japan

KIJIN GAHOU BY SHINTARO KAGO

We hadn’t even finished our first drinks. This is what I do now. I invite strangers back to my place. She invited herself, in fact. She thinks I have a cat. But the cat is dead. She doesn’t seem to notice. I guess she isn’t here for the cat. I’m wishing I had drank more, so I could feign impotence. She notices the books. It’s difficult not to notice the books. ‘Wow, you have a lot of books,’ she says. She wants me to show her the one I spoke about on the way home, which, I now realise, I mentioned in an effort to put her off. The disgusting one. She’s not unattractive, but I have done this too many times to find meaning in it. I’ll cover her in my scent, in my DNA, and then she’ll leave and never return. I collect these women now, in the same way I collected all those books, without ever really enjoying it. I’m surrounded on all sides by shaky towers. One day I’ll die under a book avalanche. ‘You must love reading,’ she says. I want to tell her I hate it. This, I think, with an imaginary sweeping gesture that encompasses her too, is not about love.

“Met her at my younger brother’s family barbecue. I punched a hole in her cheek with an iron spit. My cum was leaking out of it. Amusing.”

The disgusting book is Kijin Gahou, a collection of one-shots, or standalone short pieces, by mangaka Shintaro Kago. I don’t know who put it together. Does it exist because the author wanted it to or was it fan-made? I can’t imagine that any publisher saw it as an opportunity to make money. Or not a lot of money, anyway. There’s something so unsettling about parts of the collection – and one story in particular, which I will discuss in detail later – that the healthy, immediate response would be to suppress it, to hide it, to look away. But, then, the world isn’t a healthy place. So maybe this is the book we need right now, maybe it’s the book we deserve. Certainly, I feel as though I have reached a [low] point in my life where it is one of the few books that has any significance for me, that says something meaningful about how I see and experience the world.

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On the surface, ‘collecting’ is what ties together many of the stories. In fact, the opener is actually called The Collector. It features a girl who is so in love with a boy that she wants to keep and catalogue everything he comes into contact with. It’s one of the strongest entries in Kijin Gahou, for the way that it unfolds with a satisfying, gruesome logic. If the girl wants the pencil that the boy touches, simply because he touched it, then it seems to naturally follow that she would want the skin of the people he touches too. I’m starting to realise that this is something of a Kago trademark, which is to say that he takes fairly banal or commonplace situations or phenomena and draws them out to an absurd, but still logical conclusion. While The Collector is, of course, about the act of collecting things, the author’s real focus is on the psychology behind it. The obsession and madness, I mean; and the strange – to me – desire to own something that once belonged, or was touched, by someone notable, often someone you admire. I have never understood how an object can become significant purely by virtue of having passed through the hands of another human being, but then I have always been unsentimental.

The most distressing, the most notorious, and the best, story is Suck It. Immediately after finishing Suck It I did not want to think about, discuss, or write about it. It affected me that profoundly. Yet even while I was reading it I knew that it had an incredible power, and that it was important in some way, even though I simultaneously hated it for what it was doing to me. It is concerned with a man who wants to photograph women giving him oral sex. For the most part, all that we see are the photographs themselves, with a short comment by the photographer. At first, the pictures are fairly standard, but they quickly increase in extremity and depravity. One way in which Suck It is so disturbing is that it makes you feel complicit, or made me, and perhaps most men who read it, feel that way. Having a dick, and having taken many a photograph and video of this sort myself, I could not help but put myself, my dick, in the situations I was observing. It was, in a sense, my dick that was being sucked; and that is the genius of Kago’s choice, of presenting us with the photographs, rather than a traditional narrative.

Suck It has many notable, and disconcerting, things to say about male sexual psychology. One gets the sense that the man is more interested in the image than he is in the blowjobs themselves, that he is, in other words, more concerned about his project than his pleasure; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the case that working on the project increases his pleasure. It is the desire to try something new, to get a different kind of picture, that appears to motivate him. ‘If you get down to it,’ he comments early on, ‘all faces look pretty similar’; and he then endeavours to make then look as different as possible. I have had many discussions over the years with men who want to fuck a range of women, simply to be able to say they have done it. Like a fat girl, for example, or someone of a race or nationality other than their own. It is a sort of competition with oneself, a kind of cataloguing of the opposite sex. The pleasure gained from these experiences is not from the acts themselves, or not primarily, it is in the accomplishment of a goal, in ticking a box. Maybe it is the case that women do this too; I’m certain that some do, at least; but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent and toxic.

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I’ve read a lot of ero guro, both in terms of conventional literature and manga, and it is undeniable that much of it verges on, or just is, misogynistic; and, if one glanced at his work, one could accuse Kago of it too. Indeed, almost every story in Kijin Gahou involves sexual, or sexualised, violence against women. There are, for example, images of breasts being cut off, and of a woman sucking dick while having a hole drilled in her head, to name but two of many. However, the further I progressed through the book the more convinced I became of the author’s warmth and empathy towards women. In fact, he seems to focus on issues affecting women far more often than those affecting men, such as abortion in Fetus Collection. The young woman at the centre of the story is ‘filled with inertia.’ She has regular unprotected sex, she says, ‘to please and to avoid seeming unappreciative.’ The sad image accompanying this statement is of her vagina, with semen dribbling pathetically out of it. She then states that ‘the value of my existence is defined by the sexual desire of men.’ In any context I would find this thrilling, this subtle fuck you to all the guys who sulk and bitch if a woman won’t accept their cum, but in male-authored ero guro it strikes me as almost unprecedented.

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TEKKONKINKREET BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

Look who just walked in, my friend said. I tried not to look. This is why I don’t drink around here anymore, I thought to myself. My friend nudged me. Do you remember that guy? Of course I did. It was impossible to forget. My friend walked over to the bar and introduced himself. Are you him?, I heard him say. I might be, the old man replied with a sly grin. I thought my friend was going to buy him a drink, but thankfully he didn’t. The story goes that the police had been trying to put him away for years and eventually they did it. They got him for what must have been fifteen-to-twenty, and now he was out. I don’t know what they pinned on him, and I don’t want to know. Once, or so legend says, he was summoned to take part in a retaliatory raid on a local pub full of rival gang members. His one instruction was not to stab anyone. Beat them up badly, yes, but don’t stab. You got that? Sure, man, sure. Of course, he didn’t listen. As the members of the rival gang fled the pub he stuck a knife in the first three he saw.

You’re not having another? No, I said, eyeing the dregs of my drink. My friend had returned to our table and now I wanted to leave, to flee with the same kind of urgency I felt when I was boy. Only then it was a whole city, a whole life I wanted to escape, and this time it was just a sad old man and a sad old pub and a sad old situation. Are you alright? It was a joke. I almost smiled. No one ever asked you that back then. Are you ok? Can you handle this? Do you need any help? I didn’t look like a tough kid. And I wasn’t; not physically, at least; but I was desperate and crazy, and that is sometimes worse. The city did that to you; or our small, wretched part of it, anyway. Do you remember when we were kids?, my friend said, with a kind of smug complacency. He had allowed nostalgia to transform his memories into an heroic narrative, one worth reminiscing over, but I hadn’t. The pain, the blood, the fear, the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air. Yeah, I remember.

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Yeah, I remember, although sometimes it takes a scene like that to bring it all back. Or a book, maybe. Sometimes it’s a book, and that’s even more unexpected. A book like Tekkonkinkreet, which is the story of orphaned brothers, one called Black and one called White, and a place called Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s style is crude, although detailed, with imprecise lines and perspective. There is a shakiness to it, a sense of chaos; and this suits the narrative, the personalities and lifestyles of the characters, and the setting. Treasure Town is, we’re told, a pit; it is the rundown playground of delinquent children, yakuza, drunkards, and stray animals. It is often said of cities within novels that they act as characters themselves, which strikes me as a meaningless phrase, but Treasure Town is certainly important to the people who inhabit it. They talk about it frequently; they are prepared to fight, and die, for it. Yet the place is changing. The adults are particularly sensitive to this, because they are old enough to remember how it once was. New gangsters are muscling in; old alliances are crumbling and fresh, but less stable, ones are being formed; and the landscape is being redeveloped.

One of Tekkonkinkreet‘s most interesting, and surprisingly moving, subplots involves yakuza members Suzuki [The Rat] and his protégé Kimura. Suzuki is weary of the game, in an ironically amused kind of way, and is planning retirement. He’s one of the guys – almost everyone in the manga is male; I recall only one female character – who most often speaks of changing times and of the relationship between a man and his city. One gets the sense that he feels left behind, that he intuits that he is no longer fit for purpose. Kimura is younger but equally at odds with the way that his world, the world of crime, is evolving. His girlfriend is pregnant and that makes him reevaluate his life and his priorities, but more than that it is the brutal approach of his new boss, Serpent, that disconcerts him. There is a scene, for example, in which he is presented with a gun and he behaves as though it is the first time he has ever seen one. Throughout his dealings with Serpent he counsels against excessive violence; he is always tentative, always seems uncomfortable and on edge. Matsumoto brilliantly weaves together all of these ideas when Kimura is ordered to kill Suzuki; and, as The Rat advises his friend on how to carry it out, and how to get away with it, I found a small lump forming in my throat.

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However, as previously suggested, the main characters are the two boys, Black and White. I’m not sure of their ages, but White behaves as though he is the younger brother. Certainly, he’s a simple-minded, happy-go-lucky kid. He often sings nonsense songs and talks in a kind of infant-like gibberish. His appearance also mirrors his mental and emotional state, what with the permanently snotty nose, missing front teeth, and the cute animal head hat. It is said that he is vulnerable, and Black takes care of him like a father; he ties his shoes, dresses him and makes sure he brushes his teeth. As his name implies, he is the [more] innocent half of the partnership. In one scene, for example, he plants an apple seed in a parking lot, so that he can grow a tree and have his own apples; although this can also be viewed a comment on the city as well as a symbol of hope. Yet, it would not to true to say that White is totally innocent, for he participates in and enjoys violence, even, at one stage, setting fire to a man [albeit he is an assassin who is, in that moment, intent on killing Black].

Black is, of course, the opposite of White. He is cunning and tough and street smart. Again, his appearance is telling, with the dark top, goggles, and the scar over his eye. Yet, while the boys are engaging enough as individuals, in their differences, it is what they mean to each other that gives them depth. I’ve already noted how Black looks after White, but it works the other way around too, albeit in a more subtle, indirect way. Throughout the book, Black is described as evil, abnormal, bloodthirsty; in fact, he is considered such a threat to White’s well-being that the police take him away to a kind of safe-house. However, Black needs White; he needs to have someone to care about. He needs White in order to feel something, in order to not lose the last remaining human elements of his personality. At one point, the boys’ grandfather perceptively says to Black that it is not he who is protecting White, but White who protects him. White himself says of the two of them that they each have the screws that the other is missing; and in doing so shows himself to be not all that simple-minded after all.

RED COLORED ELEGY BY SEIICHI HAYASHI

Recently I read Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show by Suehiro Maruo. I wanted to put together a review, but I could not. I don’t know how to write about manga. I do not know how to write about anything anymore. Ever since returning from Tokyo I have felt changed. I have thought about recording my experiences. A kind of travelogue. Since no one knows about Chihiro and the love hotel I could make something of that, perhaps. I feel changed. You could blame the seizure. Or the typhoon or the earthquake. The world is trying to kill me, it is clear. I met Chihiro at 4am outside Shibuya station, by the Hachikō statue, which is where all young lovers meet. I had expected her to be a man. I had expected to be murdered. How many beautiful young women offer to pay for a hotel in order to sleep with a stranger? Recently I read books by Suehiro Maruo and Katsuhiro Otomo. I enjoyed them both, but I could not write about either. I cannot. Tokyo was trying to kill me, it is clear; and yet I long to return.

It could be that what I am experiencing is an extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome. I only force myself to write this now because I wonder if it is the last time. The very last. Not one but one. Not the bluff. My eyes lose focus. I’m sick. My head is sick. Something happened out there, something entered into me and I have brought it home. Tokyo was trying to kill me, of that there is no doubt. The world is trying to kill me, and for the first time I feel as though it is succeeding. Last week I read Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama. I bought it in Mandarake Shibuya. It was a lucky find. That day, I could not move further than a few hundred yards from my hotel. I was too ill, too weak. I was constantly on the verge of collapse. I felt as though I was trapped in a giant pinball machine. I did not write about Travel. I did not make notes, even.

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In Shinjuku a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie offered me a blowjob while I stood outside the Robot Restaurant and listened to their song. It was 4:30pm. I politely declined. Akari commented on my politeness. How politely you decline the blowjob, she laughed. No, thank you. No, I don’t want a handjob either. Young girls inside. I questioned his sales technique. You don’t offer the blowjob first, I explained to Akari. If someone doesn’t want that they certainly won’t be enticed by a handjob, I said. My head feels as though it is immersed in warm water. I am ashamed of myself for allowing Chihiro to pay for the hotel. I had plenty of money but I wanted to see if she would go through with it. It was the first and only time we met. Her friend, she said, had drank too much and passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. That is why she was still out at 4am. She did go through with it; although there was going to be no love, she said, only sleep. I asked why, in that case, she needed me. To hold, she said; but of course it didn’t work out that way.

Yesterday I finished reading Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, and this is my attempt to write about it. I didn’t know that it was an earthquake. Not at first. My mobile phone vibrated, beeped and spoke to me in Japanese. On the screen was displayed an emergency warning. The word emergency was the only word that I could understand. Red Colored Elegy is a love story. There are two people, Ichiro and Sachiko, a man and a woman, and they are in love. When I looked up everyone had stopped; everyone was motionless, staring at their phone or staring into the distance. They looked confused, or concerned. A voice came over some kind of PA system. I do not speak or read Japanese. I thought the world was ending. Someone has launched a nuclear weapon, I thought, and the world is coming to an end. I am dying here in Tokyo, at the Shibuya crossing. It was midnight, four hours before I met Chihiro. I had been out drinking, but not enough to be hospitalised. I am dying here, and I am not in love.

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Ichiro is an artist who wants to draw comics. A man can’t live off paintings, we’re told. There is something in this, I’m sure, about Japanese culture, or Tokyo culture, at the time; some reference to the emergence of manga as a way for artists to express themselves. But not too much is made of it. Ichiro draws, doodles or whatever, but it could have been anything, any activity. When the typhoon hit I was in Ebisu with Akari. The old men outside the traditional restaurant jeered and whooped when I kissed her. I dropped my umbrella and my jacket on the street as I put my hands around her hips. The old men are watching us, she said. I am not in love. I picked up my umbrella and my jacket and we walked for a while. I could not walk for more than a few hundred yards. I am not in love, although I am constantly on the verge of love. As we left the hotel I offered to buy Chihiro a coffee. It was the first and only time I saw her in daylight.

Ichiro and Sachiko move in together. Ichiro draws, or doodles or whatever. Sachiko works. Yet most of the panels show the couple squabbling, rolling around on the floor, playing with each other, smoking, fucking. It is the most realistic, and therefore the most moving, representation of the banalities of love that I have read. This, I thought, as I turned the pages, is love. This is what I don’t have. I bought Chihiro a coffee, when perhaps what she really wanted was to leave. The typhoon ripped through Ebisu. I was scared. I am dying, and I am not in love. Akari and I kissed outside the restaurant, my umbrella and jacket in a heap by my feet. I am not in love. This is my attempt to write about Red Colored Elegy. It is a failure. Tokyo has changed me. Something entered into me out there, and it will not leave. In Harajuku I had a seizure. My head felt as though it had been immersed in warm water. I fell against a wire fence and shook. I fell further down. I slouched towards the concrete street. I am dying here, of course, on the floor, without love. I tried to ask for help, but no one heard.

IGUANA GIRL BY MOTO HAGIO

One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mother while she passed judgement on my brother and I. “Girls will love you,” she said to my brother, “because you’re beautiful.” He had, at that time, long curly blonde hair; and I now imagine that she caressed it as she spoke to him. “You!” she turned to me. “Girls will like you because you’re cheeky.” I don’t think my mother intended to hurt me, or even that her aim was to criticise me, but I was old enough to read between the lines. I felt clearly who she favoured, and who she found the most appealing. But, more than that, she was, I realised, so sure of her opinion that she was able to speak with such authority for other people, for the rest of the world, who would, I now knew, never like me for my appearance. For a period following this incident I would stare at myself in mirrors, at my large eyes and plump lips, which never before had struck me as unattractive, and become ever more disheartened, because my brother did not look this way. My mother had defined beauty for me, and it belonged to only one little boy in the world.

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Moto Hagio is considered to be the most notable, and influential, creator of shōjo manga, which is to say manga that is aimed at a teenage female audience. While shōjo manga is not restricted to any particular subject matter, or genre, it generally features more prominent female characters, is more introspective, and more focussed on emotions and issues affecting young women, than traditional manga. Iguana Girl, which was first published in 1991, is the story of Rika, whose mother believes her to be an iguana and therefore ugly. This may sound something like a manga version of The Ugly Duckling or that awful Mask film, but the reality is something more moving and complex. Iguana Girl isn’t about being unconventional looking or different [or certainly not in terms of appearance]; it is not about the beauty within, or anything so glib. For Rika is not considered ugly by all, or even most; only her mother sees her that way. Indeed, her father calls her beautiful and boys find her attractive. There are, moreover, moments in the text when one is allowed glimpses of Rika as human, in other words as she appears to everyone except her mother, and she is, even in cartoon form, obviously a pretty girl.

Yet, while Rika is not ugly, she is often awkward and clumsy. For example, in one scene she runs to show her mother a bug in a box and accidentally lets it out to fly in her face. She is also, and more significantly, not stereotypically ‘girly.’ She is, with her interest in baseball and her ‘good throw,’ what we might call a tomboy, although that is a phrase that I dislike. In fact, one character says of her that she should have been born a boy. In this way, Iguana Girl engages with some of the issues surrounding gender roles and identity. What does it mean to be a girl? Or a boy? What is a boy activity? How should a girl behave? Certainly, Rika’s mother has firm ideas about such things. She considers grace and reserve – which her iguana daughter lacks – to be feminine qualities. When she has a second child, Mami, she is pleased that she now has a daughter with whom she can bake [suggesting she couldn’t with Rika]. Mami, we’re told, also looks good in a dress, while Rika does not.        iguana-girl-d20fe387-d4c9-408f-9d6c-392ac441ac1-resize-750 (1).gif

However, one gets the impression that Rika’s awkwardness is not natural; it is her mother who makes her so by repeatedly criticising and abusing her. Likewise, if she is tomboyish, one might argue that it is because she has been raised to believe that she is unsuited to traditionally feminine activities. There are a series of panels in which Rika applies make up to herself, and the mother is angry when she finds out; so it is not that the girl has no interest in such things, simply that she has been convinced that they are shameful, and that she is made ever more monstrous or ridiculous by them. Rika isn’t born thinking that she is ugly, either; she learns her self-loathing about her looks. Iguana Girl is, therefore, as much about how one’s upbringing affects you, about parent and child relationships and dynamics, about nature versus nurture, as anything else. While Rika gives the manga its title, the most important character is, in fact, her mother. It is her disappointment in not getting the kind of child she always wanted that drives the action; it is her expectations that are not met. She cannot love Rika for what she is, because she does not see her as a person in her own right; she is, instead, a breathing, bumbling, broken dream.

BEAST IN THE SHADOWS BY EDOGAWA RAMPO

I’ve written about this before. My troubled relationship with reality. My mania for narratives. My madness. My doubt. I doubt everything. For every event I could, and quite often do, create multiple stories or explanations. My need to confront the truth of the world means, ironically, that the truth is inaccessible to me. That is if it could be said to exist at all. The truth, I mean. Or maybe not inaccessible, but unidentifiable. The truth  – if it exists at all, if it isn’t a meaningless concept – is simply one possibility amongst many, all of which have equal standing, all of which are equally persuasive. I can work the facets of every case, every event, no matter how banal or dramatic, into a series of believable, logical theories. I doubt everything and therefore I am capable of convincing myself of anything. My mind is hyperactive, oppressive. It attaches itself to things like the Kraken does a ship. I didn’t want to write about this again. I’m wary of boring you all; yet Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo has made this necessary.

“I regret my proclivity to reasoning and fantasy, but regret though I might it is not enough. I feel like walking, searching Japan – no, every corner of the earth – in a lifelong pilgrimage to discover the whereabouts of Hirata Ichiro-Oe Shundai, even though I know it might be pointless.”

As published by Kurodahan Press, Beast in the Shadows is teamed with the more famous, yet seemingly less well-thought of, certainly judging by the reviews I read, The Black Lizard. That story, by all accounts, is a bit of pulp nonsense featuring a femme fatale master criminal – a description that, I must admit, appeals to me greatly – while the novel under review here – although it too has its moments of nonsense and does feature a woman who might not be what she seems – is a more serious, cerebral affair. I don’t know much about Edogawa Rampo, whose real name was Hirai Taro, but his pseudonym, which was chosen as a homage to Poe [say Edogawa Rampo quickly, preferably out loud], displays not only a kind of playfulness, but also suggests a keen interest in, almost reverence for, the major writers working within the genres that he did himself. I mention this because Beast in the Shadows read, at times, like a homage itself to the golden age of crime fiction, and also partly as an essay on what crime fiction is or could be.

The novel is narrated by a writer of detective novels and involves a search for another, the reclusive Oe Shundai. Much is made by Rampo, via his narrator, of the differences between the work of the two men. ‘There are two types of detective novelist,’ is how the story begins. One of these types is what Rampo calls ‘the criminal sort.’ These are people who are interested mostly in the perpetrator, their cruel psychology and gruesome acts. The other is ‘the detective type,’ who is ‘indifferent to the criminal’s psychology’ and concerns himself with ‘the intellectual process of detection.’ The narrator, and the author himself, are the latter, while Shundai is the former. It is clear then that Rampo was making a judgement. He was, at least indirectly, nailing his colours to the mast regarding what he considered to be the superior kind of crime fiction. Indeed, the pages of Shundai’s novels are [disparagingly] said to be full of ‘uncommon suspicions, secrecy, and cruelty’; there is, we’re told, a ‘strange ghastliness’ pervading them.

Yet the cutting critique reveals more than Rampo’s ideas in relation to, and his feelings towards, the crime genre and the different approaches to it. Shundai is the more successful of the two writers, and one can’t help but see in the narrator’s remarks an intense professional jealousy. At one point he calls his rival a man who ‘lived the criminal life with the same passion a brutal killer feels when he commits murder.’ He doesn’t stop at attacking his work either. He is described as an obese, unattractive man who, rumour has it, spends all day and night in bed. He’s a ‘vengeful devil’ and ‘poisonous spider.’ It’s worth noting that when discussing himself he states that he is in ‘no way a bad person’, that, in fact, there are ‘few as virtuous’ as he is. During the early stages of the story it might strike one that not only is the narrator biased, and therefore his words are not to be taken on face value, but also that he is perhaps a leading candidate as a suspect. Indeed, it is usually the case that anyone who insists upon their own goodness so vehemently has something to hide.

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The likely bias of the narrator is, however, only one aspect of an overall sense of uncertainty and unreliability, of confusion and doubt. The basic plot of the novel is that a woman, with whom the narrator becomes involved, is being stalked and threatened by Shundai. Many of the supposed facts of the case – such as the prior relationship between Shizuko and Shundai, and their less than amicable break up – are unproven, are simply one person’s word or interpretation of events. Indeed, rumours and hearsay dominate the story. Nothing is concrete; everything is unstable. No one, for example, has ever met or even really seen Shundai, apart from Shizuko, and that was many years ago [if she is to be believed]. The one occasion he is said to be present in the novel happens at night and he – if it is him, not some vagrant – is dressed as a clown. Moreover, the person who is reporting the sighting admits to being a ‘little drunk’ at the time.

As a consequence of his absence, because we don’t know who Shundai really is, because he isn’t a fixed character, he could in fact be anyone: the narrator, the taxi driver, the journalist, Shizuko’s husband, or even Shizuko herself. I wrote earlier that Beast in the Shadows is a kind of homage to golden age crime fiction, but what sets it apart, what makes more than a flimsy bit of nostalgia, what makes it worth reading, is that, unlike the work of Agatha Christie, for example, there are in Rampo’s novel no answers, there is no resolution. The narrator – who one comes to trust, rightly or wrongly, a little more as the story unfolds – puts together one theory, which is plausible, which one believes, until, of course, he rubbishes it, finds a flaw in it, albeit not a fatal flaw, and then comes up with another. He does this multiple times. He doubts everything, and consequently finds himself able to believe anything, to convince himself of anything. The goal is, of course, to uncover the truth, but the truth – if it exists at all – does not standup and confidently announce itself. It is triksy, supple, and swift on its feet.

THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES BY KOBO ABE

One of my favourite topics of conversation is the relationship between man and the natural world. We are, where nature is concerned, both lovers and fighters, protectors and conquerers, but the mountain, the desert, or whatever, is, amusingly, entirely indifferent to us. The natural world cares not a fig for man and his intentions and desires. Yet this does not prevent us from being almost completely at its mercy; we are helpless in the face of the big wave, the punishing sun, the labyrinthian forest…the deluge, the drought…the snowstorm, the earthquake.

Despite being the indoor type, there have been a few times that I have been exposed to this power. For example, I was once caught out in a rainstorm, which came with a force I was unaccustomed to and unprepared for. The rain beat down; it cudgeled me. Within seconds my entire body was soaking wet, so that touching myself was like immersing my hand in a cold river. I could have hailed a taxi, but I had quickly descended into a state close to madness. I took the rain to be my enemy, to be something I had to overcome. I cursed the sky under my breath; I cursed a God I don’t believe in. And I plodded on, in shoes that now had the consistency, and protective capacity, of cardboard. My hair fell into my eyes, grasped at my face. My glasses were useless. I couldn’t see. One downpour and I had stopped being able to function; I had been brought to my knees.

All of which puts me in mind of Kobo Abe’s claustrophobic classic The Woman in the Dunes. The novel begins with a kind of preface concerning the disappearance of Jumpei, an ordinary man, a teacher, who, we’re told, having a keen interest in the natural world, had set out one August day in order to study insects in a sandy region of Japan, and had not returned. A few theories are floated – another woman? Suicide? – but we soon find out that he has, in a sense, been kidnapped, that he has been tricked into staying in a house at the bottom of what is essentially a large, unstable hole in the ground.

“What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”

The layman perception of sand, or this layman anyway, is that it is relatively hostile to life. Indeed, Jumpei – who is, if not an authority on the subject, at least fairly knowledgeable – acknowledges that is an ‘unfavourable environment’ in which only certain, especially adaptable, creatures, such as flies, can thrive. So, from the earliest stages of the novel, even before the teacher is captured, one is left in no doubt that it is not compatible with man. In fact, Abe, impressively borrowing from the horror genre, makes it seem almost sinister. At one point Jumpei sits down for a cigarette, and the sand, the ever mobile sand, starts to encroach, to cover his trousers, to almost devour him like a malevolent, hungry beast.

However, it is when he finds himself in the hole, and is denied almost all manmade comforts, that he is forced into a true, dire confrontation with the substance, with, essentially, the natural world. It is interesting, in this regard, that Jumpei is a teacher, a pedagogue, because one generally sees them as logical and assured. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Abe chose to pit such a man against something – sand – that cannot, of course, be reasoned with. Moreover, numerous times the sand does not conform to Jumpei’s expectations, suggesting that it cannot be predicted or worked out either.

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Generally speaking, I avoid descriptions, certainly in list form, of situations, important action or plot, but in this instance I believe it is necessary to fully understand the teacher’s brutal relationship with such apparently innocuous ‘stuff.’ Jumpei finds that it sticks to his face, to his body; it inflames his eyes; it gets into his mouth, and a ‘brownish scum’ oozes from the corners of his lips; and when he pulls his packet of cigarettes from his pocket there is sand there too. It gets, without exaggeration, everywhere, and it is not, as noted, friendly. Even the house, it is said, is being rotted by the sand, so that it unceasingly pours through the roof. In one of the novel’s most absurd, and funny, scenes Jumpei eats his food while the woman holds an umbrella over his head. Meanwhile, there is always the threat of a fatal avalanche or sandslide.

In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is significantly different from the work of Kafka, or certainly his two major novels, to which it is frequently compared. Kafka’s protagonists are oppressed by man; they are thrown into absurd situations and try to get answers, try to make headway, but find that other people, in their irrationality, ignorance or stupidity, prevent them from doing so; they are symbolically, not literally trapped. You see something of this in Abe’s work, for Jumpei is forced to remain in the hole by the villagers, despite his protestations, but their behaviour is not irrational, it is done, perhaps unfeelingly, but for a very specific, logical, reason. Therefore, Dunes actually has more in common with Fowles’ The Collector, or with films such as The Human Centipede or the more recent Room. Moreover, although there is snow in The Castle, it does not act as K.’s oppressor, he does not enter [willingly or otherwise] into battle with it.

“The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

I have not, so far, much concerned myself with the woman of the title. I imagine that you have guessed already that she lives in the house at the bottom of the hole, that it is her home. There was, for me, something amusing about this set-up. Not only is Jumpei kidnapped, and forced to live and work in a sandy hell, he is supplied with what is essentially a wife, one not of his own choosing. For anyone who suffers from intimacy, or commitment, issues this will no doubt cause a few shudders. The woman is referred to by the villagers as ‘granny,’ even though she apparently looks around thirty, one would assume as a way of suggesting that the environment has taken a toll on her, and as a way of making Jumpei’s situation seem even more grim [one thing being locked up with a sexpot, another with a grandmother] and to emphasise her lack of sexual appeal.

The woman is, moreover, consistently submissive. One wonders if this is a tactic she employs in order to disarm the teacher, and keep him calm, in the same way that one might freeze in the face of an agitated animal. Yet, as the novel progresses, it struck me that it is more suggestive of her status as a victim. One tends to immediately sympathise with Jumpei because he has been taken out of his ‘natural’ environment, he has more obviously lost something, been denied something i.e. his freedom. But I came to view the tragedy of the novel to be the woman’s, not his. She is resigned to her fate, to living in such awful conditions; she doesn’t desire anything, it seems, except company, if not from a man then from a radio or a mirror, at least. She, and indeed all the villagers, are, in a sense, social outcasts, they are Japan’s poor, forgotten and abandoned. There was, and perhaps still is, a caste system in the country, and one might see the villagers as representative of the lowest order, called Burakumin.

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Numerous times throughout the novel Abe points out that sand is never stationary, in other words it is free, which is ironic because Jumpei is not, of course. It is hardly a surprise that freedom is the central theme of the book, but it extends beyond the kidnapping. First of all, Jumpei’s holiday, his going to the dunes, is clearly a form of escape. It is something that he does in order to take a break from his unsatisfying existence. So, in essence, he swaps one form of slavery, one unfree mode of living, for another. Moreover, to be imprisoned is, without question, unpleasant, but it is more unpleasant, one would imagine, if your ‘cellmate’ cannot, or will not, acknowledge that you, and she, are actually in prison. I thought that was a clever, subtle twist.

Yet what is most important, most moving, is what Abe has to say about the nature of freedom, about what it consists of. Throughout the book Jumpei is looking for ways to get out, to return to the surface, and he also, at times, refuses to work, to clear away the sand. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers water, or a way of extracting water from the sand, and this discovery delights and stimulates him, to such an extent that he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay and work on it. Therefore, the ultimate message of The Woman in the Dunes seems to be that freedom is not about being able to go where you want to go, it is to be free from repetitive action, from mind-numbing work. To live, to be free, is to be fulfilled; it is hope, it is meaningful preoccupation. Which is, all told, a lovely sentiment.

The pictures in this review are stills taken from the 1964 film adaption of the book, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

Recently, I have found myself daydreaming about my past partners, specifically the most intimate moments; not for masturbatory purposes, nor because I long to go back and be with those girls, but because I find the openness, the opportunity that was afforded me in those moments, extraordinary. That someone would let me, would want me to caress their bare skin, or kiss their thigh, still stuns me. Then it occurs to me, while wandering through these pointless daydreams, that someday the skin I once caressed will be shrivelled and sagging and old, and I am forced to acknowledge to myself that my own will be too, and that the desire to plant those types of kisses will seem ridiculous, if it even exists within me at all; and that likewise, the desire to be kissed by me will exist in fewer and fewer women.

In House of the Sleeping Beauties Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata explores many of these same feelings, focussing on memory, death, old age, eroticism, innocence etc. Eguchi, a sixty-seven year old man, arrives at a house, that is something like a brothel, where one can pay so as to be allowed to sleep beside a young woman. And by sleep we mean sleep. The girls have been put under before you enter the room, and will not wake no matter what you do. Yet visitors must not engage in any ‘funny stuff,’ such as putting a finger in a girl’s mouth. It is only by behaving yourself that you will become a trusted customer. One of these trusted customers is Kega, who introduced Eguchi to the place, and who he describes as being so old that he is ‘no longer a man.’ It is not made explicit in the text but it is clear that what he means by this, at least in part, is that he can no longer have sex, and so he is of course no threat to the girls in the house, he is no threat to any woman anywhere.

“A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, ‘the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned.”

Eguchi, although advanced in years, is not quite in the same situation; he is shocked by how beautiful the first girl is, and that shock, you could say, is the stirring of desire, a sign of life, of vitality. Moreover, he wants to violently rouse her, indicating that he isn’t ready yet to give up on life, to settle for a living toy, and get his kicks only in his mind. As is often the case with Kawabata’s work, the natural world could be said to further illuminate the author’s themes and mirror the main character’s emotional and mental state. Once inside the room Eguchi notes that the wind is bringing the sound of approaching winter, and winter is of course the final season of the year, the one that we would most associate with death, with barrenness, with unhappiness. The old man also hears the sound of crashing waves, which, again, suggests life and vitality, and even rage.

Tellingly, Kega confesses to Eguchi that it is only when sleeping beside one of the girls that he feels alive, which hints at the special allure of the house. The girls are not simply there to provide a passive kind of companionship. That could be got in any number of ways. The girls act as a reminder, they ferry the old men back to a time when they were in reality going to bed beside young women or at least when there was the possibility of doing so; they make the men feel young again, helping them to forget that they are eyeballing death…because who can think about the end when there is a beautiful, naked young woman in bed with you? Bearing in mind the emotional and physical state of these men, it is also important that the girls themselves are non-threatening; if they are not awake they cannot judge, even silently, and there can be no awkward conversation, no expectations, and no obvious, embarrassing generational gap. It is only when they are asleep that the fantasy can be maintained.

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Had Eguchi been a Kega, had his experience of the house been as entirely positive, the story would not be as interesting as it is. Certainly in the beginning, far from finding peace in the situation, he feels disquieted by it, as indicated by the poem he recites to himself, which references drowned corpses. Moreover, one of the women is referred to as a ‘phantom.’ This could be understood as a reference to her white, unblemished skin, but the real significance of this comparison is in the girls being, like the men themselves, somewhere between life and death. Sleep, which is often called the cousin of death, is a strange intermediary stage between the two states of being, having much in common with both. The sleeping beauties are, in a way, like corporeal, touchable memories or fantasies; they are malleable, supple; they can be manipulated into being anything [imaginatively, not literally]. Sex dolls work in much the same way, in that anything can be projected onto them.

Yet, as with all great literature, it is possible to see more in the story than the specific situation Kawabata describes. Making my way through it for the second time I was put in mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that he zombified his victims so that they wouldn’t run away or refuse him. One could, therefore, interpret House of the Sleeping Beauties as a comment on human neediness, a neediness that isn’t limited to the elderly. Also, more could be made of what I was discussing above, in relation to sex dolls. It is becoming increasingly the case that men [and women too perhaps] don’t want and cannot handle real people; what they want is something perfect, something visually clean and pure, something always obliging. You need only look at the popularity of the dead-eyed, plastic princesses of porn; these women always look great, are never unavailable, and, crucially, do not ask anything from you. In contrast, reality is icky, it is disappointing; real people disagree with you sometimes, they have their own desires and demands.

It has become a cliché to describe Kawabata’s prose as Haiku-like, which, as with many sound bites and blurb-worthy comments, is nonsense. However, his style is economical and unfussy, with the writer preferring short evocative sentences and, for the most part, avoiding metaphors and similes. This goes some way to explaining why his work seems clean and graceful, despite the often unpleasant content. Yet it is also worth noting that with House of the Sleeping Beauties Kawabata’s touch is not as light as in his most well known novels, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, with a greater emphasis on psychologically probing his characters and situations. Indeed, numerous times during my reading I had noted down an idea or interpretation, only for the writer to himself voice that idea a few pages later. This is perhaps why the story appealed so strongly to Yukio Mishima, who thought it one of Kawabata’s best, if not the best of all. In fact, there is a rumour, which I don’t take seriously, that Mishima himself may have written it. In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism. This is, without question, one of the top-tier novellas, as beautifully dreamy, and moving and perfect as Casares’ The Invention of Morel and Turgenev’s First Love.

House of the Sleeping Beauties usually comes packaged with two other stories, One Arm and Of Birds and Beasts, which are much shorter. Both are fine, but I did not feel compelled to write about either of them.