13 Gatsu no Yurei: Suzume Takano

Takano_13GatsuWorking on this film that I have been lucky enough to work on, I’ve been talking to a lot of people who identify as “josou” lately. And that has made me take a closer look at this word and just what it means exactly. The most basic of definitions is “a man dressing in women’s clothing,” but of course, the basic definition never completely covers the way a word is actually used out in the wild. So yes, josou is a man dressing as a woman, but what kind of man? What kind of woman? Are you gay if you are josou? Are you trans? Are you somewhere in the middle? Are you just a dude who likes to wear a skirt sometimes? I like the neutrality of the word “josou”, the non-sexual specificity of it. I like that it has an equally non-sexually specific counterpart, “dansou”, for those ladies of various identities who would like to look more dudely sometimes, or maybe all the time.

You can be josou and also a totally straight guy who lives in the straight world just fine, like Kiri, one of the protagonists of 13 Gatsu no Yurei. He is just a guy who wears a suit during the day to his totally regular company job, but he likes to dress up like a girl and go hang out around town on his days off. And it turns out he has a twin Neri, who is a super tomboy. She would just buy her clothes in the men’s department if they only carried her size. Her friends and the people around her are always urging her to be more feminine, commenting on how cute she’d look in a skirt. But she is having none of it.

And then she meets Suou on a group date, and he is exactly her type. She wants him to think she is his type too, but she has been down this road before. The guys she likes always like the cute, girly-girls. But when she is reunited with Kiri after a few years of estrangement, she realizes the situation is a little different from what she was imagining. The obi for this one really says it all: Girl X Boy X Josou Boy, a love triangle. Continue reading

Asahakana Yume Mishi: Yukari Takinami

Asahakana_TakinamiFriends, my heart cracked in two when one sunny day that same friend who first brought me into the Ekoda-chan fold presented me with the final volume of that series upon my autumnal return to Japan. The cover, appropriately enough for the grief the book brought to our hearts, was black.

How could it end? we wept and moaned. Where would we turn now for our cynical take on modern life as members of the ladied persuasion in this country? What was left to us?? It was a dark time, my friends, when we ladied ones wandered the land, bereft of hope or light or anything to sustain us through the soul-crushing onslaught of all things Straight Man. Dark days that continued until last week when I discovered what had appeared to save us from the endless night. The saviour Yukari Takinami has returned, sisters. And she has brought with her a new bible to lead us through this savage wilderness, a fujoshi princess from the Heian era. Her light shines strongly enough to rescue us all. Continue reading

The Vegetarian: Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

812I+tp4jcLEven when I was little, I apparently understood that writing would never pay the bills. I went through a variety of day jobs, answers to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. The firm conviction that I would eventually be a writer was unshakeable, but on the side, I was also going to be a vegetarian veterinarian, among other career choices (including a ballerina briefly, until I started lessons with the mean-spirited Miss Pam). The two were inextricably linked in my young mind. You could not be a veterinarian without being a vegetarian, and vice versa. But then I found out that being a veterinarian meant that I would have to hurt animals (giving them shots, surgery, etc.), and I knew that I could never be a veterinarian. But the dream of vegetarianism lived on. I hassled my parents about it constantly, until they promised that I could stop eating meat when I turned thirteen. I think they thought I would lose interest. But I was laser focussed on never eating another animal, and so on my thirteenth birthday, I declared myself free of the horrible burden of meaty dinnertimes, and I never looked back.

But after moving to Japan, my own vegetarianism became an unexpected issue. This was back in the nascent days of the internet, so the information I had about my new country of residence was basically limited to whatever was in the Lonely Japan guide my friend gave me as a going-away present. And they were not super veg-focussed. So I was surprised to discover how vegetarian-unfriendly this country was (and still is). I was forced into a constant state of negotiation, just by living here. One of the first things I learned to say in Japanese was, “Does that have meat in it?” Even today, when the concept of vegetarianism is so much more widespread (albeit as a lady diet trend [ask to hear my rant about how even my choice of diet is gendered!]), I am still negotiating with servers, insisting on no ham on a vegetable pizza, asking for a shrimp-free tempura platter. (Although my language skills have advanced considerably, and I am more certain that the negotiations will result in food I can eat.) So naturally, given the amount of time I have spent thinking about this word, the title of the Korean novel The Vegetarian alone was enough to pique my interest.

As is my wont, I ignored the jacket copy and bought the book based on the title and the cover. The deeply disturbing cover. And as usual, the contents did not betray my snap judgement. (Seriously. Judge those books by their covers, people.) Continue reading

Red Thimble: Ebine Yamaji

Red Thimble_YamajiAfter reading Night Worker, you knew I’d be back for more Yamaji. I mean, it was obvious, right? I was so captivated by her storytelling, her clean lines, her weirdly frozen movement, and the sensuality of all it, that I wasted no time in finding something else of hers to read. Which was actually a very easy feat. It might have been Tomoko Yamashita’s year last year, but Yamaji wasn’t having too bad of a time either. Night Worker came out in May, followed by I’m Not Here, a collection of short stories, in November, and the first volume of her ongoing series Red Thimble the very same day. So I bought them all! Hooray to bookstores! Continue reading

Mirror Ball Flashing Magic: Tomoko Yamashita

Mirror Ball_YamashitaYears ago, before I ended up translating comics for a living, I was a teacher at this girls’ high school, a middle-of-the-road kind of school. So the girls I taught were expected to go onto university, but not necessarily a great university, and they would probably just find a husband there and never bother going into the workforce. They were nice and well behaved, even if not all of them understood the meaning of the word “plagiarism”, and I didn’t have to deal with all the crap the Japanese teachers did because I was a white girl and thus, could not actually be held seriously responsible for the well-being of my students. So basically, it was an easy job.

And I met this woman there who worked in the office, and we have been friends ever since. We are very different in a lot of ways, the most notable of which is that she does not read manga, while I (as you may have guessed from reading these pages) devour it. But she is extremely thoughtful and intelligent and amazing in general, so when she declared with some urgency that she needed to show me an author, I followed her without hesitation to the nearest bookstore. She would never lead me astray. The author was Tomoko Yamashita, and that was my first encounter with her. Continue reading

Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison

Scan 30The classics, you guys! I am dipping into them once again! I was actually reading this as part of my conscious focus on black writers for Black History Month (as opposed to my general tendency to focus on Japanese writers) (because of my job and everything), but we all know how very not timely I am with these write-ups. (And also how I don’t write up all the books I read. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good! In fact, The Book of Phoenix [which I read in February as well] is phenomenal! I would highly recommend it, and I may write about it here one of these days, when I have sorted my thoughts more.) So if it helps, just save this one for Black History Month next year. It will wait. It has already waited almost seventy years. A few more months won’t kill it.

But whether it’s for Black History Month next year or right damned now, you should probably read this one. Especially if you’re an American because dang! Not much has changed in your country in seventy years, friend. The one thing that really honestly shocked me about Invisible Man—and there is a lot to shock a person in these pages—is how spookily relevant it still is. A book written to reflect black status in America in 1952 should not read like it could have been written last week. Seriously. “His name was [spoiler] and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know?” It probably goes without saying that the “they” in question here are the cops. Continue reading

Kafka’s “The Castle” and Other Stories: Takehito Moriizumi

Kafka_MoriizumiIt’s like the powers-that-be in the world of Japanese publishing know what I want before I have even seized upon those nebulous desires myself. Even as I was remarking that I would love to see Moriizumi’s work in a beautiful slim hardback of some kind, that very book actually existed in the world, unbeknownst to me! I am truly the luckiest of readers.  And yet I avoided this good fortune of mine. I would see this lovely edition in the shops, but be put off by its size (closer to magazine than book, awkward for stuffing into shoulder bags). “I don’t want to have to drag that home,” I would say to myself. “I’ll pick it up later.” Until finally, in my last days in Tokyo at the end of the year, I came across it once more. With my flight only days away, I knew there was no more “later”.

And it wasn’t just the size I was struggling with. The idea of adaptations of “classic” works was somewhat off-putting to me. I will always prefer original works over adaptations, and a volume of adaptations of stories by old white dudes (plus one old Japanese dude who occupies the same place of privilege in his society as the white dudes do in theirs) was especially uninteresting. My patience for stories by and for people occupying the most privileged ranks of their societies is threadbare. I have read and loved many of those manly authors (we all know how dear to my heart D.H Lawrence is), but I have been forcefed those stories for my entire life. Given a choice, I would much rather hear stories from other perspectives. Like Nigerian-American sci-fi fantasy! Continue reading