, Summer Break! – The parallel to US summer break, although shorter in nature. Outbreak of vacationing, beach time, days off, and festivals during the hottest time of year.

Late November

  • US, Thanksgiving – Major family gatherings and reunions in a dark, chilly time of year with feasting and football.
  • Japan, Autumn Leaves – As the peak season for fall foliage, and the period of the sunniest weather of the year, another period of spirited park wandering and regional travel to soak up the red and orange.

Late December-Early January

  • US, Winter Break – The cheer of Christmas lights, major vacations, and relaxing days spent warming up inside the house.
  • Japan, Winter Break – Not dissimilar to winter break in the US, but shorter and centered around New Years’ as an occasion for relaxed family time.
Raucous festivities and punchy pink the last week of March.

All things considered, the patterns aren’t nearly as different as they could be. The most joyous times of year in the U.S. are early July, late December, late May, late November. In Japan, it’s mid August, early April, last December, and early May. It’s funny to think that being aware of these parallel but differing experiences can cause such a unique and puzzling feeling of loneliness/missing out but also gratitude and joy.

Because I remember distinctly how amazing it felt in late March when food stalls filled the parks, a cool, brisk sun shone over perfectly pink and white petals as crowds watched and laughed and picnicked and doted and snapped photos and drank and smiled. It was certainly a time of year that I wasn’t suspecting to feel so full of celebration.

So while the rains of July are pretty depressing in a way, they do bring me happiness in the sense of they remind me of the uniqueness of my experience, and that the turning of the calendar can and will bring joy in a powerful way.

That being said, at this point, these rains couldn’t stop falling soon enough.

Original translations of legendary poet Kaneko Okamoto

Did you miss my original translations of a legendary Japanese woman writer for Metropolis magazine? Read the full article on Metropolis, and check out my translations here!

Kanoko Okamoto (1889-1939) was a sensation in her day. A writer with a lavish poetic flair and daring reputation, Okamoto was unmatched by few other authors of the Taisho and early Showa Eras.

In her teens, her florid, romantic poetry drew rave acclaim, and she joined Japan’s most elite avant garde literary circle. In her 20s, she came to be recognized as a leading scholar on Buddhism. And in her 40s, her women-centric fiction investigated the erotic side of motherhood, leading recognition of Okamoto as a leading feminist as well. Her romanticism fell out of fashion in Japan after World War II, and very few works out of her vast catalogue have been translated before. 

“May Morning Flowers” captures her romanticism and lush poetic flair; “A Crooked Posture” is an astute self-reflection on her own romanticism, in the context of a rapidly modernizing 1920s and 30s Japanese society. Both works were published posthumously. 

         Spectacular cherry blossoms scatter.

         The spring sakura stretch their limbs to the dawn of spring…and the wind whips and whirls the blossoms away. For an instant, the clouds clear and the sky shines with blue.

         A moment of silence, solitude.

         I endure the moment and keep staring up.

         Slowly and steadily, from some far corner the sky begins to grow grey, and moisture spreads across the entire sky.

         In an instant, those drops, drops, drop all across the May skies of Japan. The countless drops of lilac long-and-narrow paulownia flowers, huddled together. Smart, fashionable, reserved. Lonesome despite the crowds, clear-eyed despite their silence. And though they are stealthy, they have an undeniable brightness.

         The flowers tower above the trees, but they lack a certain conviction, those splotchy drops of paulownia.

         But all it takes is a burst of bloom before they dare the plunge and leave the rest to the rustling wind, glittering in silver dust over our footpath, scattering heaps of snow-white powder before our eyes.

         Go a little further, take a look.

         There—with large gems of red and orbs of white, multicolored treasures cradled by their stems—tulips!

         Sweet pea blossoms and their shards of ruby and amethyst.

         Stamps of color freshly removed from the coat of a peacock, pansies.

         Though some may sneer at these boorish flowers, a force fights back, for someone cultivated these jewels in the May flower bed and treated them more carefully than anything. The dew droplets that slept in them last night become a faint, sweet-smelling mist. They dampen the hems of our skirts, fleeing from the light of the morning sun.

         And if you stop and look closely, right there, in the shadows of the half-opened white roses—over lumps of fertilizing clay, a little toad lurches along.

         Oh, look—the greengrocer has fresh cabbage and oranges! Hurry, let’s go inform the kitchens. 

         Though we have come to scorn and despise sentimentality, we still long for the romantic, and all the more with each passing year.

         We want to feel like we’re flying. We want to forget ourselves; to be dizzied into rapture. This romance defines our modern age. But the circumstances of society compel us to look down at reality, and perhaps that is precisely why we long so much for escape.

         Realism refers to those social circumstances that control our lives. No matter how ugly or painful reality is, we must face it head-on, wide-eyed. If we do not, we stumble and fall.

         So we attempt to remain vigilant of realism, to gather ourselves and tread treacherous bridges across our daily lives, all the while our eyes wander up towards the clouds floating in the blue. We assume a crooked posture. This contradictory pose colors our modern age with a breath of the marvelous.

         Young men and women recite traditional kouta ballads with their themes of passionate love, yet those same men and women say that romance is strange, impossible. A young husband, tired of his family, visits the new dance halls and cafes but is all the more unsatisfied for it. Affirmation and repudiation dwell in each one of us. But the moment we assume that this contradictory nature is here to stay, it vanishes. Affirmation and repudiation grind and bite at one another, all at the whims of our emotions. Among the modern young men and women of the city, few of them have a single opinion on any subject. They are constantly prepared to muddy their own thoughts, or deny them altogether. This is not simply out of caution when communicating with others; more likely, they cannot guarantee anything even to themselves.

         Those unable to shoulder the weight of contradiction will become outcasts. I seek robust perseverance, the strength to bear this crooked posture, as I patiently seek out beautiful and enduring ideals.

A decade in ‘Cool Japan’

Japanese culture has boomed around the world in the last decade, no doubt about it.

And there’s actually been a dedicated government initiative contributing to these trends–or at least attempting to contribute.

That initiative is known as ‘Cool Japan’–and it’s attracted a lot of heat from well-known Japanese artists and critics for some of its more fumbling attempts to promote Japanese culture abroad.

Notably, critics point out that the initiative doesn’t understand what people abroad are actually interested in, instead promoting whatever they see fit without understanding the target market.

I decided to investigate just how effective the ‘Cool Japan’ campaign has been over the last ten years with a thorough article.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2021/05/31/general/cool-japan-success/

That’s what my latest feature for the Japan Times was about.

Be sure to read the full article for my complete investigation, but here are some of the highlights about what has succeeded, and what’s failed.

Cool Japan’s original mission: In the late 00s, faced with a prolonged period of deflation, depopulation and declining domestic demand, Cool Japan sought to utilize global demand to break out of Japan’s domestic economic slump.

A government official said: “In the first few years, the focus was to promote Japanese anime, manga and content to foreign markets, and then it widened its scope.”

Cool Japan’s budget: Ranged from ¥20 billion in 2012 all the way to ¥55 billion.

Examples of activities:

  • The Cool Japan Fund was launched in 2013 to invest in businesses that promote the development of demand for Japanese products and services (mixed results)
  • The Japan Content Localization & Promotion Support Grant also began in 2013 to help fund translations of Japanese entertainment and content overseas (effective initiative)
  • Promoted anime tourism and Japanese content at trade fairs around the world
  • Launched the “Asagaya Anime Street” shopping area (flop initiative)
  • Established All Nippon Entertainment Works Co. to coordinate anime rights and global expansion via Hollywood (flop initiative)
  • Established Japanese Food Town in Singapore (effective initiative)
  • Helped Ippudo Ramen to expand its international chain (effective initiative)
  • Cool Japan Fund invested in Sentai Holdings to bolster anime licensing for North America (effective initiative)
  • Launched the Daisuki anime streaming site and WakuWaku Japan TV, a global Japanese linear TV content channel (flop initiative)
  • Opened Isetan department stores operating in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok (mixed results)
  • Provided funding for creative industries last year during the coronavirus pandemic (effective initiative)

Make sure to read more about Cool Japan’s activities in-depth in the Japan Times article.

The evolution of Japan’s pop culture is fascinating to watch. No one really knows why certain culture products, like manga or ramen, become hits abroad. People can only guess. Japan has a strong crafstman image on its side for food products, and now it has a well-deserved reputation for quality games and animation content.

But many of Japan’s creative industries, including its anime industry, are in distress.

These labor and economic issues will threaten any work that the government does, and Japan’s creative industries as a whole.

“The thought that anyone, let alone the government, could promote the next big thing is a fruitless exercise,” said Matt Alt, author of “Pure Invention: How Japanese Pop Culture Conquered the World” for the article. “It’s literally fruitless because you need the fruit first.”

If Cool Japan can help solve these economic issues, it has an important play to role in the future of Japanese pop culture abroad.

My Anime Tiers – Tuesday Tier-List

Ahhhh, anime. Everyone’s “favorite” thing about Japanese culture, and I insist, NOT the reason I started studying Japanese. (The only two anime I saw before I stumbled into a Japanese classroom were Attack on Titan and Samurai Champloo. Oh, and Studio Ghibli movies.)

Some of you will have takes even spicier than mine; others will be in search of recommendations. Accordingly, this tier-list will be conducted as following.

  1. A tier will appear!
  2. Anime will be assigned into that tier!
  3. Recommended for… (if you like this Western thing, you’ll like this Japanese show)
  4. Top two features and the single worst feature out of the possible options of Story, Characters, Art, Atmosphere, Worldbuilding, Humor, and Ideas, along with a score out of 10.
  5. Any other comments that I have about said anime title.

I hope you enjoy this latest rendition of the Tuesday Tier List! (Previous editions include literary authors and Japan travel destinations.)

I don’t feel like writing about any crappy shows, so I’m starting at C-tier and working my way up to S-tier, giving two titles that fit into each category.

C-Tier

One Piece

List of One Piece chapters (595–806) - Wikipedia
  • Recommended for: fans of pirates, martial arts
  • Characters: 8/10
  • Humor: 7/10
  • Ideas: 3/10

My hottest take is coming on top. Monkey D. Luffy sails the seas to find the greatest treasure in the world. This may be mostly a matter of personal preference, but I could never really get on board with the show’s combination of repetitiveness and meandering storylines. I prefer stories with quick, hard-hitting plot and character development–and with One Piece you need to be in it for the long haul. Still, it’s a super-watchable and enjoyable all-time classic, and many would have it as one of the best anime ever.

Tokyo Ghoul

Tokyo Ghoul (TV Mini-Series 2014) - IMDb
  • Recommended for: fans of slasher horror, noir
  • Atmosphere: 9/10
  • Characters: 6/10
  • Story: 4/10

A hard-hitting favorite, Tokyo Ghoul is an incredibly interesting concept set in an evocative, noir Tokyo setting. Man-eating ghouls and humans battle for control of the city–with one kid caught in between both worlds. I love the way the ghouls have to navigate living in a human society and their insatiable hunger. But the plot is very poorly handled, especially in later seasons, and the anime essential falls apart in real time the more you watch it.

B-Tier

Haikyuu

Hinata and Kageyama's relationship, explained - TheNetline
  • Recommended for: fans of sports stories, underdogs
  • Characters: 9/10
  • Humor: 7/10
  • Ideas: 3/10

This is an extremely solid, enjoyable TV show about a high school boys’ volleyball team’s rise from the ashes to the top of the Japanese volleyball circuit. Plucky petite underdog Hinata works his ass off to become an aerial superstar, and the cast of characters on both the local and enemy teams is incredible fun and creative. All the new characters and their unique abilities on the court never get boring, and the show has a flair for the dramatic. Volleyball has never been so exciting to watch unfold play-by-play, and the off-the-court action isn’t bad either. It can drag on at times–I do wish there was more of a story off the court to accompany the on-court action–but I’m not really complaining when I get to see high school boys do things on a volleyball court that no man or animal has ever dared attempt–and believe it.

Violet Evergarden

KyoAni Unveils New 'Violet Evergarden: The Movie' Trailer, Poster |  Animation Magazine
  • Recommended for: fans of Victorian romance, historical fantasy
  • Art: 9/10
  • Story: 7/10
  • Humor: 4/10

This is a newer show that is still in its infancy: a gorgeous tale of a girl that was made to be a weapon for war unearthing her heart and her unresolved feelings for the man who cared for her. This is a sensitive, lovely story that takes place in a charming, romantic European setting plagued by early 20th-century style warfare. It has enjoyable characters and a dose of action, too, which is refreshing. I didn’t fall in love with this show, but I thought it was well-done and a worthwhile watch. And the art is beautiful.

A-Tier

Mob Psycho 100

Amazon | Mob Psycho 100: Complete Series [Blu-ray] [Import] | アニメ
  • Recommended for: Wes Anderson fans, literally anyone(???)
  • Story: 9/10
  • Art: 9/10
  • Worldbuilding: 6/10

Now we’re getting into territory where I can’t even bring myself to assign low scores. Mob Psycho 100 is an incredibly unique anime. It’s about a middle-school psychic with incredible superpowers who just wants to live a normal life (that’s the cliche part). But the art and animation style is incredibly unique, as is the show’s quirky sense of humor, which keeps a watcher on their toes and laughing the entire time. But somehow, even more unique are the deeper stories and ideas at play, which follows the middle school Mob’s path towards maturity, acceptance of his powers, and understanding of how to interact with others in a cruel world. It also has one of the greatest characters in all of anime (IMO), Reigen Arata, a fraudulent psychic and Mob’s chaotic-good master.

Death Note

DEATH NOTE | Netflix

  • Recommended for: Christopher Nolan fans, murder mystery fans
  • Story: 10/10
  • Worldbuilding: 7/10
  • Humor: 3/10

This is a detective, mindbending classic that features a genius high schooler gifted with the power to kill anyone with a magic notebook pitted against the world’s greatest detective. It’s a thrilling battle of wits that never fails to keep you glued to the screen, delivering occasional twists and heavy doses of chaos and weirdness along the way. Some people will get turned off by the genius-level intellect of the characters, but for me that’s what makes the show so compelling–watching an epic chess mass that features the lives of thousands at stake.

S-Tier

Hunter x Hunter

Leorio, Kurapika, Gon, and Killua in the Second Phase of the Hunter Exam ~Hunter  X Hunter | Hunter x hunter, Killua, Hunter
  • Recommended for: fans of videogames, martial arts
  • Characters: 10/10
  • Worldbuilding: 10/10
  • Art: 7/10

You know it’s a good show when my biggest gripe is above-average art. This is undoubtedly my favorite ‘classic shonen’ anime of all time–a show with many episodes about a young male hero that achieves incredible strength and epic feats. But Hunter x Hunter is a singular and amazing show in more ways than one: the cast of characters is endlessly entertaining. The main characters all have intense and relatable motivations that they pursue on their own with the support of various friends. (The lead, Gon, is in search of his father, one of the greatest ‘hunters’ in the world). The shows’ distinct plot arts have incredibly creative and tense conceits, that explore dense philosophical concepts and feature breathtaking action. The worldbuilding ingeniously sets up increasing stakes as the characters grow more powerful and the world gets more dangerous. To me, this is must-watch TV.

Samurai Champloo

Watch Samurai Champloo episodes online | TV Time
  • Recommended for: literally anyone
  • Atmosphere: 10/10
  • Art: 10/10
  • Story: 7/10

Undoubtedly one of the coolest anime ever made, Samura Champloo follows a contrasting buddy-cop samurai duo get in misadventures across Edo Period Japan as they help a girl find the samurai that smells of sunflowers–all set to chilled out, lofi hip-hop beats. This incredibly creative show uses hip-hop as an artistic palette and plot device to make a show that is uniquely fun and rewatchable at every turn. Not to mention it has hilarious side-quests, epic showdowns, and an aesthetic so unfathomably cool that it basically became a genre of its own.

Holiday With A Ghost

A short story by Eric Margolis.

Last summer, I met our great grandfather.

He first showed up when you started making ice cream. You were brilliant, you know. You were so handy. You puzzled the ingredients together without a recipe. Whipping cream, vanilla extract, condensed milk, ice.  I could never use the freezer because it was always in the process of churning out delicious ice creams.  You made everything your own.

I met him on the hottest day of the year. The sea breeze, frail and oppressed, slipped in through the open sunroom window along with a mosquito, and him. He was a wispy, knobby little man, spectacled, and tanned. He still had his hair and a very obstinate nose.

Grampa Danny.

It was the smell of homemade ice cream that drew him to us. The Rosensteins had an ice cream parlor, apparently. You remember Jenny Rosenstein, don’t you? She used to bike to shul? She never used the handlebars? Well, her great grandmother ran an ice cream parlor, and it was the first and only place that Grampa Danny ever ate ice cream. Vanilla, always. He requested it from you. But I was too embarrassed to tell you. I mean, Grampa Danny! A ghost! You made chocolate the next week, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He asked me why we moved away from Baltimore. I told him to look around, but he said to ghosts, the world is insubstantial, especially in the hands and fingers, mostly in the nose, but even in the eyes. It all resembles a broad, rippled plain, like the Black Sea if it were truly black. I told him about the wildflowers on the coast, and the rich scent of the pines. The fluffy winter snows and gentle summer rains. He said that his ears worked best, and on a rainy day, he acknowledged the charming sound of warm water on feathery grass.

He was hungry, often. He longed to eat your ice cream, oh, that he did. He didn’t realize his great granddaughter was so handy! He was a hungry ghost. He didn’t complain, but he acknowledged it, and frequently. I offered to bring him something, but he said it would make no difference.

The holiday dragged on and I conversed with Grampa Danny in the sunroom while you and your kids played in the water.

He kept talking about Baltimore. Never any details—never the streets, or the skies, or inside the cavernous shul—only the concept. Oh, in Baltimore, your grandmother once ran away from home. But not into the woods, or on to the highway. Just somewhere. A German soldier in search of atonement found her. I didn’t know that was a thing. I looked it up later: it wasn’t.

He asked me what I did. I told him I taught reading. He said it was nice, but what about medicine, like my grandmother? I asked him what his grandfather did. His grandfather was a rabbi of Varna. His grandfather wanted him to be a rabbi. But he worked in the steel mill. And his daughter was a doctor. Now I was a teacher. Did I care what my grandchild would become? Sister, do you?

The holiday came to an end. We made blueberry pancakes a final time, and grilled steaks in the quickening sunset. There were no more butterflies. I helped your son write his story about the moon. In the end, the moon defeated the evil stars, but then was left alone. The moon never did figure out if he was happy or sad.

One morning I woke up and realized that our great-grandfather was no longer there. We had finished the last batch of your ice cream.

The rabbis say that the only remnants of a dead man are his good deeds and teachings. But all I saw of our great grandfather was his hunger and his nostalgia.

Now I twist my fate in my fingertips, remembering you and him and the summer home and summer holiday. I speak Spanish very well, now, and have a fast friendship with an Argentinian who believes he has found me a home.

The splendor of the red-tipped domes and the blue bay is more lively than the flat ripples of the Black Bulgarian sea. And the winters are more mild.

I miss Grampa Danny, and I miss you a great deal.

I miss our parents in Florida, and our brother in Colorado. I miss our cousins in Jerusalem and in Hong Kong.

But in Buenos Aires, the steaks are so tender, and the streets are so alive.

Visit me there, sister. We will wake up to the fresh breath of the sea.

Japan Destination Tiers! – Tuesday Tierlist

Welcome to the second ever Tuesday Tierlist, this time with Japan destinations! (The last one tiered canonical authors, check it out.)

Now, while I can’t claim to have been to all 47 Japanese prefectures, I’ve traveled around a fair bit, so I figured I would give this a go. Of course, any simple ranking would just have Kyoto and Tokyo on top, so to avoid that, I’m breaking this up into four mini-lists. The other problem is that I don’t have many bad things to say about tourist destinations in Japan–generally they’re quite good. So here’s how this is gonna work.

I’ve broken it up into five mini-lists, arbitrarily scoring major and minor destinations on a scale of 0-100 on the following factors: Scenery, Attractions, Nature, and Fun.

Scenery is architecture, urban design, comfort, and natural surroundings; Fun is eating, drinking, shopping, partying, and gaming; Nature is beauty, access, and experience of Japan’s natural settings; and Attractions refer to depth and breadth of tourist, cultural, historical, religious, and pop-cultural offerings.

And so that I’m not overwhelming you with scores for the dozens of Japanese cities that I’ve been to, I’ll be doing a top ten for each category, plus handing out scores in every category for the most-visited cities in Japan at the end. I sadly haven’t been to a few notable places like Okinawa, Kagoshima, or Yamagata, so not all deserving places will be included.

You’ll get what I mean once I get started! I hope this helps you decide which fantastic Japan destinations to go to once travel is possible again. Now, let’s get into it!

Scenery

Shirakawa-go
  1. Kyoto – 97 /// Charming riverside, elegant old buildings, majestic temples, striking station architecture, and lush bamboo forests
  2. Shirakawa-go, Gifu – 93 /// Truly stunning bucolic ancient buildings in magnificent mountain valley
  3. Fuji Five Lakes, Yamanashi – 90 /// Lovely lakeside paths under the towering beauty of Mt. Fuji
  4. Matsumoto, Nagano – 89 /// One of Japan’s most beautiful preserved old towns with striking snow-capped mountains in the backdrop
  5. Takayama, Gifu – 88 /// A more humble Matsumoto with both lush mountains and lovely traditional architecture
  6. Otaru, Hokkaido – 87 /// Charming canals and northern architecture by a fierce seaside and skiing mountains
  7. Kobe, Hyogo – 86 /// Stylish Kobe may be the second most beautiful big city in Japan after Kyoto with its 19th century western buildings, gorgeous mountains, and scenic port
  8. Shimoda, Shizuoka – 84 /// Commodore Perry landed somewhere special, among glittering white beaches and a colorful fishing port
  9. Ise, Mie – 82 /// A nice old town runs into Japan’s holiest shrine, framed by magnificent old trees in an environment that feels nothing short of sacred
  10. Shizuoka, Shizuoka – 81 /// While urban Shizuoka is ordinary, its stunning mountaintop and pine-forest frame spectacular views of Mt. Fuji
The town of Shimoda.

Japan has a remarkable abundance of scenic places, and a number of beautiful scenic places I’ve been to like Hakodate, Amanohashidate, and Matsushima didn’t even make the cut! My top ten scenery scores are places that are truly beautiful in multiple ways.

Kyoto is, in my opinion, by far the most scenic city in Japan and arguably the most scenic in the world. Being spared by American air raids has created a true treasure of a city.

Attractions

Interior of Todaiji Temple in Nara
  1. Tokyo – 99 /// Tokyo literally has it all – history, culture, totally unique museums, parks, and a truly never-ending roster of trendy go-to sites
  2. Kyoto – 93 /// Incredible temples including one that’s made of freaking gold, some of the best markets and shopping streets, and don’t forget Monkey Mountain
  3. Nara – 90 /// The ultimate destination for Japan’s oldest temples and mind-blowing Buddhist and historical artifacts
  4. Osaka – 87 /// A great castle, Universal Studios Japan, museums and a whole lot more
  5. Kanazawa, Ishikawa – 86 /// A ‘mini Kyoto,’ Kanazawa is unique with its geisha district and trendy 21st century art museum
  6. Hiroshima – 85 /// Propped up by the iconic Itsukushima Shrine floating on the water at nearby Matsushima and the Peace Memorial, but that’s really all you need
  7. Nagoya – 83 /// Overall roster of castles, shrines, theme parks, and unique neighborhoods
  8. Nikko, Gunma – 82 /// This is cheating a bit off of the nature category, but it’s got both epic temples and villas plus iconic gorges, lakes, and waterfalls
  9. Fukuoka – 81 /// Countless food stalls, bayside park, and modern entertainment complex
  10. Sapporo – 80 /// Beer gardens and chocolate factories, historic village, and ski resorts
Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Another easy one to start off–you could spend a year exploring Tokyo and not go to all of your intended destinations–but big cities tend to make up most of the hard hitters in this category due to the diverse mix of cultural and entertainment offerings in cities like Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Sapporo.

Nature

Numa Goshiki in Urabandai
  1. Hokkaido – 96 /// Japan’s most dramatic and wild natural scenery, and undeniably gorgeous
  2. Fuji Five Lakes, Yamanashi – 93 /// Idyllic lakes, spectacular hikes, and Japan’s biggest mountain, what can go wrong?
  3. Nikko, Gunma – 92 /// Spectacular gorges, waterfalls, mountains, and high-latitude lakes and highlands
  4. Urabandai, Fukushima – 91 /// Dramatic mountains, a rare high-altitude swamp and a plethora of scenic lakes
  5. Nagano – 90 /// The largest and most beautiful group of mountains in southern Japan with endless hiking and winter sport
  6. Takayama, Gifu – 89 /// Quaint mountain countryside near some of Japan’s best national parks
  7. Izu, Shizuoka – 87 /// This gorgeous peninsula features countless lush coasts and white-sand beaches, hidden caves, and deep forests
  8. Kochi – 84 /// Brilliant blue rivers leading to a fantastic surfing cost
  9. Ise, Mie – 83 /// Deep, unspoiled forests and scenic coastlines
  10. Sendai – 80 /// Near dramatic coasts and the idyllic forested mountains of Yamagata
Matsushima near Sendai

It feels a bit like cheating to name a whole massive prefecture alongside other cities, but there’s no doubt that the nature of Hokkaido is on another level. But you can’t go wrong with most of these selections to get a taste of Japan’s gorgeous countryside, and you can still find spectacular destinations in pretty much every prefecture of Japan.

Fun

Dotonbori in Osaka
  1. Tokyo – 99 /// More Michelin star restaurants than Paris and fun and flavors in more shades than you can even imagine, from youth fashion center Harajuku to electronics center Akihabara to luxurious Roppongi and Ginza
  2. Osaka – 96 /// Ridiculously fun funky riverside stuffed with street food and bustling corners of youth culture and otaku-dom
  3. Fukuoka – 92 /// Japan’s secondary ultimate foodie city provides endless cuisine-related delights
  4. Nagoya – 91 /// A laundry-list of unique regional food specialties along with popping youth culture and throbbing nightlife
  5. Kobe – 89 /// Quainter upscale vibe but with its own bevy of culinary delights
  6. Yokohama – 88 /// Balanced assortment of dining, partying, and shopping plus its famous Chinatown
  7. Sapporo – 85 /// Great bar and café scene along with its own specialty foods and restaurants
  8. Sendai – 84 /// Concentrated party district with nightlife and some unique flavors
  9. Kyoto – 82 /// Some may find flavors are lacking compared to nearby Osaka and Nagoya, but has spectacular washoku, a solid French and Italian collection, and partying available
  10. **Just fly to Korea – 99 /// The flight is less than two hours. Just do it.
Fukuoka food stalls

Tokyo definitively tops this list, but it’s worth noting that other big Japanese cities don’t fall too far behind. If you’re not so concerned with tourist attractions and want to focus on enjoying yourself – eating great food, drinking at cool bars, dancing at good clubs, and finding thriving and lively neighborhoods – one of Japan’s less crowded cities might actually be a relatively better option in terms of bang for your buck. Cities like Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Yokohama all allow for plenty of wining and dining and enjoying yourself without the lines, crowds, and at lower prices, too.

Major Cities

Tokyo

Scenery 77 / Attractions 99 / Nature 44 / Fun 99

Osaka

Scenery 68 / Attractions 87 / Nature 36 / Fun 97

Kyoto

Scenery 97 / Attractions 93 / Nature 74 / Fun 83

Nara

Scenery 64 / Attractions 90 / Nature 54 / Fun 71

Nagoya

Scenery 61 / Attractions 83 / Nature 57 / Fun 93

Sapporo

Scenery 57 / Attractions 80 / Nature 82 / Fun 86

Fukuoka

Scenery 66 / Attractions 81 / Nature 71 / Fun 93

Translating “My Pointless Struggle” – Big Ego, Big Life?

I recently translated the memoir My Pointless Struggle by Japanese author, publishing guru, hookah lounge operator, and real estate CEO Yohei Kitazato. Once he was a snot-nosed brat pretending to be a super-hero; then he was a party-hungry and ambitious teenager; and eventually, he ditched corporate life to open his own bar and portfolio of start-up companies. It regales his rise to adulthood, manhood, and business success via a series of encounters with the mysterious ‘King,’ from the age of 6 to 26. One theme rises above all others: protect your ego.

But does he aim to paint selfishness as an undisputedly good thing? Does the law of ego only apply to ‘geniuses’ in a competitive and yet conformist Japanese society, or does protecting your ego at all costs work wherever you are and whoever you may be? Here’s my perspective, as the translator, on a fun but also thought-provoking memoir.

Selfishness can be very fun

The ghostly apparition of future Yohei called ‘King’ offers young Yohei a word of advice early in the book: It’s okay to be selfish. But don’t just be a selfish brat–want what you want, and then go out and get it. Plan, and act.

This guiding principle leads Yohei into the comic misadventures that make up the bulk of the book. He wants to play against his favorite soccer player, so he breaks into the locker room and issues an official letter of challenge. He wants to explore the legendary island of Chiloe, so he learns how to scrounge together money to actually make it there with a friend. He wants to party his way through Shibuya in high school while still getting into a top college, so he learns King’s ‘deep focus’ studying technique to master the high school curriculum two years ahead of time. And so on and so on, culminating in his adult ambitions to publish a book, marry his girlfriend, and start a secret hideout bar.

Translating it was really fun. It’s an exuberant, brazen, ballsy book. Yohei is a master bullshitter, a self-declared genius, and reckless, not to mention selfish. That means that he has a flair for the dramatic: he draws up the important moments of his life as epic scenes from a thriller, with tension building to (miniature but) passionate conclusions. He sees himself as a true star, while still acknowledging his deficiencies. It might be grating to some, but I think the humor and pizzaz outweighs the drag of occasionally hearing Yohei remind you how awesome he is.

There are fun and comedic set pieces throughout. When he barges into the aforementioned soccer locker room, the hulking chiseled manly soccer stars are butt-naked. He becomes the top salesman at Hitachi–all in order to go on dates with his girlfriend.

And there are also enjoyable nuggets of Japanese pop-culture for the Japan fan. At one point, Yohei works at Night Yokohama, one of the top host clubs in Japan in the bustling Japanese ‘water trade,’ or risqué night life business. He also paints an awesome picture of Shibuya in the late 90s, when it was at the peak of its cultural avant garde with fashion, music, and hardcore clubbing. Finally, he gives a unique lens into Japanese corporate life, as he attempts to out-hustle his coworkers to become Hitachi’s number one salesman and convince the CEO of a major publishing company to publish his book when he doesn’t even have a book proposal.

The perceived power of ego

Buy now wherever you get your books: https://www.onepeacebooks.com/index.html

But above all, I think My Pointless Struggle is worth a read because it makes you think about your life in real, substantive ways. Yohei’s smashing success throughout the book is based on simple principles. Do what you want by any means necessary. Do what it takes to follow your dreams. Win. He believes he’s a genius, so he can do anything.

I think there’s a real nugget of wisdom there: it’s the cliche ‘you’ll never know unless you try’ but more practical. You’ll never win unless you believe you can. It takes confidence to succeed–selfishness. And the novel drops simple but useful advice like that throughout. But what’s more interesting is the underlying motivations.

What does Yohei want? What should he want? And what do I (or any reader) want, or should want, in our own lives?

Yohei is clearly shaped deeply by his environment. His dad is a successful salaryman, so he thinks salarymen are cool. His mom tells him he’s a genius, and he believes it. He grows up reading about superheroes, and wants to become one. In his early years, he wants to have fun, then as a college student, he wants to win, and then finally, as he matures, he begins to pursue real, concrete goals. Publishing a book, having his own secret hideout, having a family. Believe it or not, selflessness enters the picture: at one point he claims he does everything for the sake of impressing his girlfriend. While it’s hard to call that a mature desire, he evolves from a simple ‘want’ to be the best to more mature wants–lasting achievements that he’ll be proud of his whole life.

The whole book is based around this principle: it’s rewarding to do what you want. To chase your dreams, even if they’re impossible. And I tend to agree. Living by the principle of ‘do what I’ll regret not doing the most’ is not a bad one.

The egotistical and occasionally obnoxious nature of Yohei can make this hard to wrap your head around at times. And I think that’s a good thing. Growing up in the US, we are all told to chase our dreams. But it wasn’t so obvious for Yohei. He had to unlearn selflessness, deeply imbued in him by Japanese society. Yohei learned the free-wheeling and dealing American dream from scratch, and went after it, balls to the wall. He’s an extreme version of the success mentality.

But like I said, his version of selfishness matures into something that I do think is a real life lesson. While at first he just pursues random wants and desires, eventually he goes after building something lasting. I think that’s where Yohei finally gets it right–in our lives, we should go all out in pursuing our real, lasting selfish wants. Those wants that will sustain us over the course of our lives. We can’t all be Buddhists, detached from our wants, but we can want things that will sustain us in meaningful ways.

Yohei’s writing style is surprisingly ‘Americanized.’ He is quite good at English, so maybe this is unsurprising, but I didn’t have to completely un-write and re-write his sentences, which is often needed to properly translate Japanese literature. I think this is because he’s familiar with American language, ethics, and world–he’s familiar with this world of late capitalism that we live in, where all hobbies get monetized, and where it’s possible to make money doing whatever you want while living wherever you want. He embraces that world because it allows him to achieve his dreams, which he couldn’t do at a traditional Japanese corporation. It doesn’t mean that our late-capitalist world is a moral one, but it is illuminating in terms of how we can operate inside it. While no one could follow Yohei’s exact blueprint to ‘success’, it’s a blueprint well worth thinking about.

Will My Pointless Struggle annoy you at times? Possibly. But there’s no doubt it will entertain you, and if you go along for the ride, I do think it’s easy to learn something from his story.

My Pointless Struggle is available on Amazon, B&N, and Indiebound. Published by One Books and translated by Eric Margolis (that’s me!). Subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter to keep up with my writing and translations.

Economic damages from climate change are here to stay in Japan

Translator and critic Matt Alt has argued that everything happens seems to happen first in Japan. Aging society, young men turning ‘alt-right’, dark corners of the internet. Well, while he was referring to social trends, Japan is also seeing some fairly advanced effects of climate change.

I wrote about it extensively in my article for the Japan Times, and also appeared on a podcast to speak about it. But here’s the long and the short of how climate change is ‘rampaging early’ in Japan.

Now, climate change caused by human activities has been happening for a long time, so it’s hard to call it ‘early,’ but I see climate change as having three rounds of effects: weather effects, then economic effects incurred by the weather effects, and finally, social effects incurred by the economic effects. In my reporting for this story, I’ve learned that the social effects are not too far on the horizon.

Here are a few examples of how this plays out in Japan.

Weather Effect: Hotter summer days.

Economic Effect: Decreased rice yields (overheating causes rice blanching).

Social Effect: Rice farming shifts north and to higher altitudes, leaving farmers seeking new livelihoods.

Right now, in this example, we’re at the ‘economic effect’ stage: farmers in southern Japan are experiencing decreased rice yields due to overly hot summer temperatures. But in the future we may see these farmers give up on rice altogether, either to migrate elsewhere or switch into industry.

A customer examines vegetables in a supermarket in Tokyo in July 2019. | KYODO

Here’s another:

Weather Effect: Warmer sea temperatures in Hokkaido.

Economic Effect: Fishers need to switch from salmon to yellowtail.

Social Effect: Salmon dies out as a Hokkaido specialty.

Again, we’re currently at the ‘economic effect’ stage: fishers in Hokkaido right now are beginning to switch to yellowtail, an important fish for mainland Japan. But in the future we may see salmon begin to disappear from Hokkaido menus as they become more scarce and yellowtail more common. This would be a massive cultural loss, as the Hokkaido specialty dates back to the indigenous Ainu’s fishing in ancient times.

Here’s one more:

Search-and-rescue operations at the site of a landslide caused by Typhoon Hagibis in Tomioka in October 2019 | KYODO

Weather Effect: Larger, more damaging storm surges.

Economic Effect: Cities need to invest in new infrastructure.

Social Effect: Other government priorities like education spending and welfare drop down on the priority list.

Once again, we live in the ‘economic effect’ stage. Tokyo and other cities are investing in upgrading their infrastructure, and will need to do a lot more to fully defend themselves against potential sea-level rise. But as Japan’s population drops, so do governments’ budgetary capacities to solve problems. Cost crunches will increase, and any solution will need to be least-cost or solve multiple problems at once. It’s easy to see how important budget priorities can lose steam under the imminent threat of flooded cities.

We’re learning that as the economic effects happen in real time, the potential social impacts accordingly become more clear.

I recommend you check out the full article to learn about other ways that climate change is impacting the Japanese economy–from infrastructure to agriculture to new innovative partnerships–but it’s clear that climate change has arrived, and is here to stay. Governments need to urgently restrict fossil fuel burning and build sustainable energy infrastructure, while individuals should do what they can to advocate for change and reduce waste in their own lifestyles for the time being.

Literary Tier-list: Canonical Authors Round 1

Hello, and welcome to my blog! I write about my work as a journalist and translator in Nagoya, Japan, and also about miscellaneous music/movies/books/TV/travel! As a way to keep the blog active with fun things, I’m going to be doing tier-lists regularly because… because tier-lists are fun as heck.

First off, this week, canonical authors!

Here’s what happens. I’ll name-drop a standard ‘canonical’ author. I put them in a tier: S-tier being god-tier amazing literary genius incredible awe-inspiring jaw-dropping poetic mastery, A-tier being wonderful, B-tier being good, C-tier being fine, D-tier being not-so-fine, and F-tier sucking. These are my absolute personal opinions and they are not objective whatsoever.

However, I have had to read a canon and a half in my day, so I’ve read quite a few famous authors. Enough that I feel confident in my own opinions, so I hope this is helpful to those of you in search of a fun way to decide what classic author to read next. Without further ado!

Dante

Dante Alighieri - Wikipedia
Look at this doofus.

C-tier. At this point, you’re getting pretty back there in time, and The Divine Comedy lacks a lot of the compelling elements of modern literary fiction. If you’re interested in Christianity though, or weirdly compelled by detailed descriptions of the circles of hell, Dante makes for a cool read, and his poetry is quite good.

Shakespeare

S-tier. I have a whole blog post about the best Shakespeare plays–probably 6-8 of them qualify as utterly stunning. Shakespeare is the rare author who is properly rated: his stories are fascinating and cover the entire breadth of human experience from passion to diplomacy to revenge. His poetry is creative, moving, and truly beautiful, and his influence can hardly be overstated. Props to lil Will and the extremely horny depiction of him in Shakespeare in Love.

John Milton

C-tier. It’s hard to say that he did the whole religious-poetic-epic thing better than Dante. The poetry is a bit more awesome, in my opinion, with flashes of genius language, but it’s hard to get into Paradise Lost if you’re not already fascinated by Christian mythology.

Voltaire

B-tier. Voltaire was a witty little bastard. Candide is honestly hilarious and jam-packed with philosophical flair. The essays are drier but not uninteresting because of said wit.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen | Biography, Books, Movies, Emma, & Facts | Britannica
This girl, on the other hand, knows what’s up.

A-tier. What can I say, she tells amazing stories. Her dramas of human hardship are a lot easier to get into than purely religious and philosophical tales, her prose is pretty easy to read but somehow almost sing-songy, and a lot of the characters and plot events are simply iconic.

Herman Melville

S-tier. Melville is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking writers I have ever read. He writes densely packed, mind-blowing sentences and topsy-turvy stories with shocking plot twists. He also has varied settings and characters with sailors, accountants, and distant lands. Reading Melville is a master-class in prose composition, suspense-building, and the pressing issues that ruled the 19th century.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

B-tier. Some people really love the Russian masters, but to me it’s dense in a not-so-fun way. It’s hard to deny the strength of the ideas–these are intense stories about justice, human dignity, and the human spirit–but I get a bit worn out by the details and the prose.

James Joyce

A-tier. I was going to go for S at first, but as the years have past I’ve calmed down a little on James Joyce. He’s amazing at writing compelling set-pieces–everyday moments that come and go and carry with them a deep nugget of truth. His poetic and literary techniques are innovative and sometimes mind-blowing. But the cohesion isn’t always there, and I think he lacks the profundity of Melville or Shakespeare. A narrow A.

Juan Luis Borges

C-tier. I’m a huge theoretical Borges fan, but it doesn’t come together for me. His ideas are hyper-creative–he plays puzzles and logic games like no other author–but the sentences are very long and studious. Perhaps it works better in the native Spanish.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway: Writer, adventurer, jerk — and still fascinating
You have to wonder if he suffered from small penis anxiety.

C-tier. Not the biggest fan. His prose is cool and worth studying from a craft perspective, but I’ve never gotten into his stories much. The top-level sparseness of Hemingway’s narratives doesn’t do enough to bring me closer to the tremendous depths of powerful feeling that I expect to be lying beneath the surface.

Eudora Welty

B-tier. She’s not in Harold Bloom’s canon and not as well-known as Flannery O’Connor, but Eudora Welty’s stories are incredibly well-written and absolutely bonkers. I consider her the mad aunt of the Southern gothic; she’s one of the genre’s key figures. She has a classic American literature vibe going on with the rural and creepy nature of her tales, a bit like Nathaniel Hawthorne, but she takes the American gothic to new places and it’s an absolute joy to read.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A-tier. He’s not for everyone, but you have to give him credit for practically inventing a genre: literary, ageless, tropical magical realism. His atmospheres and worlds of generations that repeat folly after folly, encounter the surreal, and fall in love time and time again are as iconic as it gets. A real romantic, and I’m a sucker for romantic, sweeping writing. Marquez provides that.

Ken Saro-Wiwa

B-tier. I’m probably biased towards more contemporary work, but Ken Saro-Wiwa is fearlessly (and even ruthlessly) activist, and boy, does it work. I maintain that he is the one novelist I actually would want to write about the Trump era, and that’s because he’s already written about worse: comically evil colonization and exploitation. His dramatic murder by the Nigerian authorities in 1993 elevates his status to legendary.

Thomas Pynchon

B-tier. He’s great, don’t get me wrong. The writing is inventive, the stories complex and intriguing, and his work provides a powerful lens to examine the structure of the postmodern world and how flawed humans survive within it. But I feel similarly to him as I do about Joyce: the material is all good, but the issues still feel fleeting and temporary compared to timeless, boundless depths that authors like Marquez or Melville inspire in me.

Phillip Roth

C-tier. Which is saying a lot, given that I’m compelled by his status as a canonical Jewish author (but at the same time, his work might be in fact more interesting to non-Jews?). Anyways, I had a phase where I was into Phillip Roth, but it was only because I felt like I had to be into Roth. Now it feels a bit shallow and repetitive to me now. He’s not un-clever, and the issues he touches on are important, but when I read him I feel like he’s setting up a house of cards and knocking it over when it’s 75% finished. Perhaps I’m just salty at him for not solving the problem of Jewish-American identity. But if I wanted someone to ruthlessly destroy my conception of Jewish-American identity, I already have Cynthia Ozick and Saul Bellow for that. Plus the horniness is distracting.

Haruki Murakami

B-tier. Speaking of distracting horniness. We’re getting away from any typical canon now, but how could I not mention the ‘modern master’ of Japanese literature? Murakami has written some really good books, for sure. Norwegian Wood is gut-wrenching and Kafka on the Shore is crazy cool. But again, there’s an incompleteness there. Sexuality, dreams, fantasy, alienation, history–it’s all there, but where are we going? He also has that Roth quality of writing about the same thing over and over again for a similar effect.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison: 9 Essential Books, Works by Nobel Laureate - Rolling Stone
I miss her.

S-tier. No doubt. Morrison is the most inventive author I have ever read in terms of language, second to Shakespeare. Her stories are carefully and painstakingly arranged and manipulated, but there’s an elegance in the construction that Joyce or Pynchon never achieved. And her stories make you fucking FEEL something. They’re tear jerkers and literary masterpieces at the same time! How Shakespeare-esque!

For me it’s the two Ms: Melville and Morrison.

Maybe I’ll do some more of these next time. There are a lot more authors that I didn’t get to that I’d love to make smart-alecky comments about. Until then!

The Musical Meaning of 2020: Our 20 for ‘20

Co-written by Gersham Johnson

Check out the full playlist on Spotify here.

For the first year since the birth of disco, the dance floor was a ghost town.

Our collective experience with music was unconventional in 2020. With new routines and restrictions, we found our listening habits to both expand and contract in odd ways. There was no outside world in which to experience the hits of the day, and no social gatherings to fall in love with brand new songs with friends and strangers. Suddenly, the music that felt most current or relevant was just as likely to be twenty years old as twenty days old. We experienced music at our most instinctual: does this guitar, does this voice—does this album—resonate with me? These simple questions led to some surprising answers, and we found ourselves appreciating both old classics and new hits in a fresh light. Therefore, to top off an unconventional year, we made an unconventional list.

These are the albums that resonated—that meant the most to us this year. Across 10 albums from this year and 10 albums from the past, we have found solace in sounds both old and new, and have discovered unifying threads among great music. Hopefully, by the end of the following exploration, together we all can make some sense of the different ways that the artistry of great musicians can help us deal with crises and find meaning in a chaotic world.

Finding Meaning in 2020

Suddenly — Caribou

One of a diminishing number of albums where the production is as chaotic and beautiful as the songwriting, Dan Snaith’s fresh soundscapes refuse to let us take any emotion for granted. Whether he is building a track with grand piano, skittering percussion, or with haunting synth sounds we’ve never heard before, Snaith always keeps us grounded in relevant-as-ever stories of home, family, love and loss. To dance to it or to cry to it, the music lets the choice be ours, but to exit the emotional rollercoaster is not an option.

Choice cuts: “Home,” “Like I Loved You”

Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe — Theo Katzman

Just listen to this man write songs. His choruses can take you to falsetto heights atop stomping R&B grooves; his verses can take you through delicate slow-dances with an old flame. And like all strong songwriting, it is made even better by the band, who are always complementary in their tasteful restraint. If this feels retro, it is likely because we no longer really get the opportunity to appreciate classic, old-school songcraft for a dozen songs straight.

Choice cuts: “What Did You Mean (When You Said Love),” “Fog in the Mirror”

Petals for Armor — Hayley Williams

It is so satisfying to see a pop artist try in the deepest meaning of the word. Some of the experiments here are astonishing feats of instrumentation and melody. Others are felled by the hand of ambition. But in every case, Hayley Williams gives it all up along the way. The thrill of being unbridled and creatively free never seemed so appealing as it did this year, and this album’s refusal to say “no” inspires us like few others.

Choice cuts: “Why We Ever,” “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris”

Soley —Grégory Privat

The best jazz record of 2020 is both melodic and exploratory: it takes a listener across crowded cities of striking rhythms, through dense forests of daring melody, over vast valleys of atmosphere. Soley is successful because it uses all of the tools of jazz—modality, resolution, dissonance, solos, call-and-response—in the service of original melodies. Multiple tracks sound like standards out of the mid-late ‘60s, while others take a more experimental and off-kilter turn. In a word, it’s brilliant. 

Choice cuts: “Las,” “Fredo”

Future Nostalgia — Dua Lipa

Future Nostalgia is a modern pop opus built out of elastic funk and shimmering disco—which has been done before, but this is simply an especially fun one. Dua Lipa’s a bit like an actress, playing different parts in an ensemble of dramas—the glittering, spunky star, the heart-broken lover, the crooning bed-whisperer—but all of her roles strike a real chord, making this a standout on dance floors both real and imagined. It’s a tightly-constructed record that can run the party all on its own. 

Choice cuts: “Don’t Start Now,” “Good in Bed”

It Was Good Until It Wasn’t — Kehlani

This year saw a renaissance of female-led R&B, and Kehlani was the leader of the pack. Her lyrics are as raw and honest as her achingly beautiful melodies, and the drums and bass keep things sensual. Kehlani does heartbreak without histrionics, making you feel every word without ruining the musical vibe. Hopefully other R&B artists will take note: you can indeed make a powerful musical statement in under twenty songs. Just turn up the melancholy.

Choice cuts: “Water,” “Grieving” (feat. James Blake)

Papi Juancho — Maluma

Maluma continues to put out some of the best Colombian bangers, but his have always been and continue to be understated, about the after-party rather than the party itself. Papi Juancho is a series of atmospheric appetizers, riddled with a clobbering, hot tropical beat and more mysteries than climaxes. But something about Maluma’s half-melancholic melodies over Latin flavors feels just right.

Choice cuts: “Hawái,” “Medallo City”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple

This album has been much-celebrated and much-discussed in 2020, and for a reason—Fiona Apple created a bold, unique record that asserts emotion with her thrashing voice and a clobbering, percussion-heavy backdrop. She hides her tenderness far more than in past records, and the result is jarring and original. Fiona Apple will make you feel something new in this album.

Choice cuts: “I Want You To Love Me,” “Cosmonauts”

From This Place — Pat Metheny

Legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny isn’t a prime candidate for 2020 relevance, but From This Place is an amazing storytelling album: it has love stories, stories of heartbreak, political dissolution, philosophical soliloquizing, and more. The intricate, inventive rhythms and brilliant use of dynamics and orchestral tones take this beyond the territory of a jazz record—it feels more like a soundtrack to an exceptional movie.

Choice cuts: “Same River,” “Everything Explained”

 pop songs 2020 — BUMPER

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, accompanied by Crying’s Ryan Calloway, is back with four fantastically catchy dream pop songs. With its twinkling surface made of bright and dark synths and Zauner’s not-quite-soft voice, pop songs 2020 expresses an important part of poptimism: an optimism not for the genre’s importance but for its possibilities, and its ability to make emotion catchy in any key. This key is a distinctly dreamy one.

Choice cuts: “You Can Get It,” “Ballad 0”

Finding Meaning in the Past

A 18’ Del Sol —Luis Alberto Spinetta (1977)

When was genrelessness invented? Possibly in Argentina in 1977. Luis Alberto Spinetta takes a listener through genre after genre in the course of a single song, twisting and winding between psych rock, jazz, and an occasional folk tenderness. But there is a distinct cohesiveness in the world of Spinetta—not one that is evocative of any particular time or place, much less Argentina in the ‘70s, but instead of the free-spirited heart of rock and roll. Sometimes we need to go far afield to rediscover what matters, and A 18’ Del Sol can do that for us in 2020.

Choice cuts: “Toda la Vida Tiene Música Hoy,” “Viejas Mascarillas” 

The Nightfly — Donald Fagen (1982)

In a year where little made sense, there was something comforting in turning back to the artists who were best able to take their far-flung and competing genre impulses and force them into a cohesive and compelling musical whole. In this marriage of jazz, pop, and even a little rock and roll, the off-kilter keyboard stabs and the radio-ad-ready harmony vocals add touches of humor to a very seriously in-the-pocket rhythm section. Steely Dan’s influence looms, but here a solo Donald Fagen tapped into a sound all his own, bringing personality and good times to A-grade musical hybridization that still feels fresh.

Choice cuts: “The Nightfly,” “I.G.Y.”

New Wave — The Auteurs (1993)

These days it can feel almost revelatory to return to pop-rock songs where the hooks are powered by electric guitars and live drumming. But more than just being another rock album, the Auteurs bring a certain levity and self-deprecation to their vocals and lyrics—who in 2020 would start their album with the line, “I took a show girl for my bride”?—that feels fun and even subversive. It’s hard to tell if it’s the delivery or the melodies themselves, but it doesn’t take long for these arrangements to burrow themselves into the subconscious and take us to a world all their own.

Choice cuts: “Bailed Out,” “How Could I Be Wrong”

abysskiss — Adrianne Lenker (2018)

Listening to a piano cover of “symbol” reveals just how sophisticated (and Radiohead-indebted?) Adrianne Lenker’s chord progressions can be. But the star of the show is always her ethereal vocals, which carry stories rich with allusions to everything from nature to romance. These largely acoustic arrangements are intimate without ever being dull; few artists in the past few years are capable of doing more with less, which is especially inspiring in a time during which we have all had to go without.

Choice cuts: “cradle,” “symbol”

Either/Or — Elliott Smith (1997)

Before Phoebe Bridgers, Elliott Smith was the king of bedroom pop. But what made this classic album stand out to us in 2020 is not just the deeply introspective lyrics or intimate instrumentation, but also Smith’s compositional acumen in taking very small moments and blowing them up to transform the dynamics of entire songs. The angular guitar riff of “2:45AM” starts off as simple and haunting as his vocal, but is recontextualized into a menacing stomp when the full band arrives to double it. Every idea, whether musical or lyrical, feels like it is being communicated straight to the listener. This intimacy is a great salve to loneliness, and reveals an artist who was both a master communicator and master of his craft. 

Choice cuts: “2:45AM,” “Ballad of Big Nothing”

Big Sun — Chassol (2015)

He did it five years early, but this Chassol album defines what 2020 might have been about musically: daring explorations of texture, rhythm, and space. In an album that can only be described as experimental, Chassol puts his ample musical talents to the task of stitching together hazy electrified fabrics of smooth jazz, only to tear them apart with spasmodic drumming and a wildly dancing flute. 

Choice cuts: “Samak,” “Pipornithology, Pt. II”

Original Pirate Material — The Streets (2002)

Something about the quasi-symphonic production on this UK garage classic feels timeless, as if some musical styles, once perfected, can never really be bettered. You can listen to the piano loop on “Has It Come to This?” a hundred times over—and we likely have. There is much beauty to be found in the many sounds Mike Skinner has at his disposal, but it’s helpful to remember that he has something to say here, too.

Choice cuts: “Has It Come to This?”, “It’s Too Late”

American Hunger — MF Grimm (2006)

Who would’ve expected back in 2015 that we were actually at the beginning of the end of hip-hop? With a few notable exceptions, hip-hop hasn’t controlled our cultural consciousness in 2020 quite like it did in the 2000s and early 2010s, so here we enter into a world where hip-hop is the world view—the only thing that matters. MF Doom’s conceptual predecessor, MF Grimm had his career tragically end after he got paralyzed in a shooting. America Hunger is a 60-song, 3-hour epic of catchy, sample-driven early aughts, and extremely political hip-hop—everything about the now-dead golden era of hip-hop that we crave.

Choice cuts: “Teacher,” “Things I’ve Said” (feat. Baron)

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star — Black Star (1998)

American Hunger represents the world of hip-hop at its most extreme in its aesthetics, and Black Star is one of the albums that helped to create and define that aesthetic. A bold funk and jazz sample-driven album that is political not just in content but in essence, Mos Def and Talib Kweli turn the Black experience into a smooth, melodic, and revolutionary album; this is the protest music that 2020 demands.

Choice cuts: “Astronomy (8th Light)” (feat. Weldon Irvine), “Thieves in the Night”

MISSLIM — Yumi Arai (1974)

Dreamy Japanese folk-rock is an unexpected but pleasant world to explore, and Yumi Arai blesses this album with a lot of kindness and softness, even in its darkest moments. But above all MISSLIM is for the spring, the light at the end of the tunnel—windows down, overlooking the deep blue sea, a scene featuring joyous guitars with enough of a funky edge to keep your feet tapping. 

Choice cuts: “Yasashisa ni Tsutsumareta Nara,” “Jyuunigatsu no Ame”

Eric Margolis’s best articles of 2020

This year, I took the plunge off the deep-end into journalism and translation. My records have me at writing 61 articles, and translating 5 novels and 4 volumes of manga. I wrote for at least 12 different online publications, met my own personal income goals as a full-time freelancer, and moved to Japan.

I’m not going to go into my translation work at this time, but instead focus on my journalism! I have to say, it felt like way more than 61, and a few of my favorite articles that I’ve worked on this year haven’t been published yet.

This year, I wrote approximately 10 investigative features on social issues in Japan, 10 book reviews, 5 articles on climate change, 5 features on the Japanese literary scene, 5 articles on other news in contemporary Japanese art and culture, 10 articles on developments in AI technology and science, 10 bilingual articles teaching Japanese for the Japan Times, and 5 travel articles.

Out of the available options, I’ve selected my top 10 articles of 2020.

10. Tales of the Zashiki Children (Metropolis Magazine)

Metropolis Magazine Tales of the Zashiki Children

This is technically a translation, so it may be cheating to stick in here, but I’m very proud of this one. It’s my second-ever published literary translation, of flash-fiction ghost tales by legendary poet and children’s author Miyazawa Kenji.

MIYAZAWA’S UNTRANSLATED 1926 work “Zashiki Bokko no Hanashi” (Tales of the Zashiki Children) is a collection of short vignettes that spin local lore about zashiki warashi, or “guest room children,” into a precise, unnerving series of incidents.

9. Climate Change is Going to Hit Palestine Particularly Hard (The New Republic)

Covering climate change was a focus for me in 2020, and I think one important, under-reported aspect of climate change is the insidious way that it exacerbates existing inequalities. The rich will suffer the least from climate change, and the poor the most. This makes it all the more important for the powerful to act on climate regardless of the voices whispering in their ears saying ‘it’s not that bad.’

In a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, Israel was found to be the least concerned about climate change out of 26 countries surveyed. Just 38 percent of Israeli respondents said they saw climate change as a major threat. Israel’s National Adaptation Plan for climate change, originally proposed in 2009, was finally passed in July 2018. The plan largely focuses on the military’s strategic needs.

8. Isekai, the fantasy subgenre ruling the manga market (The Japan Times)

With the emergence of manga and anime as huge American markets, there’s been precious little investigative reporting on the movers and shakers in the field. This article that dives into the biggest mover and shaker in all of manga–the emergent isekai fantasy genre, which is now so predominant that it has both artists and fans shaken and scared.

At the time of writing, out of the top 100 paid manga on Amazon Japan, 17 titles were isekai; on Amazon.com, there were a whopping 37. Publishers such as Kadokawa and Alphapolis have doubled down on the genre, each releasing hundreds of volumes of isekai titles a year.

7. How COVID-19 Changed Science (NewsRx)

Calling_for_innovative_proposals_to_characterise_impacts_of_Covid-19_pillars

One of my beats that I post less frequently about is science and technology. Scientific researchers have been ahead of the curve in adapting to COVID-19 as they continue to research and uncover important information about the coronavirus. This adaptation has resulted in wholesale changes in the way that science is done.

But speed of research review and remote working is far from the only way that coronavirus has changed science. Coronavirus has become an accelerating force for a number of trends that were already working their way through the world of science—such as the rise of preprints, the growing relevance of open access research, and the prevalence of scientific discussion on social media.

6. Japan Doesn’t Want to Become Another Casualty of English (Foreign Policy)

Prince William of Britain scans in a drawing of himself onto a screen so he can make a cartoon character of himself dressed in a traditional Japanese costume during his visit to Tsutaya bookshop in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2015.

This article is one of my most ambitious of the year–it explores how the English language spread across the world, its peculiar and unique nuances in Japanese society, and why some in Japan embrace English while others fight it. It drops to number six due to a lack of immediate real-world impact, but this is one of my two most be nuanced articles I wrote this year (the other slotting in at number 1).

Studies show that positive portrayals of white people and the English language are highly overrepresented in the Japanese media. Some of the national obsession with English proficiency is based on social capital accumulated by proximity to whiteness and the West. “Teaching and learning eikaiwa in Japan is a commercialized activity built on the commodification of English, whiteness, Western culture, and native speakers constructed as superior, cool, exotic, or desirable,” Kubota said.

5. An outsider’s look at the problems plaguing rural Japan (The Japan Times)

The western media has reported about declining populations in rural Japan for years, but offered very little insight into what towns are actually doing to stop it. I did just that, exploring how one rural village has entered into a unique partnership into with international consultants, and bet on outsiders to share their traditional resilience values with the world.

Fulford sees the revitalization of rural Japanese villages as a two-way street — the villages need migrants, tourists and economic opportunities, and the broader world can gain from the wisdom, culture and resilience strategies that have been preserved in villages such as Nakatsugawa.

4. The Fall of Terrace House (The New York Times)

The death of Hana Kimura, a cast member in “Terrace House: Tokyo,” brought an end to the hit reality show and provoked a national reckoning with online hatred in Japan.

What!? Only number four!? Well, this was certainly my highest-profile piece of the year, and landed me appearances in podcasts and references as one of the most thorough investigations into everything that went wrong with Terrace House and the tragic death of Hana Kimura. Realistically, this belongs higher on the list for just how many high-profile sources I had to chase down and synthesize, but how else will I convince you that my other articles are just as good?

The residents developed coping strategies and in some cases bonded over the online attacks. “We tried to comfort and support one another when new episodes came out,” Uemura said. The effect could be exacerbated by the panel of commentators, who over the years have been criticized for their occasionally snide assessments and for cheering on aggressive attempts by male cast members to kiss women, which in some cases have crossed the line from romantic pursuit to harassment.

3. The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Put Japan’s Climate Policy in a Decade-Long Purgatory (The New Republic)

In my deepest climate investigation of the year, I explored the lingering effects of the Fukushima disaster on Japan’s attempts to fight climate change. In doing so, I had to pull apart diverse perspectives and political, scientific, and social issues. The piece covers everything from whether or not nuclear power deserves a place in long-term climate strategies to Japan’s climate youth movement.

Support for nuclear power among climate activists has fallen, as well. “We learned and believed that nuclear energy was unconditionally good,” said Soma Kondo, an organizer with Climate Youth Japan. “Because CO2 emissions were the biggest problem, nuclear power was great. It was shocking to see that flip on its head, and we’re still nervous about how we can get by without nuclear energy.”

2. Meet the Activists Who Want the Tokyo Olympics Cancelled (Unseen Japan)

Tokyo Olympics countdown clock

This feature meets all of my criteria for an excellent article: unreported material, authentic sourcing, and analysis that covers economic, social, and cultural impacts. The robust legacy of anti-Olympic activism has gone more or less ignored by the mainstream media beyond cursory mentions of protests. I decided to give Tokyo’s dedicated activists the time that they deserve by exploring their cause in detail, and uncovered important truths about and problems with the Olympics in the process.

To activists, the math is simple: more money going into the Olympics means less money elsewhere. They argue that hosting the Olympics amounts to a massive transfer of wealth from the government into the hands of the few mega-corporations that profit off of government contracts, wealth that could and should be invested in social programs that help the most vulnerable members of society. 

1. Why Parasite’s success is forcing a reckoning in Japan’s film industry (Vox)

This is my other article that meets the above criteria, and then one-ups it by also exploring the exciting history of the rise and fall of ‘Cool Japan’ and making a deep connection with Korean pop culture. Read this article to learn about the struggles of Japan’s best film makers and dig deep into why Japanese and Korean pop culture is so cool to the west. My other challenging and nuanced article of the year–plus real-world relevance to struggling, emerging artists.

“There’s room for more than one country to be a global influencer in Asia. Japan has just become softer and more sophisticated, and Korea is more cutting-edge, more youthful,” Marx said. Soft power has opened space for Japanese cinema in the hearts and minds of Americans, but the live-action film industry continues to struggle.

A guide to Nagoya neighborhoods

Ah, Nagoya. Either the Chicago of Japan, or the Detroit of Japan, depending on how generous your assessment is.

The location of some of the definitive historical battles that formed modern Japan, Nagoya is an industrial city of two million, halfway between Tokyo and Osaka. Sitting in a wide, flat plain between the Ise and Mikawa Bays, and surrounded by the picturesque mountains and countryside of Gifu and Nagano, Nagoya is shunned by many travelers, but beloved by its inhabitants. It lacks the bombastic tourist attractions of Tokyo and Kyoto, the fiery culture and attitude of Osaka, and the picturesque ports of Kobe and Yokohama.

So what does Nagoya have? Exceptional historical and cultural sites, unique flavors and regional dishes, an abundance of high-quality and well-priced food and shopping, great parks, and superior access to mountains, farms, cozy and surf-crazed coasts, and some of Japan’s most iconic countryside villages.

I’ve only lived in Nagoya for a cumulative year+, so I don’t claim to be the definitive expert, but as a Nagoya resident and advocate, I wanted to put together a guide to exploring Nagoya’s coolest neighborhoods. I’ve ordered Nagoya’s most quintessential neighborhoods from most-to-least mainstream, and for each, I’ll put in a word about its atmosphere, characters, and activities.

Tier one: Tourists actually go here

Osu Kannon

Atmosphere: Traditional shopping arcade meets spunky hipster hangout meets vintage and consignment paradise

Characters: Street-fashion clad teenagers, foreign backpackers, impassioned otaku, bargain-crazed grandmothers

Activities: Thrift shopping, vintage clothes, bubble tea, pizza, standing bars, game arcades, off-beat boutiques, coffee shops, Taiwanese fried chicken, computer and hi-tech hobby-shops, maid cafes, tacos and kebabs and cheesecake, cat cafes.

Originality: ✰✰✰✰

Quality: ✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰✰✰

Sakae

Atmosphere: Urban paradise and luxury shopping on the front; an explosion of izakaya, bars, and clubs on the the back

Characters: Groups of salarymen drinking, upscale luxury shoppers, 20-somethings in search of parties – with everyone decked out in crisp, fashionable clothing,

Activities: Modern urban parks, department store shopping, civic concerts and street music, dance clubs, izakaya, all-you-can-eat restaurants, deluxe imports and brands, upscale rooftop dining, izakaya, hamburgers, yakiniku, specialty coffee

Originality: ✰✰

Quality: ✰✰✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰✰

Nagoya Station

Atmosphere: Dense, layered commute-center surrounded by towering, modern skyscrapers

Characters: Pretty much everyone: commuters, travelers, and tourists, corporate workers, upscale shoppers, college and high school students

Activities: Food-halls, city markets, abundant shopping from discounts to luxury brands, game centers, bars with expansive night-views, eel and Vietnamese and Chinese and French restaurants, izakayas

Originality:

Quality: ✰✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰

Tier two: Locals go here

Fushimi

Atmosphere: Modern corporations, cool facades and dynamic dining, slick, modern museums and galleries

Characters: Snazzy 30-somethings, Nagoya’s foreign community, corporate workers

Activities: Art and science museums, diverse dining from genuine US-barbecue to Thai to Kyoto semi-raw beef, lush private bars

Originality: ✰✰✰

Quality: ✰✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰

Hisaya-odori

Atmosphere: Adjacent to the dining and civic center of Nagoya with soaring residential towers and quiet streets

Characters: Bougie locals and businessmen

Activities: Some of Nagoya’s best restaurants and bars (Italian, French, sushi), specialty coffee, quiet galleries and studios, close access to Nagoya Castle

Originality: ✰✰✰

Quality: ✰✰✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰

Kanayama

Atmosphere: A vibrant, slightly off-kilter heart of business, commuting, and drinking

Characters: Commuters, corporate workers, college students, some families

Activities: Izakayas, game centers, dive bars and restaurants, yakitori and kushikatsu, pop-up markets and street performers, ramen, more izakayas

Originality:

Quality: ✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰✰

Tier three: Ultimate local holes

Shikemichi

Atmosphere: Streets of eclectic architecture selling old-fashioned Japanese goods

Characters: Ojiisan and obaasan (Japanese grandmas and grandpas), artful 20s, 30s, 40s on dates and gossip-sessions, a few Japanese tourists

Activities: Art galleries, mom & pop shops, luxurious inns, kissaten, soba and washoku (Japanese dining), Italian and French restaurants

Originality: ✰✰✰✰

Quality: ✰✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰✰

Hoshigaoka

Atmosphere: A zoo- and -park adjacent family-friendly shopping center

Characters: Families and high-school students

Activities: Zoo and theme park, multiple sprawling parks, family-friendly mall, upscale shopping center

Originality: ✰✰

Quality: ✰✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰

Tsurumai

Atmosphere: Diverse crossing point of all stripes of people, all swarming the park for a picnic

Characters: College students, families, joggers, corporate workers, Nagoya’s foreign community

Activities: Tsurumai Park (Japanese garden and sakura viewing, tennis courts, playground), bakeries, cheap-eats, Italian restaurants, sprawling mall

Originality:

Quality: ✰✰✰

Prices: ✰✰✰✰

Shin-sakae

Atmosphere: The rough underbelly of Sakae: grit and grime and love hotels

Characters: Swagged out and drunken 20 and 30-somethings, hostess girls, late-night salarymen

Activities: Izakaya, dive bars, host(ess) clubs, love hotels, abundant non-Japanese restaurants from Malaysian to Spanish

Originality: ✰✰

Quality: ✰✰

Prices: ✰✰✰✰

Other neighborhoods with stuff to do that didn’t make the cut…

Imaike

Ikeshita

Motoyama

Atsuta

Ozone

Kokusai Center

My NANOWRIMO: “MOBIUS” almost complete…

This November I semi-successfully participated in National Write a Novel Month! I didn’t manage to write an entire novel in the month of November, but I wrote almost every day of the month for a total of 30,000 words, bringing me nearly to the end of my sci-fi adaptation of Moby-Dick, “MOBIUS.”

I’m proud to present a selection from the first MOBIUS novel that I completed this month, as a sort of grand preview of what’s in store and where the novel is going. I hope to have a complete draft complete by the end of the year.

Without further ado, ON THE DECK.

The Milky Way is dying. Intergalactic civilization rose and fell 10,000 years ago. Greedy imperialist factions trade savage blows to control the impoverished, drug and disease-ridden planetary systems left behind by ten millennia of war and chaos. 

There is one sign of hope for a galaxy on its last wings: the Whales. Whales are ancient technology, the lone remnants of the intergalactic civilization. Criminals, soldiers and outcasts form ramshackle crews that chase after the Whales, capture them and disembowel them, revealing treasures within that can be anything from crude oil to medical panaceas to weaponized atom-splitters—forgotten technology from the distant past. And there is a prophecy that within one of these Whales lies a secret with the power to revive intergalactic civilization. That whale is Mobius…

Chapter Twenty-One

On the Deck

“ALL YE WHIPPERSNAPPERS TO THE DECK! POSTHASTE!”

Duke Marmoset’s voice snapped across the harpoon closet and the three could even hear the machinery in the engine room rattling in the volume of the speaker.

“GET YER LAZY BUMS UP HERE! SNIPPETY SNAPPETY!”

Iri took her hands off her ears and snorted. “Must be important. Normally he has Lexie do the announcements.”

Iri climbed up towards the trap door and glanced down at Mariposa and Numple, hidden in the shadows of their secret lair deep within the Whaling ship, the America. “I promise to send you food. I’ll be back. Stay out of sight. And watch out for the shadow.”

“We’ll be fine, Iri!” Mariposa said.

“Don’t worry about us,” agreed Numple. “You’re the one who needs to be careful. No one is finding us here. Not until they spot a whale, at least. But we’ll know when that happens.”

Iri sprinted up towards the deck, and then slowed at the last stairwell as to not attract suspicion. She was still nearly the last one to arrive, closely followed by other crew members, Yolanda Rexroth and Jag Skal Mitar, who took their time clambering up the staircase. The whole rest of the crew was already assembled, sitting down on the bare deck in front of a Duke Marmoset at the ready. Marmoset was anxiously shifting back and forth, raising himself up on his tiptoes and scratching his ears.

Once Iri, Rexroth, and Mitar sat down, he gestured, and the deck went dark, with the exception of old-fashioned candles set up along the perimeter. The flickering shadows did not even approach the crowded circle of whalers, leaving a thin ring of light surrounding a black hole that absorbed most of the deck. Iri could barely make out the whites of Marmoset’s eyes.

For a long time Marmoset stood in silence. Iri made out Lexie’s faint whisper to Winston Atreides that maybe he wanted to show them the latest dance. But before long, Marmoset spoke. He inhaled, paused with the fury of hell flashing in his eyes, and cried—

“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?”

“Sing out for her!” shouted the crew, in a unified, automatic response.

“Good, good!” bellowed Marmoset, obviously pleased with the response. “And what do ye do next?”

“Blast off after her!”

Marmoset grinned as the whalers gave even more oomph into this chorusing shout than the first. He raised his hand as if to grasp onto something, gripped his fist tight, and proclaimed:

“You all have heard me speak of the White Whale before,” he said. “But look in my hand, now! Do you see it?”

He opened his palm, which trembled violently, and he had to snap it closed instantly. But the whole crew saw in a flash of candlelight on cream that he was holding a small, white fruit about the size of a grape.

“It is what they call a starbean. 18 fluid ounces of starmilk, packed into this one little sucker. Whoever of ye spots the a whale as big and white as a cloud, with three holes punctured in its starboard flank—whoever of ye spots that same white whale shall have this starbean!”

“Huzzah! Huzzah!” roared the crew, now standing in an excited frenzy. Iri grabbed on to Lexie May’s arm to avoid getting knocked over in the excitement.

“Look for a flash of milky white in the deep—even paler than a star. If ye see but a flash, if ye see a bump on the radar, sing out.”

“Captain Marmoset,” said Winston Atreides. “I know of the white whale, Mobius, but wasn’t it that same whale that took off your leg?”

“Who told you that?” cried Marmoset, and then he paused. “Yes, you’re not wrong. It was Mobius that did this to me, that razed me, that cursed me to a half-body and a half-brain, that made me waddle and wallow in a maze of metal maggots for all my days.” He tossed out both arms. “And for that I shall have my revenge! I’ll chase him to the Valley of the Wind, through the Dark of Perseus. I’ll chase him to the center of the galaxy if need be, into the blinding light of Andromeda if need be, till it spouts its grey blood and opens up for its insides to be revealed, and for intergalactic civilization to be born. For yes, men,” he added, at the explosion of whispers that cascaded the deck at the word intergalactic, “I have no doubt that this is what she holds within. What say ye, men? Can ye take it on? I think ye do look brave!”

“Aye! Aye!” shouted the crew, swarming and crowding nearer to Marmoset. “We’ll bring it down! A harpoon in the spine of the Mobius!”

“Thank you,” Marmoset cried, tears seeming to sparkle in his eyes. “Thank you, thank you all. But Atreides, why the long face? Will you not chase the White Whale? Are thou not game for Mobius?”

“I am game for its biting jaw, and even for the jaws of death, Captain Marmoset, so long as it fairly comes in the way of our business. I’m not here to hunt your vengeance, Captain. Vengeance will not sell on the market like the technology of a Model-A whale or even the oil of a Model-D.”

Marmoset struck his chest. “I thought you might say such. Come closer, Atreides. The premium, the profit is far beyond what you can imagine. There is a premium not just in my heart—” he repeatedly beat his chest—“and in my mind, but in the cosmic hierarchy of things, you see, the vast forces that govern this universe revolve around that White Whale. You know as well as I what it is said to hold, a secret so immensely valuable that it might singlehandedly bring about the rebirth of intergalactic civilization—”

“Captain, you’ve already said that, but how do you know it? There is no evidence! I know you seek vengeance, and vengeance on a whale is madness!”

“I saw the evidence of it when I looked into the beams of its eyes, the sizzling flame of its flesh, the monstrous snapping of its jaw against gravity and time. How can the prisoner break free except by thrusting to the wall? That whale is the wall in front of us all, the principle enemy, the primary obstacle between us and the beyond. It is a whale like no other; I have hunted Whales around the galaxy and seen what they do. You have seen how Model-As attack us and Model-Bs trudge along dull, how Model-Cs dive into moons and Model-Ds peer inquisitively into the whites of our eyes. I have even seen the elusive, beautiful Model-Ls, dancing across the stars like the swift hands of the muse. But no Whale is like Mobius, equal parts vicious and beautiful, evil and glorious, serene and destructive. Don’t speak to me of madness! The Whale is the madness that you fear, and though you circle around it, a coward held distant from the Earth, you must dive into the waters to feel the deep. In the heat of its gaze, in the music of its roar, there we will find true blindness, true silence, and in an instant the fetters that bind you to your ‘market,’ the yoke that chains me to my ‘vengeance,’ they will all drop away! This is not ideology. This is not vengeance. This is truth.”

Atreides shook his head, and muttered, “All I can do is try to get us through this alive.” His eyes, though downcast, were bright with the fire of rebellion. Iri knew that they would need his warnings, his determination, even if they did not sway Marmoset a millimeter from his course.

“But if that is not profit enough for you, dear Atreides, I have something that will.” Marmoset seemed to shoot up to the sky and fold into two. “Bring the flagon!”

Someone lifted it: a large goblet swirling with white liquid. Starmilk.

“Pass it and drink,” Marmoset cried. “One gulp for each of you! Ascend into your greater powers!”

At once every hair on Iri’s flesh stood and a cold sweat materialized on her forehead.

No.

Atreides reluctantly accepted the goblet and threw back a gulp, and passed it to Jag Skal Mitar. 

Iri felt the atmosphere change almost instantly. The stirring of cosmic harmony, of psychic converge, wrapped itself into the air, as if the room was suddenly full of invisible, trembling harpstrings. Each sailor took a drink from the goblet in succession, and as soon as each one drank, their eyes white milk-white, and they throbbed, trembled, twitched. The harpooners, Yolanda Rexroth, and Kei didn’t even bat an eye when they took a gulp; Jem Ribalatague winced and gave Iri a thumbs up and passed her the goblet.

Most of the crew ahead of her had already had their gulp. The room was throbbing, pulsing, darkening and lightening. She saw in the milky substance shadows of memories, mud storms and empty halls. Her hands trembled, nearly spilling the starmilk on the floor.

“Why does ye hesitate, Iri?” howled Marmoset. “Drink, and ascend!”

He raised his hand, and Iri felt his power control her. Her hands forcibly raised the goblet and tipped the liquid down into her throat, and her jaw snapped shut, and her throat swallowed.

White consumed everything.

A prism. Colors dividing unto themselves, reflecting unto each other. A violent spasm of pain struck her spine and she twitched, writhed, shoving the goblet into the hands of Lexie May. She bent over. Her neck twisted towards her gut, her toes curled up to the ceiling, her stomach coiled and her shoulders felt like they were simultaneously folding and collapsing. Within the incredible, searing, exploding pain, she felt a gentle shine sprout above the hair follicles on her skin, and a pale shroud surrounded the field of her vision, at first grey, then faint green. Her muscles tried to divide and replicate, squeezed and slapped together, her fingernails grew a half-inch, she felt her body coughing up blood…

Then, the pleasure.

All the pain vanished in an instant. She experienced heaven.

The shroud enveloped her vision, wrapped her in wondrous warmth. She felt abuzz, the sensation after one orgasms uncontrollably multiple times in a row, that prickling pleasure that envelops the body like a swarm of butterflies. Then came the mental clarity, the unlimited perception into the depths of the universe. The profound harmony of all things, the glorious, indivisible truth: that humanity possesses a perception that cuts deep into the heart of things, a perception that can in turn possess objects. I have unlimited power, Iri realized. Confidence blossomed in her chest and rushed outwards—yes, power! She could do incredible things. At that moment, she could dodge a bullet if she had to. She felt a surge of energy surround her body, Aura, and she was charged with the force to run a mile in a minute, to jump thirty feet into the air, to blast a rock into dust with a punch, and the mental sharpness to out-riddle a sphinx. Her whole body glowed with the power. Everything about her sharpened, became beautiful, strong, full of force and meaning. Her eyes widened, her posture corrected itself, her biceps and calves thickened, her breasts swelled. She could catch a fly in her fingertips. She saw the other sailors around her. They radiated power and strength, but she possessed it, too. She understood now how monstrous whales were tamed. When the rigorous might of starmilk surges into true psychic abilities. The might that Marmoset had used to force the liquid of the goblet down her throat. It was power that she possessed. How could she crave anything now, when she was already so beautiful, so bold, and so full of pleasure coursing through every artery, vein, and nerve…?

“Prepare yourself, heroic mates!” said Marmoset, composed and yet forceful. “Flank me, raise me to the summit! Possess the power of the stars! Summon the candle, the bolt of galactic thunder that strikes from the deep! Cut your thoughts and draw the poles, ye harpooners!”

The invisible Xythos, Murmer, and Jag Skal stood at once, holding detached blades that Iri recognized as the very upper tip of the diverse assortment of hellish harpoons from the hold below.

“Stab me not with that keen steel! Flip them over, ye dunces, know ye not the goblet end? Turn up the socket! So! So, now, ye cup-bearers, advance.”

First to Xythos’ floating harpoon blade, turned upside-down and revealing a small concave knob on the underside, and then to Murmer’s and Jag Skal’s in turn, Marmoset sprinkled a tiny portion of the remaining starmilk into each harpoon blade.

“Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! The deed is done, the mission is sealed. Ye have made parties to this indissoluble league. Drink, ye harpooners! Drink and swear, swear to all of your gods that we shall brink death to Mobius! May the Blackness swallow us all if we do not hunt Mobius to his death!”

The crew erupted in cries and maledictions against the white whale, and the harpooners tipped back the blades to their throats, draining the remainder of the swirling, white liquid. 

Iri saw Winston Atreides shiver out of the corner of her eye, and Marmoset waved his hand for the crew to disperse. Immediately everyone bolted in opposite directions, the euphoric effects of the starmilk just beginning to fade, and Marmoset retired within his cabin.

The best street market I’ve ever been to is in… Kochi?

There’s nothing like a lively street market: the rush of colors and scents, fresh produce, spices and snacks I’ve never even seen before. The trample of feet and bobbing of smiling and curious faces down a sunny street, free of cars and pollution. Cheap, delicious street food and impressive artisanal creations. There’s nothing like living next to a great street market, and there’s nothing like visiting one as a tourist either. They’re among my favorite destinations in any city.

But when I think about the best street markets I’ve ever been to, just two come to mind. The second—albeit a narrow second place—is Tel Aviv’s. The first is Kochi’s.

Kochi is a prefecture and city in the island of Shikoku in central/southern Japan. It’s a bit remote, best accessed from mainland Japan by airplane, but a trip is extremely worth it. Wrapped between lush green mountains and the blue Pacific, a trip to Kochi brings the best that countryside Japan can offer: beautiful natural sights, ancient and rich history and culture, delicious, fresh food, and unique customs and festivals.

One of my favorite destinations in Kochi—and there are several worth writing about—is Kochi’s famous Sunday Market. This market is especially unique because it is literally hundreds of years old—it was born in the early Edo Period, and has continued weekly, essentially without interruption, for three hundred plus years, surviving the Meiji Restoration, surviving the Japanese Empire and World War II, and thriving into the 21st century.

My tour guide told me that the best thing about living in Kochi is the fresh, organic food, so it’s no surprise that any street market in Kochi would be a great one. Kochi actually has a culture of street markets—weekdays include stripped down version of the main market on Sunday, and a new Saturday market features higher-end organic foods and artisanal craft goods. 

The Sunday market takes place on a strip of one kilometer in central Kochi, near Kochi Castle, shopping malls, and ample eateries. Yes, you read that right—one kilometer—although it feels a heck of a lot longer than that to walk through, especially if you’re trying to get a look at what each of the 400+ vendors have to offer.

I went in November, so the array of items I saw will be autumn-biased, as they are constantly changing throughout the year. But the first thing I saw was persimmons. 

And not just a few vendors with persimmons—dozens of vendors with hundreds of bright, round, orange persimmons. Citrus of every kind—limes, lemons, Japanese yuzu and mikan—piled on top of each other in green-yellow-orange jumbles. Gleaming, fresh fruits and vegetables overflows from the stalls: cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, red and green peppers, spinach, potatoes, several varieties of Japanese sweet and mountain potatoes, a dozen-plus types of mushrooms,  some the size of small pumpkins, eggplant, enormous radishes, okra and shishito peppers, gourds I’ve never seen before, Vietnamese melons, bamboo shoots, apples. Fresh ginger and luxury tomatoes are local specialties, featuring the most citrusy and (separately) the sweetest tomatoes I have ever tasted, perfectly round, glossy, and red.

The well over 100 vendors selling local produce is the tip of the iceberg. An equal number of vendors have prepared-food products: jams and jellies of any fruit and vegetable flavor you can imagine, including carrot, red bean, and lime jams, honey, with a tank of the bees that made it buzzing beside to the register, seaweed, colorful bags of dried fruit, vast displays of herbs and spices, dried shark meat, sweet potato snacks, croissants. Mochi and fruit tarts. Japanese pickles and more types of sardines than I knew existed. Mochi and fruit tarts. Other vendors prepare fresh food, whipping up Mexican tacos, Japanese okonomiyaki pancakes, and hashimaki, rolled up okonomiyaki served on chopsticks with cheese and an over-easy egg cracked on top.

Food products make up about two-third of the total vendors over the kilometer-long strip. You can also find potted plants and herbs, aloe, beautifully and artfully constructed bonsai, woven baskets, Japanese knives, jeweled earrings, flowers, artisanal wood and metal products, pens, masks, and clocks. A whole section of the market at the far end is devoted to antiques.

Overall, I easily spent an hour walking through this market, and if you were determined to come out of it with more than a few snacks, you could spend two. It was a delightful and fun way to spend an hour getting extremely hungry for lunch, and I could not more highly recommend this outstanding market in a lovely, seaside town.

My latest in the Japan Times: the stories we tell about Hiroshima

Hello friends! It’s been a while and I don’t know what to write about. I want to put together a special ‘Autumn in Japan’ post, or something broader about the climate and seasons, a favorite subject of mine. But in the meantime I wanted to share some goodies from a topic I’ve been researching for several articles this season: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

As you may know, a few months ago marked the 75th anniversary of the bombings. As a result, this year has seen quite a number of nonfiction books about the bombings come out. Perhaps an uncomfortable number, but they came out, and accordingly, deserve scrutiny.

I reviewed those books in an article for the Japan Times.

This is an important subject. What we read about such monumental historical events define and redefine our understanding of the world. Two major recent accounts: conservative television host’s Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing the Rising Sun: How American Vanquished World War II,” (2016) and historian Paul Ham’s “Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath” (2010) differed immensely in terms of the spin they put on the subject, and this year is no different.

On the O’Reilly side of the spectrum, Fox News journalist Chris Wallace’s “Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World” chronicles Truman’s journey toward the decision to drop the bomb, an account that “reads like a tense thriller,” according to The Washington Post. Military historian David Dean Barrett’s “140 Days to Hiroshima: The Story of Japan’s Last Chance to Avert Armageddon” portrays Japan’s leaders as militarist fanatics in its account of the war room drama inside the cabinets of the U.S. and Japan.

Although this war drama perspective dominates American sales (Wallace and O’Reilly’s books were both massive bestsellers), humanitarian depictions of the suffering incurred by the bombings also have a long and notable literary history. Most notably, John Hersey’s 1946 “Hiroshima” tells the story of Hiroshima through the memories of survivors, and remains one of the most impactful and respected reports on the atomic bombings to this day. One book from this year, Lesley M.M. Blume’s “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World” retells Hersey’s reporting and his attempts to reveal the truth of Hiroshima.

Surprisingly and perhaps disappointingly, no notable humanitarian accounts in the tradition of Hersey came out this year. But we did get to see the first English book on Sadako Sasaki, the young Japanese victim of the Hiroshima bombing who became a national icon by folding 1,000 paper cranes while in the hospital. “The Complete Story of Sadako Sasaki and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” written by Sue DiCicco and Sadako’s older brother Masahiro, gives “a glimpse into Sadako’s life and the horrors of war.”

For a more objective perspective, The Manhattan Engineer District released a new edition of “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” which presents the U.S. military’s report on the bombing and the aftermath with eyewitness accounts.

All in all, out of five top-selling books on Hiroshima published in English this year, two skewed conservative (Wallace and Barrett), one skewed liberal (Blume) and two neutral (DiCicco and Sasaki, and Manhattan Engineer District). The unfortunate truth is that we use Hiroshima to tell the stories we want to hear.

So it’s up to the reader to choose books that challenge our own assumptions — and to read them critically. If you never knew that the U.S. launched a suppression campaign to cover up the truth of the atomic bombings, read Blume. If you’ve never read eyewitness accounts of the bombing, read The Manhattan Engineer District. Seventy-five years after the bombing, we must question our own beliefs and aim for a more empathetic and truer understanding of history.

Nagoya: A City of Architecture

Nagoya, arguably Japan’s ‘flyover’ city, isn’t known as a hub for anything. Rather, it’s got a little bit of everything. Food (check out my epic list of Nagoya eats.) History. Shopping. Partying. Arts. No one feature is in abundance, but everything is present.

Another feature that is definitively present is architecture. Japanese architecture, which ranges from preserved Edo Period architecture, to bold western-style brick banks and government offices, to glossy, cool, and downright quirky modern building, is world-renowned for good reason. And Nagoya displays the awesome versatility of Japanese architecture in full force.

So let’s go on a quick tour of Nagoya architecture.

Possibly the coolest modern architectural spot in Nagoya is Shirakawa Park, home to an art museum, a science museum, and gorgeous fountains that spout in the shape of DNA.
Meanwhile, the ancient heart of Nagoya architecture is Atsuta Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Japan rendered in austere wood-and-gold rough grain.
The 1000-year-old camphor trees become pieces of architecture in themselves.

Possibly the best neighborhood for architecture in Nagoya is Shikemichi, full of upscale coffeeshops, galleries, and traditional crafts.

Speaking of one of those coffeeshops.
Local temples also provide their own unique architectural flair. You don’t often see rainbow flags and a stone courtyard at a Buddhist temple, but you do in Nagoya.
The hyperspace-style Oasis 21 is also a futuristic architectural pleasure, park, and shopping site in the heart of downtown.
Local city parks and gardens flower spectacularly in late spring and early summer.
And last but not least, a surprisingly iconic view of Shirakawa Park from the back-side: a massive, silver floating globe. If that’s not cool architecture, I don’t know what is.

Landscapes of Tohoku

I took a recent journey through northern Japan. Unfortunately, since it is an era of coronavirus, I didn’t do much interacting with other people. But I can gladly report that this is what I saw.

Aizuwakamatsu

The meticulously documented history of this samurai city rooted in a war fought more recently than the US Civil War lives in the reconstructed castle. I asked the innkeep if he thought the local heritage and countless battles fought differentiated the people of the region from people from Tokyo or Kyoto; he said absolutely.

Lake Chuzenji

In the ruins of the old American villa, a lookout on a lake that smells like flowers, and you can finally see the stars. A sulphur bath, scorching hot, but only lukewarm under the faint starlight. A cool breeze along the water, honeyed scent–a moment of quiet, but not silence. The highest altitude lake in Japan buzzes under the mountain’s breath.

Mt. Nantai

The guardian of Nikko and Chuzenji, a rugged climber’s path on green-backed-stones that soars straight into the sky. On the peak stands a giant’s sword.

Urabandai

The mountain’s swamped in algae and the swamp‘s ringed by mountains. Bear tracks and the dance of light on leaf. Despite summer’s lime-green lushness, I was told that spring and autumn were even more beautiful.

Tazawa-ko

A glacial lake, raw sand like crystals. A man tries to convince his lover toenter the water as children play. Deep pine forest, the immense value of an unbroken ridge of green and the shifting screens of light and cloud.

Tazawa-ko is a remote northern village that is the site of some of the most beautiful, pale, melting skies I have ever seen. Delightful farms and rice fields mark the hillside.

Akita-Komogatake

On the guardian mountain of Akita-Senboku in the far northwest, neverending flowers blanketed in a sea of fog.

Morioka

Fast, roaring rivers keep verdant scenery alive in the small city of Morioka. Full of parks, gardens, and people wandering the traditional Japanese shopping arcades, I can only imagine what the city looks like blanketed in snow and with all of its people indoors.

An interview with Japanese literary superstar, Mieko Kawakami

Within just a few years of beginning to write, Mieko Kawakami went from J-pop artist and feminist blogger to sweeping the entire Japanese literary awards cycle: the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Emerging Young Writers, the Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature, Granta Best of Young Japanese Novelists, and most impressively, the Akutagawa Prize, the most respected literary prize in Japan.

The story that won her the big fish —”Breasts and Eggs”— after more than a decade, finally came out this year in English translation as a reworked and expanded version of the original novella. At the heart of “Breasts and Eggs,” with it sophisticated, literary, and yet welcoming prose and evocative scenes and memorable characters, is a debate around the value of life itself and whether it’s selfish or unselfish to bring new life into the world. (Read my full review here for Metropolis Magazine.)

I had the pleasure to have a brief interview with Kawakami on what she hoped to accomplish with her remarkable novel, her writing style, and how music plays into her work. Here’s what she said.

(Questions and answers translated from Japanese into English.)

“Breasts and Eggs” is a story about Japan, but now that it’s been translated, what kind of impact do you want the story to have on international readers? Does it have a special meaning to you that this book now has a new life in English?

MK: I think that many international readers have an image of Japanese culture as being mysterious. There’s an image of Japanese people being wealthy but also depressed. Obviously, this isn’t necessarily true. I wanted to create stories about people and lives outside of this norm, people who have been badly damaged and harmed by the structure of society. Even if I’m not truly able to communicate their stories, I think even an attempt raises important philosophical issues. Why were we born? Why is life so painful? What really is the world around us? If by reading my book, readers start to think about the lives of others that they don’t know and even face themselves and their own lives, I would be happy.

In “Breasts and Eggs” there are different characters with unique voices. With only language as your tool, how do you create unique voices on the page?

MK: I like to experiment with various styles and techniques, but above all I focus on creating rhythm and a sense of polyphony. What kind of words do people use, what do they talk about? What does the rhythm of their conversations feel like? All of those things reflect a lot about a character’s personality and background. “Breasts and Eggs” has a lot of Osaka dialect, which has a powerful, distinct impression, almost enough to feel strange. Of course, it requires the efforts of the translator to express what that dialect is like in English, but in Japanese I try to make people understand in my writing what it was like to be born and raised in Osaka.

In “Breasts and Eggs” Natsuko thinks a lot about the concept of beauty. Is the beauty of a person the same type of beauty that can be found in a sentence? Do you focus on trying to write beautiful sentences?

MK: Whether it’s the beauty of writing, natural beauty, or the beauty that’s defined by social norms… There are many types of beauty, and I’m interested in all of them. I don’t think that beauty exists in a novel itself, but rather in what the novel is trying to distinctly achieve. In that sense, when I write my novels, I am very conscious of beauty. I try to capture the light and the scenery of a single moment in my writing.

The characters in “Breasts and Eggs” have a sense of discomfort about their own bodies. Have you felt that way before? How do you grow into your own skin?

MK: I really felt uncomfortable in my body when I was younger. The relationship between mind and body has been a philosophical concern since long ago. Even if you take off your clothes, you can’t take off your body. I’ve always found it strange to think about how that some day my hands and feet will eventually turn to dust and disappear, ever since I was a child. The bodies of women are also extremely sexualized and policed. It’s impossible to simply live your life while being constantly objectified like that, but acceptance of that has been deeply internalized by so many women. Humans have no choice but to continue to watch our bodies change as we age, and when they do, I don’t think that bodily discomfort goes away. However, discomfort doesn’t have to be dislike. If you can affirm your discomfort and the change that happens in your body, you can reaffirm that your body belongs to you. You can respect it. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, but it still has the power to point out new possibilities for our lives.

Where do you get ideas for your novels? Do you get inspiration from things in your everyday life?

MK: I’m amazed by everything in the world around me. My memories are a big source of ideas. Sometimes I can visualize a whole story from a phrase that pops into mind. By visualizing a scene in my head over and over again the story gradually becomes clear, and then I can write it. So everything in my life becomes inspiration for my writing.

You used to be a musician. Do you listen to music while you write? And what do you think the relationship is between music and literature?

MK: Sometimes I listen to music while I write and sometimes I don’t, but when I do, it always creates a wonderful environment for writing. I think that literature and music have a close affiliation. Wonderful art of all disciplines has the power to transport the reader, viewer, or listener to someplace new. Music creates a painful, intense feeling; a courage that makes me tremble.

May 25

I heard about something interesting that happened on my birthday, May 25. This is what happened:

Two police officers descend on a dark blue vehicle and pull the car doors on both the passenger and driver side ajar. George Floyd displays his driver’s license and vehicle registration. The deli owner thought he had used a counterfeit $20 bill and informed the police that the man was drunk.

People exit the car. George Floyd exits last. The officer clasp handcuffs around his wrists and he stumbles. George Floyd protests in confusion as he is taken to the sidewalk and sits down. The officers ask George Floyd questions; he didn’t do it, any of it. Soon, they walk him away.

On the way to a different next patrol car, George Floyd falls down. He is claustrophobic. They put him in the car. He doesn’t want to be there. He can’t sit still.

More officers arrive. They take George Floyd out of the car. I’m not getting back in the car, he says, trying to pry free. George Floyd falls down again.

An officer pins him down. The officer’s knee is on George Floyd’s neck.

Agh, agh, I can’t breathe man.

Please. Please let me stand.

The officers remain still. One officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Another a few steps away, hands in pockets, looking down. A third kneels on the back side of George Floyd’s body, pressing his legs down, and his cheek is on the road, his eyes up and focused on the sidewalk. The officers issue a signal for non-emergency medical assistance. George Floyd has sustained a mouth injury.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe please. Just get up.

Ugh. Ugh. I can’t breathe!

I can’t breathe. I’m about to die you see.

The officers issue a signal for emergency medical assistance.

I can’t breathe! The knee on my neck.

Agh. Agh. They’ll kill me. Agh. Agh. Ow. Ow. I can’t breathe, shit.

Well get up, get in the car man.

I will!

Get up get in the car!

I’ll move! Aghhhh.

Get up get in the car!

Mama.

Get up get in the car right away.

Mama. I can’t!

I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe.

George Floyd goes unconscious.

The officer withdraws a can of mace to deter a small crowd asking the officer to remove his knee from George Floyd’s neck.

Another officer positions himself with his hands on his hips in between the small crowd and the other officer and George Floyd, who is still unconscious.

An ambulance with emergency medical assistance arrives. The officer still has his knee on George Floyd’s neck. The EMTs tap the officer on the shoulder and ask him to move aside.

The officer stands up, and the officers and the EMTs move George Floyd’s limp body into the ambulance. The ambulance drives away. George Floyd dies of cardiac arrest.

That’s pretty much how my birthday went, in a very broad, universal sense. So if you didn’t know, now you know.

But there were other things that happened too, later. There was a protest and a girl who had been protesting was walking across the street. Many officers walk down the street.

Get out of the way you fucking bitch!

He shoves her to the ground and her head smacks the concrete.

There was also a family standing on their porch when the officers arrived in many cars on their street.

Get the fuck inside, get the fuck inside now!

And they shoot paint canisters at the family standing on their porch.

There was also an old man walking down the street with a cane. The officer shoves him to the ground. The man lies down on the ground for a minute, before officers come to help him stand up.

There was also a young man was standing in front of a cop in the middle of a protest. He has a mask on. The cop yanks down the mask and pepper-sprays him in the face.

There was also a photographer taking photos of a protest. The police aim at her face. They fire a rubber bullet at her face. The rubber bullet hits her in the eye. She goes blind.

Large crowds of people chant together in public squares and in the street.

Anyways, those were a few of the things that happened in connection with May 25. It was kind of like a big, fun birthday celebration. Best thing of all, it’s not over yet, either.

Tricot Album Review MAKKURO / PITCH BLACK (New J-Rock)

This is their best album yet.

I’m not afraid to say it. I’ve been following this Japanese math rock trio/quartet’s career since 2014, when I first stumbled upon them, and have been hooked ever since. They’re excellent musicians, creative performers (they put on a wild, smashing live show), and have devised no small number of surprisingly listenable and yet fascinating math rock songs. Above all, they are a fiery band and rock out hard, with passion and relentless energy. Makkuro (“Pitch Black”) proves to disappoint on none of these accounts, while experimenting with new atmospheres and taking their sound to a greater emotional depth than in any of their previous albums.

The third track of Makkuro

Tricot continues to be a great Japanese band even for those who don’t understand Japanese. That’s because the texture and emotion of the music closely mirrors the lyrics – you can hear the passion, regret, misery, hatred, and willpower in Ikkyu Nakajima’s powerful voice. Makkuro is a definite success because it fearlessly probes to intense emotional depths, especially in the album’s latter half.

In a way, the album is what it sounds like – a hardcore, pitch-black take on Tricot’s traditional frenzied, slashing rock energy. Throughout the album, you’ll hear many of the shredding, punchy chords that have defined Tricot’s sound for much of the past decade, broken up by unexpected changes, byzantine guitar and drum riffs, and fiery vocals.

The first few songs get off to a typical fast-paced, pumping start, with some new uncomfortable, writhing melodies and off-notes. Like many songs from Tricot’s first two albums (THE and AND), these songs aren’t very catchy, but rather get into a grooving space of complex guitar and drum rhythms, patterns, and occasional syncopated, shouting vocals. All of this is familiar territory, that I rate a solid six out of ten.

A track from Tricot’s first album, THE

Where things start getting interesting is in the development of these songs, especially in tracks three to five. Track four (みてて – Look at me) starts off dull and monotonous, but ramps up as the song goes on into a passionate plea for attention. Track five (秘蜜 – Secret nectar) takes a spectacular course: beginning with a dark, relentless groove, the song unwinds wildly and divergently, into floating, gentle loneliness underscored by darkness, and finally into math rock chaos and scramble.

The album gets decisively better as it goes on. The moody, hypnotic energy established by track five sets a reflective tone for Makkuro’s second half. Unusually deep instrumental sounds and quiet pauses, floaty synths and fresh guitar sounds, unexpected reverberations. This new headspace allows the emotional content of the vocals and lyrics to come to the forefront – jealousy, anger, disgust, frustration.

The climax of this journey comes in tracks 9 (ワンシーゾン – One season) and 10 (危なくなく無い街へ – To a place that isn’t safe). The full range of frustration comes out in the stuttered, trickling hesitance of carefully arranged guitar and drum patterns. Tricot’s math rock chops is on full display in “One Season” – and it’s as brilliant and subtle as any song they’ve written, with clever time signature and key changes and creative guitar licks – the song is honestly exciting to listen to.

Then in Track 10, Tricot plays a kind of song that they’ve simply never played before. An indie crooner, a ballad. “To a place that isn’t safe” reminds me of a lot of early 2010s indie rock, but not in a bad way. Ikkyu sings in an audibly different mode, something more feminine, fragile, and insecure than we’ve ever heard from her. They sound like an entirely different band, and they pull it off well. I give them full credit for attempting something so different – especially because it completes a beautiful story arc within the album, and takes the listener on a complete journey.

The final track on the album

The slashing ramps back up into a masterful last track, 真っ黒 (Pitch Black), which is a classic Tricot ending track. Lilting math rock swag, crying out passionately and earnestly, armed with the unabashed negative emotions that Ikkyu has come to terms with throughout the album. Tricot embraces negative emotions and uses music not just to express them but to justify them and weaponize them for good: there are better ways to handle and express negativity, rage, and sadness, and by the end of the album, I honestly felt like I had learned something.

That successful creation of a story arc throughout the album – a rare feat in the streaming era – is what makes Makkuro the best Tricot album to date. I love albums that take me on a journey, and Makkuro did just that. It’s entirely worth a listen.

MAKKURO rating – 8.8/10

Best tracks – 5 (秘蜜), 8 (なか), 9 (ワンシーゾン), 12 (真っ黒)

For comparison, here are my updated ratings of Tricot’s previous albums:

3 – 7.0/10

A N D – 8.0/10

T H E – 8.2/10

Here’s where to start with contemporary Japanese fiction

Contemporary Japanese authors, especially women, are writing some of the most compelling, groundbreaking, and enjoyable literary fiction of the 21st century. And a lot of it lives in excellent English translation as well.

Much Japanese contemporary fiction deals with universal, pressing themes—apocalypse, loneliness, capitalism, sexuality, friendships, families. Incorporating abundant and often deeply disturbing magical realism, surrealism, and mythology, Japanese literature offers a fresh lens on these meaningful themes for an American reader. Best of all, most of these novels have fascinating protagonists, rich sensory imagery, and a brisk sense of action and crisp, enjoyable plots.

Here are six authors that are worth a read, along with their best works and why you should read them.

Yoko Ogawa

Active since: 1988

Start with: The Memory Police

If you want more: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Themes: Surrealism, dystopia, bodies, power

Oagawa’s writing is deeply disturbing and captivating. Her work explores countless pressing issues with innovative literary approaches, ranging from memory and authoritarianism, to the human body and patriarchal control. The profound themes, creative literary techniques and intricate network of allusions across diverse cultures in The Memory Police and Ogawa’s broader catalogue speak to a truly unique literary accomplishment.

Sayaka Murata

Active since: 2005

Start with: Convenience Store Woman

If you want more: Earthlings (coming this fall)

Themes: Sex and sexuality, gender, relationships, social norms

Murata is one of Japan’s most exciting young writers, with action-packed novels telling stories of characters at crossroads with the world around them, desperate to break free. Murata’s heroes, pressured immensely by their families and society, eventually make powerful decisions to set themselves free, risking drastic consequences — all for the chance to live in a world of their own making. Murata is also one of the many great contemporary writers exploring sex and taboo sexualities, deeply and without shame.

Hiromi Kawakami

Active since: 1994

Start with: The Ten Loves of Nishino

If you want more: The Briefcase

Themes: Everyday life, relationships, fantasy, magical realism

Hiromi Kawakami captures the powerful, intimate moments hidden in everyday life and everyday interactions like no other. She is one of the more overtly magical realist authors on this list, citing Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an influence, and brilliantly blends the ordinary with the spectacular.

Haruki Murakami

Active since: 1979

Start with: Norwegian Wood

If you want more: Kafka on the Shore

Themes: Mythology, self-discovery, magical realism, sex and sexuality

Haruki Murakami casts a massive shadow over contemporary literature, as one of the most beloved and influential writers of the day. While he may be overhyped, and while his portrayal of women and sex is worthy of criticism, his works cover profound moments of self-discovery and growth via encounters with myth, magic, and history. While he’s not as influential in Japan as his international stature may suggest, out of his many novels, one or two are well-worth a read.

Yoko Tawada

Active since: 1987

Start with: The Emissary

If you want more: The Naked Eye

Themes: Language, apocalypse, environment, history

With one of the longer careers out of the writers on this list–including plenty of works that she in fact wrote in either German or English herself–Tawada has a wide variety of unique works to choose from, ranging from post-apocalyptic to epic historical and environmental tales from all over the world. Tawada is an excellent writer about travel, language, and translation itself, the ways that we humans connect and understand each other.

Mieko Kawakami

Active since: 2007

Start with: Breasts and Eggs

Themes: Family relationships, womanhood, bodies, sex and sexuality

If you want more: Ms. Ice Sandwich

Another younger and rising author, Mieko Kawakami got a lot of press for her extended interviews with and outspoken critique of Murakami. But her fiction itself is wonderful, intimate stories written in a style that gladly embraces stream of consciousness and dialect while exploring families, gender relations, and power.

Now is [not] the right time to read Octavia Butler – 100 WORD BOOKS

Recently, I read The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, the first novel in her Earthseed series. It is a marvelous, shocking, compelling, dystopian story. It is a fiercely realist novel that imagines the breakdown of American society amidst inequality and climate change–which, of course, happen to be the two biggest plagues of American society in 2020 besides coronavirus–and it is both the best and worst thing to read in April, 2020.

The Parable of the Sower is freakishly prescient. In this 2025 America, climate change, poverty, and disease have swept over major west coast cities, leading to social breakdown. Small communities of income levels from working class to upper class build walls to keep out the homeless, drug-addled, desperately impoverished and violent masses, which clearly make up the plurality of Americans. There is no freedom of movement; constant symptoms of climate change and violent organized activities and crime disrupt life on a monthly basis.

One girl, whose entire home and family is destroyed, develops the street smarts to survive on a journey north from Los Angeles to a small plot of land, along with a religion of her own whose only God is change, and where the vision of a better future is one among the stars, where humans live on planets other than Earth.

On her journey north, she gets her first converts, and the foundation of a community that just wants to survive.

Here is The Parable of the Sower in 100 words.

All that you touch you change, and all that you change changes you. Change is God and change is the Earth. Change is all of us. I realized that not one day, but over many years, as our community slowly crumbled despite the wise and steadfast Christian preaching of my Father. First they stole from us. Then they started to burn our houses down in order to steal from us. And eventually they were just plain burning our houses down. So we went North, like I had always dreamed of doing, with nothing but the money we hid under the lemon tree and my own steadfast belief in change. I’m not doomed by the earthquakes and the fires and the gangs because I can change–and if I can change, I survive. We took to the road, with the dying masses, and we intended to survive.

This novel is a remarkable read. It may be a dark time to get into it, but I could not recommend it more highly.

Back in Japan – The Quiet Delights of Kamimaezu

Dear friends, strangers, and family,

In these dark times I find myself back in Nagoya, a city that is staving off the apocalypse while the rest of the country just barely keeps its head above the water. People are out–eating out at restaurants occasionally, going to the grocery store, going to the mall–but almost always in masks, and they tend to keep their distance. Kamimaezu, just a train stop away from the bustling heart of Nagoya in Sakae, isn’t quite a ghost town, but is quiet at all hours of the day.

A few hours east, in Tokyo, coronavirus cases continue to spike, but Nagoya, which suffered some of early damage with a cluster outbreak in an elder care facility, has seen cases slow down to almost nothing. But the country is on watch, especially after the death of popular comedian Shimura Ken.

I’m fortunate to be in a place where it’s safe to grab lunch and where the cherry blossoms are blooming. I’m doubly fortunate for being at the interesection of several nearly-empty but stunning, quiet haunts.

There are three local establishments: a garden, a temple, and a shrine.

Japan isn’t renowned for having much green space in its cities, but the persistent presence of these three entities create a different kind of green space compared to the broad, flat, tree- and bench-speckled parks of American cities.

First, Shimochaya Park. Just a few blocks from my apartment, this is Japan’s version of a top-class, neighborhood park. It’s a beautiful place.

There is a tiny green yard near the west entrance, where I occasionally see old ladies with dogs and guys with bicycles stretching. But most of the small, enclosed area is a strolling garden, wrapping several winding pathways around a small, algae-covered pond. Striking, white birds nest in the tall trees, and afternoon sunlight catches the pine needles.

Just across the street from Shimochaya Park is the Buddhist temple Nagoya Betsuin. This is where you get some open space in dense Nagoya. A white-brushed pebble plain in between the austere temple architecture almost makes the enclosed temple look like it’s in the desert–if it weren’t for the full-bodied sakura trees, overflowing with pink in the last week of March.

Stern pagodas sit on pedestals throughout the complex, imposing quiet. In the lower buildings located down long, straight pathways from the main halls of worship, there is children’s school.

Last but not least, just a few blocks south of Nagoya Betsuin is a quiet shrine called Iseyama, enclosed within a courtyard no bigger than 1/10 of a city block. However, this tiny, twisty shrine has plenty of pathways to explore–and is a site of worship to not one, not two, but three gods, including Amaterasu, the sun goddess, possibly the most important in the Shinto faith.

From a row of densely packed red shrine gates, to a stern, stone wall set up to block out malicious energy, to small sites of worship arranged throughout the coiled interior, even a shrine this tiny manages to evoke a sense of holiness.

And so while things are quiet in Nagoya, and there’s certainly no Central Park to speak of, I’ve been kept healthy and good-spirited by the garden, the temple, and the shrine.

A poem for those in quarantine

We glitter like stars:

uncertain, quivering.

We are lonely,

always fading but never moving.

We are light years

away from the nearest warmth,

trapped

in the endless, cold, abyss, breathless,

vacuum, void, darkness.

And yet

we still send out these little beams,

these beacons that traverse the infinite dark,

lighthouse flashes of life

that reach and touch,

that speak and are heard

even when we are alone

and it is impossible.

Ranking the Top Ten Jewish-American Novels

Jewish-American literature is a rich, complex, and poetic tradition. Beginning as as early as the birth of the United States, undergoing a spectacular golden age in the mid to late 20th century, and continuing today with a number of highly succesful authors today, some of the greatest novels of the western canon were written by American Jews.

Many of these authors participated vibrantly in the mid-20th century aesthetic of modernism and engaged in daring literary innovations. But a novel doesn’t need to be innovative to make this list. It just needs to be excellent.

The novels on this list have the power to change your life. They not only educate Jews and non-Jews alike about Jewish-American culture and identity, but they also have the philosophical weight and sheer thrill of all the world’s greatest books, from any culture. Without any further ado, here are the best Jewish-American novels.

1. Herzog by Saul Bellow

Bellow tells stories about men who attempt to forge their own identities and destinies. Herzog is about Moses Herzog as he struggles to connect to his family, his lover, his daughter and the world, all the while rapidly falling towards insanity. The novel is told in large part through the many letters he writes, to friends, family, lovers, politicians, academics, and other famous American icons.

The novel is a heavy-hitter—complex, symbolic, dense—but reading it is worth the sturggle. It features fascinating and critical analysis of mid 20th century American society, dramatic emotional stakes, psychological deterioration, love and sex, and soaring prose. And in the end, Herzog, the modern man besieged by alienation and madness, succesfully emerges into the here and now. It’s a journey worth traveling.

2. The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick is one of America’s most underrated writers. She’s written several works that deserve mention on this list, but I’m going with her early 1970s short story collection. The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories showcases her storytelling verve, literary wit, and complex understanding of Jewish life in America. 

Take perhaps the best single story in the collection, “Envy, or Yiddish in America.” “Envy” is a raucous parody of two famous Yiddish writers who lived in America after World War II and their desperate struggle to be translated and be loved. Through a vivid metaphor for the Jewish process of assimilation, Ozick captures the essence of one of the most essential moments in Jewish-American history in a furiously entertaining and dark story.

3. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Call It Sleep is the Jewish-American Ulysses. Published in 1934, Henry Roth’s novel features the eight-year old David Schearl and his coming-of-age experiences. He learns the story of why his parents left Poland, forges a friendship with the Polish-Catholic Leo, and begins to study Torah in Hebrew School. The novel has won increasing critical interest over the years for its vivid portrait of immigrant life in New York’s Lower East Side as well as its dense exploration of Jewish textuality, weaving together the stories of Isaiah and the Passover sacrifice.

By writing a novel in high-modernist, Joycean style, but with Jewish characters and themes, Henry Roth boldly places the Jewish voice and the Jewish body on the high modernist page. With his ambition, he made all the passionate and innovative literature of Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick possible.

4. American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

Philip Roth is another author who’s written a half-dozen novels worthy of making an appearance on this list. While Portnoy’s Complaint and The Human Stain are spectacular in their own right, American Pastoral is the book that covers Roth’s most essential theme: the forces of Jewishness and Americanness clashing, and the resulting waves that claim more than a few human lives.

American Pastoral is epic in scope, covering generations in the life of Seymour “The Swede” Levov. The novel is described as a manifestation of the “American berserk,” as the political and social turmoil of the 1960s ruins Levov’s assimilation into conventional upper middle class life.

It’s a story especially relevant in today’s political environment, with anti-Semitic incidents on the rise and American Jews increasingly revisiting the status quo in Israel as well as their role as allies to African-Americans and POC.

5. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

One of the more recent novels on this list, Everything Is Illuminated is also one that will surely make you cry. It has it all: comedy, history, wit, joy, war.

Everything Is Illuminated is an evocative reimagining of the shtetl of the protagonist Jonathan’s grandparents. Jonathan is led through the Ukraine by a humorous and enigmatic local guide, Alexander. His mission is to find the woman that saved his grandfather from the Holocaust.

Foer’s novel also features colorful prose that’ll keep your heart skipping along with the story. Perhaps the most moving part of the book is the relationship between Jonathan and Alex. Alex begins to question his own role as a storyteller and undergoes a remarkable transformation before the reader’s eyes, and ranks among my favorite characters in all of literature.

6. Collected Stories by Grace Paley

Grace Paley is a spectacular tragi-comic writer of Jewish and American life. Like so many of the authors here, she has too many memorable works to list, so I’m starting with her 1994 Collected Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award. In it you can find exactly what makes Grace Paley’s writing special: the combination of hilarious one-liners and passionate insight into the human condition.

In Collected Stories you’ll meet a lot of narrators, face dramatic emotional stakes, and witness humor, issues, and themes—not just Judaism but sex, Christianity, and more. Paley accomplishes all this through powerful, little moments, like a conversation about eggs in the kitchen, or a loving moment on the sofa between mother and son.

7. History of Love by Nicole Krauss

History of Love is a compelling meta-novel, with passages of Leo Gursky’s novel interwoven with his shattered life post-Holocaust and the story of Alma, whose mother is working on translating that same novel. 

Nicole Krauss’s work is deeply influenced by many of the other authors on this list—and so if you read hers after, say, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, it will be all the more enjoyable. Krauss distill and recreates the Jewish-American literary tradition. But at the core is the focused, lovely story of a girl trying to cure her mother’s loneliness.

8. Maus by Art Spiegelman

It might seem like cheating to include a graphic novel on the list, but it’s still a novel, and a deeply enjoyable and poignant one, at that. Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman as he learns his father’s experiences in the Holocaust and attempts to recreate them, transforming his own relationship with his father in the process. Colorful, beautiful drawings only help the cause.

9. Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

High-school story turned spiritual quest, Myla Goldberg tells a witty and original tale about an unremarkable nine-year old whose spiritual family decides that she is destined for greatness—all because of her knack for spelling. Who doesn’t love a good spelling bee story? Of course, Goldberg tells more than just the story of a spelling bee by unpacking family dynamics and relationships that will resonate with families of all religions.

10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon

I’m not as big of a fan of Michael Chabon as some other critics, but The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay is still a fun, fantastic, and masterful novel. It zips through space, time, and genre as Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klay embark on the American dream—in this story, through the means of superhoes, magic, comics, and art.

How translators approach sex in Haruki Murakami

I interviewed a few of Haruki Murakami’s translators about how they approach the most uncomfortable material in his work. This is what they said.

Bad sex is a thing in Haruki Murakami.

More so than bad sex, troubling, disturbing, possibly sexist sex? Male narrators undergo unusual, mysterious, surreal sexual experiences. The men are observant, passive recipients of sexual acts initiated by beautiful, unknown women. Description hones in on the female body, the male erection, and the male orgasm. Accordingly, Murakami has received some not-undeserved criticism for bad descriptions of sex and shallow depictions of women in his work. 

Of course, the vehicle through which all of us English-readers experience Murakami is not Murakami himself, but the translated work. 

So to understand sex in Murakami, we need to understand what it means to translate sex in Murakami. 

Let’s give it a shot.

Sex in Murakami is typically icky

For background: From Toru Watanabe in Norwegian Wood to the unnamed protagonist of Killing Commendatore, there’s always some schlubby guy, and always the strange sex. In Kafka on the Shore, the older Miss Saeki mysteriously visits Kafka’s room in the night, undresses him, rides him until he comes, and disappears. In The Windup Bird Chronicles, the clairvoyant Kreta Kano gives Toru Okuda a blowjob while he sits completely paralyzed. She undresses him. She rides him until he comes and she disappears. There is a parallel scene in Killing Commendatore too, where, out of nowhere, a woman suddenly strips naked. She mounts Menshiki. She rides him until he comes. She disappears. 

You don’t have to be a literary scholar to sense a pattern here. Laidi Kirsta analyzes on BookFury the recurring sexual encounters in Murakami’s work. She concludes that  sex in Murakami is “something that men passively receive from women, who do not have sex for their own pleasure but for other motives… often with some kind of incest motive, often with some kind of prostitution.”

Julie Shiota, a freelance writer who has written critically of Murakami’s work, argues quite simply but convincingly that his treatment is usually “uninterestingly uncomplicated.” Readers and critics are far from oblivious to these trends. Murakami is nominated year after year for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, after all. 

And to give Murakami the credit he deserves, there’s much more to his work than sex. As the New York Times critic Laura Miller wrote in her review of Kafka on the Shore, “While anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it’s the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.” Murakami’s novels are absolutely feats of literature, and feats of translation, as well. 

So how do translators take on these sticky sex scenes?

How translating Murakami happens

Japanese literature famously demands inventive, non-literal translations. English and Japanese share few grammatical structures and differing cultural norms abound. Many of Japanese literature’s most famous figures, from Kenji Miyazawa to Yasunari Kawabata to Izumi Kyoka, are nearly impossible to translate. Alfred Birnbaum, Murakami’s first translator who helped bring him to international renown, had to take enormously daring strides at times. 

Ted Goossen explained that one particularly inventive technique was Birnbaum’s method of differentiating the Boku and Watashi sections in Hard-boiled Wonderland (1985). “He did this by putting Boku in the past tense and Watashi in the present tense in English,” Goossen said. “Of course, he was criticized for taking liberties, but he made some tremendous creative decisions.”

In contrast, Goossen and Gabriel’s translation in the early sex scenes of Killing Commendatore—and throughout the book more broadly—tends to be fairly literal. Their translation matches many grammatical structures and often avoids changing the order of clauses. I experimented with writing literal translations of sample sentences in Killing Commendatore, and plenty of them already made quite a lot of sense in English.

For example, here is a literal gloss of the initial sex scene in Killing Commendatore:

彼女は裸にすると、体のあちこちにアザや傷跡があることがわかった。彼女はそれを見られる

When she became naked | I understood that she had scars all over. | Hating that [her naked] being

のを嫌がって、服を脱いで抱き合う時にはいつも部屋の照明を真っ暗にした。

seen, | when she took off her clothes we always made the lights pitch dark.

彼女はセックスにほとんど興味を持っていなかった。いつも性器の湿り気が足りず、挿入しよ

She almost didn’t have any interest in sex. | Her genitals never being wet enough | when I tried

うとすると痛みを訴えた。時間をかけて丁寧に前戯をし、潤滑ゼリーを使っても効果はなかっ

to enter her it brought her pain. | Taking our time we carefully did foreplay | and even if we used lubricating gel there was no effect.

た。痛みは激しく、なかなか収まらなかった。痛みのために時々大きな声をあげた。

The pain was intense, | and it considerably did not lessen. | Because of the pain sometimes she raised her voice loudly.

Compare that to the actual translations, Her vagina was never wet and penetration was painful for her” and The pain was furious, and it did not abate.” It doesn’t require much modulation.

But Murakami’s translatability isn’t a feature so much of Goossen and Gabriel’s translation so much as it is a essential feature of Murakami’s writing style.

“Murakami is born in translation,” Snyder said. “He is constantly translating his own works back and forth and his works seek out translations in various ways.” He argues on LitHub that “Murakami’s work succeeds in translation and finds a global audience exactly because it is intended for translation from the original place of its creation.” 

Snyder is referring to a variety of translateable features in Murakami’s work, from Murakami’s self-stated preference for English, to the overt influences of American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver, to the many familiar Western cultural touchstones in his work, like jazz and classical music. Snyder—while admitting that this perspective doesn’t give Murakami the full credit he deserves—suggests that Murakami’s approach represents a process that “deodorizes works of cultural specificity in order to make them more readily consumable for a global audience.” 

Goossen told me that there is, whether conscious or unconscious, a consistency in how translators across the years have approached Murakami. “If you look at the various translators, you wouldn’t know right away which person translated which work,” he said. “They seem to all have heard Murakami’s voice.” Something about Murakami’s voice and style begs to be translated, and announces itself in the work of his different translations.

But just because Murakami’s writing is meant to be translated into English doesn’t mean that translating the sex in his work is any easier or more comfortable. 

Translator Jay Rubin wrote an essay in the Guardian about his difficulty translating the man-skinning scene in The Windup Bird Chronicle. Because translating a scene takes more time than writing or reading it, translators have to spend many hours or even days with acts of sex or violence that readers or writers can skim or scurry through. 

Goossen connected the agony of translating violence with the discomfort of a translating sex. 

“To do a translation properly and enter a sex scene, you have to become aroused,” Goossen said. “Some translators might feel that you should stay detached, but I believe that you really have to participate in the scene in order to make it work in English.”

He compared the act of translation to walking on a tight-rope with a long pole. “At one end of the pole that you’re carrying is exact meaning, and on the other end of the pole is the emotive, atmospheric responsive.” The emotive response is the shock, the disgust, the arousal, the curiosity. “You need to keep the two ends balanced.”

“I never felt there was anything in Murakami’s sex scenes that an American audience would find any more puzzling than a Japanese audience,” Rubin said. “And certainly never saw a need to modify the content specifically for a non-Japanese readership.” 

Rubin and Goossen suggest that altering the literal words of a text is a very different act than altering the emotion or atmosphere of a scene. “If there’s a verb in Japanese that works better as an adjective in English, if you have to reverse a sentence, it’s all on the table,” Goossen said. While changing around grammatical structures and words in a translation of a Japanese work is simply necessary to create smooth English, changing atmosphere or emotion to fit American cultural nuances would be an injustice to the translator. 

Changing the words is okay. Changing the emotion is not. That tightrope that translators are walking is looking thin as wire.

The Best Albums of 2019, 2010s Outliers, and more 2010 music in memorandum!

The single biggest evolution in 2010s music was the emergence of “genrelessness.” Backed by increasingly sophisticated production and inspired by the still-increasing dominance of sampling, hip-hop, pop and alternative musicians alike mixed up their music with bits and pieces of rock, electronic, R&B, country, jazz, and more. Every big star of the 2010s embraced this practice, best exemplified by Beyoncé’s powerful 2016 album, Lemonade

Of course, it soon became clear that this eclecticity didn’t actually equal genrelessness in most cases. Sometimes, the result was just a bunch of genres individually explored in rapid succession over the course of an album–a country tune followed by an R&B jam, or a disco-backed existential crisis surrounded on both sides by alternative rock headbangers. While this quick-hitting exploration is almost always fun to listen to (when done well), it’s not so clear that it really amounted to musical innovation.

Perhaps this quasi-genrelessness was the cause of the multitudes of throwbacks that defined the decade’s music. ‘90s R&B, ‘80s pop and ‘70s funk in particular made huge comebacks, largely at the expensive of rock music. Of course, this reemergence of genre music is different from its predecessors–it exists in a new and difficult-to-cope-with economic and political context, ripe with huge social issues to tackle. Technology has also made an indelible impact, and artists have readily embraced new production techniques, making their beats crisper in the process. 

But crispness according to a production software grid certainly doesn’t equal the funk or groove of the past. With so much music quantized and compressed, sometimes the perfection exhibited in the decade’s music could be underwhelming in its artificiality. But if some “funk” grooves were a little too perfectly in sync with the metronome, or if some vocal lines were a little too perfectly “in tune,” artists were still inclined to be as personal and real as ever. This in many ways was the real innovation of the 2010s: artists producing their own music on laptops in their bedrooms, wearing their hearts on their sleeves like never before, musically and lyrically sharing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. While some may decry the lack of direct political commentary and protest music, the attempts at hybridization and honesty were political acts unto themselves.

For all of the above reasons, we’re taking a look at 2010s music in three areas. First, the Best 10 Albums of 2019, which saw another spectacular year in pop, hip-hop and R&B. Perhaps surprisingly, some interesting rock and jazz was made too. Second, we explore not the best albums of the 2010s, but 10 “Outlier” albums of the decade. These albums did something—instrumentation, production, singing, structure, revolution or revelation—better than pretty much anyone else all decade long. And finally, we highlight 10 songs that we hope will be pilfered by artists to inspire new music in the 2020s (and beyond).

Without any further ado! (Check out the 2019 Spotify Playlist and the 2010s Spotify Playlist here!)

The Best 10 of 2019

10. Dancer in Nowhere — Miho Hazama 

Miho Hazama leverages a full orchestra to explore and distort melodies, harmonies, song structures, improvisation methods, and entire soundscapes from classical, jazz, and world music. “Dancer in Nowhere” is a jazz album that sounds like none other ever made–while retaining that striking power inherent in jazz to incite both excitement and revelation. 

9. GREY Area — Little Simz

First, the bass-heavy beats hit just as hard as the piano-backed ones. Second, the storytelling is equally sharp as both introspection and braggadocio. Third, the melodies move whether they are delicately cooed or forcefully shouted. Count ‘em up: Little Simz is one of the most promising triple threats in hip hop today.

8. Ventura — Anderson .Paak

Anderson .Paak’s smooth California flow, his warm, gravelly voice, and his impeccable sense for a jam make him the perfect star for R&B’s late 2010s revival. “Make It Better” ft. Smokey Robinson is one of the sexiest songs since, well, Smokey Robinson, and “Winners Circle” and “King James” should be getting remixes for their slick hooks and catchy breakdowns for the next few years.

7. basking in the glow — Oso Oso

Featuring a litany of big guitar-hooks and buoyant melodies, the relentlessly catchy music frames lyrics that are deeply introspective yet empathetic. This is emo grown up and more anthemic than ever, a celebration of the power of a thoughtful songwriter with his guitar. 

6. Norman Fucking Rockwell — Lana Del Rey

Simply a masterclass in pop song structure, where opening couplets are better than other artists’ entire songs, and where the choruses build to something even better than that. Mythic storytelling draped in Leonard Cohen references and classic rock chordage, it’s all brought to life and held together by Del Rey’s best-ever vocal performances.

5. LEGACY! LEGACY! — Jamila Woods

A triumphant sophomore album effort, Jamila Woods uses cornerstones of African American culture as sonic and lyrical touchpoints to create a musically diverse and thematically rich album. Each track has layers worth unpeeling, from scattered jazzy meditations on Miles Davis, to spacey rumination on fact and fiction centered around Octavia Butler, to triumphant trumpet-studded anthems inspired by James Baldwin.

4. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? — Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish has earned her position as a next-gen pop star. She ruthlessly excised melody from her music, took on a uniquely dark pop visual identity and musical palette, wrote simultaneously disturbing and whimsical lyrics, and somehow managed to keep the production banging on top of all that. 

3. House of Sugar — (Sandy) Alex G

A song cycle of striking melodies that soar independently of the battling fiddles, guitars, drums, pianos and sound effects below, yet the melodies still remain memorable despite often eschewing convention in form and arrangement. You’ve likely never witnessed a “Southern Sky” more beautiful, or more bizarre.

2. When I Get Home — Solange

Mesmerizing hooks construct a hypnotic, psychedelic R&B sound. Minor, deep piano tones, light hi-hats, throbbing bass, and gentle synths scamper across complex musical devices, multiple time signatures, and unusual ambiences with a similarly abstract and minimalistic lyrical texture. “When I Get Home” is both compelling and nearly spiritual, as metaphorical lyrical and sonic structures point to deeper patterns of feeling, identity, and belief. 

1. UFOF — Big Thief

Listen ten times or listen twenty, and you’ll still discover new details–a cathartic wail transforming into a Neil Young/Crazy Horse freak-out, a bass melody emerging to dominate a harmony-laden bridge. But hopefully after the first listen you will have discovered one of the most compositionally sophisticated rock albums in recent memory.

* * *

Outliers: 2010s Standouts

The Age of Adz — Sufjan Stevens (2010)

The quasi-acoustic “Futile Devices” is one of the decade’s most painfully affecting love songs in its stark simplicity. The fully electronic “Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute epic with disorienting sonic textures and a disregard for song structure. Somewhere in the middle is an album where Sufjan proves that being “genreless” is less about aping as many styles as possible and more about building entirely new sonic and lyrical landscapes, innovation of a kind that few other artists even consider attempting.

The Idler Wheel Is… — Fiona Apple (2012)

Fiona Apple’s voice cuts like a hot knife through butter, quivers like a nervous Valentine, howls and scratches like a werewolf. Chock-full of original turns of phrase, “The Idler Wheel” is also one of the rare, entirely acoustic singer-songwriter albums that is fresh in its presentation of sound, metaphor, and ideas. From turning a tortured love song into a profession of self-love to ironic ruminations on the cool kids on the periphery, at least one song on this masterful album will stick with any person if they listen close.

good kid, m.A.A.d. city — Kendrick Lamar (2012)

“Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” while in some ways less unusual and intricate than “To Pimp A Butterfly,” is the ultimate rap outlier for being every bit as sophisticated as the latter while being many times more fun to listen to, lined with deep bangers from start to finish. Kendrick shows off his supreme flow and rapping skills in a series of memorable performances, distilling and illuminating his personal story while confronting race, class, and fame head on. 

Obsidian — Baths (2013)

Perhaps the most orchestral of the electronic albums that we’ve heard this past decade, Baths’ synth-pop experiments move in counterpoint to lush piano chords, strings and choir vocals, creating beautiful harmonies at the intersection of the analog and digital worlds. And if the soundscape isn’t quite your thing, his poetic explorations into love and loneliness can always offer solace, whether you’re dancing on your own or alone in bed.

Daruma Ringo — Gesu No Kiwami Otome (2017)

Gesu No Kiwami Otome’s 2017 album inserts elements of funk, rap, and jazz into their already confounding hyperspeed improvisational rock shtick. From the pounding bass hooks to the flying piano solos, each musical element in the album is intricate, and to top it off, Gesu No Kiwami Otome’s frontman Enon Kawatani has a wonderful ear for melody, leaving songs like “Katte na Seishungeki” and “Kokochi Adeyaka Ni” stuck in your head whether or not you understand a word of Japanese.

Melodrama — Lorde (2017)

If pop music is the quintessential youth music, then this is the quintessential youth album. Why then has this album’s influence not permeated the pop mainstream, despite being among the greatest pop records of the decade? Perhaps it’s because Lorde, unlike many of her peers, has strived to craft pop that’s not merely “for the kids” but that actually renders their narratives in every glorious and gory detail.

Good For You — Aminé (2017)

This album stands alone in 2010s hip-hop for being not just fun, not just light-hearted in turns, but goofy and smiley from start to finish. From the first visual cue (Aminé on the toilet) to the final hook (“Give me heebiejeebies / Attitude Khaleesi”), “Good For You” is full of braggadocio but free from self-importance (“Pussy make me happy and it make me inspired”). Over crisp trap beats, Aminé shows us what a fun time in hip-hop really looks like. 

The Ooz — King Krule (2017)

Archy Marshall rejects genre and create his own landscape of lonesome, fractured synths, jazzy inflections, and a sort of rasping, hardcore longing. From the world’s first zombie Bossa Nova in “Dum Surfer,” to a drifting, saxophone-crossed oceanscape of longing in “Czech One,” to bloody guitar scrapes in “Half Man Half Shark,” to jazz refracted through a cracked mirror in “Midnight 01 (Deep Sea Diver).” King Krule manages to perfectly depict an entirely original emotion and state of being throughout his coherent, innovative album–and that state is The Ooz.

Be the Cowboy — Mitski (2018)

Witness an artist so in command of her craft that she somehow manages the impossible task of making rock music that truly innovates. These songs are admittedly hard to imitate, should anybody seek to internalize the byzantine songwriting here. But if you merely want to be wowed by Mitski’s musical acumen, check out “Geyser” for a master-class in rock-and-roll word-painting.

Amir — Tamino (2018)

There aren’t too many singers who can captivate an entire audience at both a monotonic whisper and a soaring falsetto wail. That’s why, although his East-Meets-West melodic sensibilities and his character studies can sometimes feel familiar, Tamino’s voice is in a class of its own. For a debut effort in particular, such an accomplishment is truly one-of-a-kind.

* * *

2020s: We Hope to See Some More of These

“You Go to My Head” — Billie Holiday (1938): “You go to my head / With a smile that makes my temperature rise / Like a summer with a thousand Julys / You intoxicate my soul with your eyes.” Nobody rhymes like this anymore, in part because few modern songwriters really rhyme at all. (“Time” and “mine” don’t actually rhyme, pop songwriters!) Modern music has lost sight of how powerful a simple yet elegantly crafted love song can be.

“New Speedway Boogie” — Grateful Dead (1970): “New Speedway Boogie” balances multiple meanings in a single set of lyrics, as each line bemoaning the “workingman blues” stands in as a metaphor for the sometimes violent social protests that happened at Grateful Dead concerts in the late 60s. In an age with more than a few parallels to the late 60s, we deserve more music about social protest and change that presents ideas in complex forms.

“Learning How To Love You” — Leon Ware (1976): There can never be enough groovy, relentlessly sexy Motown for passionate lovemaking. No innuendos–just say it straight in a beautiful voice like Leon Ware’s, and make it a little funky. Sexytime mixtapes always deserve fresh tunes.

“Hejira” — Joni Mitchell (1976): Joni Mitchell’s music often evokes travel, departure, and coming home, and “Hejira” is perhaps the most evocative of her ‘journey’ songs. It’s about escaping and getting sucked back into love, perfectly underscored by rambling guitars that sound like a midnight desert drive. We hope that the 2020s bring us more music that tastes like adventure (and failed adventure). 

“Head” — Prince (1980): In a (hopefully) more sexually enlightened era, it’s good to remember that there’s more than one way to do it. (Make sex music, that is.) The great range of moods, especially humor, that Prince brought to his debaucherous musical tales will hopefully continue to be embraced by future artists. Because no one has yet matched the iconic goofiness of this song’s funked-out chorus.

“New Grass” — Talk Talk (1991): Using expansive song structures and ambience can make a single change in a repetitive chord sequence into a revelatory experience. Here’s hoping that more artists will realize that production tricks aren’t the only way to manipulate our emotions and send us on an epic journey.

“Vancouver” — Jeff Buckley (1998): There’s plenty about Jeff Buckley that would be thrilling to see in the 2020s. One feature is his incredible voice: the 2010s lacked great singers using the full range and power of their voices–including the ugly and harsh bits. Another worthy piece is his big, dramatic rock songs with original chords and bridges that are entirely earnest, raw, and heartbroken. 

“Wakin On a Pretty Day” — Kurt Vile (2013): Of course, Classic Rock Radio still exists, but it’s not very often that we get to hear true instrumental prowess (also known as “guitar hero excess”) in today’s mainstream music. Solos aren’t everything, but sometimes a great instrumental section is just what a song needs to elevate it to the sublime.

“Pink Lemonade” — Closure in Moscow (2015): Closure in Moscow’s 2015 album is a prog rock concept album about a psychedelic adventure through space and time, with intricate math rock structures and vicious instrumental solos, best exemplified by the rollercoaster title track. Let’s see more absurdist music with talented musicians!

“Were Were” — Salif Keita (2018): The global popular music stage has been rightfully dominated by Latin America in the last few years, but hopefully the next decade(s) will see an expansion into the rich musical legacy of West Africa. Because quite frankly, modern (Western) music would be greatly improved by the presence of the kora, one of the coolest 21-stringed instruments in the world.

2010s in Music – 10 great Japanese albums since 2010

As a fabulous decade in music if nothing else comes to a close and music publications start slinging out best-of-decade lists left and right, it’s time to reflect on just how America-centric they are all.

Let’s not forget all the spectacular albums produced by innovative artists around the world, from Argentina and Mexico to Sweden and France, to Ethiopia and Egypt to India to Japan–the very subject of this best-of-decade list today.

Japan has long been the site of wonderful, moving, and haunting music and musical innovation, ranging from heart-rending traditional singing techniques to the groovy peak of sexy funk and jazz.

This decade in Japanese music was also pretty fucking awesome. Rock music continues in earnest in Japan while pretty much dying over here in the U.S. J-pop remains as unique as ever. Meanwhile, experimentation and innovation in electronic and hip-hop production thrives in Japan and America alike. Attention to melody also remains strong in Japanese popular music even as it fades into mono-drone in American hits.

So without further ado, here are ten great Japanese albums from the 2010s that match up with the best of what we have to offer on this side of the Pacific.

10. Mellow Waves – Cornelius (2017)

Cornelius came back after a near twenty-year hiatus and didn’t disappoint, serving up 40 something minutes of swirling, lonesome contemplation. Mellow Waves is an album that sounds like its title–with the exception that it actually packs a much stronger emotional punch than you’d expect. If You’re Here is easily one of the best songs of the decade on either side of the Pacific, combining all of Cornelius’s technical producer chops with heartfelt longing. Mellow Waves fits into the 2010s trends of genreless, hi-fi constructions (see: Blonde, Tame Impala), and pulls it off with original twists.

7.9/10

Must listen: “If You Were Here”

9. Heisei – Orisaka Yuta (2018)

Orisaka Yuta made one of the best pure singer-songwriter albums of the decade in Heisei. It struts across mood and feeling, from high to low, strumming up a rumbling, honest charm and earnest feeling. It transports you to another place and time–simpler and full of familiar feeling. Orisaka has a warm voice that makes the listen enjoyable even for a non-Japanese speaker.

8.1/10

Must listen: Tsumuji Kara Tsumasaki

8. Crying End Roll – Indigo La End (2017)

Indigo La End is the strongest evidence of indie rock’s continued ability to thrive in Japan. While indie band back number (which also appears on this list) started the 2010s rock trend in earnest, Enon Kawatani has kept the genre strong, with consistently sophisticated sonic and melodic arrangements that tell real stories. Crying End Roll is arguably the best collection of songwriting and playing that indigo la end put together over the course of the decade, and is rewarded on this list appropriately.

8.2/10

Must-listen: Playback

7. SHISHAMO 3 – Shishamo (2016)

It’s not just indie rock that thrived in the 2010s in Japan, but also straight up rock-rock, and even better than rock-rock, chick rock that still rocks. Shishamo is one of the most fun–and consistently fun at that–bands this decade, putting out four albums and counting since 2015. They’re awesome instrumentalists, have loveably carefree and occasionally alternately slapstick and badass lyrics, and provide a perfect respite to the hellish landscape that is the modern world.

8.3/10

Must-listen: Nettaiya

6. hear you – toe (2015)

Toe is in both the master-producer realm of Cornelius and the badass instrumentalist realm of Shishamo. Stir it all up and shake it–and add some experimentalist hip-hop spice, too. Toe made an album quite unlike any other this decade, which is certainly enough to earn them a spot on this list.

8.5/10

Must-listen: Boyo

5. T.H.E – tricot (2013)

Remember when we talked about awesome instrumentalists? Tricot takes it to another level entirely. T.H.E. deserves props as one of the best math rock albums of the decade, with absurdly skilled musicians, stunningly complex time signatures and arrangements whipped into fierce bangers. From Pool at the start to Oyasumi at the finish, T.H.E. is a somehow-cohesive rollercoaster ride across a leaping and wriggling, writhing musical landscape. Tricot is making math rock cool when it never was and deserves a spot on any best albums list of this decade, Japan or elsewhere.

8.7/10

Must-listen: Oyasumi

4. The After-Festival – back number (2010)

While it’s not quite as much my taste as Tricot, back number is all the more important for the course of Japanese music in the 2010s. The romantic, ballad-driven indie rock that is a staple of sadboy and lonely girl playlists alike starts with back number’s Ato No Matsuri. Listening will make you nostalgic for a love you’ve never even had.

8.7/10

Must-listen: Even if I end up forgetting

3. Let’s Dance Raw – Shintaro Sakomoto (2014)

Shintaro Sakamoto is a groovy motherfucker. Listening will literally make you high. Let’s Dance Raw is another one-of-a-kind album, weaving together wiggly California stoner-rock, a sort of gentle, glimmering funk, and all sorts of strange effects, from a twice-speed vocals and doinky sound effects. It creates a mood and atmosphere perfect for lazing on the beach, making love, watching the clouds pass by, and generally getting stoned as hell.

9.0/10

Must-listen: Let’s Dance Raw

2. Daruma Ringo – Gesu no Kiwami Otome (2017)

All of these top five albums are worthy of mention on any best-music of the 2010s list–but these top two are especially amazing. Both stand out for their fearless fusion of styles. Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s album brings their skilled instrumentation, fun-as-hell solos, and hyper-speed jams to the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, funk, and electronic, in addition to the piano-driven rock of their earlier records. Daruma Ringo features emotional highs and lows, gnarly solos, satisfying songwriting, catchy melodies, and an inspired spark of pace and tempo.

9.3/10

Must-listen: The Drama of Selfish Youth

1. Tokyo Black Hole – Oomori Seiko (2016)

We’ve arrived at my favorite Japanese album of the 2010s–and what I’ll argue is also the best. Tokyo Black Hole is not only a great album because it moves fearlessly across and within genres. It’s not only a great album because the production is airtight, the melodies are memorable, and Oomori Seiko’s cutesy-but-angry vocals are one-of-a-kind. It also earns points for its daring depth, its meta reflection on Japanese music and genre, and a quirky boldness to defy it all in a way only Oomori can. It has sparkly pop, smooth elevator jazz, hard-hitting rock, and emotional ballad, all strung together cohesively from start to finish. And while the lyrics are all in Japanese, the depth shines through the music across language. It’s worth a listen.

9.5/10

Must-listen: TOKYO BLACK HOLE

2010s in Music: Five Insane Epic Nutso “Prog Rock” Albums

With another decade in music winding up, I’m going to take a look at some of the most spectacularly wild music that’s crossed the charts this decade. (Full disclosure: I do in fact aim to use the word ‘nutso’ in each blog post title so please bear with me.)

While progressive rock is a 70s genre commonly derided and despised, it’s taken on new forms and shapes in the 21st century. With magnum opus epics like Yes’s Close to the Edge, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus, and Crimson King’s In the Court of the Crimson King forming the prog rock ‘canon’, prog rock is typically defined by its skilled instrumentalists, elaborate compositions, infuriatingly opaque lyrics, monstrous scope, piercing climaxes, and overall ridiculousness.

Given that a lot has changed between the 70s and today, I’m using a hundred point score to rate and define the most “insane epic nutso “prog rock”” prog rock albums. I’ll rate some modern albums on a prog rock scale based on the following areas:

  • Epic-ness: How preposterously epic and climactic is it? [Score/25]
  • Daedalean Convolution: How stupendously complicated and elaborate is the composition? Bonus points for weird time signatures. [Score/20]
  • Musical Chops: How hard do the musicians shred? [Score/20]
  • Unique: Is it bringing something new and innovative to the table? [Score/25]
  • Camp-factor: How ridiculous/corny is it? Loses points if it’s self-aware/ironic. [Score/10]

After conducting an exhaustive analysis of over 3,737,000 albums from the 2010s, I’ve come up with five “insane epic nutso “prog rock”” prog rock album champions from 2010 until today.

The Ooz – King Krule (2017)

This is not a traditional prog rock album, so it scores low on some of the traditional categories like Musical Chops and Epicness. But there’s no doubt that Archy Marshall goes progressive in his 2017 album, taking a twisted, viscous dive across his own consciousness. There’s nothing epic about The Ooz – it’s fractured, glacial, remote, ugly, slobbering. But it’s downright innovative, with sophisticated production techniques and cool compositions that bend the mind towards somewhere new and filthy. It’s also cohesive: it tracks a seething, fucked up journey from the zombies in Biscuit Town to a subdued, prismatic consciousness fading through the ooz and up to kiss La Lune.

The Ooz is a better, more interesting, and more beautiful album than the rest of the records on this list. It’s just the least insane epic nutso prog shit of the bunch.

  • Epicness: 11/25
  • Daedalean Convolution: 14/20
  • Musical Chops: 10/20
  • Unique: 25/25
  • Camp-factor: 8/10

OVERALL: 69

The Mountain – Haken (2013)

If King Krule was the least traditional prog rock record, Haken is the most traditional, in the classic vein of hardcore prog like Crimson King. It’s that lack of innovation that has it lose the majority of its points in the “Unique” category, but it hits strong marks for preposterously epic scope, elaborate and convoluted tracks, good musicianship foraying into a variety of confusing time zones, and straight up metal jam shit. It’s corny too, embracing the exact kind of universe and storytelling verve we’ve come to expect from a prog record. It’s the most expected prog album on this list, but a very solid one nevertheless.

  • Epicness: 22/25
  • Daedalean Convolution: 16/20
  • Musical Chops: 16/20
  • Unique: 12/25
  • Camp-factor: 8/10

OVERALL: 74

Shiori – Jizue (2014)

Jizue is a math/prog rock Japanese outfit with a heavy piano emphasis, soaring and dramatic melodies, and musicianship out of this world. It’s mostly instrumental music, and in some ways more reserved than the other prog albums on this list–Jizue sticks more to single moods, a single emotion in the tonality, chords, and structure of each track–but the dazzling display of comically melodramatic and epic climaxes skyrockets it up on the insane nutso prog scale over the too-traditional Mountain and too non-traditional Ooz. This is an album that you’ll want to re-listen to multiple times, keeping your ear tuned into a different instrument with each play.

  • Epicness: 19/25
  • Daedalean Convolution: 18/20
  • Musical Chops: 18/20
  • Unique: 22/25
  • Camp-factor: 3/10

OVERALL: 80

Polygondwanaland – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (2017)

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard rocked 2017 with at least two (maybe three?) solid records, but out of their vast discography, Polygondwanaland stands out for its dizzyingly epic scope. King Gizzard always has excellent musicianship, fairly complex arrangements, and some reasonably hardcore jam shit, but Polygondwanaland as a whole is more cohesive and tells more of a comprehensible story. At the head, Crumbling Castle sets the tone for the rest of the album, open a world of wriggling, winding harmonies, clever reversals, winks, and tricks across sandy deserts and slithering beasts, and the rest of the tracks run the course of bone-dry rivers in castles of mirrors as they build back up to an even more epic conclusion.

  • Epicness: 22/25
  • Daedalean Convolution: 17/20
  • Musical Chops: 16/20
  • Unique: 20/25
  • Camp-factor: 8/10

OVERALL: 84

Pink Lemonade – Closure in Moscow (2015)

This is the truly bonkers. The mind-bogglingly preposterous. The utterly ridiculous epic prog rock album. It’s a drugged-up, wizarded-out hero’s journey concept album across space and time that begins when a warlock offers the protagonist some tripped up pink lemonade and doesn’t finish till he happily finds true love. There’s some sex, dinosaur fights, loneliness, a furious struggle against technology and God, and twists and turns that verge on the interdimensional. And it’s completely serious and earnest, too. No irony here. Each song is convoluted, with sophisticated arrangements and plenty of quick changes and unexpected elements in every verse, not to mention unique song structures and solid instrumental performances–and an outstanding vocal performance.

Not every track hits the mark, and it’s not by any means the best album in the traditional sense. But it’s certainly the most epic nutso insane “prog rock” prog rock album of the last ten years.

  • Epicness: 23/25
  • Daedalean Convolution: 19/20
  • Musical Chops: 17/20
  • Unique: 24/25
  • Camp-factor: 10/10

OVERALL: 92

Plus, it has this shit:

Declare war on climate change

“I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it…” 

-Elie Wiesel

On December 11, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Italy and Germany. His declaration was charged with moral urgency: “Rapid and united effort by all of the peoples of the world… will insure a world victory of the forces of justice and of righteousness over the forces of savagery and of barbarism.”

American life changed overnight. The government rationed food, gas, and clothing. Communities conducted scrap metal drives. Women previously at home joined the ranks of defense plants, supplying the armaments necessary to win the war. Allied rhetoric painted victory as an existential necessity. “Victory at all costs,” Winston Churchill said, “for without victory, there is no survival.”

World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history. Close to 85 million people died. But the world’s sacrifice was not in vain. The war was won.

We face an existential threat in our own age, a threat just as capable of destroying our collective future as the Axis powers. This threat is the force of our collective industrial development, rebounded against us in the form of rapid global warming. 

The worst consequences of our climate crisis have been stated and restated by scientists many times over. Hundreds of millions will become climate refugees; agriculture will become untenable in equatorial regions; seas will rise to levels that threaten many of the world’s great cities. Not to mention that much the life we cohabit this Earth with will disappear: coral and penguins, frogs and polar bears, billions of unnamed, unsung lives. While there is no Hitler or Mengele to tag as the villainous mastermind, our climate crisis rivals the bloodiest war in human history in sheer scale and potential cost of life.

Why don’t we act like it?

Climate change is not a market problem that will regulate itself. Scientists have projected that the market correction for climate change will allow at least seven degrees Celsius of warming over 1850 levels by 2100. Our crisis is too urgent to let the market run its course.

But climate change is also unlike other societal ills that we can take communal or concerted individual action to correct. It’s more than possible for one person to save a drug abuser through timely intervention, or feed a homeless person with spare change. With these problems, we can save ourselves, one life at a time, with individual moral choices. 

The climate crisis is too complex. Deforestation in Brazil neutralizes sustainable development in India; deregulation in the United States easily outmuscles carbon neutrality in Costa Rica. The world operates as a unit in the climate crisis, which means that charity and policy, and any individual or nation’s best laid plans, fall short.

Time and again we’ve seen attempted solutions falter. In 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a robust framework that asks countries to take climate action that will limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But out of 49 major countries monitored by Climate Action Tracker, only six are on track to meet targets that would help the world stay under the 2 degree marker. Just one country—The Gambia—is actually on track to help the world stay under 1.5 degrees of warming. While the framework laid out by the Paris Agreement can theoretically prevent the worst consequences of climate change, three years in, the world has failed to follow through on a colossal scale.

We may not be acting like we are at war simply because the threats do not appear to be urgent enough. Yes, this summer—and every summer in the past six years—has been the hottest on record. Sure, wildfires, droughts, and floods are more prevalent than ever. But it’s not like death is knocking at our door. Surely when the consequences grow severe enough, we’ll all declare war on climate change. Won’t we?

Carbon emissions take decades to circulate into the atmosphere. That means that the global warming we experience today is the warming caused by the addition of emissions from the late 1980s, the emissions of around thirty years ago. When we stare into the eyes of death, we will be thirty years too late. We are left with few options. 

Let’s ask that the world declare war on climate change.

Let’s ask that countries bypass their standard legislative processes. It sounds radical but it is not. We do this in wartime—and we all know our nations often fight wars. Executives take authoritative action. They raise taxes. They commit human bodies to the front for the purpose of killing other human beings. Why can’t we do this to save the planet? 

It sounds radical—it is not. The United States alone is currently at war with seven different countries. If we start treating climate change like a world war, suddenly, anything is possible. World leaders can ensure that their people make the necessary wartime sacrifices—rationing oil, instituting a carbon tax, committing resources to develop green energy and build green communities. Suddenly, the practical policy—limiting warming to that magic 1.5 degrees—becomes feasible. We can bypass the half-measures.

Wartime is never easy. The world will need climate war propaganda. A concerted climate communications plan to bring people on board with losing a few dollars, a few hours, daily convenience. Some might say this approach is not moral. Warfare never is. It will hurt. But everyone around the world who sacrificed food, time, and money during World War II did so because they knew the cause might save lives. 

We can do it again. 

We must fight this war. And we must fight it now so that we can spare our children from the bloodshed.

Food in anime looks damn delicious—and that’s not a good thing

 Anime is synonymous with beautifully drawn, steaming, sumptuous food. 

The greatest anime of every generation have it. Cult classic Cowboy Bebop is legendary for its bell pepper and beef stir-fry; contemporary hit Mob Psycho keeps us craving takoyaki; Studio Ghibli’s 2008 film Ponyo captivated millions with a bowl of ramen. The largest anime box office success to-date, 2017’s Your Name, has a lineup of tasty anime treats that borders on a TOP TEN TOKYO MUST EATS listicle. Oily ramen with pork and a boiled egg. Fluffy pancakes drizzled with syrup and generously topped with bananas and peaches. A handmade bento box full of neatly rolled sweet Japanese omelette, sausages, ripe cherry tomatoes and pickled plum. 

It doesn’t take long to understand just how delicious I mean when I say delicious. Let’s take a quick tasty tour of tantalizing treats from Evangelion to today.

Spicy noodles, pickled veggies, those squishy squid-roll thingies (ya’ll who have been to Japan know what I mean), and other delectable shit. Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1995
A pizza with mini-hot dogs. Plz kill me and deliver this to my dead body. Code Geass, 2006
DONUTS! HOT DOGS! PIE?? KFC??? PIZZA HUT??? MCDONALDS?? WTF IS THIS GLORY??? Hunter x Hunter, 2011
Tittillating takoyaki. Mob Psycho, 2017

If you notice yourself getting a little hungry whenever you watch anime, trust me—it’s not just you. Animators have dedicated themselves to the art of plump pork buns and buttery pancakes. Henry Thurlow, an American animator living and working in Japan, said that for an artistically top-notch studio like Gundam, a food drawing can take more than four times longer than the average drawing.

“A single omelet is going to take a Gundam pro two days,” Thurlow said. “Food is the ultimate hard thing to draw. Because if you want it to actually look delicious and not just silly, you have to add tons of shadow and highlight layers, you have to keep thinking about how to make it more delicious.”  

Shingo Adachi, an animator who designs characters for Sword Art Online, added that well-drawn food is essential because it adds a key element of realism. But the realism is precisely what makes drawing food so difficult. “It’s really easy to realize when food doesn’t look realistic,” he said. “We see it every day, after all.” 

Studio Ghibli represents the pinnacle of achievement in anime food. The Oscar-nominated Spirited Away overflows with immaculately hand-drawn heaping piles of sushi, roasted meats, steamed buns, gelatin sweets. The sizzling bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle ranks as one of the best fictional breakfasts of all time. It’s pretty much impossible to draw food better than Ghibli—but in Ghibli well-drawn food is more than just a realistic detail. Food affects story arcs and the growth of characters, turning the greedy into literal pigs and actualizing gestures of love with physical strength and nourishment.

I mean, look at this beauty:

The most wholesome bento you’ve ever seen. My Neighbor Totoro, 1988
A glorious feast, with every little snack plumply and immaculately drawn. Spirited Away, 2001
The legendary bowl of ramen. Ponyo, 2008

But these heartwarming, mouthwatering treats point towards a slowly growing schism in an industry gone global. Each masterfully-drawn bowl of ramen represents anime’s existential crisis: the clash between animators’ artistic idealism and the ruthless economics threatening to destroy the industry.

Drawing food this good takes too damn long. It may sound like an oversimplification, but food proves that the skill and effort required goes well beyond any reasonable compensation for that much effort. I mean, how much would you pay an artist for a landscape painting that looks like this? A cool two, three hundred, easily!

Rurouni Kenshin, 1994

But animators are broke, making sometimes less than $2 per hour. Studios face insane economic pressure. They have budgets less than 10% that of Western studios and spend way more time actually creating art. Have you ever seen a nice looking burger in the Simpsons or Family Guy?

You can read more about the challenges of animators in my Vox article on the industry, but the simple truth is that it takes ridiculous talent to draw delicious food, and animators simply aren’t being compensated for it. Sometimes they’re even suffering for it.

They’re bearing a nearly intolerable burden of economics for the sake of storytelling, art, and LITERALLY FOOD. For the sake of fluffy omelettes, sizzling bell peppers, and golden souffle pancakes. For the sake of lush green landscapes and unforgettable details like Princess Mononoke’s single drop of dew. For everything you watch and love, animators pay the price.

The Magic of a Lost Album: Ryo Fukui’s My Favorite Tune

The economic bubble had burst in Japan and there was no more need for gaud and glitz. The only shimmer Ryo Fukui needed to communicate an era in an instant was the glimmer of piano keys.

On two consecutive nights in June of 1994, Fukui, one of the great jazz pianists of the 20th century, performed at Lutheran Hall in Sapporo, Hokkaido. The recording became an album called My Favorite Tune. But it quickly went out of print. Copies disappeared. Soon the album simply didn’t exist any more. Vanished in the wind.

It was lost for nearly twenty years. But My Favorite Tune is an album that seems to have predicted its own ephemeral nature, with self-conscious longing–each track seems to lament the passing of the previous. It’s easy to imagine a long, cool summer night in Sapporo, a middle-aged Fukui, mustache, goatee and large metal glasses, on a grand piano, tinkling mournfully away as the night and times grow darker.

There is only a piano. Fukui is silent and there is no hint of an audience. An album that has gone missing for so long can’t help but to generate a mystique for the contemporary listener. Listening to an album gone for so long can sound like the ghost of Fukui plays the piano in a dream bubble, a white cloud alone in a neverending sky, part of a different world.

The album features eight tracks that rush from the charming and delightful to the mournful, to sophisticated contemplation, to breathless excitement and bluesy groaning and jazz standard jump and a final song that is truly the sound of the words “goodbye.” You’ll want to smile and skip, you’ll want to bend over and cry, you’ll want to wag your hat and scream–it’s one piano album absolutely chock full of emotion and spirit, not to mention technical skill.

I can’t imagine being an audience member at the concert. As the years go by I realize that night is missing from the Earth, and the music lives only in my fading memory. It becomes a burden, a mission, a duty to keep the memory alive. But keeping a memory alive for twenty years takes sheer force of will; for something as fleeting as music, it might take even more than that, maybe even magic.

And as if by a magic spell, the album’s back. My Favorite Tune’s vanishing-and-reappearing acts feels especially fit for the beginning of a difficult economic period in Japan’s history, but the nature of disappearance and reemergence is timeless. In our own lives we inevitably encounter the shadows of our own pasts. Sometimes they delight us and sometimes they pain us. From now on, whenever I encounter my past in a shadow or a cloud, I will always here the skitter, laughter, and regret of Fukui’s “Voyage” and My Favorite Tune.

The album was found in 2017 through Fukui’s widow, Yasuko, and swiftly uploaded to the Internet. You can listen here.

1. Voyage (Ryo Fukui) 0:00

2. Scenery (Ryo Fukui) 3:32

3. Mellow Dream (Ryo Fukui) 7:28

4. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen 17:40

5. Nobody’s (Barry Harris) 23:20

6. My Conception (Sonny Clark) 27:00

7. After Hours (Avery Parrish) 30:50

8. Nord (Ryo Fukui) 38:38

The Fever Hall by Takashi Hiraide | 微熱の廊、平出隆

What follows is a translation of an extraordinary poem by a contemporary Japanese poet. There is no existing English translation, but to view the original work on the author’s site please visit here: https://takashihiraide.com/the-inn/

微熱の廊 The Fever Hall

平出隆 Takashi Hiraide

マーゴリス・エリック翻訳者 translated by Eric Margolis

/

病む人の肩車で、梁に私は刻む。 You’re sick and I give you a ride on my shoulders, and I chisel into the wood.

ゆるめいてそのまま You sway gently

雨ふる次頁へ傷む、 as rain falls in the pages of your book

栞になって立って眠る。 and becoming your bookmark, standing I sleep.

/

めざめれば睡りも夢で Even when I awaken, still caught in the dream

粗末に欠けた斜洞にふたり横たわりあり of the two of us lying there, crammed in the crudely chipped hole,

焚きつけの本にくられた湖にひたい浸して immersed to your brow in the waters

炎えるおまえ、私の of the book we might’ve used for kindling

手は断固、紙背に廃れたひとつの星に while I burn for you, my resolute hands

幾重の馬連をあてている。pressing layers of paint to the woodblock, forming a single dead star.

/

椎の葉や波や、草も来し方もないこの旅の The leaves of beech trees and the waves of the sea and even the grass and the past don’t exist

靴底に暗礁を運ぶように in the halls of our journey, where to keep moving forward,

禁じられた使命、紐をとけ。  to dare the dark reef we must untie the string.

/

掬えるだろうかそこに宛名、刻まれるべき滞在は。 Can I scoop you out of the wood? Or should I chisel you deeper and we remain here?

ひとりの岸から病床は流離する Your sickness wanders in a strange land.

ひかれる熱は都市をわたる。 Your fever crosses a city.

畳まれる郎また郎にわたしたち The crumpled corridor in which we stand,

愛するひとしかつめたくみとらぬ、薄明 my lover perceived in ice, in twilight’s

あわただしく青いきつめて落ち崩れ flurries of crumbling sighs,

葉むら裂く leaves torn apart,

旅籠屋は発 from this inn we depart

Mobius: A Sci-Fi Adaptation of Moby-Dick

The Milky Way is dying. Intergalactic civilization rose and fell 10,000 years ago. Greedy imperialist factions trade savage blows to control the impoverished, drug- and disease-ridden planetary systems left behind by ten millennia of chaos. 


There is one sign of hope for a galaxy on its last wings: the Whales. Whales are ancient technology, the lone remnants of the intergalactic civilization. Criminals, soldiers and outcasts form ramshackle crews that chase after the Whales, capture them and disembowel them, revealing anything from crude oil to medical panaceas to weaponized atom-splitters—forgotten technology from the distant past. And there is a prophecy that within one of these Whales lies a secret with the power to revive intergalactic civilization. That whale is Mobius…

In discussing his motivation for writing the screenplay for the 1956 John Huston film adaptation of Moby Dick, Ray Bradbury said, “Moby-Dick is the most American novel that has ever been written… Blasphemy—that’s what we are. We’re a blasphemous people. We have always been… Our technologies, our sciences, our medicines… We fear death. We make people live to be older. This is all blasphemous. Ahab is really the instructor of our blasphemy.”

Bradbury argues that the ‘Americanness’ of Moby-Dick is its blasphemy, its profanity towards God—and therefore that blasphemy is an especially American quality. He locates the blasphemy of America in its scientific and technological achievements. Bradbury is positioning Moby-Dick in an America defined by its burgeoning technology (including the technology of nuclear annihilation) just as much as America in the 19th century was defined by its rapid imperialist expansion.

My conclusion is that no setting could be better for the 21st century American to experience Moby-Dick than in the distant future, in outer space.

If Ahab’s blasphemy remains one key to the text of Moby-Dick, what greater blasphemy is there than the relentless pursuit of capitalist, imperialist, and technological expansion beyond our earthly realm? In ages long gone by in my adaptation, MOBIUS, Earth’s galactic conquest over the Milky-Way as well as distant galaxies has risen and fallen in man’s greatest overreach yet.

Moby-Dick is often heralded as one of the great novels of all-time, but it takes basically a literary scholar to read and fully understand it. Well, I’m no professional literary scholar, but I studied the book and Herman Mellville pretty damn closely. I’d like to present the genius and timelessness of Moby-Dickto you in sci-fi form.

Prepare for this adventure to gradually unfold. Not just over days, but over weeks, months, and possibly years. This is an adventure so grand and ambitious that the world–and me, the author–may not be ready for it.

But I need to give it a try. On this blog. Here and now.

I like to describe it as Star Wars meets Fullmetal Alchemist meets Moby-Dick. The story is based on the events of Moby-Dick chapter by chapter, but extrapolated on to a grand scale. Once a month I will post a blog post extrapolating on the themes of Moby-Dick the novel and how they resulted in Mobius the sci-fi adventure. I will be posting just about a single page a day. Perhaps even less.

What are whales? What does Moby-Dick look like in outer space? What are the ships and the crews? Where is America and what is the deep blue sea? All of this you will find out in due-time. Bare with me as this adventure unfurls.

I need to move slow enough to allow the creative process to catch up to the ambitious creative product, and purposefully enough to let the characters develop and shine through. I hope you stay with me on this journey into the blackest, brightest, most distant regions of space and time!

MOBIUS 1: THE GREAT EARTHQUAKE—>

MOBIUS 2: HOW IT ALL ENDS—->

MOBIUS 3: BATTLE IN THE SKY—>

MOBIUS 4: THE WORD WHALE—>

The Freaking Brilliance of Shintaro Sakamoto and Love If Possible

Oh fuck.

That’s your first thought. Because you’ve had one hit too many.

Or maybe two hits too many. Or maybe three. The point is, things aren’t quite right. The world is a little wiggly, a little off-beat, and you can’t quite feel your fingers and ears, but oh shit, does something feel right.

The pleasure is in the air. The soft folds of the couch, the hot odor of ramen somewhere sizzling in the air… but it’s not just comfort. It’s the flicker of neon lights coming from outside your window, calling you, and you realize that this whole time, this whole entire stream of thought, your toe has been tapping to a funky, sexy, insatiable groove.

Your chest suddenly splits open wide. Out come stars. Stars. Stars, dancers, rainbows, big black blobs of mud, enormous crocodiles and fat fat sloths and more stars and more dancers.

That is what it’s like to listen to Shintaro Sakamoto.

That’s how it all begins, after all. The uneven thump of a drum. A bass bumbling out of the bottom of the sea. Then jangling twangs of guitar that come and go, swing to and fro, leading to last but not least, Sakamoto himself, who begins the first track, “Love If Possible,” with the appropriate lyrics: “And then my chest opened wide with a crack.”

Shintaro Sakamoto is cooler than the cool dad of psych-rock. Over 50, rail-thin, and with a small forest’s worth of hair, Sakamoto’s got more than style. He has written children’s songs about ghosts. He was the long-time headliner of YURA YURA TEIKOKU, a psych rock band formed in 1989. Sakamoto has been doing independent music since 2010, with 3 full-length studio albums: How to Live with a Phantom (2013), Let’s Dance Raw (2014), and, most recently, Love If Possible (2016).

Believe me when I promise you that he’s not quite like anything else you’ve ever heard.

Love If Possible is all about grooves. It exists in an interstitial space: between evening and night and night and morning. Between stoned-as-fuck-psych-rock and trippy-island-soul. Between existence and, well, not.

With songs ranging from “Call It Disco”(ディスコって) to “How About Dying?”(死にませんか?) and “Am”(いる), a current of existentialism winds its way through 45 minutes of shimmering guitar licks, heavy, churning synths, and Sakamoto’s voice, leaping between a drawl and an upbeat croon.

The one constant? The mood. It feels like Sakamoto is constantly winking at you, telling little jokes. Nothing is completely serious in Sakamoto’s world, where both of you are stoned out of your goddamn mind. On the other hand, nothing is a complete joke, either. When Sakamoto asks, “Can I open the door of your heart?”, of course, he doesn’t really mean it–he’s way too fucked up, and is really more into figuring out his own place in the world than his relationship to you–but, he also, kind of, really does mean it from the very bottom of his own heart.

One of the best parts of Love If Possible is the sheer sound of it all. Sakamoto plays around with almost comically quirky high-pitched vocals and whining guitar, best exemplified in the track “Purging the Demons” (鬼退治). Sakamoto and a high-pitched alter ego, a-la Madlib and Quasimoto, alternate vocals in a playful back and forth, punctuated with syncopated rhythms and sweet-sounding female vocal accompaniment. “You’ve been living in our town for a little too long,” the high-pitched demon tells Sakamoto, who comes back in the second verse to retort with the very same comment. With a bouncing beat and a structure not unlike a shanty, Sakamoto creates an absurd, but also absurdly fun, singalong chant.

It’s this sense of playfulness, the unbeatable coolness of the rhythms, the unabashed dive into surreal sonics, that together define the freaking brilliance of Shintaro Sakamoto. The result is one of the most unique and overlooked albums of 2016.

Love If Possible is a rare album that you can keep coming back to, no matter how old you are and how grumpy you get. It reminds you just how funky and strange things are. It helps you feel that itch in your foot–the vibes of the music of this great, big beautiful world.

MY OFFICIAL RATING

できれば愛を (Love If Possible) – 8.4/10

10 Awesome Japanese Haiku

Alas, the Haiku Project is coming to an end–for now.

Since last April, I translated and shared over 50 haikus with the world, first via an Instagram, and then via an email newsletter. While I no longer have time to regularly post haikus, I wanted to share some of the highlights with everyone here. Thank you so much for sticking around with the Haiku Project while it lasted, and I hope to continue to translate more haikus from time to time.

You can read about my translation methodology here: I don’t take your usual approach. Rather I try to create a fantastic poem out of the images and sounds and stories produced by each and every haiku.

Do check back in January–there just might be a new translation/literary project on the horizon! So stay tuned for literature, translation, and lots of fun.

In the meantime, here are some highlights–10 delectable visual haikus for your viewing pleasure, that represent some of my favorite Japanese haikus!

Haiku38

Matsuo Basho, Edo period.

Haiku50

Seishi Yamaguchi, Modern.

Haiku45

Murakami Kijo. Meiji/Taisho.

Haiku23-3

Masaoki Shiki, Meiji.

Haiku1-2

Matsuo Basho, Edo.

Haiku10-2

Hakyo Ishida, Modern.

Haiku19

Matsuo Basho, Edo.

Haiku44

Kyoshi Takahama. Meiji/Taisho.

Haiku9

Matsuo Basho, Edo.

Haiku33

Masaoki Shiki, Meiji.

 

Meanwhile, the best music of 2018 is on its way………………………..

Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli Movies, RANKED

The definitive guide to Miyazaki, written by a self-proclaimed Master of Ghibli.

Studio Ghibli movies are pure magic.

When I first saw Spirited Away on a high-school sweaty summer date, I knew I couldn’t go back. The unforgettable characters, the gorgeous artwork, the thrills, the dreams, the music–and some of the cutest goddamn cartoon characters the world has ever seen–had me at my computer later that night, looking up other movies by the same director. There’s something about Miyazaki’s love for flight, his emphasis on resolute idealism, his attention to detail, that has made some of the greatest animated films the world has ever seen.

Spirited-Away-4-940x460

How could you not love these munchkins?

And it’s time to rank them.

Looking for Studio Ghibli recommendations? Look no further! Looking for another opinion to argue with? Look no further! I present to you a ranking of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films.

Rating System

I started off straight-up ranking them, but soon enough I found it impossible. Surely The Wind Rises is objectively better than Howl’s Moving Castle, but how could I ever rank Howl’s Moving Castle under anything?!? How about choosing between Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service? KILL ME NOW.

Thus: I developed a rating system instead so I wouldn’t have to be tortured for all of the rest of eternity.

Out of 100 possible points

“The Magic”: 50 points

  • Imagination- Studio Ghibli films are all about the soaring, glittering imagination. Does the film have a creative, adorable, heart-string-strumming world of ideas, settings, characters, and critters at its core? (/20 points)
  • Art-  Studio Ghibli art is always top notch, so don’t expect to see much below 10/15 on this scale, but some of Miyazaki’s films have paradigm-shifting artwork–art that forever changed the way animated movies work. (/15 points)
  • Music- Joe Hisaishi’s scores are as distinct, memorable, and as beautiful as they come. Again, no low scores here, but some of the films are set to unforgettable masterworks. (/15 points)

“The Means”: 50 points

  • Storytelling- Studio Ghibli films, on the other hand, aren’t exactly known for their airtight plots. But plotting, character development, dialogue, and pacing are important parts of movies, and some Miyazaki movies do them much better than others. (/25 points)
  • Themes and Motifs- I’m of the opinion that art is for life. Movies that have meaningful ideas that critique societal issues, that suggest how people can live peacefully among one other, or that raise important questions about the workings of the human heart will score higher. (/25 points)

Finally, I’ll tell you how many times I’ve watched each movie, keeping you aware of bias towards movies that I’ve watched more times.

Without any further ado:

#10 (2008) Ponyo- 70/100

ponyo_Photo_02.jpg“The Magic”- 40/50

  • Imagination: 15/20. Ponyo is a magical fairy-tale of a story, about a young boy who befriends a mysterious fish-girl. From adorable children and old ladies to the wonders of the ocean, there’s plenty to charm, but Ponyo doesn’t quite have the overwhelming magic of some of Miyazaki’s earlier films.
  • Art: 13/15. The realistic seaside town and the magic of a sea-goddess in the stars alike are gorgeously depicted.
  • Music: 12/15. Ponyo has a strong soundtrack, especially “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”. But there’s not quite enough to make one never forget the music.

“The Means”- 30/50

  • Storytelling: 15/25. Ponyo has a surprisingly dense plot, but with as many flaws as any Miyazaki movie–the children are almost creepily young for the story and there’s basically no character development, to name just two.
  • Themes: 15/25. Uh, what are the themes of this movie? This movie gets its points for depicting a beautiful co-existence with the sea and all the imagination inspired by its magic.

Watched: 1x

#9 (1992) Porco Rosso- 74/100

FILM-ROUNDUP-PORCO-jumbo.jpg“The Magic”- 33/50

  • Imagination: 12/20. It’s no surprise that this movie was made to be played on flights full of Japanese businessmen. There’s no shortage of the magic of flight, and the pig conceit is clever, but there’s not a ton to make the heart soar–instead it’s about nostalgia, regret, romance.
  • Art: 10/15. Porco Rosso features solid, though not spectacular art. The Mediterranean setting can’t help but to feature some gorgeous moments.
  • Music: 12/15. Porco Rosso’s soundtrack is one of the more distinctive ones, although not top-notch from start to finish. It’s got a ton of jazzy flavor, and the absolutely unforgettable “The Bygone Days”. That song makes me cry, straight-up.

“The Means”- 41/50

  • Storytelling: 19/25. Porco Rosso is more introspective than most Studio Ghibli films, focused on the namesake character’s history and past. It’s also a historically complex and well-developed plot, as the characters try to live against an Italian fascist backdrop, but it’s hard to get past a relatively boring lead character.
  • Themes: 22/25. The theme of nostalgia set to the most nostalgic jazz, set in the stunning Mediterranean and in sleepy night-clubs, is well executed. It also has one of the best iterations of the classic Miyazaki older-younger-sister storyline in Fia and Gina.

Watched: 2x

#8 (1986) Laputa Castle in the Sky 76/100

1183450.jpg“The Magic”- 43/50

  • Imagination: 20/20. A magic crystal? A friendly super-weapon robot? A CASTLE IN THE SKY, REMNANT OF AN ANCIENT CIVILIZATION? FREAKING SKY PIRATES? Yeah. It doesn’t get more thrilling than this.
  • Art: 13/15. Laputa was the very first Studio Ghibli movie, with a fully-ish staffed team behind Miyazaki’s talents. The result is beautiful. Laputa is the movie that set the standard for good art in all other Studio Ghibli films.
  • Music: 10/15. In my opinion, Laputa has some of the less memorable music out of all Miyazaki’s movies. I mean, the theme is amazing in every single way and is guaranteed to give you chills… but… besides that…..

“The Means”- 33/50

  • Storytelling: 18/25. Laputa has pretty good storytelling, although it’s somewhat lackadaisical. The plot has holes but is overall well-developed, has a good pace, and plenty of suspense, with likable if not forgettable lead characters.
  • Themes: 15/25. Laputa is about the thrills. There are some traces of a watered-down Nausicaa–anti-war and environmental messages–and some beautiful friendships. Miyazaki claims he only aims to “entertain”, and Castle in the Sky is the best example of that.

Watched: 4x

#7 (1987) Kiki’s Delivery Service- 79/100

Image result for kiki's delivery service

“The Magic”- 42/50

  • Imagination: 16/20. Kiki takes the witch-on-the-broomstick trope to its most charming extreme. With an adorable cat along for the ride, there’s something especially quaint and nostalgic about the adventures of Kiki. Nothing mind-blowing, but the joy is there.
  • Art: 12/15. Like Laputa, Kiki’s Delivery Service features some pretty solid early art, with idyllic townscapes and a great attention to detail.
  • Music: 14/15.  “A Town With An Ocean View”? Fuck me up. That shit is as iconic as it gets. Also there are some killer-reprises, a great credits song, and several memorable moments throughout.

“The Means”- 37/50

  • Storytelling: 14/25. Uh, yeah. Don’t really get me started on this one–the story’s a mess. There’s no buildup, some  meh dialogue, and overall makes for a very confusing journey, as fun as it is.
  • Themes: 23/25. On the other hand, Kiki’s Delivery Service is an amazing, heartwarming story about growing up. A young girl’s first experience with adventure… with loneliness… with strangers. This is such a rich film for the adolescent experience with the world and all the misery, soul-seeking, and beauty it entails.

Watched: 4x

#6 (2005) Howl’s Moving Castle- 85/100

Image result for howl's moving castle castle

“The Magic”- 50/50

  • Imagination: 20/20. Yes, our first perfect 50 “The Magic” score. Howl’s Moving Castle has it all: a quaint town full of quirky and memorable characters, stunning landscapes of mountains, lakes, and fields of flowers, a cantankerous crumbling stumbling wheezing and teleporting moving castle, wizards and witches, young love, old love, and all sorts of loves in between. This movie is pure magic.
  • Art: 15/15. From all the cozy details of the European town, to the intricacy of the moving castle, to all the subtle shifts in Sophie’s age, the art of this movie, is also magic.
  • Music: 15/15. And don’t forget the incredible soundtrack, also, magic. From the timeless “Merry Go Round of Life” to the tear-jerking credits, Hisaishi’s powerful soundtrack fits perfectly.

“The Means”- 35/50

  • Storytelling: 18/25. Howl’s Moving Castle is at once tremendously flawed and tremendously well-done: the plot isn’t well explained, leaving a number of gaping holes–especially at the ending, which literally ends happily for more or less no good reason. On the other hand, it features some of the best well-developed characters in all of Miyazaki’s movies in Sophie and Howl, who are as dynamic as it gets–both on the inside and outside.
  • Themes: 17/25. The themes are there, but underdeveloped. Sophie coming to the moving castle is a story of how to find a family and make a home, the greater war-plot is a pacifist outcry, and Howl-Sophie is as much of a bare-bones love story as it gets, but you can’t help but thinking that all three could make more sense.

Watched: >6x

#5 (2013) The Wind Rises- 86/100

Image result for the wind rises

“The Magic”- 39/50

  • Imagination: 13/20. The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s most realistic movie by a mile. Despite its grounding in the brutal realism (earthquake, plagues, and wars) of Japan’s first half of the 20th century, it still has some room for soaring dreams, and the enigmatic and twinkling German spy, Castorp.
  • Art: 14/15. Miyazaki didn’t go out with an unforgettable artistic bang, but that doesn’t make the movie any less gorgeous. It has the most elegantly and carefully drawn aircraft of all Studio Ghibli moves, and some beautiful landscapes.
  • Music: 12/15. Hisaishi’s score is excellent, though not nearly as iconic as some of those for earlier films. Relying on accordion and some guitar for an early 20th century flavor, it certainly has its own unique quality.

“The Means”- 47/50

  • Storytelling: 24/25. On the other hand, The Wind Rises has some of best and most subtle storytelling of all Studio Ghibli movies. From brutal realism, to carefully unpacking the psyche and dreams of Jiro, to a delicately told love story and flawless interweaving of historical events, hats off to Miyazaki for finishing on such a strong storytelling note.
  • Themes: 23/25. The themes are also fairly well developed. There are questions about violence and history (the future violence Jiro’s beautiful planes will be used for in WWII is left as a hanging question) and beautiful depictions of family and love, making The Wind Rises one of Miyazaki’s deeper films.

Watched: 2x

#4 (1982) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind- 87/100

Image result for nausicaa of the valley of the wind“The Magic”- 42/50 *Note: This isn’t technically a Studio Ghibli movie, but I included it anyways.

  • Imagination: 20/20. Nausicaa set the standard for all future Ghibli movies. This movie is unforgettable: from Nausicaa’s elegant flying machines, to the apocalyptic toxic forest, to the legendary sword of Uncle Yupah, to Nausicaa’s pure idealism, the ways that Studio Ghibli movies inspire the mind to fly free–they started here.
  • Art: 11/15. As one of the earliest Miyazaki movies (and in fact pre-Studio Ghibli), the art is not quite up to snuff with some of the later films. There are gorgeous scenes and landscapes, but the same resources were not yet at Miyazaki’s disposal.
  • Music: 11/15. Nausicaa features one of Hisaishi’s more experimental scores, with techno beeps and bloops interspersed with the classic, soaring Ghibli soundtrack: again, a theme that set the standard for all future Ghibli themes.

“The Means”- 45/50

  • Storytelling: 20/25. Nausicaa, based on a long and elaborate fantasy manga by Miyazaki, accordingly has a wonderful cast of characters, elaborately imagined settings, a solid plot, and excellent character development. However, the ending of the movie is forced and makes no sense, because it cuts short 5.5 manga volumes worth of plot–so I had to take off five points.
  • Themes: 25/25. Oh man. All the classic Miyazaki themes begin here. Environmentalism, pacifism, older sister-younger sister, the relationship between humans and animals, the wonders of flight… Full marks, no doubt about it.

Watched: 5x

#3 (1988) My Neighbor Totoro- 88/100

Image result for my neighbor totoro“The Magic”- 47/50

  • Imagination: 20/20. One of the most adorable movies of all time, Totoro wins a perfect score for its unforgettable cast of Totoros–and of course, Cat Bus. My Neighbor Totoro is the adventure every little kid really wants to go on.
  • Art: 13/15. Totoro features beautiful scenes and landscapes, fantastic visuals at the moments of transformation, and more subdued instances of brilliance, like the famous rendering of Totoro and Satsuki at the bus station.
  • Music: 14/15. “The Path of the Wind”. “My Neighbor Totoro.” Jesus, how can you get any more iconic? (Oh wait, you can. See below). Needless to say, My Neighboro Totoro set a new standard for Studio Ghibli scores, only to be surpassed, somehow, by the next two movies.

“The Means”- 41/50

  • Storytelling: 23/25. My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t get enough credit for the realist backbone of a fantastical plot. The sublime and the mundane are masterfully intertwined in an adventure tale with the most likable kids you’ll ever meet–plus some plot twists that nearly break your heart along the way.
  • Themes: 18/25. The themes are there, but underdeveloped. Imagination let loose in the countryside is a big undercurrent, as is health and family, but they could stand to be more fleshed out.

Watched: 3x

#2 (2001) Spirited Away- 96/100

Image result for spirited away“The Magic”- 50/50

  • Imagination: 20/20. Here it is: one of the best animated films of all time, and somehow pulling in at number 2. How is that possible? Well, certainly through no fault of the movie’s shimmering, twinkling turn through a magic bathhouse full of spirits, witches, and dragons. Spirited Away also has possibly the best cast of characters of any animated film: Haku, Lin, Kamaji, No-face, Turniphead…
  • Art: 15/15. Flawless in its artistic beauty, Spirited Away inspired the style of a whole generation of anime to follow.
  • Music: 15/15. This movie’s soundtrack literally brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Brilliant from start to finish, Spirited Away’s score is Joe Hisaishi’s masterwork, undefeated, inspired, shining.

“The Means”- 46/50

  • Storytelling: 24/25. Spirited Away has something that’s not quite like a regular story, but it’s so beautiful and fun that we accept it. It all may have been a dream, but the thrilling adventure is linked by Chihiro’s desire to find her parents. It also has excellent character development, great dialogue, and truly iconic scenes (anything with No-Face, really).
  • Themes: 22/25. The messages behind Spirited Away seem underdeveloped or at the least subtle, but they’re certainly present. Miyazaki throws in a strange environmental message thrown in at the end with Haku’s origin story, but the whole plot is laced with powerful messages of love, family, and growing up–and of course, the ultimate moral: never overeat free food.

Watched: >6x

#1 (1999) Princess Mononoke- 97/100

Image result for princess mononoke“The Magic”- 49/50

  • Imagination: 18/20. Here it is–the best Studio Ghibli movie, and, in my opinion, the greatest animated movie of all time. #1 doesn’t pull in a perfect “The Magic” Score, but that’s only because Princess Mononoke is a story so grounded in historical accuracy. It was researched to be accurate down to the smallest detail, but still features incredible landscapes and creatures that make the imagination soar–most notably the lovable kodama, and the mysterious, elegantly rendered, and heart-stopping Spirit of the Forest.
  • Art: 16/15. Listen, it is impossible to understate how groundbreaking the art of Princess Mononoke is. Not only is the movie stunning, with unforgettable battle scenes, sweeping vistas, and even drops of dew, but the movie was the among the first ever to combine hand-drawn animation with CGI, making it a true pioneer in the field. More attention was paid to the art in this movie than you will pay to anything in your lifetime. For redefining the possibilities of animation, I award the Art of Mononoke 16 out of 15 possible points–breaking a tie with Spirited Away.
  • Music: 15/15. Yeah, the music in this movie is just as good as Howl and Spirited Away. From the heart-stopping “Journey to the West” to the tear-jerking “Ashitaka and San”, Hisaishi created a true work of art with this one.

“The Means”- 48/50

  • Storytelling: 23/25. Princess Mononoke’s only flaws are its length, and to some extent, the character growth of Ashitaka. The plot is complex but perfectly executed, the suspense and payoff are huge–this movie has one of the most deliberate paces of any movie I have ever seen. The cast of side-characters is also really fun, especially the wolf and boar-clans and the villagers in Eboshi-town.
  • Themes: 25/25. Princess Mononoke is in fact a superior execution of every idea so brilliantly introduced with Nausicaa. The environmental message and the conflict of nature/civilization is sublimely undertaken. A deft knowledge of history is used to enhance the depiction of modernization and violence against the Northern clans of Japan. Lady Eboshi is one of the most complex characters of modern cinema, raising countless provocative moral questions. And the love story of Ashitaka and San is the most subtle romance of all Studio Ghibli films. Truly deserving of a perfect score on this account.

 Watched: >6x

 

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below. Let’s talk about it.

Embarrassments of Translation

Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru, or as I translate it, Night on the Milky Way Railroad, is one of the most famous, significant, and enduring pieces of early 20th century Japanese literature by one of Japan’s most incredible authors. In it, Kenji Miyazawa walks the line between a child’s fantasy and a complex literary masterpiece with baffling dexterity. He is a commander of the human voice in all its startling range of emotion, an adept inventor of onomatopoeia, and a master juggler of Japanese folklore, western novels and fairy-tales, and Buddhist theology.

And yet the translations that we have–FOUR!, we have FOUR!–fail on many accounts to even hint towards his brilliance.

My title is a bit strong. “Embarrassments” goes too far. It would be more proper to say “Shames”, which would point towards the fact that it is simply a shame that an English reader cannot properly experience Miyazawa.

The premise of the story: Giovanni is a boy from a poor family in early 20th century Italy, plagued by bullies, with an ill mother and a father currently away on business. His only friend, Campanella, keeps him company and gives him sympathy and relief. One day, when Giovanni lies to rest on a hill, he hears the arrival of the Milky Way train to the stars, bound on a fantastic journey for the land of the dead. I’ll go ahead and stop there, and merely drop the hint that the end of the story is brutally sad.

So what goes wrong in translation?

A lot. Miyazawa uses stream-of-consciousness often to represent Giovanni’s thoughts, which few of the translators render in the English. But Miyazawa’s capacity for describing action is near unparalleled, and it’s one moment of description that I’m going to hone in on to describe what exactly an English reader misses in the average translation.

Context? It’s a moment of utter obliteration, of fantastic, transformative change–when Giovanni passes from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, from the real world into the world of the Milky Way Railroad. Let’s take a look at the Japanese, a literal gloss by me, and two translations, one by Roger Pulvers (1991) and one by Sarah Strong (1996), neither of which are bad per se.  They’re just not good.

Pulvers:

Then Giovanni saw the weather station pillar right behind him take on the vague shape of a triangular sign, flickering on and off like a firefly. When the blur in his eyes cleared, everything became clear and finely outlined, and the sign with its light soared straight up into the dense cobalt-blue field of the sky…

Strong:

Giovanni noticed that the pillar of the weather wheel directly behind him had turned into a sort of hazy triangular marker. For a while he watched as it pulsed on and off like a firefly. It gradually grew more and more distinct until at last it stood tall and motionless against the deep steel-blue field of sky. 

Japanese and literal gloss:

そしてジョバンニはすぐ後ろの天気転の柱がいつか

soshite jiobani wa sugu ushiro no tenkiten no hashira ga itsuka

And then Giovanni right away the behind weather station wheel at some point

ぼんやりした三角標の形になって、しばらく蛍のように

bonyari-shita sankakuhyou no katachi ni natte, shibaraku hotaru no yoh ni

with-vagueness-[sound-effect]-did triangular shape becoming, it at once like a firefly

ペカペカ消えたりともったりしているのを見ました。

pekapeka kietari tomotari shite iru no o mimashita.

twinkle-twinkle [sound-effect] turning off and lighting on and so on [it he] watched.

それはだんだんはっきりして、とうとうりんと動かないようになり、濃い鋼青色

sore wa dandan hakkiri shite, tohtoh rin to ugokanai yoh ni nari, koi kohseishyoku

That bit-by-bit clearly [sound-effect] doing, at last not moving becoming, steel blue

の空の野原に立ちました。

no sora no nohara ni tachimashita.

sky’s field on [it] stood.

In the Japanese passage, sound is absolutely paramount. Not only does it clearly have repetitive qualities of consonance and assonance, but there are a number of onomatopoeia. So Miyazawa is not only inundating a reader with images but also sounds: the sound of fumbling indistinctness (bon-yari), the sound of a faint or dulled glitter (peka-peka), the sound of haziness becoming clarity in a flash (ha-kiri!). Miyazawa’s sonic manipulation defines the moment of Giovanni’s passage between two worlds.

Both Pulvers and Strong attempt to replicate this effect through visual fogginess becoming clarity, but the poetry of the scene is already down the drain. Pulvers accidentally stumbles towards a solution by using “flickering”, a verb charged with visual as well as sonic meaning in the English—but he would need to multiply this sensibility by three or four times before he approaches the sensation of the original.

Ezra Pound’s classification of poetry into melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia comes to mind. In the original, there’s a sort of melopoeia present, where the words are charged with sound that lends deeper symbolic and sensory meaning to the language. Rendered as phanopoeia (a casting of images), a reader sees Giovanni as a static observer of a faint, distant change, rather than a kid actively bombarded by the sensory overload that accompanies ascension into the fantasy of the Milky-Way Railroad.

It’s not that English can’t accomplish this effect. Far from it! In addition to our own onomotopoeia and plentiful literary techniques to incorporate sonic energy in prose, we’ve got also words that function doubly as auditory and visual words: crackle, spark, whip, and so on. Keeping some of these strategies things in mind, let’s attempt a sonically tuned translation.

MINE:

And then Giovanni saw the weather station wheel right behind him at once turn into a murmuring triangular shape, glittering and flickering on, off and on like a firefly. Clarifying bit by bit and at long last clattering to a halt, it stood on the field of a steel-blue sky.

I try to do a few different things here.

One, I’m not adding concepts or ideas that aren’t in the original (like Pulvers’ blur in Giovanni’s eyes) and I’m sticking more or less to the original syntax.

Two, I’m attempting to replicate sonic and rhythmic effects. There’s a whimsicality in the original (~tari tari suru~ form, for anyone who knows Japanese) that I try to capture with the “on, off and on” rhythm. We get our sonic triangle sign, now faintly murmuring, glittering and flickering (which sound a bit similar), and then clattering. The point isn’t to replicate every sound in the Japanese, but to replicate the generation of auditory energy.

That’s what Miyazawa does brilliantly in the passage–engage all your senses and generate energy through sonic effects. You need to feel his prose in your body, not just in your head. That could be one definition of what poetry is–generative energy that affects the body. Surely my translation isn’t close to a true, faithful, and poetic rendition, but I’ve got my eye focused on the things that I believe matter beyond mere meaning.

Week 14- A Semester in Nagoya in Review

Last week I listed the top foods. This week it’s the top places. I’m talking the GO-TO places in Nagoya. I’m talking the DEFINITIVE list. It’s right here, folks. I’m talking, if you’re in Nagoya, this is your schedule. Take it or leave it.

Honorable Mention: An Aeon Near You

Aeon is more than a mall. It’s a place for friends and family. It’s a place to buy 64 Liter jugs of Jim Bean for 2000 yen. Come for the free samples and stay for the free wifi.

P1140085_R

Inferior Aeon: Aratama-bashi Aeon

Superior Aeon: Yagoto Aeon

Top 3 stores: Stationery store, pet store, 100 yen store

 

#10: Atsuta Shrine

One of the most important shrines in Japan, Atsuta Shrine affords a breath of nature in the city and a chance to experience primordial Japanese architecture.

main_image

The sounds of the chiming bells: Rattly and yet somewhat moving

The sounds of the chirping birds: Notably moving

X-factor: A thousand year old cypress tree

 

#9: A Sento Near You

Sento (銭湯) is a local bath-house. It functions essentially the same way as an Onsen but the water doesn’t actually come from the deep bowels of the earth, which technically means there are fewer health benefits, but unless you’re some kind of Onsen-expert, you won’t be able to tell the difference.

pers

Ambience: Aesthetic

How it feels: Like heaven

X-factor: Hydration and electrolytes at the many vending machines

 

#8: Higashiyama Park

Featuring a tree-lined pond and the (for some reason) Japan-renowned Higashiayam Zoo, Higashiyama Park is the perfect place to take your Sunday stroll.

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Highlight: Sweet lizards at the zoo

Lowlight: The zoo animals are in small cages and therefore stressed out

X-factor: There are snack stands

 

#7: Hoshigaoka

Hoshigaoka is an atmospheric strip of stylish boutiques and restaurants just twenty minutes out from downtown.

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Ambience: Aesthetic af

Impact on your wallet: Considerably damaging

Added bonus: Western atmosphere if you’re home-sick

 

#6: Fushimi Park

Fushimi Park is itself a gorgeous and spacious park right in the center of Fushimi, a neighborhood famous for its museums and relaxing shopping and dining, a breath of fresh-air from the craze of Sakae.

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Coolest thing: Sandwiched between Art Museum and Science Museum

Lamest thing: The large fountain only occasionally shoots powerful jets

Weirdest thing: The high concentration of tropical plants

 

#5: ID Café

Arguably the best club for foreigners to go to in all of Japan, you can get in before 8:00 for free if you’re a girl and for 1000 yen as a guy. Do you want to be at a club that early? Of course you do. You can watch middle-aged men breakdance for a little bit and then surrender yourself to what inevitably will be an incredible night as young people gradually flux in. There are six floors featuring all different kinds of music.

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Crowd: Young, foreigner-friendly, and generally not-creepy

Bartenders: Willing to befriend you if you put in some effort

Best floors: Floor 1 from 7:00-9:00, Floor 3 from 9-11:00, Floor 6 from 11:00-1:00 (Saturday only)

 

#4: Oosu Kannon Arcade

Kimonos. Pizza. Spunky fashion. Maid-costumes. Kebabs. Used clothes. Collector-edition Bionicles. Used CDs, DVDs, and comic books. People walking around in cosplay and purple mohawks. Oosu Kannon is where you want to be.

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Deals: Excellent

Style: Straight-Up Ninja

Flair: Unmatched

 

#3: Inuyama

Inuyama is technically outside of Nagoya, but it only takes 40 minutes to get there by subway. This is your “ye-ole” Japanese experience in Nagoya, with a castle, amazing street food, and traditional crafts.

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Castle: Unrenovated, hella old, not even that stanky

Effect on your wallet: Surprisingly minimal

X-factor: SNACKS ON STICKS
#2: Sakae

Sakae is where you want to spend your Thursday-Saturday nights in Nagoya. It has it all: luxury department stores, bargain shopping, tiny back-alleys full of mom-and-pop restaurants, top-notch clubs, seedy bars, a six-floor Don Quixote, Book Off, and food from all around the world.

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Ambience: 21st century urban paradise

Top department stores: Maruzen and Mitsukoshi

Effect on your wallet: Astronomically disastrous

 

#1: Your Local Conbini

Well, it may be anticlimactic, but this is the most important place you will ever go in Nagoya, or all of Japan for that matter.

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Ambience: Just like true home

Products: Always exactly what you need

X-factor: ATM, hot coffee, and bathrooms

A Guide to Shakespeare: The 15 Best Plays Ranked

Check out my novel CADIVEL – A TOWN BY THE ROUGH EDGES OF THE SEA on Kindle!

What are the best works of literature by the best author in the English language?

It may seem like a strange project, to try to rank some of Shakespeare’s plays. But I think it will be a useful exercise for those of you who want to read or see a Shakespeare play, but aren’t sure of where to start–as well as a worthy debate for those of you who are well-versed!

So while I’ll try to keep my descriptions brief, I also hope to give you an idea about the experience of reading each of these plays. Shakespeare can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. The language is mind-blowing, the plots are thrilling. If you have the time and patience for close reading and rereading, anyone, regardless of what you typically read, can get a lot out of a Shakespeare play.

1. Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet

The British actor and director Kenneth Branagh holding a skull in his hand in Hamlet. 1996 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

With a gripping plot, brilliant language, haunting imagery, memorable characters, and philosophical investigations that will follow you long after the play’s conclusion, Hamlet has it all. It’s often said that we see ourselves in Hamlet (the character)–that we’re all caught up in this fantastic experiment called life, with no notion of where it’s going or how to make the most of it. So, we try. We try and we try to resolve our relationships, our careers, our talents, our problems–oftentimes we try to the uttermost verge of our hearts and our sanity. The tragedy of Hamlet is that we can try, and still fail.

2. King Lear

Lear is the saddest of the major Shakespearean tragedies (Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth), occupying a crushingly dark world that allows a constant ray of hope that disappears without conciliation at the conclusion. This persistent chance of a happy ending drags us along, keeping us at the edge of our seats from start to finish. Where Hamlet is closed and interior, within a single family and singular minds, Lear is exterior, dealing with multiple families, where we see the same mistakes repeated and reflected in different circumstances. A challenging play with a complex structure and the breathtaking language of storms and some radical politics on top of it all, Lear is another undeniable paragon of Shakespeare’s brilliance.

3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Featuring arguably the most beautiful poetry of any Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells a romantic, clever, funny, and wonderfully timeless tale that has been loved generation after generation. Every moment of the play is enjoyable, from the problems of an overbearing father at the beginning, to a petty fight between fairy King and Queen, to the chaos of love potions and couple-swapping, and of course the unforgettable Nick Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream will always be worth a read.

4. The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale feels in part like a structural exercise, with the first half of the play being a tragedy and the second half a comedy. Sexual jealousy forms the core of the tragic plot, culminating in the shocking demolition of a family, and the infamous stage-direction “Exit pursued by a bear”. But the second half explores redemption with a comic and endearing sensibility, creating an idyllic pastoral setting that, free of the politics and corruption of the city, leads towards a reconciliation that seemed impossible. Yet this fusion of flavors lends The Winter’s Tale a feeling of its own: the feeling of a story that grows and evolves for its own sake. The Winter’s Tale combines Shakespeare’s tragic and comic skills into a single, marvelous work.

5. Twelfth Night

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Grown out of Shakespeare’s five years of writing comedies, Twelfth Night weaves together all of Shakespeare’s best comedic elements. A witty fool, drunken idiots, long-lost twins and divided families, a romantic idiot of a man after a woman that’s way better than him, and hardcore gender-bending. Twelfth Night has it all. And it also feels like it has a powerful emotional spine in the story of Viola and Sebastian. Bound to make you laugh, but without foregoing any art or drama along the way, Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s comedic masterpiece.

6. The Tempest

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About an usurped magician-prince living with his daughter and a cannibal on a deserted island revisiting those who betrayed him, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s final play, and really feels like it.  Its poignant poetry, rehashing and redrawing of plots and themes explored over his career, and its captivating use of sorcery (as a symbol for art and writing) create a powerful sense of conclusion. The Tempest is also a fascinating work of literature, as one of first pieces of English literature about the colonial encounter, and due to its relentless and inventive use of symbolism and allegory. The plot in itself is a romantic vignette and a dive into the mind of a master artist. But seen in the context of the rest of his work, this play is important because it concludes Shakespeare’s line of thinking about revenge. Countless plays, from Titus Andronicus to Hamlet, are about revenge, and in The Tempest, Shakespeare at last shows a path to escape from its violent course.

7. Macbeth

The shortest of the tragedies besides Romeo and JulietMacbeth is a whirlwind tour of ambition, murder, and madness. Strangely, despite his reputation of villainy, Macbeth has a strong moral compass, and yet he is still driven to unimaginable acts, which makes a thrilling arc to watch. Combine his arc with a vivid picture of historical Scotland, and the witches with their tumultuous and awesome speeches, and you have an unforgettable play.

8. The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is often neglected for its questionable portrayal of the moneylending Jew Shylock. However, this play might be Shakespeare’s most thought-provoking comedy, not for just its look at how society deals with diversity, but also for its strong heroine Portia and a fresh look at relationships and marriage. Shakespeare feels far ahead on issues of gender equality for a late 16th century male poet, and is just as likely to portray idiotic husbands as shrewish wives; The Merchant of Venice is no exception. This is a play exploring the implications of a capitalist, globalist society on our familial and social relationships, flirting with homosexuality and poetry along the way. Its shocking, brutal conclusion also forces us to reconsider how we treat the “Other” in our society.

9. As You Like It

A carefree poetic fantasy, As You Like It is Shakespeare’s ultimate rural play, featuring a merry band of Robin Hood-like woodsmen, a perfect pair of sisters, and the miserable nihilist Jacques. As You Like It does not focus on building to any logical conclusion (the ending is as nonsense as they come), but rather takes a reader on a ride through betrayal, seduction, idyllic pastoralism, philosophy, wrestling, and of course, gender-swapping.

10. Henry IV Part 1

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Henry IV is a complex play that is difficult to understand at times for different reasons. Shakespeare’s presentation of the outbreak of rebellion in England in the wake of Henry IV’s seizure of the throne reveals great insight about political authority, English-Welsh relations, the creation of modern politics, and the mechanics of revenge on a national scale. Meanwhile the presentation of the inimitable Falstaff and his world of drinks and tricks thrills with its endless jokes and reminds a reader of a whole other side to the English state, and a darker side to England’s great ‘hero’, Hal/Henry V. The two-sidedness of this play is what makes it enjoyable, balancing epic warfare with tavern jokes.

11. All’s Well That Ends Well

One of the “problem plays”, All’s Well is a comedy that feels way too dark to be a comedy. It presents a world that is irredeemably flawed, characters that are truly corrupt and morally bankrupt, and yet allows the logic of a comedy to take place with witty and sexual banter, coming of age, bed-swapping marriage tricks, and a redemptive ending. Parolles serves as the fast-talking scoundrel that tempts the doofus/stud Bertram to an ill-advised military career; the whole play sits on the backdrop of an aging state with the younger generation unable to compensate for the fading of the older. Familiar tropes are revisited and dissected, as even the wholly impressive heroine Helena has her moments of baffling stupidity. All’s Well That Ends Well is a fun read, but at the end, you’re left wondering why you laughed.

12. Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado feels like it defines many of the elements that we love about Shakespearean comedies. There’s the unforgettable Dogberry and his malapropisms, the infinitely witty love story of Benedick and Beatrice, a head-over-heels romantic in Claudio, and the wholly unexpected concluding redemption that leaves all involved smiling, celebrating, and married. Much Ado simply doesn’t push beyond these typical elements, but is still a lovable play beginning to end.

13. Romeo and Juliet

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Classic^^

Featuring stunning poetry and an insistent exploration of the mechanics of revenge, Romeo and Juliet is a more intelligent play than many would make it out to be. Nevertheless there’s something about it that feels youthful and stupid… Hm… oh wait, I know, it’s the idiocy of not just the title characters, but all the characters. Verona is in a perpetual, pointless urban turf war, old Capulet and Montague wheezing and waving their canes at one another. The tragic ending is as much of the result of mere chance as it is of the ruthless workings of unchecked violence, and while the play is hardly nuanced, the intelligent ideas beneath this unforgettable romance make it an impressive early accomplishment.

14. Measure For Measure

Measure for Measure is a brilliant examination of the city and political authority. How should authority in a city function? What moral standards should its rulers, its citizens be held to? How should a governor engage with the populace? Duke Vincentio asks these questions about his city-state Vienna, disguised as a Friar in order to get a first-hand look. He sees the corruption and deterioration of the city, and yet at every turn makes wrong assessments and questionable judgments in order to have fun at “playing god” in his own city. Featuring bed tricks and head tricks, Measure For Measure poses the strongest critique to the logic of comedies, instead crafting a world that is hauntingly realistic.

15. Antony and Cleopatra

Featuring the most scenes of any Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleopatra is a wild ride through Rome and Egypt, war and peace, and a bizarre love story. Staged more like a fast-paced thriller, Antony and Cleopatra exaggerates as much as it exhilarates. But what holds it together as an excellent play are the title characters- both compellingly torn between beliefs and motivations, and yet in the end, they do love each other. It’s an adult version of Romeo and Juliet– true love, but divided up by political realities and engaging complexity of emotion.

Some photos from my second year in Japan

My second year in Japan came to a close a little over a month ago, but I was very much caught up in posting about my new novel the Golden State. So while it’s a bit belated, I thought it was about time to share some of the best pictures I took during my second year here across the Pacific. Hope you enjoy them!

Food stalls and springtime sakura blossoms at Tsurumai Park.
The tangled coast and deep blue sea at Yokosoka, full of transport vessels.
A mystical blue lagoon buried deep in the woods somewhere in between the Gifu mountains and the Fukui plains.
A kimono demonstration at a fashion show.
Fresh Hokkaido crab at a seafood market in Sapporo.
The famous lavender fields in Furano, Hokkaido.
Otherworldly Nachi Temple and falls deep in the sacred mountains of Wakayama.
The lampglow and night scenery at Gero Onsen, a small hot springs town.
A rainy day in Shinjuku.
Bustling stalls near Asakusa, one of the most notable tourist sites in Tokyo.
A bustling street in Dotonbori, Osaka.
The pure white sands of Shirahama, Wakayama.
Early November high on the mountain (1300 meters).
A frozen lake in Nagano crowded with ice fishers.

Novel writing tips – How “The Golden State” started

I’d like to thank you once again for reading The Golden State! In the first month since it’s been published, I’m so close to hitting my sales goal. So please keep sharing the book with your family and friends – it means so much to me.
[Read about what The Golden State is here.]

[Read about the heroes Matt and Becca here.]

[Read an excerpt here.]

In this post, I’m going to share some top-secret content from how this all got started back in the spring of 2017! I started writing The Golden State‘s first draft when I was planning a cross-country road trip with a friend in June 2017. But the idea had been brewing in my head for a lot longer than that. I hope that this gives you all some interesting insight into the beginnings of my novel, as well as inspiration for how to make a novel come to fruition. So I’ll talk about the origins of the story, and at the end, present some tips on getting through the enormously large task of writing a novel.

September 2016 – Lawrence is born

After spending a summer in Kanazawa, Japan-related experiences were on my brain. The very first piece of The Golden State I wrote was called “AKKESHI: A discussion of the pros and cons of being a white American living in Akkeshi, Hokkaido, Japan, in 1983.” I wrote the story in Japanese and English, a second-person short story for a bilingual magazine structured in terms of pros and cons. This was an early form of the Lawrence chapter – so funnily enough, Lawrence Stern was the first in the family to come into being. The content is only about 40% the same as the current Lawrence chapter, but it ends the same way: “And outside your window, descending in tapestries, the Akkeshi snow piles on, and on, and on.”

October 2016 – The Rosen family

Sometime in the fall, other characters in Lawrence’s fictional family started to appear in my brain. In what, when looking back, appears to be a sudden flash of inspiration, Matt, Becca, Allison, and Grampa Andy all materialized in an incomplete story draft I wrote about Grampa Andy dying and its impact on the kids Matt and Becca. Matt and Becca are young kids, unlike they are in the current novel, and the beginning of the story covers “Uncle Andy” sharing an old Native American tale with Matt and Becca.

February 2017 – A brief detour

Throughout the winter, the characters and circumstances of the Stern/Rosen family continued to brew in my mind. I thought a lot about writing a grand American novel about the family of a famed architect. This took a brief detour into attempting to write another bilingual story about a magical realist adventure of Lawrence’s kid Akio and Rebecca Rosen visiting from America in a haunted shrine, but it didn’t really go anywhere.

April 2017 – A Well of Dandelions

This was another detour, but it ended up, in a strange way, being the key to the whole novel. I remember being on spring break and extremely determined to write a short story for my fiction class at the time. I wrote a very different story about the Rosen family – a story in which a suicidal college drop-out is seduced by (or seduces) Allison Rosen after helping to find Becca, who had run off to meet Kaori, her cousin, via a magical water well. I was very proud of this intense, magical realist story and it probably was the most important piece of writing that kicked off my enthusiasm for turning these characters into something out of a novel.

May 2017 – The Golden State comes into being

The last shoe dropped in May 2017, when I wrote the short story that would later become the chapter The Golden State (where Lawrence and Michael go to a desert ghost-town). It was very different at first, involving the pair stumbling upon a saloon and meeting their own deceased immigrant grandparents there. But as I was writing the story, I finally saw that this was becoming a novel, or so I thought.

I came up with a plan for The Golden State. It was going to have five parts: 1) about Uncle Andy passing away, the reactions of a young Matt and Becca, and their adventure in the magic well to overcome grief; 2) about Leonard Stern working his way up the Jewish movie network, getting into a freak motorcycle accident, and struggling with his son’s depression; 3) Lawrence and David Stern in their ’70s college life at Columbia University, getting involved in the jazz and film scenes, and David coming out to his family as gay; 4) Lawrence is aimless in Kanazawa and has to fly home when David dies of AIDS, and has a miniature road trip adventure with Michael in the spirit saloon; 5) Matt and Becca visit Kaori in Osaka with their family and go on a parallel adventure of their own in a haunted shrine.

Or maybe… just screw that idea?

A month later, I started writing Matt and Becca’s road trip adventure from suburban Bay Area to New York City. All the of the major characters had been at least partially fleshed out in my head, but all of the sudden, I decided to make the family history the background, and the main story about Matt and Becca’s road trip adventure, not from when Matt and Becca were young kids, but in their teenage years. It turned out they were the main characters all along.

The road trip ended up serving as the perfect structure for the story and allowed me to actually write it to conclusion. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to just get through a literary family drama, which was my initial idea.

Thinking back, it’s fascinating the way the story grew and evolved. Lawrence, Allison, Michael, and David started out as the most important characters, but they ended up being Matt, Becca, Kaori, and Rubin Yakovlev. Pretty crazy.

All this goes to show… FIVE RANDOM TIPS FOR WRITING A NOVEL!

  • Don’t be afraid to expand the universe behind a short story or story idea. What other characters are worth writing about? What other adventures did they get into?
  • Don’t try to stay too focused – and write fearlessly. Let your imagination wander and slowly grow and build this universe.
  • Try coming up with an outline, but don’t stick to it. Coming up with the five-part plan for the book was helpful because it gave me such a concrete vision for the story. It turned out destroying this vision was the true key to writing the novel!
  • Structure always helps. Whether it’s setting a timeline for your book – e.g. all the events happen within the course of one month – or an ending event – e.g. the events leading up to a murder – having some concrete structure to work off of works wonders.
  • Be patient. “Good” ideas take a long time to develop. If the novel is meant to be one, it’ll come to you eventually so long as you keep writing.

So…buy The Golden State, leave a review, and talk next time!

EXCERPT from the Golden State

Just two weeks ago, I published a road trip adventure, a work of literary Jewish fiction, The Golden State. You can read all about the concept and origins here, and discover two of the main protagonists in my follow-up blog post here. Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from the novel in hopes of tempting anyone who’s on the fence to buy a copy. The Golden State merges fearless adventure, long-lost facts and struggles of American history, and the evolution of a Jewish family across 100 years, three continents, and the forty-eight continental states. Please enjoy the read, and get your copy on Amazon here!

When their maverick great-uncle dies and leaves behind a cryptic will, sixteen-year old Matt Rosen and his older sister Becca leave their California suburb on a road trip to find a long-lost, magic family bracelet. Matt doesn’t care about his family, his Judaism, or history at all—only his great Goyish uncle who gave him a key to something greater. They begin their journey from the Bay Area to Chicago in search of historical clues and family secrets…

Salt Lake City

Though Becca did most of the driving, I took the wheel now and again. I had never driven more than a half-hour before, and it was a four hour leg to Salt Lake City. I was so nervous that I got carsick while driving. Becca was not happy when I woke her up. I tried to pull over on the highway, but Becca freaked out and made me swerve back and a pickup truck honked as it jerked into the left lane and blazed by. We got off at a gas station three miles later and switched. Every time I closed my eyes Becca gave me a hard pinch. “If I don’t get to sleep, you don’t either,” she said.

All that day we saw nothing but desert. Hot and dust-colored. Hour by hour it weighed down on me, like falling snow. Desert snow—now that would be a sight. Becca wanted to step out of the car every once in a while to take a picture of a big sky or striated cliff, but I was happy to stay in the car. I don’t like the desert. It’s dry, and lonely, and it kills things. Some things live, but in stunted, skeletal forms. There’s dark magic in the desolation, keeping winds sharp, keeping rain away.

I did sense a redeeming quality, quietly filling the dry air and whistling hills: the space, promise, and possibility for life. If I could cast a spell and make it rain, even Nevada could be a beautiful place…

So it felt great to get to Salt Lake City, to be back in some sort of civilization, even if we were only gone a few days. We checked into a motel on the city limits on Friday afternoon. We drove through downtown and had Chinese food. Salt Lake City’s plenty large and bustling, made extraordinary by the backdrop of stunning mountains, gray giants with broad shoulders and pointy ears. We asked our waitress what to do in Salt Lake City, and she responded that most people come for the nature around it, like Cottonwood Canyon and the Great Salt Lake, but that the zoo and history museum are nice. I suppose that’s life in the American west. And I don’t mean the west coast—I mean the wild west. Out here, the landscape is everything. And if human civilization happens to exist within it, even a city this big, then that’s just a big convenience.

We came to Salt Lake City for the Mormon Church. We checked out the Temple Square Saturday morning. It was impressive, pristine spires reaching for the sky, the heavens, presumably. You wouldn’t learn anything about Mormonism by going there, though. I only know one Mormon kid from school, and the only thing I know about her is that her sister got married at the ripe age of 18.3. Fortunately, Grampa Andy had taped some educational encyclopedia cut-outs into the notebook. Turns out—Mormons are positively bananas. The Book of Mormon claims the Israelites migrated to America in 600 BC and built a great civilization. Eventually Joseph Smith came along, and with his handy-dandy pair of magic spectacles interpreted ancient Egyptian glyphs left by the last prophet of the Israelites before their civilization was destroyed by the ‘red men’. It’s a whacko re-centering of Christianity around the good ole US of A. Joseph Smith founded the church in New York, but facing violent persecution (classic heretic problems) they moved around to Missouri, and after Smith was killed, to Utah.

Grampa Andy wrote about this outlandish Mormon dude named Walter Miller. He was an important figure in Mormon life in Salt Lake City and helped manage sites along the historic Mormon Trail (kinda like my buddy George Yoshida!). But over time he became an outcast from the church. He claimed to possess Joseph Smith’s golden spectacles, Brigham Young’s compass, and some eight or nine other sacred artifacts associated with Mormon history. There’s this 1974 newspaper clip about the different objects he claimed he had, and one of them was a bracelet, recovered from ruins of the Israelites. The bracelet had a gold coin.

You bet it did.

Grampa Andy came across the clip because one of his topics of historical research in the late 90s was Mormonism’s claims over Native American ruins and artifacts. Now it was up to me and Becca to unravel the mystery. I was excited. Each place we stopped felt like a passage into something greater. Each place was a place in itself, but also a place on the verge of a place that was morea more-place, or maybe a place-place. And that place-place was the real place: my family story, wrapped in the cloth of American history, ribboned with a Star of David.

Salt Lake City was no different. We needed to find the door, the way in. We did a mini-driving tour of Salt Lake City, scoping out a place to do research. We found a public library and decided to look for a copy of the old newspaper that Grampa Andy had glued into the notebook.

After talking to three different librarians, we found out that the church in question, the Sterling Church of the Latter-Day Saints, had been closed for several years, but in fact had just reopened last year. One librarian, a superbly whiskered man, helped us find copies of the church’s old newsletters. In July 1974, a new pamphlet was published every week, and in some cases on consecutive days.

I read the pamphlets, July 5-23, 1974. Written by Rock Jones, Mormon kid, journalist extraordinaire. The events rose into a theater in my mind, and I swear I was really standing there in the crowd. Heavy sunbeams beat me down. Dry air scratches at my throat. Walter Miller gives a speech. He professes his ability to make miracles. Half the congregation erupts in rage, half in profound awe. I hop in the back of a sedan with Rock Jones and we follow fifty congregants into the desert. Before our eyes, Walter Miller draws crystal water from dry sands. He calls two rattlesnakes from the thrush, provokes them, and survives both bites, sending the snakes slithering away. He holds out his arms to display the twin bites, sacred mirrored wounds. And he calls to the crowd:

“I am Isaac and Avraham before the LORD! Stretch thy hand out not against me,

Do not do anything against me!

For I am in awe of God!

Mounting through the spires of form

The Worm strives to be a Man,

And speaking all languages rises forth,

Breathing out omens and seeing great lengths,

A fluid chain of countless rings

Built by the Worm, the phenomenon perfect!

Let the one set-of-words baffle us not;

Let us mount the solstice desert of Ourselves—

Let us fill nature with our overflowing currents—

I have ascended to the realm of God and I dare you all to follow—”

And with that, Rock Jones and I absolutely lose it. Rock admits in the article:

“In the resulting chaos I have become unable to remember and therefore record any further events.”

If that isn’t wild, I don’t know what is. I could not be more excited to meet Walter Miller.

I raced through the rest of the pamphlets. Turns out Walter Miller advocated a transcendental spirituality, where humans can become gods by joining the spirit of nature. He thought he had bridged the gap between Man and God.

I raced through the rest of the pamphlets. Turns out Walter Miller advocated a transcendental spirituality, where humans can become gods by joining the spirit of nature. He thought he had bridged the gap between Man and God.

It almost makes sense. Think about atoms for a second. If all atoms in the universe are recycled, and we really are stardust, since exploding stars churns out heavier elements like the carbon and iron that make up our bodies, then humans, somewhat straightforwardly, consist of eternity. Our bodies and minds have already got Nirvana, the universal spirit, endless void. That means there should be a way to reconnect with our immortal matter, and therefore “god”. Just like people, no matter where they come from, can be friends if they can speak a common language—or even if they can’t.

“He’s a raving lunatic,” Becca remarked, throwing a pamphlet down. “Oh, no doubt,” I said. “We need to meet him.”

However she felt about it, my enthusiasm bull rushed us out the library door. A few maps, a call with Mom, Becca’s theory that Bush would use the London bombings as an excuse to invade various Middle Eastern countries, and one bathroom-stop later, Becca and I were at the doorstep of the Sterling Church of the Latter-Day Saints.

Only when we were approaching the church did I start to get nervous. I think I was more nervous than Becca, likely due to prejudice (Mormons always freaked me out for some reason). We stared up at the tall white church, fronted with a thirty-foot stained-glass window. It was a gorgeous building, walls white and flat and broad. The parking lot was separated from the building by a hedgerow and lawn, and a backyard of irrigated trees gave the church its own landscape. The green and red of the stained glass glared down as us like a burning forest, the Burning Man himself.

We followed a sidewalk around to the back and entered an ordinary looking office door. A noisy AC unit rattled behind a dying bush. We came into a quiet lobby with a tile floor.

“This is kind of like Beth Shalom,” Becca said.

“Not everything needs to be like Hebrew School, Becca,” I said. Though there was definitely a tile floor in the Beth Shalom Hebrew School lobby. I thought about how I hadn’t been to synagogue in a few years. Dad went the weekends he was around, and both of us were Bar/Bat Mitzvah-d, but he stopped making me go when I started high school. I always hated the place, and I didn’t like the comparison. There were no mystical secrets at Beth Shalom, only a big tree with a swing out back, kids that smell like pee, and fat Rabbi Isaac Kornfield, a little too willing to hug you tight.

“I don’t know about this,” I said.

Becca looked at me with her head cocked sideways, a look that said, we are literally standing in a perfectly innocuous hallway with an old tile floor.

We went in and knocked on an office door. When I saw an old secretary with dyed blonde hair, more Beth Shalom memories attacked me like a swarm of rabid bats (Julie Appelbaum kisses me on the cheek. I draw on her face with a marker. I am six years old.), I felt even more nervous. I wanted to tap Becca on the shoulder and tell her, never mind, let’s forget it. I don’t know if it was a dire aversion to 80s hairdos or plain old cowardice, but I couldn’t go into the office. All faith that this new-old beautiful-boring Mormon temple would lead us to the bracelet drained away. I waited for Becca and heard the high-pitched, cotton-candy voice of the secretary respond to Becca’s questions.

According to what I overheard, the secretary remembered the events well. She called Walter Miller a psychopath. She hated him for ruining their community. She saw faith and family as the twin pillars of life, but Walter Miller had to go off about becoming a God and nearly destroy their community in the process. Everyone in the congregation had to respond to Walter Miller—you were either with him or against him, and if you were against him, you might’ve been subject to threats or even violence. She and her husband had stood firmly against, lost their son to a hippie commune in Santa Barbara and their cat to a fire, seen the church close and reopen. She had never heard of a bracelet.

My armpits were stained with sweat and I just wanted to leave, but Becca was harassing the secretary for Walter Miller’s daughter’s address. After gentle protest, the woman gave it to Becca, and told her to have a lovely day.

Becca grinned at me. “I crushed it, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” I said, picking at my sticky shirt, “so can we please go?” According to the map, Miller’s daughter lived way out in the suburbs. As I sat there miserably listening to the Pretenders fight the system, I thought about how I didn’t come on this road trip to interview sad Mormons. I wanted Walter Millers and Lisa Montanas, not church secretaries and tile-floor lobbies.

We arrived at a gray apartment building that existed for no discernible reason. It was just a highway exit and a gas station, and some sprawl connected to nowhere. We got out of the car onto a scorching blacktop. The building was decaying and the lights in the lobby flickered on and off. We waited two minutes for an elevator before taking the stairs. We climbed to the sixth floor. We knocked on the door as I tapped my foot. A moment later, Walter Miller’s daughter, over 50, greeted us in a gray bathrobe.

Becca apologized and explained to her what we were looking for. “Yea, yea,” the daughter said several times. “Yea, yea.” She was busy, told us what happened, and shut the door in our faces.

Walter Miller had given her the bracelet in his will after he died in ’74, just a few months after the incident. Yep, one and the same—it had a gold coin, a silver spear, “California” written on it. But she pawned it off. She had been addicted to heroin and needed cash. She sold it to a handsome older man, tall, leather jacket, hat and boots. Strange accent. He gave her $500 for it and she never saw him again. Never did heroin again, either, so that was good, she guessed. We were only 30 years too late, and she had no leads for us.

To be continued…

Two Heroes: Matt & Becca Rosen

One week ago, my latest novel, The Golden State, went live. It’s a literary road trip adventure into family and American history, about two Jewish teenagers who set off in search of a long-lost family bracelet. You can get your paperback or eBook right here on Amazon, and I’m here today to tell you about the two protagonists of the story, featuring original art.

Yes, that’s right! I commissioned wonderful illustrations by the talented Arielle Losar of Matt, Becca, and Kaori. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to the heroes of The Golden State, Matt and Becca Rosen.

Matthew Rosen

Ah, Matt. Our story’s fearless narrator, who lets a reader deep into his consciousness and darkest thoughts, perhaps, at times, too far. 16 years old at the time of the story, born January 11, 1989. 5’9″, gangly limbs, extremely tan, skinny from track and field. Hasn’t quite figured out his shaving routine yet.

As a “manic-stoner”, Matt, like the generation of California Jews before him, discovered weed at a slightly too-young age, and has already grown out of the green by the time of the story due to what he suspected to be weed-induced anxiety attacks. Nonetheless, marijuana had a lasting influence on Matt’s personality. For most of his teenage years, he aligned himself with all things stoner-adjacent in aesthetic: hoodies, skating, grunge, hip-hop, old movies, sitting on roofs, pondering the meaning of life, etcetera.

Matt is academically average, but nonetheless a very good storyteller. He loathes Silicon Valley but has a noteworthy interest in technology as he is often recruited by classmates’ and friends’ bands to operate recording equipment for their very bad albums. Matt is a strange balance of quiet on the surface and wildly talkative underneath. Or perhaps he’s extroverted on the surface, but a solitary thinker. Regardless, he’s gotten by socially largely with his height and his humor. The brightest part of his personality comes out around those who he has a close relationship with: his sister, his friends Will and Christine, and Grampa Andy. His great uncle Andy Wessel has an outsized influence on Matt: Andy’s active lifestyle of outdoor adventuring, his go-with-the-flow attitude, and his independent thought process (rejecting all religion, coming up with his own philosophies) seemed to Matt to be the best possible adult to grow into. Due to this obsession with his great uncle, Matt lacks career orientation and can only vaguely push back at his father’s attempts to pull him towards a career in law.

His favorite colors are bright and ugly: scarlet, pea green, mustard yellow. He likes classic comedy movies like Airplane and The Big Lebowski. Perhaps he’s meant to be an academic, because the proudest he ever was of himself was after he delivered his intensively researched Bar Mitzvah speech. He’s a great narrator for a story, and I sincerely hope you enjoy living in his head for 200-something pages.

Rebecca Rosen

Matt’s older sister and road trip companion for the novel. Nonchalant, casual, confident, Becca, 5’8″, was taller than Matt up until winter before The Golden State begins. 18 years old at the time of the story, born March 2, 1987. Broad shoulders, severe features, fantastically curly hair.

While ‘weed’ might be the entry point into Matt’s personality, ‘politics’ is the entry point for Becca. Finally able to vote, she’s long been politically engaged, and has gone through countless phases that nonetheless have a clear direction of radicalization. She was first interested in the 1998 midterms as a Democrat. Then in 2000, she was a Gore fanatic. By 2002, she was left of the Democratic party and a staunch supporter of European socialism, writing essays in class from the perspective of Democratic Socialism and the welfare state whenever she could. By 2004 and the time of the story, she’s an all-out anarcho-socialist, interested in only complete, radical revolution and the comprehensive reorganizing of society, resources, and capital. These ideas are contained largely to inside her head and the books that she reads, but she has started lately to go into Berkeley to listen to talks and join political organizing first-hand. Fortunately for all of us, she’s not too overbearing about her politics, although she does absolutely believe that she is right on every issue.

That’s not to say that Becca is close-minded. She’s straightforward, honest, and enthusiastic, and has a wide circle of friends. For Matt, she is a fearless leader, showing him the best and most interesting ways to experience all the parts of high school (except for skateboarding and smoking weed). She’s an active participant in Judaism, keeping Kosher when she can, and always enjoys the singing and communal prayer of Shabbat services and holidays. Lastly, she’s a bright student, intensely organized and a fearsome opponent in a debate.

Becca may not be much for fashion or anything girly, but she identifies as a Pisces no matter how little she seems like one. She’ll immediately take you up on any offer to visit art museums