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 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.
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.
A tier will appear!
Anime will be assigned into that tier!
Recommended for… (if you like this Western thing, you’ll like this Japanese show)
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.
Any other comments that I have about said anime title.
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.
Recommended for: fans of pirates, martial arts
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.
Recommended for: fans of slasher horror, noir
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.
Recommended for: fans of sports stories, underdogs
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.
Recommended for: fans of Victorian romance, historical fantasy
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.
Mob Psycho 100
Recommended for: Wes Anderson fans, literally anyone(???)
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.
Recommended for: Christopher Nolan fans, murder mystery fans
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.
Hunter x Hunter
Recommended for: fans of videogames, martial arts
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.
Recommended for: literally anyone
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.
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.
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.
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!
Kyoto – 97 ///Charming riverside, elegant old buildings, majestic temples, striking station architecture, and lush bamboo forests
Shirakawa-go, Gifu – 93 ///Truly stunning bucolic ancient buildings in magnificent mountain valley
Fuji Five Lakes, Yamanashi – 90 ///Lovely lakeside paths under the towering beauty of Mt. Fuji
Matsumoto, Nagano – 89 ///One of Japan’s most beautiful preserved old towns with striking snow-capped mountains in the backdrop
Takayama, Gifu – 88 ///A more humble Matsumoto with both lush mountains and lovely traditional architecture
Otaru, Hokkaido – 87 ///Charming canals and northern architecture by a fierce seaside and skiing mountains
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
Shimoda, Shizuoka – 84 /// Commodore Perry landed somewhere special, among glittering white beaches and a colorful fishing port
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
Shizuoka, Shizuoka – 81 ///While urban Shizuoka is ordinary, its stunning mountaintop and pine-forest frame spectacular views of Mt. Fuji
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.
Tokyo – 99 ///Tokyo literally has it all – history, culture, totally unique museums, parks, and a truly never-ending roster of trendy go-to sites
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
Nara – 90 ///The ultimate destination for Japan’s oldest temples and mind-blowing Buddhist and historical artifacts
Osaka – 87 ///A great castle, Universal Studios Japan, museums and a whole lot more
Kanazawa, Ishikawa – 86 ///A ‘mini Kyoto,’ Kanazawa is unique with its geisha district and trendy 21st century art museum
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
Nagoya – 83 ///Overall roster of castles, shrines, theme parks, and unique neighborhoods
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
Fukuoka – 81 ///Countless food stalls, bayside park, and modern entertainment complex
Sapporo – 80 ///Beer gardens and chocolate factories, historic village, and ski resorts
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.
Hokkaido – 96 ///Japan’s most dramatic and wild natural scenery, and undeniably gorgeous
Fuji Five Lakes, Yamanashi – 93 ///Idyllic lakes, spectacular hikes, and Japan’s biggest mountain, what can go wrong?
Nikko, Gunma – 92 ///Spectacular gorges, waterfalls, mountains, and high-latitude lakes and highlands
Urabandai, Fukushima – 91 /// Dramatic mountains, a rare high-altitude swamp and a plethora of scenic lakes
Nagano – 90 ///The largest and most beautiful group of mountains in southern Japan with endless hiking and winter sport
Takayama, Gifu – 89 ///Quaint mountain countryside near some of Japan’s best national parks
Izu, Shizuoka – 87 ///This gorgeous peninsula features countless lush coasts and white-sand beaches, hidden caves, and deep forests
Kochi – 84 ///Brilliant blue rivers leading to a fantastic surfing cost
Ise, Mie – 83 ///Deep, unspoiled forests and scenic coastlines
Sendai – 80 ///Near dramatic coasts and the idyllic forested mountains of Yamagata
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.
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
Osaka – 96 ///Ridiculously fun funky riverside stuffed with street food and bustling corners of youth culture and otaku-dom
Nagoya – 91 /// A laundry-list of unique regional food specialties along with popping youth culture and throbbing nightlife
Kobe – 89 ///Quainter upscale vibe but with its own bevy of culinary delights
Yokohama – 88 ///Balanced assortment of dining, partying, and shopping plus its famous Chinatown
Sapporo – 85 ///Great bar and café scene along with its own specialty foods and restaurants
Sendai – 84 /// Concentrated party district with nightlife and some unique flavors
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
**Just fly to Korea – 99 /// The flight is less than two hours. Just do it.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
Atmosphere: Traditional shopping arcade meets spunky hipster hangout meets vintage and consignment paradise
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.
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
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
Tier two: Locals go here
Atmosphere: Modern corporations, cool facades and dynamic dining, slick, modern museums and galleries
This November I semi-successfully participated inNational 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 MOBIUSnovel 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 best neighborhood for architecture in Nagoya is Shikemichi, full of upscale coffeeshops, galleries, and traditional crafts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the guardian mountain of Akita-Senboku in the far northwest, neverending flowers blanketed in a sea of fog.
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 snowand with all of its people indoors.
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.
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’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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
When she became naked | I understood that she had scars all over. | Hating that [her naked] being
seen, | when she took off her clothes we always made the lights pitch dark.
She almost didn’t have any interest in sex. | Her genitals never being wet enough | when I tried
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Must-listen: TheDrama 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.
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.
Daedalean Convolution: 14/20
Musical Chops: 10/20
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.
Daedalean Convolution: 16/20
Musical Chops: 16/20
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.
Daedalean Convolution: 18/20
Musical Chops: 18/20
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.
Daedalean Convolution: 17/20
Musical Chops: 16/20
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.
“I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it…”
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.
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.
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:
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!
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?
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 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.
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
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!
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.
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!
Matsuo Basho, Edo period.
Seishi Yamaguchi, Modern.
Murakami Kijo. Meiji/Taisho.
Masaoki Shiki, Meiji.
Matsuo Basho, Edo.
Hakyo Ishida, Modern.
Matsuo Basho, Edo.
Kyoshi Takahama. Meiji/Taisho.
Matsuo Basho, Edo.
Masaoki Shiki, Meiji.
Meanwhile, the best music of 2018 is on its way………………………..
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.
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.
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
“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.
#9 (1992) Porco Rosso- 74/100
“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.
#8 (1986) Laputa Castle in the Sky 76/100
“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.
#7 (1987) Kiki’s Delivery Service- 79/100
“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.
#6 (2005) Howl’s Moving Castle- 85/100
“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.
#5 (2013) The Wind Rises- 86/100
“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.
#4 (1982) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind- 87/100
“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.
#3 (1988) My Neighbor Totoro- 88/100
“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.
#2 (2001) Spirited Away- 96/100
“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.
#1 (1999) Princess Mononoke- 97/100
“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.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below. Let’s talk about it.
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.
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…
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:
soshite jiobani wa sugu ushiro no tenkiten no hashira ga itsuka
And then Giovanni right away the behind weather station wheel at some point
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
pekapeka kietari tomotari shite iru no o mimashita.
twinkle-twinkle [sound-effect] turning off and lighting on and so on [it he] watched.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Highlight: Sweet lizards at the zoo
Lowlight: The zoo animals are in small cages and therefore stressed out
X-factor: There are snack stands
Hoshigaoka is an atmospheric strip of stylish boutiques and restaurants just twenty minutes out from downtown.
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.
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.
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.
Style: Straight-Up Ninja
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.
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.
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.
My time in Nagoya is almost over. For the next two weeks I’ll start to go over some of my most memorable experiences here—this week food, and next week places. Feel free to take these lists as recommendations and inspiration in your own future Japanese travels, or just to get a little taste of abroad from home. Here is four months of Japanese food in review—the ten most delectable delicacies I have eaten while in Japan.
Honorable Mention: Ise Udon (¥400)
A local brand of udon wrapped in tofu skin and served in a delicious soy broth.
X-factor: A 90-yen side of shrimp cake in broth
#10: Fruit Parfait (¥700)
Japanese fruit parfaits are notoriously aesthetic.
Fruit Variety: Surprisingly high
Fruit to cream ratio: Well-executed
Secret ingredient: Sneaky Japanese tea-bean-stuff
#9: Fancy Tofu Dinner (¥???)
When the Light Fellowship takes you out to dinner, you accept.
Conceptual mystery: More plates -> more fun -> ??? -> profit
#8: Miso Katu (¥1300)
Nagoya is famous for its miso, and a local store hidden in a winding alley downtown delivered.
Miso flavor: Spectacular
Pork quality: Seems to be no problem here
X-factor: A fluffy orange egg
#7: Soft-Serve Ice-Cream (¥300)
Japanese ice-cream is creamier than American ice-cream. ‘Nuff said.
Secret ingredient: A small crispy slice of bread
#6: Homemade Hot-Pot (¥400)
Buy packets of spicy sauce to prepare vast vats of hot-pot with friends. Add only the ingredients that you want to eat (more bean sprouts!). The possibilities are endless!
Key flavor: Kimchi
Key ingredients: Bean sprouts, regular tofu, tofu skin, the circular tofu thingamabobs, the other kinds of tofu
Added Bonus: The pleasures of social interaction with other human beings
#5: Nagano Mushroom Soba (¥800)
Nagano’s soba noodles are renowned throughout Japan, and its best to eat them with their wonderful earthy cousin, the mushroom.
Nagano soba relative to other soba: Tastier
Nagano mushrooms relative to other mushrooms: Mush tastier
Ambience: Rustic farmside mountain shack
#4: Adorable Omelet Rice-Curry (¥1200)
Japan can makes things cute like no other country, and believe it or not, this also applies to omelet rice.
Omelet: Perfectly scrambled eggs
Rice: Chicken-chunked spiced-up rice
Secret ingredient: Symmetry
Welcome to the world of abura soba, ramen noodles prepared in pork fat.
Before you eat: Looks OK
The moment you eat: It’s so GOOOOOOOOOOOD
Much later: SOOO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOD
#2: Unagi-Don (¥2200)
Boiled eel on rice is one of Japan’s most famous dishes, and with the ongoing eel shortage (for real), you best get in on this trend before all the eels are gone 😦
The taste of unagi: Like good fish but buttery and gently charred
How much can you eat before getting sick: A little more than this much
Secret ingredient: A mysterious salty delicious fresh plump tomato as an appetizer
#1: Endless Yakiniku (¥3000)
It hurts me to rank something so expensive at number 1, but if the place is any decent, all-you-can-eat Japanese barbecue will send you straight to heaven.
Sauces: Various and ideal
Flavors: Meaty and ideal
X-factor: You get to participate and cook your own meat!
I find a quiet place ten minutes from my apartment. The trees are tall, and the dark red foliage obscures and shadows more so than average autumn leaves. Perhaps that’s because of the deepness of the red. Regardless, the place is dark and silent—it feels like a secret. I won’t say exactly where it is.
I go there, and my mind clears. Like the sky, where clouds expand and fade away, in the end dissolved by the wind. Blue remains, or maybe white. I sit, stand, and remain there for one, two, and three hours. If not even a single thought comes to mind, I consider the visit a success. Sometimes I have that kind of fortune.
The blinding winter is dangerously near. But this time, when I arrive, I am not alone. One other person stands in the middle of a clump of weeds and grass. Even though I do not know him, I feel like I do. His expression is blank. Frightened, I flee the quiet place.
Two weeks later, my sister calls me on the phone. I don’t tell her anything, and return to the quiet place. I remember well going to my sister’s wedding. There was a white bouquet of flowers placed on every table. I think that was one year ago.
In those two weeks, I quit my job and moved out of my apartment. I want a new place, I think. I think, why is it so cold, even in these very first days of December? It was warm all of October, unnaturally warm, kept warm by a summer that stayed until late and breathed out raging hurricanes. The mood swings of a child. The will of a dying man. The earth must be upset.
My mind wanders. I return to the quiet place. The old man is still there. I didn’t realize that before—that he was an old man, someone who wouldn’t understand me, most likely. All of the leaves have fallen. From that characteristic red to brittle brown. The one remaining presence, unchanged from before, is that person. Standing in the clump of weeds and grass, blank, expressionless, a skeleton. More than just asking I want to shout at him, “Why are you standing there?” He stole my quiet place.
That night, I sleep at the place of someone who I used to like. Isn’t it amazing that even now I can still sleep through the night?
The next day, I return. Everything is exactly the same as it was yesterday. I can hardly believe it. I don’t want to believe it. No—it’s changed—just a little. I understand that now. It’s a little more… how should I put it? White? Perhaps.
The next day. It snowed in the night. Early, isn’t it? It’s quiet here, isn’t it? But because of the height of the trees, the thickness of the clouds, the snow doesn’t glitter. It instead sleeps dully. The old man hasn’t moved. The snow sleeps on his shoulders, on the thin hair around his head. Fear stirs in my gut. Fear stirring in my gut, snow sleeping on the old man, the silent trees, the tall, silent, skeleton trees. My mind does not clear. The old man does not move. Nothing moves.
A new feeling. If my sister called me on the phone now, I’d like that, wouldn’t I?
I hadn’t thought about Cadivel in quite a while, but suddenly had a blast of inspiration to get a hard copy out there. Truthfully, I haven’t read it in at least a year and a half, and there’s no doubt that my writing ability as well as my state of mind have carried me far past Cadivel. In order to update the book for 2017, I included a short story that I wrote this spring entitled “A Well of Dandelions” in the edition.
It’s a bit pricey at $16.99, (printing is expensive too!) but the edition is a really beautiful, sturdy, and impressive paperback with over 500 pages of years of hard work, so I do hope you would consider doing me a great honor and making my book a part of your home library.
The next step? Hopefully you will see Cadivel in bookstores near you!
Over the last two weeks, my friend Joe and I did a road trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Along the way we saw a lot of America: stunning mountains, sprawling oilfields, dirty roadside gas stations, historic jazz clubs. Here I invite you to take a look at some of my favorite photos and moments from the adventure. America is a huge place, overflowing with land, crises, and opportunities, ripe with swift and unexpected changes from road to road and town to town. Enjoy the journey.
The Appalachians are as forested as they come.
Nashville is a strange city. You descend out of the Appalachian mountains into the Tennessee Valley, flatter, but just as lush and forested. And then, with no warning, several pointy-eared skyscrapers appear, and at their base a town that resembles a small historical railroad crossing. Nashville is a party town for rock and country music.
Flat forest and flatter fields. There were intense thunderstorms, with rain as hard and heavy as hail all the way from Nashville to the Gulf of Mexico.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Ruby-red sunset over a working neighborhood in New Orleans.
French Street, New Orleans
One of the most famous jazz bars in New Orleans, Fritzel’s, represents the curious transatlantic history of jazz. Despite New Orleans being one of the birthplaces of jazz, Fritzel’s is styled after a German pub. Jazz hit Europe in a big way after the Second World War, and is more persistently popular on the other side of the Atlantic in comparison with America. Fritzel’s was packed the brim with tourists when I went. A musical tradition had crossed the ocean and come all the way home. Somehow, it didn’t lose the bluesy bayou soul along the way.
Jackson Square, New Orleans
New Orleans has incredible historic architecture, a beautiful mix of tropical arches and patios and baroque French, with narrow streets, wide plazas and flowers hanging from every porch.
Jean Latiffe National Historic Preserve, Louisiana
The bayou is hot. 90 degrees with 90% humidity is almost unbearable in the direct sunlight. Fortunately, deep in the bayou, thick tree cover shades your skin, melting together a thousand chirping crickets, humming bullfrogs, and singing birds. Most of the animals hide just out of sight, but you can feel and hear them.
Somewhere, East Texas
Once you get into Texas, the land gets big. Despite the tree line you can still see field after field following the horizon into a hazy blur.
There’s an oasis in the middle of Austin, a cool and clear spring river that runs through a park that centers the city. Austin is clean and modern, and the prehistoric spring at its center serves as a strange complement.
Somewhere, West Texas
Somewhere in western Texas, the prickly pear cactus begins to thrive. Besides unidentifiable scraggly brush and short trees, it was the single most prominent plant all the way from Austin to Santa Fe. Even in Arizona and California we saw some tall and monstrous prickly pear, blackened and purpled at the base, paw-like green fans knotted together until they reached six feet. You can eat the berries if you cut them open with a knife (watch out for spines) and you can easily find prickly pear juice in this part of the country. Unfortunately, the berries weren’t ripe when we foraged a few.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
As you travel from Austin into New Mexico, the trees get shorter and shorter, and the scrub sparser and sparser as scorching desert climates take over. But even the desert has its treasured secrets. This natural cave leads 750 feet underground, past a thousand swarming bats and into the darkness. It goes to the unforgettable Carlsbad Caverns, full of monumental and expressive stalactites and stalagmites. These reaching, howling, recoiling, flexing mineral beings take on every imaginable form: slim porcupine spines, curved katanas, embracing lovers, Mayan temples, pungent mushrooms gusting spores. Some are over fifty feet tall. In the dark underground the air is cool. A good place for a nap.
Lincoln Forest, New Mexico
It’s amazing what a little bit of elevation can do to a landscape. In twenty minutes we rose four thousand feet out of baking, shrubby desert into a full-blown evergreen forest. Just out of sight there is a field of fifty elk grazing. Within an hour we were back on scorched sands.
White Sands, New Mexico
White Sands is an alien landscape. Long ago, a lakebed dried up. Strong winds blasting across the mountains blew its silted and dusty bottom into a hundred square miles of pure white sand dunes. At noon the white lizards come out for the dose of Southwest sunshine.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
A geodesic dome north of Santa Fe. In the center of the dome, sound and energy seems to pool around you, pressing down and pushing out. Northern New Mexico is a region of mountains and art galleries, encouraging meditation for the mind and yoga for the body. The whole region feels a relatively strong connection to Native American practices, history, and beliefs. Native art, architecture, and contemporary politics are visible on murals, the main streets of towns, and in the daily papers.
Española, New Mexico
Cliffs, hills, and grassy desert landscape. Hummingbirds, snakes, jackrabbits.
We climbed a mountain for this view. First by we followed narrow trails up through jagged brush, and then climbed up chunks of crumbling stone. The tricolored bluffs of Sedona extend in diverse formations in every direction.
Arcosanti is an eco-commune founded on principles of sustainable urban design. The fundamental idea? Urban sprawl is destructive to the environment and human psychology alike. Arcosanti feels like a different universe entirely on the inside with its 70s space-age concrete aesthetic and mediterranean gardens. On a Sunday, young people relax in the garden, talking or sketching, and the sounds of a piano trickle out from music rooms hidden beneath the patio.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
The desert is fucking hot. 110 degrees at noon gave me a headache in 120 seconds. And yet, somehow, the Saguaro Cactus pokes up its bald head, claiming the desert as its own without a second thought.
Joshua Tree, California
Welcome to Joshua Tree. Being here feels like being underwater, in a surreal landscape with plants and rocks of bizarre forms. The humanoid rocks gives this part of the park a sense of urban density and unexpected community. Chipmunks, rabbits, spiny lizards, tarantulas. Outside the stony city, a diverse and baffling mix of dancing Joshua Trees and low-lying colorful scrub abounds. Bighorn sheep roam the rubble mountains beyond.
Downtown, Los Angeles
Los Angeles is an unusual city. It has no real sense of gravity, no real downtown center of great importance to the people who live there. Yet even though the streets below are empty, at this rooftop bar an unexpected skyline emerges. As my friend said to me, “This does not feel like LA.”
Pacific Palisades, California
I made it to the Pacific. The shadows of massive mountains cap the view to the north and east, and a strong wind comes in with the waves. Compared to the Atlantic, the Pacific is a different beast. Swimming in it you can tell it is bigger, more powerful. More force stirs in its endless depths, delivering surf-worthy waves for the sunny California Coast. I biked down from Pacific Palisades to Venice and had tacos and a fruit smoothie.
Disclaimer: Am I in over my head with this? Definitely. I’m neither steeped deep enough or versed well enough in Japanese language and culture to be really accurate or even respectful in this blog post. However, the music is amazing, so I will quietly use my Get Out of Jail Free pass. Hopefully I will introduce you to something new and exciting!
This is a fascinating, perplexing album, by a fascinating, perplexing band, especially to an American. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, which roughly translates as “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl”, was formed in 2012 by the front-man of Japanese rock group Indigo La End, Enon Kawatani.
He transformed his band from a catchy, guitar focused indie act into a who-the-hell knows-what. Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s first album, Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, which very roughly translates as, “If you can’t dance then you must be a lowlife piece of shit”, is a frantic, out of control, piano-centric romp of an album. It storms through 29 minutes of music about dancing, interpreted as crazy piano riffs alternated with power guitar-rock, hush-hush rapping, male and female band members shouting back and forth, super catchy choruses, with the ugly, fierce, and relentless drama of life as a curtain to pull down at the conclusion of the frenzied dance.
Well, “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” is back with a full-length LP, Daruma Ringo, which translates as “Apple Dharma” (as in the Buddhist concept and historical figure Bodhidharma).
Besides the fact that I can’t even quite wrap my head around the title of the album, Kawatani is back with a vengeance. This time it’s not just about dancing, though, and it features some of the strongest songwriting, musicianship, and creativity that I have thus heard in an album by an artist from any country in 2017. It’s fast and frantic, beautiful and tender, expansive and progressive stampede of music, with all of the energy of Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, but with a lot more color to it, influences ranging from progressive rock to hip-hop, and has a lot more sonic invention to soak in along the way.
The album kicks off with “Happy Apple”, a frantic piano dance with one of the band’s typical stellar jazz piano solos, and one of the catchiest choruses of 2017 (piano chord progression is on point). The album moves through a series of moods, each compelling in its own right: the highway cruising, beat-focused groove of track #2 (Shadow Song); those cases where the groove kicks into overdrive and loses itself to progressive drumming (track #3, Mr. Bodhidharma) and insane background doo-wops (track #4, That Tokyo); chilled out, textured atmospheres (tracks #5 and 11, id2 and id3). My personal favorite section of the album is “Selfish Youth” (track #9) to the end. Selfish Youth is an incredible mixture of catchy-as-fuck guitar licks, and a complex structure that builds carefully to a finish, keeping track of its own momentum.
From there on out, you get a crazy math-rock tirade (track #10, “I want to be your kind of novelist”), an emotional, fast-paced ballad (track #12, “Dancer in the Dancer”), and it all ends on a nutso funk jam (“Story of a Lowlife”).
Each track is unique in its own right, and altogether creates an album that, while not quite cohesive, fits together through its forceful ambition and inventiveness. It’s weird, for sure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like most of it.
I’m not going to attempt to analyze the lyrics and meanings of the songs, since my Japanese level is simply not there yet. But there is a lot of interesting material to soak up, especially in tracks 3, 4, 8, and 9. The image of the “Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” strikes me as an ironic interpretation of the stereotypical sexy Japanese schoolgirl, an interpretation that can be seen in J-pop artists such as Oomori Seiko. For Seiko and for Kawatani as well (I think), the cutesy desirability implodes and reveals how fucked up its own concept really is. From there, identity moves on to either self-destruction (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s opening track “TOKYO BLACK HOLE”), or to revealing that self-acceptance and a motivated overcoming of cartoon stereotypes might lead to something truly good (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s closing track “Shonen Manga and Shoujou Manga”).
Bottom line: Apple Dharma is a worthwhile listen for anyone who likes music, regardless of your knowledge of or experience with Japanese culture. The catchy choruses and fiery solos are simply too fun to ignore, and the creativity is inescapable. There are plenty of parts where Kawatani overreaches: where things get too weird, or certainly where ideas get overdone or in the way of the listening experience. But that’s to be expected for an album with this level of explosive force behind it, and it still manages to wrap up at a neat 53 minutes. I respect that.
CHECK IT OUT ON SPOTIFY! Search Gesu no Kiwami Otome!
Gan Tanigawa’s poetry is mysterious and haunting. I worked on a few translations of some of my favorite poems by him, doing my best to preserve the stylistic quirks (and meaning/effect over exact words) from Japanese to English. Enjoy!
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.
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
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
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.
The shortest of the tragedies besides Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth 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
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
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.
What is a Yalie deprived of food, drink, work, and sex?
Hungry and bored, probably. But also, as Yom Kippur proves, well equipped to ask and even answer questions about morality, faith, identity, and existence. The Torah tells us on this one day every year to refrain from eating, drinking, work of any kind, and sexual intimacy, so that we can grapple with the sins we have committed over the past year, and ask for atonement. This is the basic purpose of Yom Kippur.
Interestingly, in the recited prayers, we do not ask for forgiveness for disobeying the laws of the Torah, or forgetting the Ten Commandments, or not observing Shabbat. Instead we admit to sins of the ordinary sort: unkindness, dishonesty, gossip, oppression, mistrustfulness. Yom Kippur is a day about philosophical self-reflection—what have we done in our daily lives over the past year? And what do we seek in the coming one? To aid in this reflection, the Yom Kippur service has several special elements: a repeated confessional, an extended mourning service for the deceased, a service about martyrdom and the Holocaust, and at the end of a 25 hour fast, the epic blowing of the Shofar for as long as a large bearded man can hold his breath.
My two favorite parts of the Yom Kippur service are the confessional and the Holocaust memorial. In the confessional service, all sorts of crazy lines are thrown about—“Who shall die by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by earthquake and who by flood?” It’s completely over the top. It demands us to imagine our death in archaic, obscene ways. It asks us to be a part of a really, really old vision of the sheer power of god. Fortunately, we live today outside the scope of this arcane apocalyptic universe. So then, what is the purpose of imagining ourselves as a part of it?
I think the answer to this question lies in my other favorite part of the service, the deeply moving and poetic service on martyrdom. The Jewish people do not have a happy history, and this service explores that darker past. Israel under Rome, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian Pogroms, and the Holocaust are just a few instances of the murder of the Jewish people throughout history. The service therefore takes us through space and time, from an ancient Middle Eastern past where the temple still stood, where the vision of the Messiah and the resurrection burned like truth, towards the present day, linked by a trail of martyrdom and death. The memorial service brings the past into the present, and makes us confront the stakes in every case—life, or death. Yom Kippur uncompromisingly confronts us with visions and a history of death.
Yom Kippur is an existential holiday. We recite in the piyyut: “Our origin is dust, and our end is dust. We are like grass that withers in winter, like flower petals that fade away, like passing shadows and vanishing clouds. We are a dream that dissipates.” And yet, in spite of this knowledge, we ask passionately for forgiveness for both the greatest and smallest of misdeeds. We plead for one more moment as the thin band of clouds passing over the sunset. And though we are ephemeral, we clearly have some importance, or at least some importance we can give to ourselves. On Yom Kippur, though our lives are fading dreams, it remains important for us to confront our mistakes, and to confront death.
Forgiveness is powerful. It leads quickly to compassion and charity. And perhaps it becomes easier to forgive in the wake of an encounter with death. Though it demonstrates my weakness as a human being, nothing makes me turn further towards compassion than recalling those who I have wronged, and remembering that my people have been the victim of systematic murder. So how could I look away while others in America are systematically murdered? And around the world? Yom Kippur forces us to approach forgiveness, to approach empathy, to approach truth within ourselves.
I’m by no means religious, but I love Yom Kippur. I don’t think that Yalies should celebrate Yom Kippur, or abstain from Mory’s, Woad’s, or extracurriculars for even a single day. I didn’t manage it myself this Yom Kippur. But I do think that Yom Kippur is an example of a process every one of us should go through. For just a moment—question faith, question doubt, imagine death, create ethics, demand charity, expand empathy, listen to a sustained note that pierces past the physical—and after, stuff your face with bagels, lox, and cream cheese.
The Cadivel Poem, part 1. Each line accompanies a chapter from my novel, Cadivel: A Town by the Rough Edges of the Sea, soon to be available on Kindle. The mysterious narrator, known only as “S”, tells a tale of the passion of the sea, the curses and blessings of the winds, the illumination brought by thunder, the blaze of fire, the glint of gold. Above all the tale is one of survival, resistance, resilience.
Just to show you that it’s real. It’ll look different on Kindle.
The idealistic Samuel and his lazy but curious younger brother Owen escape a war-torn land. They flee north, drawn by a dilapidated carriage bought by their mother’s last coins. North they go, through the scorched and blackened farmlands and into a coniferous forest. All the way to the crown of Borrigan. There rests Cadivel.
Surrounded by heavy exhales of the sea. Lively red-brick and blue-roof shops wash in oil lamp glow in the shimmering dusk, casks of fish and barrows of oats and barrels of beer roll in the morning markets. Cadivel: Samuel and Owen’s chance for a new home. A safe home. Samuel realizes they can find a new life in Cadivel, one that could unite their family for the first time in years. Cadivel, where Samuel falls head over heels for a certain girl. If there is one place that would be safe from the fires of war, it would be Cadivel, protected by the pulsing hills of salty water, the rearing heads of waves. And yet the war grows, and passions blaze for blood and gold…
No, Cadivel is not safe.
And if Cadivel is not safe, how could Samuel and Owen survive? They are not fighters, only wanderers, explorers; yet they have will, and they have heart. Samuel and Owen may possess the qualities that can save Cadivel from greater threats than war alone.
Cadivel is a young-adult epic fantasy, best for ages 14+, but I hope that anyone between 12 and 97 can enjoy at least parts of it and hopefully most of it. Two plus years in the making, Cadivel started as a simple story that I wanted to pursue. I wanted to write about two boys who move into an idyllic seaside town with their wealthy uncle, and discover he holds a dark secret. I wanted there to be some romance. Some political intrigue. A sprinkle of magic (though as the story evolved that ended up being a lot of magic).
Cadivel is the product of two years of my growth as a writer, and a reader. It draws influences from fantasy books I read as a kid: Harry Potter, Charlie Bone, Bartimaeus. It draws from books I was reading at the time as I wrote it: On the Road, Sirens of Titan, the Lord of the Rings series. It even draws a bit from what I was reading as I revised it: the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Dune, Blood Meridian, so on and so forth. Cadivel focuses on character, on imagery, on emotion, but there’s certainly action: frightened searches, birds (or men?) on the wing, fiery spells, bloody battles… and even more action will come in the sequel.
Sequel? That’s right. Cadivel is a two-part story. What will be available on Kindle any day now is the first part, and I have big plans, exciting plans, including some unreleased, secret chapters, previews, and much more! For now just await my blog announcement for when it’s available and buy it on Kindle (I promise it will be less than five dollars). Then sit back, relax, and read.
Later, we can chat about the poem, about the world, about the influences, about the sequel… more blog posts will come, undoubtedly. Please share the work with your friends and family, especially if you know any young teens looking for something to read (and I know it’s only my word, but the writing is good! The whole thing has been carefully critiqued by an MFA out of Warren Wilson’s famous creative writing program). But remember, I think people of all ages will enjoy. Unless you really hate fantasy. Then don’t read it.
Stay tuned for how to get… I’m thinking late next week.
I’ve been living in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan for over a year now. The year has been quiet, and unforgiving at times, but it’s produced an abundance of beauty: sunshowers, crumbling and yet magnificent houses down alleys down sidestreets, bizzaro special-edition vending machine sodas, sparks of conversation, windy seacoasts and sunlit mountain valleys. I’ve selected ten photos from over the last year that tell the story of my first 12 months in Japan, March 2020 to March 2021.
“The Highs Are High”
I stand atop a 8700′ mountain peak, atop of which also stands a 12 foot giant sky-sword. The mountain climbing in Japan is nothing short of epic–there’s no such thing as a casual ‘hike’, hiking means you’re going VERTICAL–and this was my proudest achievement, over 5000′ gained feet in Tochigi prefecture overlooking sacred Nikko.
“Vibe + Scene”
This photo is probably of Shimo-kitazawa, in the upper 33.33% of cool neighborhoods in Tokyo. And the only reason I say probably is because there are countless equally cool neighborhoods that have dynamic shopping and dining, fueled by passionate locals who run their businesses, create their art, and sell stuff they made with their own two hands. I love cool vibes in local scenes and Tokyo and Nagoya both have this in droves.
“God Is Real”
The sacred tree in Atsuta Shrine, the premier Shinto Shrine in Nagoya/Aichi/central Japan and one of the three or four most important shrines in all of Japan, is over 1000 years old. This beautiful, rugged, enormous, towering, homely tree is nothing less than a god, and it feels nothing short of a miracle to be able to bask in its shadows in the midst of a bustling city.
“Fuji-san is a Real Chunk”
Did anyone tell you Mt. Fuji is freaking enormous? Well, I’ll have you know, it is absolutely positively absurdly gigantic. When you drive around anywhere within 50 miles of it, you’ll turn a corner and, BOOM, it’s there, triumphant, resplendent in all its gargantuan, white-tipped beauty. Oh, and the shores of Shizuoka Prefecture make for gorgeous backdrop.
“Dig the Details”
I love houses and architecture in general, but Japanese houses and architecture in particular are endlessly fascinating to me. There aren’t big mansions in Japan, but old, craftsman gems as well as funky modern experiments lie hidden down all sorts of street corners. This is clearly a new, but tradition-inspired, painstakingly beautiful house in Tokoname. It may be one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen.
“Beauty to be Found”
This canal in central Nagoya is pretty dirty. On bad days, you can even smell it. But it reflects the sunset like a charm, and transforms from a blight to an irreplaceable beauty when dusk arrives.
Japan is a country of contrasts–old and new, urban and rural, conservative and radical. You can see these little, delightful contrasts everywhere, like at this shrine in Kyoto on a day commemorating five year old boys. Parents in their western business attire bring their boys, some dressed in suits and others in traditional Japanese clothing, to celebrate at this remarkable shrine.
Japan is also a nation of hobbies and passions. After the bubble economy, Japan was left overflowing with leisure destinations–ski resorts, beach resorts, golf clubs, hiking trails, ferries, etcetera–and it leaves plenty of ground for an eager explorer to cover. I was able to learn to snowboard this winter thanks to the convenience of an amazing ski resort within just 90 minutes of Nagoya.
In a year clouded by COVID-19, I couldn’t spend much time close to friends. But I did find a lot of wonderful local parks and places for peace and quiet, such as Shin-Maiko in southern Aichi, 25 minutes by rail from downtown Nagoya. It’s quiet, the air is fresh, there’s open green space, and it’s not too windy, either. I went there three or four times at least to refresh myself over the course of the year.
“Cool Japan Is Weird Japan”
Look at that fat BUSH. Next to a sexy gallery and cafe? What can I say–I love Japan!