“Yuki Yuna is a Hero” and Me

21 Dec

By: Stephanie Weirich

Yuki Cover

(WARNING: If you are presently watching “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” but have not watched the most recent episode, or if you aren’t watching it but think you might at some point, I highly advise you to click away because I am about to spoil the fuck out of it for you)

Here is the most personal question I will ever ask of you: Have you ever been diagnosed with a chronic, incurable illness?

And here is the most personal admission I will ever make to you: I have.

In September of 2013 I fell ill. Incredibly ill. So ill that I woke each day surprised to be alive. And this illness lasted so long that at a certain point, when the pain had been so constant, so unrelenting, I stopped thinking that waking up alive was a blessing.

Finally, the last week of September, I ended up in the ER. After one CT scan and a colonoscopy I was diagnosed with an illness called Ulcerative Colitis. This is a chronic, incurable illness that causes my immune system to attack my large intestine, leading to immense pain and bleeding ulcers in the wall of my large intestine.

As of now, according to all medical science and opinion, I will have this disease for the rest of my life. While I take medication that allows me to function (mostly) normally, this will always be something I will have to deal with and the cost it has placed upon my life is immense and permanent. I will always have days where I wake up wracked with a red hot pain that prevents me from doing much more than suffering silently. There are places I can never travel to because should I get a stomach virus, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I will be out of commission for a great length of time. My chances of getting bowel cancer have sky rocketed and the possibility that I may someday need a colostomy bag is very real. I will always have to be careful with what I eat, what I do, where I go and I will always need to know where a bathroom is at all times (but hey, I can definitely tell you which places in the greater Seattle area have the cleanest facilities).

These are the facts of my life now. The ABCs of my existence.

Why I am telling you this at all, but in particular, why am I telling you this now? Because it is important. Because it is an integral part of who I am. Because now, for better or worse, it shapes how I view everything and how everything affects me. And that includes anime.

If you have ever wondered why I promptly disappeared, why my writing for this site has been sporadic at best, this is why. This diagnosis and its effect on my life has been the most difficult thing I have ever experienced and I have struggled to make sense of it all since then. And as with so many other times of struggle, this time too I turned to anime to cope.

At times this coping took the form of hiding from emotional engagement. For a time, my greatest solace was to come home, smoke as much pot as I could reasonably handle (as it turns out, when you have a chronic, painful bowel disease, the gatekeepers of the medical marijuana licenses just sort of hand you a card the minute you show up) and then zone out with anime. The fluffier the better. The gentler the better. I turned to comedies, like “Engaged to the Unidentified” or “Arakawa Under the Bridge”. I sought out shows that would (hopefully) make me believe that the world was still a good place, a kind place, such as “Natsume Yuujinchou.” But the common theme around what I sought out was that I was looking for ways to escape. I wanted to see things that would help me forget the reality of my situation. The reality that I had lost something incredibly precious: the life I had always known.

The world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Natsume.

The world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Natsume.

Over the past year since my diagnosis, I have had to readjust to life as I know it. I have had to grieve the loss of a life that I took for granted. I have had to fight my way back to a new baseline of normalcy. And it has been the hardest thing I have ever done. So now, while I am not always ok, while I am not always at peace, while I still have days that I am angry, so very, very angry, I am better than I was a year ago. I am learning to cope. I am learning to be better. I am learning to be kinder to myself. I am learning how to face the possibility of my increasingly impaired future.

Motherfucking heroes and shit

Motherfucking heroes and shit

The combined impact of all of this now brings me to “Yuki Yuna is a Hero.” If you have been watching “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” then you know that it’s a magical girl show about the necessary and terrible sacrifices of heroism and the way friendship and love gives meaning to those sacrifices and that heroism. You also know that while this show started off gently, beautifully, with a muted pastel color palette that matched the gentleness of the day to day activities of our titular heroes, it has recently taken a darker turn. If you have been watching it, then you, like me, have been able to see all 5 girls—Yuna, Togo, Fu, Itsuki and Karin—grow into their responsibilities of being heroes while their bonds with each other intensify and deepen. We have watched the reality of their world test them in very real and horrifying ways, and we have learned the truth of that world together and with them.

And the truth of their world and their role in it is very simple: in order to be heroes, in order to save the gentle and beautiful world that they call their own, in order to use the immense powers that have been gifted to them to prepare them for this fight, they must sacrifice their bodies. Piece by piece, fight by fight, they must give themselves away, literally, for the greater good. They have been given an ultimate form, an ultimate power (just like in every other magical girl/shounen action show/anime with powers ever made) and every time they use this ultimate power, they will lose a part of themselves. At first, it’s something relatively minor. Togo loses hearing in her left ear, Yuna can longer taste anything, Itsuki can’t speak and Fu loses sight in her left eye. Karin is the one girl who does not use her ultimate form, and thus the one girl left unscathed. Not long after this though, they are introduced to another girl, an older hero, who has lost the ability to do anything other than lie in a hospital bed, gazing out at the world with her one good eye. This, we are told, is the very real cost of heroism: the total obliteration of the girl’s bodies. They are sacrifices, in the way that young girls are always sacrifices to deities and the greater good. They will lose everything, but they will be worshiped as gods and taken care of for the rest of their days.

All of the girls react accordingly, with Yuna the only girl who 100% accepts the responsibility of heroism and all of the terribleness that comes with it. Needless to say, some of the other girls, namely Togo, are not prepared to deal with the reality of their roles. Togo is so disgusted by this (and by an equally disturbing truth about the nature of the world itself) to such a degree that she decides the world must be destroyed to end this cycle of violence and sacrifice. This destruction leads to a dire, do or die situation, and all of the girls must decide to fight for the sake of each other and for the sake of this world.

#teamkarin

#teamkarin

This leads to Karin—a character who prior to her introduction to the other girls had no friends and no greater reason to fight other than that’s what she was told she had to do, a girl who has learned the ultimate value of her life through suddenly creating bonds with people who love her and that she loves in return—making the decision to fight for the sake of her beloved friends no matter the cost. And the cost is immense. As she fights a series of enemies, again and again she enters this ultimate state, each time visibly losing the use of a different body part. First it’s an arm, then a leg, then the other leg, then everything until she is rendered paralyzed, deaf and blind. The cost of her heroism, of her sacrifice, is a fate worse than death.

Now, you might be wondering how my earlier admission of chronic illness and Karin’s fate relate to one another. What I can tell you is that while I watched this scene unfold, while I watched her body be slowly taken from her, a creeping dread set in. I began to feel so overwhelmed, so devastated by this loss of mobility and person-hood that my stomach clenched like a fist while tears came to my eyes. Repeatedly, I found myself talking to my screen, saying “Stop”.

“Please stop.”

“Please don’t do this.”

“Please.”

Because I know what it is like to lose control over your body. I know what it is like to have the use of your body impeded and/or taken from you. Karin’s loss, even though she chose that loss and I did not choose mine, resonated with me on a much deeper and more personal level than I had anticipated. It has forced me to confront in a very real way many of the fears that my own illness inspires within me. On my worst days I have a very deep seated fear that over time, through this illness, my mobility, my person-hood, my body, will be eroded and destroyed, leaving me a shell of my former self, leaving me dependent upon people who love me more than I think I deserve. This fear keeps me awake at night. Now, I have fought to overcome this fear and with the help of family, friends and an excellent therapist, and every day I get closer to moving past it. “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” and Karin’s choice in particular, while it brings that fear to the surface, brings with it hope. Hope that I can always be stronger, that I can always be better, and that I can always learn to cope with the many vagaries and iniquities that life brings to us. I have hope that life has meaning beyond what I know now, that there is meaning in the bonds I share with others, that there is meaning to this illness. And while not perfect, this is perhaps my own personal conception of what heroism means to me: The ability to look at all that has been taken from me, and balance it against that which has been gifted to me, and realize that those gifts outweigh what has been lost. Like all of the girls in “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” have come to learn, the only thing that can be done is to keep moving forward with those that you love at your side, one step at a time.

I want to believe that Karin and myself, that all of us and the anime characters that we love can find the good in the world and in our lives. I want to believe that our personal sacrifices matter. I want to believe that we can all make peace with the consequences of our particular situations. This is one of the greater lessons that anime has the capacity to teach: that the world is good, that it is even better when we are good to each other and when we face whatever comes together. It is one of the many reasons why anime matters and why it has power. It is one of the main reasons I continue to turn to it and find solace in it throughout the many phases and turns that my life has taken. It is why I believe all of us come back to it again and again. It is a mirror that shows us our (maybe only slightly) better selves. It can give us a glimpse of a better future, a better world.

So tonight, let’s be a little kinder to ourselves and each other. Let’s be a little more understanding. Let’s be like Karin and all the girls of the Hero Club and find the greater good in ourselves and in each other. Let’s keep moving forward, together, even if there is fear in our hearts and tears in our eyes, because maybe one day if we try hard enough, there won’t be.

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Sailor Moon Crystal, or how Nostalgia will Eat us Alive

6 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

Reach for it you crazy dame.

Reach for it you crazy dame.

Well hey there guys!

I know, I know, it has been a while. A damn long while. And while I could give you a long and poignant description of the many difficult things that befell me and caused that long absence, I’d rather just get down to what I do best, which is talking about anime like a fucking champ.

So let’s do this damn thing!

As I’m sure you’re all aware, this week brought us the arrival of Sailor Moon Crystal, the much rumored about, often disbelieved, much anticipated reboot of the beloved “Sailor Moon” anime. Now, when I say much anticipated in conjunction to Sailor Moon, what I mean is full on hyperventilation, holy fuck I can’t even, I will die right now if I don’t get this thing, please dear god, I need this, etc and so forth level of anticipation from the Sailor Moon fan base. Shit is INTENSE y’all. And rightfully so, I would say, though I’m not personally a huge fan (if we’re talking about a 80’s-90’s Kunihiko Ikuhara joint, I’m a Revolutionary Girl Utena gal myself).

But you know you're always number one in my heart baby.

But you know you’re always number one in my heart baby.

Regardless of my own personal take on Sailor Moon, it is a phenomenon and I will take nothing from that. It is THE seminal magical girl anime, the absolute definitive series. It is responsible for the exponential and frenzied growth of the entire magical girl genre. It’s also one of those shows that hit when anime was making a name for itself on our shores and thus it’s one of those rarefied shows that got many anime fans into anime. I personally know quite a few people who grew up on Sailor Moon and know all of the Sailor’s transformations by heart and will gladly act them out for you (SERIOUSLY, ASK THEM). As such, it is also one of those few series that has had staying power within the collective consciousness of one fan base and it is incredibly beloved, hence all of the frothing at the mouth and the ringing of hands that occurred in the anime blogosphere leading up to the release of Sailor Moon Crystal. And again, I completely understand this. It’s all achingly familiar to me as someone who gets all sweaty palmed, fluttery hearted and crazy eyed just thinking about the next Evangelion film being released eventually.

Even after all of this fuckery

Even after all of this fuckery

So now we’re here, and it’s here and people are watching it and reviewing it. I’ve watched it, though this will not be a strict review. This is more a review of the reviews (INCEPTION). See, the thing that I’m finding is that this show is almost universally being touted as exceptional. Amazing. Magnificent. Excellent. A whole lot of adjectives all amounting to this thing being fucking awesome and totally worth the years of teasing and waiting. It’s a breathless torrent of near reproachable positivity.

But here’s the thing. Sailor Moon Crystal is not actually good. It is a derivative mess with poor pacing, poor dialogue, a truly obnoxious performance by the lead voice actress and a narrative that relies on its audience knowing how this will all go. It is not the worst anime I have seen (because I have seen School Days), but it is not even close to being worthy of the absolutely glowing reviews it’s receiving.

Seriously, fuck you School Days.

Seriously, fuck you School Days.

I know, I know, I’m a real Debbie Fucking Downer who just wants to jump on the hate bandwagon when something comes out that other people love that I don’t. And I’m sure that this one post will attract many people who will say I am exactly that, and so be it. But I am not here to rain on your parade, really. This piece isn’t ultimately about the quality of Sailor Moon Crystal. Ultimately, what I’m talking about is why we can’t have an actual, measured discussion about the actual quality of Sailor Moon Crystal. And the reason we can’t do that is because of nostalgia.

Like I mentioned above, the original Sailor Moon was a juggernaut of fandom, rolling over all in its path. It is a series that has been writ large across the imaginations of an entire generation. There is simply too much passion, too much love for the property, for it to not breed a highly protective form of nostalgia around it and all discussions about it. This is a franchise incredibly near and dear to many people’s hearts, and so they have inflated its value and quality to a near mythic level that is impossible to approach, let alone criticize and we are seeing that now in the reviews for Sailor Moon Crystal that have been cropping up.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and it is a feeling that is especially familiar to those of us who came of age in the 90’s. We’re the target audience for all things nostalgia, whether that be Ninja Turtles, Rainbow Bright, Transformers or Sailor Moon, we’re dying to eat up anything that reminds us of our simpler childhoods. It’s most likely a reaction to the swift and remarkable way our world has changed in our very short lifetimes, though that’s just a theory. What can be said is that nostalgia destroys our capacity to be objective. Whether or not that’s good or bad is a personal decision, but it does not make it any less of a salient fact.

How warm are your fuzzies on a scale of 1 to SCALDING

How warm are your fuzzies on a scale of 1 to SCALDING

Because nostalgia inflates the inherent value of something within our mind, it also inflates its importance to us. Our loving of something like Sailor Moon, something that we discovered in the heady and idealized days of our youth, ties it intrinsically to our very selves. Our love for it, our fandom, becomes a deeply important part of our very identity (this is especially true for people who actively participate in Sailor Moon fandom, i.e. cosplayers, fan fic authors, etc). And thus, we cannot handle the idea that something that is so much a part of us could possibly be bad. As a reaction to this very notion, we set about mythologizing this thing that we love, turning it into that hallowed masterpiece that is beyond reproach. And now, if this thing that we love is thought to be less than great by someone else, we don’t just take it as someone not agreeing with our taste, we take it as an insult to our very selves, because this thing is not just something that we love it is very much a part of us and our identity.

In a sense, this is also a way of justifying our very rabid fandom. We’re very afraid of people laughing at what we love, especially us anime fans because people laugh at the things we love all the fucking time. People think the very thing we gravitate towards is childish and not worthy of being taken seriously. This makes us an especially prickly and defensive bunch when it comes to what we love, particularly if we think we’re being attacked by others within our community. And again, I’m not here to attack anyone for loving Sailor Moon.

What I am saying is that we need to recognize our biases. We need to recognize the impact our nostalgia has on the conversations we’re having and the perspectives we’re presenting when we talk about or review anime. We do not need to justify our fandom to anyone. We do not need to justify ourselves and the things that we like to anyone. We just need to be honest with ourselves about the things we like and why we like them. We just need to say “Hey, you know what, this thing might be cheesy, and it might have plot holes, and it might just stroke the part of my brain that remembers being a kid and staying up all night eating Fun Dip and watching anime, but that’s all right”. We need to realize that just because someone doesn’t like what we like doesn’t mean they’re insulting us and our very identities personally. Unless they specifically tell you that’s what they’re doing, at which point they’re a real dickbag and you shouldn’t hang around them. Tell those assholes to kick rocks. But with everyone else, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re merely disagreeing with us and that’s ok. And we need to recognize that it is ok to like things that aren’t great on their own, but are great to us because of how they personally make us feel.

We need to be able to do this because we can’t talk about anime as art before that happens. As long as we’re attacking anyone that disagrees with us we do look childish. We do look like a fandom that is not worthy of being taken seriously. We also look like a fandom with low expectations that doesn’t deserve to have quality series because we don’t expect them to be great on their own. And this is my ultimate point regarding Sailor Moon Crystal. At the moment, because we’re unable to have an honest discussion about the quality of Sailor Moon Crystal that is divorced from our nostalgia, we’re not able to talk about it as a work of art and we’re not able to say that the fans of Sailor Moon deserved better.

Really, you guys deserved so much better. You deserved a show that would reward your intense fandom. A show that didn’t feel like a semi-cynical cash grab. A show that didn’t feel as though the creators thought they could cut corners narratively because you would watch it anyway. You deserved a show that was excellent on its own merits and not just because “it’s a Sailor Moon show!”.

I cannot stress this enough, but anime IS art. It is a culturally and socially relevant art form in its country of origin and it has made its mark on an entire fan community spread out across the globe. It is important. It is something worth talking about and dissecting and analyzing and obsessing over. It deserves to be taken seriously. We should be having conversations about what anime means and how it can be improved. We should be talking about how these shows we love can reach the potential they hint at. We need to be able to discuss this for the overall betterment of the art we consume. But we cannot do that until we move past our more protective instincts and the nostalgia that has created them. It’s time to start looking at the bigger picture. It’s time to start expecting more.

Presented without comment.

Presented without comment.

Annnnnnnnd We’re Back!

19 Oct

By: Stephanie Weirich

Too sexy?  Or just sexy enough?

Too sexy? Or just sexy enough?

Well hello there friends! Hisashiburi and and all that jazz, yeah? Did you think I left you all alone to fend for yourselves out there on the mean streets of anime otakudom? Well I didn’t! I would never do that to you because we’re a family and I love you.

So what happened? Well, to put it mildly, life happened. And by life I mean a bout with a pretty serious illness that culminated in a hospital stay which the best part of was the primo painkillers the nurses regularly shot me up with. Other than that, I can safely assure you that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. But that’s all (mostly) done and I am happy to get back to what I love most: writing about anime on the internet for all of you lovely folks!

What do I have planned, you may be asking? I plan on writing about a show that’s currently airing and I can safely assure you that that show will be Kill la Kill. Why? BECAUSE IT’S BANANAS AND I LOVE IT. I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. It’s like having a pinball covered in brightly colored tits and swords ricocheting through my brain and if that’s not everything you’ve ever wanted in an anime series then I can’t help you.

Just like this, but with more breasts.

Just like this, but with more breasts.

I’m currently working on the first piece about this show, so expect to have that beaming straight into your greedy eyeballs very soon! I’m also watching some older shows, so hopefully I’ll have some longer pieces about all of that goodness ready to go in the coming weeks as well.

Until then folks, matta ne!

Stella Women’s Academy and Updates!

13 Aug

Stella-Jogakuin-Koutou-ka-C³-bu-Collage-

Well howdy there fella’s and ladies! As you may have noticed, I did not update this weekend. I apologize. This week has been rather hectic, as are most things in life ALL OF THE TIME. Also, to be quite honest, I simply didn’t have anything to say and rather than try to force myself, I would rather take time to consistently create posts that are nothing but quality. You don’t deserve half-assed posts for the sake of posts. You deserve the fucking best! So that’s what I want to give you. I may have something up this weekend as I’m kicking around a few ideas, but if not, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, I have this review of Stella Women’s Academy, High School Division Class C3 up over at Sofa King News.  It covers the first four episodes with pretty heavy spoilers.  All in all though, I think it’s pretty neat.  So head on over and check it out!

Until (hopefully) this weekend, matta ne!

Relevent to Your Interests: Books on and by the Japanese

4 Aug

By: Stephanie Weirich

Pictured: My house

Pictured: My house

Well hey there guys! Fancy finding you here on this (depending on where you live) lovely Sunday afternoon. Today, we’re going to be doing something a bit different. And by different I mean that we’re not going to be focusing on anime (I know, shits cray right!?). Turns out, I do other things with my time besides watch anime with a voracious appetite. I also happen to read books with an equally, if not more so, voracious appetite! High amongst my preferences for satisfactory reading materials are books about Japan or books that are by Japanese authors.

My reasoning for seeking out books that fit these preferences should be fairly obvious, but all in all, I read books about Japan and by Japanese authors because it better serves my knowledge about Japan, its people and its culture. It also informs my interpretation of anime. For me, personally, I believe that if you’re interested in something, if you’re passionate about something, you need to look at that thing from absolutely every angle possible. It’s not enough for me to just watch anime and think that I’m getting all of the knowledge I need. I need to read about it. I need to read novels set there. I need to watch movies and dramas. I need to listen to music that comes from Japan. I needed to go and live in Japan and I need to go back again at some point. I feel an insatiable need to know absolutely everything I can about Japan and the best part about this is that I will NEVER know everything about it and thus I will never stop learning new things about it. Neat, right? I happen to think so, and I hope you do too.

So, if you’re at all like me and you’re looking for things to read that will enrich your knowledge about Japan, I’m here to help you out with that. This will in no way be a comprehensive list, and it most likely will not be the only one of these lists I put together. This is just here to get you started. I’m going to cover non-fiction first and then move onto fiction. SPOILER ALERT: there will be no Haruki Murakami books recommended in this list. Why you might ask? Well, truthfully, I’m not a fan of his. I haven’t read a single one of his books that did anything other than leave me cold. I’m not a fan of his empty characters or fetishization of teenage girls and I feel like overall he says very little about the state of the country that he’s from. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—novelists do and should get to pick their subject matter—it’s just not my cup of tea. I also think that for the most part, he is the pre-eminent Japanese author that most of the book reading public has heard about and so he doesn’t need to be covered again here. Rest assured though, I am going to give you so many other suggestions that you won’t even miss him. I truly hope you can find at least one thing on this list that you enjoy.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive right in!

Non-Fiction:

1.) Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation BY: Michael Zielenziger

shutting-out-the-sun

Straight up, this is one of the best books I have ever read about the current state of Japanese culture and social structure. Not Japanese pop culture as it relates to society, it is just straight up about how Japan’s traditional culture has informed their social makeup and some of the drawbacks to that. The book begins with a simple enough conceit: what and who is a hikikomori and why is this a social phenomenon that only happens in Japan? If you don’t know what a hikikomori , it is essentially the Japanese equivalent of a shut-in. But unlike agoraphobics, they are shut-ins because they can’t handle the very rigid and at times brutal rules and expectations of Japanese society. Why this continues to happen and what can be done to help these people who are (usually) children or teenagers has been a continual issue in Japan, particularly in schools. This book deals with the subject and the people themselves humanely and with little judgement, taking great care to present the hikikomori as human beings worthy of our compassion. Zielenziger then uses this unique social phenomena as a jumping off point to examine other social issues that have cropped up as Japan has steadily marched on towards the horizon of modernization.

I recommend this book because it tackles very important issues from a very unbiased perspective. Zielenziger manages to show us some very unfortunate consequences of Japanese social organization without outright condemning them, which is no simple trick. His writing is also clean and straightforward so you never feel as though he’s talking over your head and he doesn’t come off as being a pretentious know-it-all, which is also not an easy balance to strike. All in all, I cannot recommend this book enough and I should actually just buy extra copies to start handing out to people because I pretty much recommend it to absolutely EVERYONE.

2.) Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. BY: Roland Kelts

japanamerica_cover

This was the first book I ever read about how Japanese pop culture—specifically anime—was converging with Western interests. It’s a fascinating and penetrating read from an author and lecturer at the forefront of Japanese cultural criticism. Kelts does an excellent job at pulling sources from both sides of the Pacific to get into why anime is special and why it’s such an excellent inroad for Westerners who are intrigued by Japan. He also takes a good look at the appeal that anime has to the Western imagination. I haven’t read this book since college, and it’s one that is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be re-read with great anticipation. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in anime (which if you’re on this blog, I have to imagine that you are that person).

3.) Japan: A Reinterpretation BY: Patrick Smith

Japan reinterpretation

Guys. GUYS. This book blew my fucking mind. Patrick Smith rolls fucking DEEP. He takes everything we think we know about Japan post WWII and completely flips the script. His basic premise is that the Japan we think we know is solely the product of post WWII propaganda, that this idea of a conciliatory and meek population is the result of a narrative that reached its peak during the Cold War and that has done nothing but hurt the Japanese—both in the world’s perception of them and in their perception of themselves. He calls out revered American authors and professors who have made a living off of pushing this narrative just as much as he goes in on calling out Japanese bureaucrats who used this narrative to sell out their country for their own personal gain. Yeah, this book is INTENSE. It’s also incredibly important if you’re looking for a very thorough and nuanced examination of both Japan’s history and their culture and how both of those aspects deeply inform the Japanese’s experience of the world and their country. While this book is written by a Westerner, he is not the center of this book, nor is Western culture. Japan sits very firmly at the center of this book. Smith is entirely on Japan’s side. He is invested in the country and the people and he works tirelessly over the course of this book to show the Western world what Japan is ACTUALLY all about. If there is one book you choose to read off of this list, I would say this should be it.

4.) Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan BY: Alex Kerr

dogsanddemons

Ok, let me just get this out of the way. I am putting this book on here with some trepidation. It’s also by far the most controversial entry on this list. While living in Japan, this was the book that everyone talked about in hushed, uncertain tones. It was the book that several of my fellow ex-pats said I should read—but only after I left Japan. When I asked why, the response was some variation on the theme of “because it will make you too angry”. Which, even after I left Japan, it still made me very angry. Not because it wasn’t true, but because it WAS true. Because it highlighted so many things I noticed while living there that never sat right and then fully and brutally explained why those things are what they are. Make no mistake, this book is an intensely angry book. It is written by a man who lived in Japan off and on throughout his entire life who watched a country he loved be ruined by the very people who were supposed to protect it and its interests: the Japanese government. This book is very biased. It didn’t come to the schoolyard to play around. It came to fucking WORK. It has a very clear agenda, and that is to hold politicians, bureaucrats and businessman accountable for what they have done to Japan and its culture. Alex Kerr is not an apologist and he isn’t interested in backing down or downplaying Japan’s problems in order to coddle them from any negative backlash. He is a man who feels like Japan NEEDS to know how bad it has gotten in order to recover.

I recommend this book only if you are prepared to know that Japan is not all that it seems. This should be very obvious, but Japan is a deeply conflicted country that has many good things going for it, but please be very aware that it also has some very terrible things happening within it as well. Please do not mistake what I’m saying as a condemnation of the country—as I have said repeatedly, I love Japan. But when you love something very much, it doesn’t do you or your beloved any favors to pretend that there are no problems whatsoever. In order to love something, you need to know its shortcomings. You need to take all of the good with all of the bad otherwise you are doing it a deep disservice. If you’re willing to do that, then get a hold of this book. It will open your eyes in a way you never thought possible.

BONUS: Books that are up next on my non-fiction reading list:

Straightjacket Society: An Insider’s Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan BY: Masao Miyamoto

Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine BY: John K. Nelson

If you’ve read any of these three books, let me know what you thought in the comments!

Fiction

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1.) Grotesque

and

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out BY: Natsuo Kirino

I am an unapologetic Natsuo Kirino fan-girl. I think that she is hands down the greatest novelist working in Japan at the moment and as such, I couldn’t pick between Grotesque and Out so I’m recommending both. Kirino is a Japanese feminist crime fiction writer who focuses on the ways in which Japanese society hurts both women and men by being deeply misogynistic. She uses brutal crimes—perptrated by both men and women—as a way of highlighting the systemic misogyny within Japanese society and the damage it does to society as a whole. There is no other writer who does it as beautifully as she does, either. Her writing pulls no punches and she demands that you look directly at the scenario she has created without flinching. She will not coddle you. She will not look away from things that are both terrible and beautiful. And she respects her audience enough to believe that they won’t look away either. She also has been lucky enough to have one of the absolute best translators working on her novels—Rebecca Copeland. Copeland is a scholar of Kirino’s work and as such, she has a deep and compelling understanding of what Kirino is doing and unlike so many other translators in the business, you never feel Copeland creeping in at the edges, you instead feel as though it’s all Kirino, all of the time. This is to say it’s an unobtrusive translation that lets the material breathe and live as it was intended to by the original author.

Both Out and Grotesque give me ALL of the feels. But mostly they rip me apart in a very real and emotionally harrowing way, which is something that only the greatest fiction is capable of doing. These books stick with you. They creep into your waking thoughts and daydreams and change the way you see the world. Most importantly, they add a much needed woman’s perspective to the literary experience of Japan. They are must reads.

2.) Popular Hits of the Showa Era BY: Ryu Murakami

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While I’m not a Haruki Murakami fan, I am a HUGE fan of Ryu Murakami. You may recognize him as the writer of Audition, which is a movie (and book!) that I very much recommend. I see Kirino and Murakami as being two sides of the same coin. Both are writing about the much unseen underbelly of Japan—the dark spaces that could stand to have some much needed light cast upon them. And like Kirino, he is intensely sympathetic towards the plight of women within Japanese society (Kirino actually has two of her characters in Out have an entire conversation about how awesome Ryu Murakami is in regards to writing female characters and yes, I was so excited I just emitted a high pitched squeal for about 10 minutes straight). This novel is about a group of young male outcasts and their dealings with a group of middle aged female divorcees’ who are all named Midori. And by dealings, I mean escalated bouts of violence towards. Also, karaoke. No, I’m not joking. Karaoke, specifically performing karaoke versions of songs from the Showa era, is what binds this group of misfits together. Trust me when I say it works much better than you think it would. It’s a fascinating, odd, strangely scathing and rather funny book. It’s also a pretty quick read, if that’s something that matters to you. Oh, and there’s an equally fantastic film adaptation of it called Karaoke Terror that I also recommend. If the premise of this book doesn’t sound quite up to snuff, I recommend taking a look at Ryu Murakami’s other output, as there’s pretty much something for everyone.

3.) Kitchen BY: Banana Yoshimoto

kitchen

The two words that come to mind when I think of Banana Yoshimoto’s work are “gentle” and “nostalgic”. In terms of how she personifies the concept of nostalgia within her work also makes her the most “Japanese” feeling author on this list. As I’ve mentioned before, the concept of nostalgia is one that is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. There is always a wistful longing for that which has come before and a deep sentimentality colors many important social interactions that the Japanese have (it’s why work places have welcome, goodbye and year end parties. So that everyone can come together and reminisce about what has come before and lay out earnest hopes for what will come). This is very much Yoshimoto’s wheelhouse and she is the undisputed master at writing about nostalgia in such a deeply human way that you cannot help but feel that bittersweet and rose colored feeling so intensely as you read her novels. After reading Kitchen I promptly went out and bought everything else she has written and I’m pretty sure each and every one of her books that I have read has made me cry at the end. And unlike other books that I feel might manipulated me into tears I don’t want to shed but do, I never feel like she has manipulated me into feeling what I feel. I just feel it because she has made that feeling manifest through her incredible level of skill. If you’re looking for a fully realized, beautiful and sensitively written account of the many layered feelings and desires of the human heart, you can’t go wrong with Kitchen or any of Banana Yoshimoto’s other works.

4.) Shipwrecks BY: Akira Yoshimura

shipwrecks

Something you probably don’t know about me is that primarily, I write fiction. I have done so my entire life and I will do so until the day I die. So for me, this book made a monumental impact on the way I view and construct narratives within my own work. It is such an austerely simple and beautiful book that it hit me as a revelation. There is nothing complicated about the plot and course of events in this book. It is entirely linear and very concise. It’s really a master class on fiction writing at its most simplistic. And yet, it’s a challenging piece of work. It very slowly and deliberately builds a sense of foreboding by doing little more than chronicling the daily lives of a very small fishing village through the eyes of a nine year old boy. It is not a fast paced or action packed book, but once you start reading, you are compelled to keep going. It binds you to it and does not release you until you have finished it, and even then, it will haunt you ever after. It also does an excellent job of detailing what life was like in pre-modern Japan and it will give you quite a few topics to research independently.

5.) Now You’re One of Us BY: Asa Nonami

Now youre one of us

I’m putting this on here for the pure bat shit insanity of it. Really, this book is a pulpy wonderland of family intrigue, cult like overtones, Japanese familial politics and weird sex. I read this in just about one sitting, mostly because I just enjoyed the hell out of it. This book does what it wants and pushes the pedal all the way to the goddamn floor of weirdness. I laughed. I cringed. I was icked out. But I never stopped enjoying it for even a second. All in all, it was a surprisingly enjoyable experience that I think you should let yourself have.

BONUS: Books that are up next on my fiction reading list:

The Thief BY: Fuminori Nakamura

Naoko BY: Keigo Higashino

The Goddess Chronicles BY: Natsuo Kirino

Masks BY: Fumiko Enchi

Ok! So there you have it, my first reading list, from me to you! I truly hope that you find something on here that you like and that you feel enriches your reading life—both with knowledge and perhaps newfound feelings. Also, if you have any suggestions for things that you think I should read, let me know about it in the comments. Or, if you’ve read any of these books and want to wrap about them in the comments do that too! Until next weekend, matta ne!

Pictured: What reading looks like

Pictured: What reading looks like