Thursday, February 24, 2011

So, let’s talk about Edo women writers.

In my class on Japanese women writers, we are now into the Edo period. The Edo period, which lasted from 1600 to 1868, was the worst time to be a woman in Japan maybe ever. First of all, education was completely segregated. This is not uniquely bad by itself, but in this case the main textbook for women, Onna Daigaku, contained such gems as ‘to you your husband should be as Heaven itself; you must love and serve him with fear and trembling, lest you call down upon yourself celestial castigation’. The dominant political ideology was a bizarre form of Confucianism in which women were literally perceived as walking wombs, and one of the government’s slogans (the ‘yes we can!’ of its day, almost) was ‘danson johi’, which means ‘revere men; despise women’.

However, in this horrible, horrible environment, there were a few really awesome ladies who survived and even thrived to produce really amazing literature. I’m thinking here particularly of three women (those who we’ve covered extensively in my class), all of whom I really admire the Hell out of for putting up with this bullshit, both in their lifetimes and after their deaths (no women ever appear in anthologies of Edo literature, despite the output of these three and others).

  • Arii Shokyuu (1714-1781). Satirical poet and sometime travel writer. She was a third- or fourth-generation member of Basho’s poetry school and is known mainly for inflicting some of the worst (by which I mean BEST) puns on the Japanese language in the history of its literary tradition. May or may not have been an actual nun; certainly lived like one in a lot of ways. Only female Edo writer to attain some measure of popular acclaim and ‘respectability’ (as a writer, at least). Author of Record of the Autumn Wind. Compare: Mark Twain, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris.
  • Tadano Makuzu (1763-1825). Political philosopher, in her own cultural context considered extremely traditionalist and conservative, but in a broader context also advocated such things as imprisoning large-scale merchants for being parasitic middlemen who oppressed the workers. Religiously traditionalist and nationalistic; positioned herself as opposed to politically conventional and economic rationalism (as it was perceived at the time). Had a friendship with Takizawa Bakin that went bad when he refused to apologise for being a ‘simple fool’. Author of Solitary Thoughts. Compare: Dorothy Day, Christopher Lasch, Franziska von Karma.
  • Ema Saiko (1787-1861). Refined and highly educated and formalist poet, with command of Japanese, Chinese, and possibly Dutch. A dyed-in-the-wool hikkikomori and total daddy’s girl; her father, by all accounts, was awesome enough to completely deserve it. She is now mainly known (unfairly so) for getting NTR’ed by Rai San’yo. Really liked The Tale of Genji kind of a lot. Wrote poems about having to refuse her little sister alcohol. Author of Breeze through Bamboo. Compare: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Christina Rossetti.

I really like and admire all three of these ladies but Arii Shokyuu is probably my favourite. Here are two of her groaningly awful (by which I mean AWESOME) pun-couplets:

Why is my hat frazzled now…?
—The autumn wind. (TL: this is a pun in Japanese)

So I turn back to look once more,
For I am a woman, at Mt Kagami. (TL: kagami means mirror)

And here is a slightly longer poem by either her or one of her compadres, it’s not quite clear:

A robe of mist
Soaked at the hem
Princess Saho
With the coming of spring
Stands pissing.

So, pretty much, when I grow up, I want to be a coolface-tier haikai writer and travelogue author just like her.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chizu revisited

So, a few hours ago, I had a discussion with Maya about Aoi Hana. In this discussion, one interesting thing that we had decided to do was to reopen the topic of Chizu, the character who many of you will remember from my disgusted rant about her and how despicable she is a while back. In this discussion, we discounted a lot of our previous assumptions about the character in favour of a new set of theories that I now feel not only explain her better but also serve to place her as a character type in the history of both Japanese and world literature.

Our conclusion was that Chizu, when you strip her of the cultural and genre trappings, is in fact a remarkably similar character to Dom Claude Frollo, the antagonist from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Discount for a second the Disney adaptation of Hugo’s story: the Frollo in the book is a less horrible but also even more absurdly pathetic figure. There are three main bases for our comparison here:

  1. Lust (maybe actual love, to be fair to Frollo and Chizu, but given the circumstances this seems a little less likely, especially in Frollo’s case) for a young girl as an initial motivating factor for both characters, though la Esmeralda and Fumi, as people, have very little in common.
  2. A profound lack of understanding of cause and effect, and the fact that actions tend to have specific consequences, which leads the characters to act on their rather questionable motivation in ways that have a profoundly negative impact on the stories’ protagonists. In Frollo’s case, what he fails to understand is the sheer political and spiritual inappropriateness of his attachment; in Chizu’s case, it is the legal and social inappropriateness, in addition to the effect that it is having on Fumi, who is prone to attachment and separation issues.
  3. A form of cowardice that causes both characters to, when confronted with the consequences of their behaviour, spin excuses that, while not false, are presented in a context either indicating outright (in Frollo’s case) or heavily implying (in Chizu’s) that their main desire is to make the problem go away without having to actually address it.
Item 2 in this list is interesting in Chizu’s case because Aoi Hana is a Japanese text and ‘not understanding cause and effect’ is an extremely, extremely common hamartia or heroic flaw in the storytelling tradition of Japanese Buddhism. So this doesn’t really make Chizu any inherently worse than, for example, the mad abbot from Aozukin by Akinari Ueda, though, like Mitsuko from Tanizaki’s Manji, she is presented a little more negatively, since Aozukin is a Buddhist parable outright whereas Manji and Aoi Hana are not. In the context of the story it’s perfectly appropriate and correct to see that Chizu is a rather awful person who could probably benefit greatly from having her head examined. But my initial opinion about her—that she is a manipulative sociopath—gives her too little credit morally and too much credit intellectually. She’s a rather dull person in some ways, needlessly brutish in other ways, and, I now think, a far cry from the sort of wicked mastermind that I initially perceived her as.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy St Valentine's Day

So, St Valentine's Day has come round again, and in the spirit of Christian martyrdom I'd like to take a moment to reflect on all of the people who were persecuted and killed who do NOT have the good honour to be remembered with saccharine candy hearts and cards featuring Renaissance-era putti misindentified as cherubim, Cupid, or both. People like St Elmo, who had his guts torn out on a windlass; St Eulalia, who was deliberately frozen to death in the snow; St Eustachius, who was baked to death; St Lawrence, who was grilled to death (not the same as baking); St Agatha,, you don't want to know what happened to St Agatha.

This isn't to say that taking any of these people and turning their feast day into a day of love is at all inappropriate; in fact, given the context of what allegedly happened to Bishop Valentine this actually makes a lot of sense. But it is to say that there are many things at play here that he would not have appreciated: The implication that if you're not in a physical relationship there is something inherently wrong with you; the pressure to buy specific types of gifts for people who may want something more lasting or more useful or both; the bizarre misappropriation of both Christian and pagan imagery in ways that are almost as bad as Neon Genesis Evangelion just less obvious because more familiar. While obviously the nature of the Christian saint from whom the day takes its name is not precisely relevant or applicable any more, it should be remembered that the man did more than just perform weddings in catacombs; he was somebody whose legend is of one who supported love and mutual social support between spouses, families, friends, and colleagues, all over the known world.

This St Valentine's Day, if you have a husband, wife, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, beau, or consort, treat them as specifically and individually specially as they deserve. Also tell your friends you care about them, call your parents if you don't live with them [and are still on speaking terms], and if you run across anybody in need and there's anything you can do to help them, do. (Also, eat chocolate.)

This is a day about love.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book: Snow Country.

If you turned the sad, tired existence of a self-professed, proudly cynical materialist upside down and shook it, something like love, and beings like angels, would fall out and come pouring down like dust. If you got so plastered at raucous parties every night of your life that you could cross the mountains of Jōshin'etsu Kōgen in winter a thousand thousand times and only think that it was the grass that was silver, you could know what it meant to love and be loved by someone, just because you understood her and she was there, no matter how cold your sober thoughts had become. If at the moment of your death, rash and impulsive and asinine, your cynical world could be turned right-side-up again, perhaps as the world fell out from under you love and angels could stay in this time.

That's Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari, a book that addresses the question of how people love when they don't know how--how people love when they escape a loveless cage. It's a bit of a 'cry and throw the book against the wall' sort of novel; I literally did that when I got to the end. But oh, it's so amazingly beautiful.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shimura Takako’s Aoi Hana as a Social Fairy Tale

Astute followers of my journeys through the realm of Japanese literature and art, as well as anybody who is insane enough to see me as a ‘tastemaker’, will know of my intense and abiding love for the writer and artist Shimura Takako and her series Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers). I will not here attempt to explain the series, but rather to offer a theory about it to those who are already familiar with the basics. Aoi Hana is notably a spiritual offshoot of sorts to the work of Novalis, a German writer who lived in the later part of the eighteenth century and wrote exceptionally strange stories with typically Romantic themes. As Aoi Hana has at least one root in Novalis and German Romantic literature is all fundamentally based on fairy tales (even Faust, the grand climax of all German writing, is based on shady folklore from the Renaissance), it is my theory that Aoi Hana can be—though by no means must be—interpreted through an analysis of the characters’ and events’ roles in the structure or praxis of the German fairy tale.

The first thing to establish is that Aoi Hana admits of being defined as a fairy tale despite its lack of any supernatural or even particularly unusual elements, due to its use of a setting (all-girls high school) and setting-specific tropes that carry defined readings, associations, and references within them, within the context of Japanese media. ‘This is set in an all-girls high school’ enacts narratological protocols in the mind of one familiar with Japanese writing much as ‘Once upon a time’ enacts them in the mind of anybody in the West who can remember their childhood, though obviously they are not the same protocols. The setting immediately establishes Aoi Hana as a ‘social fairy story’, a very slightly unreal iteration of real issues—but in this case, the fairy tale comparisons can be drawn deeper as one pays attention to the somewhat Jungian psycho-romantic nature of both Aoi Hana’s storyline and the typical fairy tale schema.

The first principal player in a fairy tale is of course the questing hero, in this case Fumi. The first thing that makes Aoi Hana unusual if looked at as a fairy tale is the fact that Fumi is also the princess archetype, whose ‘rescue’ is brought about by the actions of another questing hero, Akira. But to some extent this unusual apportionment of roles between the two leads is due more to a shift in perspective than anything else. In fairy tales we are presented with numerous examples of resourceful and industrious princesses who are portrayed as active in definite and specific ways in securing their safety until the questing hero’s arrival—think of the continued obfuscations of Cinderella and her fairy hit woman, or even the tenacity and patience of Rapunzel. So Fumi’s role in Aoi Hana is not inherently different to the role of the fairy tale princess despite the fact that she also shares double-duty as the fairy tale hero. For Fumi, the quest is simply her own growth and salvation.

The villain role in the fairy tale, as defined by Vladimir Propp, is shared in Aoi Hana between several different characters. The role of the villain as the actor in ‘a story-initiating villainy, where the villain caused harm to the hero or his family’ is fulfilled perfectly, to the letter, by Chizu, who is either malicious for no real reason or (and this is admittedly more likely) simply so impulsive and self-centred as to achieve a pretty wonderful resemblance to someone who is. The role of the villain in ‘a conflict between the hero and the villain, either a fight or other competition’ can be held to be that of Sugimoto-senpai, whose fight with Fumi is intensely psychological and based on the changing specifics of an unusual situation and whose competition with Akira, while to an extent tempered and limited by that same situation, is much simpler and more direct. Finally, the villain’s role in ‘pursuing the hero after he has succeeded in winning the fight or obtaining something from the villain’ is in Aoi Hana played by social forces rather than specific persons (although persons certainly act in accordance with these social forces), reinforcing Aoi Hana’s status as both an explicitly queer story and as a social fairy tale.

Other characters fill other roles in Propp’s morphology. Since the fairy quest is personal there is little need for a dispatcher, Propp’s ‘character who makes the problem known and sends the hero off’. The dispatchers in Aoi Hana are the heroes themselves. The magical helpers are many and to be quite frank are frequently the characters in the story who serve the least point beyond their fairy tale purpose, though many of them are charming. These are people like Pon-chan, Mogi, and Yassan; those of the Sugimoto who are not Yasuko; and some of the older lesbian couples who appear later on. The princess, in addition to being one of Fumi’s parts in this piece, is also a large portion of Kyoko’s function, though the fact that nobody is actively pursuing her except for the relatively incidental Kou (whom I believe to fill the ‘donor/benefactor’ slot along with several other family members and close friends of the main characters) means that she actually fits the fundamental kernel of this role less well than she fits its normally attendant tropes. The false hero, who takes credit for the hero’s actions and tries to marry the princess, is arguably another part played in the early part of the story by Sugimoto-senpai, and not a role that has much significance later on.

In style and tone Aoi Hana also has much in common with the fairy tale. The childhood-friends setup is pure Perrault, pure courtly fairy tale of Italy and France; Fumi’s traumas reverberate through her future actions and future actions upon her in ways very similar to the patterns of repetition in such Grimm tales as ‘The Juniper Tree’ and to an extent the original long version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, in which the title character’s unfortunate experience in the first part of the story sets her ill-at-ease and makes it hard for her to manage the situation in the second. Verbal considerations and style, which Propp discounts but which for Grimm and people like Angela Carter and A.S. Byatt are of overwhelming significance, do not immediately correlate to the fairy tale, partially because of their provenance in another part of the world, instead serving more to tie Aoi Hana to the ideas in the Romantic stories that took fairy tales and analysed them in terms of principles and themes. The centre of Aoi Hana is yearning. The blue flower symbolizes yearning, in many cases the yearning of one lover for another or the yearning of two lovers for something sublime that will bless their love.

In Aoi Hana’s case, the yearning is both kinds, with one’s fulfilment leading to the other as the hero-princesses continue their quest together, and that is pure fairy-story.