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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.19.13
Book from: Personal collection

 

Sakuran cover

I expected Sakuran to be fun – racy, rambunctious, ornate. Brothel life in Edo-era Japan, oh yeah. And it is fun, sort of – bubbling over with scheming, ambition, spectacle, and biting exchanges of emotional violence.

Sakuran opening spread

But it’s also deeply, and more lastingly, sad. Kiyoha is fifty times the usual feisty protagonist: she’s crass, arbitrarily malicious, and often outright violent. While this can all be amusing, even admirable, it’s also a disturbing, straightforward statement about the molding influence of a system founded on mistrust, competition, and the basic cruelty of buying and trading young women. Sure, Kiyoha might just be a queen of cats by inclination, but we also bear witness to the events that progressively eat away at her humanity, at her willingness to trust and share and be kind.

The courtesans’ lives are haunted by a desperate craving for love, and by its impossibility. If I recall correctly, only one of the girls eventually marries her favorite patron; the rest are fated to disappointment, or even death, at the hands of patrons, or their own desperation. The manga culminates in a quiet emotional ruin: in a few pages, we see Kiyoha – at the ripe age of twenty-something – eaten completely hollow by love’s casual betrayal. Sakuran is an anti-romance, in other words.

While I have nothing but praise for Sakuran‘s emotional daring and honesty, there are several practical stumbling blocks to enjoying the manga. Moyoco Anno draws only a veeeery narrow range of facial features, so it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the oiran (and many of their patrons, too) except by their wardrobes. Flipping frantically between pages to double-check which girl with what dialogue bubble had the kimono with the crane pattern and not the peony pattern and these hair ornaments not those hair ornaments, was about as fun as it sounds – and then you get to do it all over again as soon as the scene changes and everyone’s wearing different clothes! Which happens often, since the manga drifts from vignette to vignette, with little connective tissue. This works to create a sense of drifting and dislocation, of the oiran existing in an unmoored twilight realm whose essential drudgery is punctuated by episodes of bizarrely heightened emotion. But my god, it wouldn’t have hurt for everyone to look a little bit more different, would it?

Productionwise, there’s a lot to love about Vertical Inc.’s sophisticated visual design, as usual (ohhhh that glamorously garish metallic cover), but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translation. While a certain degree of informality seems apropos to the manga’s earthiness and irreverence, many of the anachronisms (“spacing out,” “twerp”) just seemed silly and misplaced. And, too, most of the lyrical reflections don’t quite reach the height of fluency and elegance that they need to work as emotional transitions between scenes; they contort into fortune-cookie-esque awkwardness, e.g. “Castle-topplers whisper idle nothings to trap their guests.”

Still, the underlying substance of the manga is so very excellent that it more than made up for all the practical distractions; I look forward to the added fluency of comprehension that a reread will bring. If you didn’t like Memoirs of a Geisha (I didn’t), or maybe if you did, too, but are ready for a more hard-bitten take on the courtesan-memoir, I strongly suggest you give Sakuran a try.

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Moyoco Anno: bio and works reviewed

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Translated 2009 by Deborah Boliver Boehm.

Date Read: 4.11.10
Book From: Personal Collection, from Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The Cat in the Coffin is a romance/suspense (rather than a romance/mystery as the back cover claims) novel set in Japan that revolves around three lives: Masayo, an aspiring painter who is simultaneously a casual student of Goro, one in a family of famously lucrative artists, and a live-in tutor for Goro’s reserved and precocious daughter, Momoko. As Masayo eagerly begins her duties in the househould, she beings to naively fall for Goro, until the entrance of an old flame sets catastrophic events into motion.

Review

Unfortunately, I have much more gripe than praise for this book, despite giving ample room for consideration given that I was not reading it in the original language. Overall, it is a superficial, cheesy, predictable, simple story, heightened by the fact that it is very apparent Koike was trying to weave a masterful complex tale. First, I would use this book for the classic lesson of “Show. Not tell.” Most of the suspense in the novel would have been halfway effective had Koike not prefaced every twist with flashing red warning signals. Momoko goes out into the snow at night, and Masayo is “filled with a sense of foreboding” and “knows something bad is about to happen.” As she rushes out in the snow after Momoko, she images a sinister scene unfolding (which, I might add, had been set up from the first chapters anyway), which lo and behold, just happens to be the same as the events that actually do take place. In this way, several crucial scenes are effectively ruined throughout the book. It’s actually pretty surprising how Koike manages to wrangle so many elements of Suspense 101 yet is still described as a celebrated mystery and romance writer in Japan.

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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