Bright no Yuuutsu: Takemiya Keiko

Given the title and the cover, I thought Bright no Yuuutsu would be pretty standard shojo style, just with a boy in the lead role. Friends, it is not. It is so much more than that, so much more baffling than I could even imagine when I turned the first page and began to read. It’s one of those books that seems to have been going in an entirely different direction before some editorial or reader feedback came in to set this ship on a brand-new course, much like Takemiya’s Terra e. With every page came new surprises! And given the grinding rut of life in a worsening pandemic and the descent of winter taking away the opportunity for the most meagre of social activities like beers in the park, this nearly 400-page rollercoaster ride was absolutely the thing I needed to be reading right now. 

It is no secret that I am a fan of Keiko Takemiya. I waxed long if not poetically about her masterpiece Kaze to Ki no Uta. And while none of her other work I’ve read has ever managed to top that daring early shonen-ai series, she consistently offers readers imaginative and entertaining experiences with expert pacing and panelling and just the loveliest art to grace the pages of comics. And Bright is no exception in that sense. It’s gorgeous and adventurous and thoughtful in its own weird way. But wow! That way sure is weird!

Continue reading “Bright no Yuuutsu: Takemiya Keiko”

Onna no Ko no tame no Strip Gekijo Nyumon: Nao Korin

This is one of those books that I would have immediately grabbed from the shelf and raced to the register with if I had spotted it in a bookstore. I mean, look at that cover! That’s one wide-open beaver, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. And then the title! Literally translated: “An Introduction to Strip Clubs for Women”! Or maybe more artfully rendered as “A Girls’ Primer of the World of Strip Clubs”. At any rate, this book wants to tell women about what lies behind the doors of these sexy, sexy venues, and I am always here for de-stigmatizing any kind of sex work. Sex work is work!

But alas, I, like every other non-Japanese person on the planet basically, cannot enter that mystical land of bookstores, so I did not encounter this semi-smutty treat on the shelves of my favourite shop, but rather at a virtual event put on by one of the great indies in the city of Tokyo, Taco Ché. I was still struck by the book in the same way as I would have been in the real world, except instead of racing to the register, I emailed a friend and asked her to pick it up and send it to me. However, not even the powerful promptness of Japan Post can overcome the global delays brought about by a pandemic, and this sweet volume languished in an office somewhere, awaiting its turn to jump on a plane and fly straight into my arms. Eventually, the book made it through the trials of the global postal system to at last allow my brain to battle it, and honestly I can’t ask for anything more than that (except an end to the pandemic).

Like our author/slash narrator, I am a woman who has enjoyed strip clubs. Many years ago, when I was still very much a Young, I lived down the street from a sex district in a city in the extremely frozen tundras of the north. Please do not picture anything as inviting as the red windows of Amsterdam. Think more strip mall with sex toy shops, adult video rentals, a couple bars, a shitty and overpriced convenience store, and a dive-y strip club (across the street from the strip mall). To complete the picture, please add in young white men driving trucks, which were both absurd and unnecessary for the urban environment, shouting drunkenly out open windows. Yes, my time in this neighbourhood featured the most shouts of “fucking [slur for gay men redacted]” I’ve ever received because I had short hair and wore baggy clothes, so that apparently turned me into a gay man? It was confusing, but I try not to consider the thought processes of bigots too carefully. Continue reading “Onna no Ko no tame no Strip Gekijo Nyumon: Nao Korin”

Uekawaku Kami no Chi: Tokizawa Akiko

I am at home…a lot. I have always been at home much more than most people because I’m a freelance translator, and one of the perks of the job is no commute to an office with a boss who watches my every move and coworkers who steal my delicious vegan lunches from the fridge. Since this whole pandemic started, I’ve been joking that I’ve been preparing for it for the last fifteen years. My life has definitely not been turned upside down like so many of my friends, and I’m very grateful for the surprisingly stability my unstable career is providing for me at last. But working from home has not always meant working at home. 

My office is indeed in my house, but I work on a laptop for a reason. Most days, in the Before Times, I would stuff this machine in a bag along with the book I was working on and wander to some café in a random part of the city, where I would have human interaction (hard to come by if you are a freelancer) and a refreshing change of scenery that often helped me push through when I was bogged down in a translation. Naturally, I have not been in a café since February now, and the idea of a random human interaction fills me with horror. We are all nothing but disease vectors in masks now.

But the lack of wandering around the city with my computer in a bag slung across my chest has freed up a lot of time. I’m so efficient now! It’s not just the café trips. I used to stop in the shops, pick up some fruit, look at dresses, browse the books. Now my trips to the shops are short and purposeful; I need food, I go get food, I come home. When the plague seemed to be easing its grip on the city this summer, I dared to venture out to Muji for a completely non-essential blanket. I even went into a store and bought a dress! But now with case numbers in Toronto higher than ever, my most frivolous excursion is a trip to the Asian grocery store for some udon noodles and mochi. Continue reading “Uekawaku Kami no Chi: Tokizawa Akiko”

Jigoku Brothers Nidaime: tacocasi

I honestly didn’t plan to talk about this book at this particular time. I mean, a BL about the successors to the twelve kinds of Hell is a little too on the nose for the end of October, and I do not generally celebrate the spoopy season. But I was in the mood for a little boys in love with boys and this was on the top of the pile. And then by the time I got around to writing about it, it was the end of October and Halloween is tomorrow. So enjoy this rare post that actually has something vaguely in common with the time it is posted. It’s not likely to happen again for several years, if ever.

Given that it was published in October of last year, this is one of those books that I might never have come across were it not for the recommendation of a reader when I put out a call on Twitter this summer, in an attempt to reproduce the random encounters with books of a physical bookstore. Although I am in Japan in many different months of the year, I am never there in May or October. May is TCAF and October is TIFA, both festivals here in Toronto that I need to be physically present for so I can interpret for the artists and authors invited over from Japan. This year, though, was virtual (although the interview with Kawakami I interpreted for was only available to watch for twenty-four hours, you can still get a peek at me reading the essay TIFA commissioned from her), so technically, I could have been in Japan in October for once, but of course the border is firmly closed to me, and so I did my job from the comfort of my own apartment this year.

So October is one of those months when I am not noodling around in the bookstores of Tokyo, and thus I would never have seen this when it was on the new releases shelf. What a treat to have it jump out from the virtual shelves for me now! This is a reminder to all of you to tell me what books you have enjoyed that you think I might enjoy, so I can read them and we can all share in the book love. Continue reading “Jigoku Brothers Nidaime: tacocasi”

Hikari no Hako: Erisawa Seiko

I might be buying more books than usual, which is saying quite a lot. I already have half a bookcase of books to be read, and yet I keep adding new books to the top of the case, so that now I have closer to a full bookcase of books to be read. But I can’t stop buying them. Partly because I just really enjoy buying books and then having them in my house to look at excitedly until I finally have the time to read them, but mostly because in the year that out-dumpster-fires any actual dumpster fire—even a dumpster full of soiled diapers in the hottest part of summer—I’m desperate to do what I can for the shops in this city that I love. Naturally, most of the shops I love are bookstores (shout out to Glad Day, the Beguiling, and Bakka Phoenix!), hence the extra books arriving on my doorstep. And since I’m apparently never going back to Japan, I have some extra yen in ye olde bank account that would normally be spent on flights and trains and apartments on the other side of the ocean.

Of course, not being allowed into the country I have spent half my life in also means that I’m not noodling about in bookstores on that side of the ocean, arguably one of my favourite things to do in Tokyo. (After eating a delicious meal at one of the many fine vegan establishments that have popped up in the city over the last ten years.) (As an aside, I miss the pancakes at Ain Soph so desperately. They are vegan and yet so fluffy and buttery?? How do they do it??) And yes, I can and do order books from my favourite online retailer of J-books honto.jp. (They partner with local bookstores to do a point card thing, so you can support your indies while also getting points you can use for free books!) But the issue I’ve always had with ordering books is that you have to know what you want. You find known authors or ongoing series and you add them to your cart. It’s so hard to have the random encounter that is the great and powerful magic of a physical bookstore. You can’t wander into the online shop and spot a cover that makes you stop in amazement before you grab the treasure off the shelf and run to the cash register with it.

So I’ve been trying out different ways of recreating that miraculous encounter in the online shop, following random manga publisher accounts, asking for recs from followers, trying books that other artists I like like, and clicking through the new releases on the front page of honto. Hikari was one of these new release finds, although the snail’s pace of international post these days means that it was a new release in July, but I only got it last month. So it’s not quite as new as it was when I ordered it. This is our corona virus life now, virtual bookstore selections carried on planes that maybe fly, maybe don’t. You get your package when you get it. This is a very un-Japanese approach to delivery items, and I may be having a hard time adjusting. Continue reading “Hikari no Hako: Erisawa Seiko”

Kashikokute Yuki Aru Kodomo: Yamamoto Miki

A lot of the Japanese books coming my way these days are about women and pregnancy and babies and bodies, and I’m starting to wonder if someone put something in the water over there. First, there was Nemu Yoko’s pregnancy-by-months manga, and then I had to take a deep dive into Kawakami Mieko’s last novel, Natsumonogatari, and the English translation, Breasts and Eggs, which are both a whole lot of book that I am still processing to be honest. I’m interpreting for Kawakami for this year’s International Festival of Authors, so I have had to spend a lot of time with these books, not just reading them, but reading reviews of them, listening to podcast interviews about them, watching videos from other events Kawakami has been doing, in order to get to know the books on a level closer to how the author herself sees them. Because, you know, I have to basically be her for a couple hours while interpreting. 

And now I finally have time to take up Yamamoto Miki’s latest, Kashikokute Yuki Aru Kodomo, only to find a strange overlap with both Kimi ni Aetara and Breasts and Eggs. Like Kimi, there is a joyfulness to this tale of pregnancy. The moment Sara and her husband learn that she’s got a bun in the oven, they’re thrilled, filled with anticipation and a desire to meet this child of theirs and learn all about who she is. They drive home from the clinic with hearts trailing behind the car, a sign of their love for each other and this new life that they’ve created. Sara buys book after book about genius children excelling in one way or another and sets them out in a kind of vision board in the crib in one corner of their apartment, a prayer for the clever and brave child they want to have. The majority of the pregnancy flies by in a flurry of excitement and preparation, which Yamamoto depicts with a series of dated Polaroids showing Sara struggling with morning sickness, the first ultrasound where they can clearly see the baby, the husband taking over more of the household chores, and other tiny moments in the life of this young couple. Continue reading “Kashikokute Yuki Aru Kodomo: Yamamoto Miki”

Akogare: Kawakami Mieko

For the last few years, every October, I’ve been working with an author from Japan for a week or so as their voice in English, interpreting at the big public events for the Toronto International Festival of Authors, but also over lunches or signings or random encounters on the street. I know other kinds of interpreting are different and involve far less contact with the client, but the kind of interpreting I do is generally quite intensive, involving many hours of basically just hanging out with an artist for every hour I am on stage with them performing.

But for most of the year, I am translating, sitting alone in front of my computer with my books, puzzling out the best way to say in English what the artist is trying to say. So the sudden intense human contact that comes with interpreting can be jarring, but in a good way. Like a sudden flare in the sky that illuminates all the reasons why I do the translations in the first place. The ability to reach people, to cross language and culture and make a reader feel something new, to make them think in a new way, to offer them a bigger world in the pages of a book—that’s what we do when we translate, but sitting alone in our respective translation hovels, we rarely see the readers who are having all these feels, who are living in a changed world because of a work we translated. But interpreting is a chance to see firsthand the effect of art in this world. Interpreting for the artist is when I get to really see the effect of translation, and it gives me fuel and motivation to return to that work.

 

It’s the human contact part of this equation that is so satisfying, and of course, in this the Year of Plague, it’s that human contact that we all must go without. My October event is no exception. This year’s Japanese guest at TIFA is Kawakami Mieko, and longtime readers of these brain battles will know that I am a big fan of her work, so I was very excited to learn that she would be coming this year to promote her first full-length novel translation into English, Breasts and Eggs. And then everything went online, and now we are all speaking into the Zoom void. (I gave a lecture on translation this summer, and it was eerie. Most participants had their videos off to save bandwidth, so I felt like I was alone, telling my computer about all my translation thoughts.) So although the event will still happen, like everything else this year, it will be different. No signings, no seeing the flash of insight on a listener’s face, no hotel lobby coffee getting cold on the table in front of me while I interpret for a media interview.

One thing that is not different, that can’t be different if it’s me interpreting, is the descent into stalkerdom to prepare. I am busy reading up on Kawakami, listening to podcasts and interviews (including one I myself did with her years ago!) (but the article it was for got cut…), reading everything I can by and about her. Including her 2015 novel Akogare which I picked up immediately when it came out, read part of, and then put down for reasons that are lost to the sands of time now. When I started Ms Ice Sandwich translated by Louise Heal Kawai, I had a jolt of déjà-vu, certain I had read these words before but not exactly sure where. And then I remembered the aborted attempt at Akogare and pulled the book from the back of my shelf where it had been languishing. 

Although “Ms Ice Sandwich” is published in English as a novella, the tale of Mugihiko (the nameless narrator gets a name in the second act) is actually the first shorter section of a novel. While Mugihiko’s fixation on the supermarket sandwich lady and his developing friendship with Hegatea (Tooti in English, for pertinent reasons) takes place in the fourth grade, the second chapter “Ichigo Jam kara Haha wo Hikeba” jumps ahead a couple years to grade six, when both Mugi and Hegatea are on the verge of adolescence and all the baffling confusion that comes with that. And Hegatea is the narrator now, living alone with her dad after her mother died when she was still a small child. She’s thick as thieves with Mugi now, hanging out at school and their regular Friday movie nights at her house with her film critic dad. 

Whereas “Ms Ice Sandwich” focuses on Mugi’s relationship with his dying grandmother and his compulsive drawing of the supermarket sandwich lady, “Ichigo” examines Hegatea’s relationship with her father and her dead mother and her coming to terms with loss and her own place in this world. Mugi and Hegatea are no doubt drawn to each other because of their complimentary losses that separate them from the other kids their age—she has lost a mother, he has lost a father—and the whole novel is something of a meditation on what it means to live when someone else is dead, the longing we feel for the things that could’ve been, the futures we could have lived, the people we could have loved. There’s a yearning in these pages that’s both deeply childish and profoundly old at the same time, as if we spend a few decades in the middle of our lives not puzzled and taken up with the problems of life and death, before sinking back down into them. 

Kawakami somehow perfectly captures the inner narrative of these children, as they talk to themselves and wonder how the world is the way it is. And the way they talk to each other, the way they flit between adult and child in the liminal space of early adolescence, is painfully perfect, sending me back to my own self at twelve. I think the thing that made my heart crack in two was how Hegatea sleeps under the Christmas tree in the living room, the Christmas tree that has been standing in the living room since her mother was still alive. It’s such a perfect detail and expresses so much about the world she lives in, the things that are on her mind however subconsciously. There’s a strange beauty in Hegatea’s half of the book, and I wish we could see the whole thing in translation so the two halves could play off each other the way they were clearly meant to. Ms Ice Sandwich is brilliant, but in the end, it’s only half a book. 

Eniale & Dewiela: Shirahama Kamome

You may have heard that Shirahama Kamome was going to be a featured guest for TCAF this year. She even drew a poster for us! And then the world exploded, TCAF was cancelled, and the many hours and emails and meetings that went into making her visit happen were all for nought. (Well, we did get that cool poster. And I got to hang out with her on the train home after one meeting, which was great. She showed me pictures of her dog.) So I didn’t have to do the usual frenzy of preparations, which left me feeling oddly adrift in March and April, like there was something very important that I was forgetting about. It seems that after all these years, TCAF has turned into a body memory for me, and when there is no surge of stress in the spring that peaks in May and then drops off a cliff the day after TCAF when I fall into bed and sleep for twelve hours, I don’t know what to do with myself. 

Part of working with an artist for me is reading every single thing they’ve ever written. Which in Shirahama’s case means the eternally delightful Witch Hat Atelier and her debut series Eniale & Dewiela. I’ve been shouting about Witch Hat from the rafters for years now and I was so, so happy when it was finally released in English because it is far too pure and good to be contained by one language. But I’d never gotten around EniDewi for some reason, even though my usual habit when I find an artist I love is to go and read everything else they’ve ever written. So when TCAF was still on, I put the series in my online shop basket so I could get myself up to speed. And then, of course, the world exploded, as mentioned above, and I never got around to actually buying the books.

Continue reading “Eniale & Dewiela: Shirahama Kamome”

Kimi ni Aetara Nante Iiou: Nemu Yoko

I am an Old, and I am also happily free of children. The desire for children is one of those things that has completely baffled me my entire life. Not that children are bad. I have met some very nice children. I like my sister’s kids a lot, and seeing them go from squalling tiny creatures on my living room floor to responsible, kind grown-ups whose company I genuinely enjoy has been a real trip. But the idea of giving up my entire life so that I could have some kids of my own has never been anywhere in my realm of possibility. I remember telling grown-ups that I was never getting married or having children when I was six years old. Of course, I got a deeply patronizing response, one that I would become quite familiar with as I grew up and heard it over and over again: You’ll feel differently when you’re older. And yet? I do not feel differently when I am old enough to render the entire question of wanting children moot due to my Advanced Age. 

But as a woman, there is always that ambient societal pressure to pair off and have kids. It’s everywhere, this heteronormative concept of family. And it’s on the milestone checklist for a “good life”: finish school, get married, buy a house, have kids, get a dog (or maybe the dog comes first), raise kids, retire, die. It’s what you’re “supposed” to do. And a lot of people do! This is not a judgement on them. But I cannot fathom it. I seriously hope I don’t die alone in my apartment, my corpse left to rot until a neighbour complains about the smell, because I didn’t birth some people who would feel compelled to check in on me from time to time, but I can’t imagine a day when I would regret not birthing those people. 

Which is why a book like Kimi ni Aetara is so fascinating to me. Kiri, a freelancer in her mid-thirties, is married with a cat, but no plans for children on the horizon. She’s in that grey space that I imagine so many women occupy these days. She’s got a great job and a great relationship, a nice apartment; she doesn’t feel any real lack in her life. She’s happy with the way things are. But she also knows biology is thing working against her here, and if she and her husband do want kids, they are going to have to start doing something about that or her womb will fill with desert dunes. She gets to thinking about this seriously when she finds out that a colleague is pregnant, and after an awkward conversation with her husband, she tips over onto the side of yes, let’s have kids. Continue reading “Kimi ni Aetara Nante Iiou: Nemu Yoko”

Kioku no Giho: Yoshino Sakumi

Kioku_YoshinoThe mountain of unread books at Château Brain has grown to almost embarrassing heights. Whereas once (in the long distant past) it was an actual pile, a stack of books on a side table, it has spread and sprawled out from that side table to occupy half of a sturdy Ikea bookshelf, with unread books spilling out in heaps on top of the bookshelf. And yet I keep buying books? It is a disease possibly? Part of the recent extra book-buying is the plague that keeps us all bemasked—I don’t want my favourite bookstores to go out of business, so I keep ordering from them at regular intervals, regardless of the number of books I already have in my house waiting for me to read them. And part of it is that when I order books for work from Japan, I figure I should just throw in some books for pleasure too since I’m paying the shipping, and everything takes so long to arrive in the post now.

But mostly? I just really like buying books and having books. It’s such a thrill to see them there on the shelves and wonder what I’ll read next. Some books I deliberately leave in the unread bookcase because I am so eager to read them and I want to savour that anticipation. (Yes, Harrow the Ninth, I’m looking at you in specific here.) Some books are there for research I am totally going to do at some unspecified future point for a project that will almost certainly never be finished. Others get pushed to the back of the shelf, lost in the mix, waiting to be rediscovered one day. And still others get picked up and put back over and over because they seem too daunting in some way. Kioku no Giho is one of these. Continue reading “Kioku no Giho: Yoshino Sakumi”