[Travel] Tokyo – the experimental bookshop Matsuoka-Maruzen

Masa Matsuoka - one of Japan's foremost men of letters - managed the experimental bookstore Matsuoka-Maruzen between Oct 2009 to Sep 2012

Seigou Matsuoka [松岡正剛] (1944 – present) – one of Japan’s foremost men of letters – managed the experimental bookstore Matsuoka-Maruzen between Oct 2009 to Sep 2012

Matsuoka-Maruzen [松丸本舗] , an experimental bookshop that operated from Oct 2009 to Sep 2012, is a foremost example of places in Japan I love that no longer exists.

It was located on the 4th floor of the flagship store of the bookshop chain Maruzen, in a building called Marunouchi OaZO, near Tokyo Station. In other words, it was an experimental bookshop located within a traditional bookshop. When I was working in an office nearby, I used to spend many happy hours during lunch and after work, whiling away in this place.

A traditional bookshop would categorize books into fiction and non-fiction; they would put books into sections such as children’s books, adult books, manga, magazines; to save bookshelf space, they would put books on different shelves depending on the size of each book; they would also put the newest publications in prominent display.

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[Manga/Occult] Mysteries in the life of Shigeru Mizuki: spiritual possession, the little people and drug trip

Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 - 2015)

Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 – 2015)

Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 – 2015), the creator of the Gegege Kitaro manga series, was a lifelong student of the otherworld.

Although he is best known for his fictional works inspired by Japan’s lores of supernatural beings (called youkai), I have always thought that his magnum opus were his autobiographical accounts in manga format, namely:

  • Nononba [のんのんばあとオレ] (1977)
  • Showa: A History of Japan [コミック昭和史] (1998-1989)
  • Boku no Isshou wa Gegege no Rakuen da [ボクの一生はゲゲゲの楽園だ] (2001)

These are memoirs of his life – drawn from memories happy and tragic from a childhood during the Great Depression surrounded by the mysteries of the Tottori countryside, early adulthood as a lowly foot soldier in a brutal war which left him with several near-death experiences and an amputated arm, his subsequent years as a struggling manga artist, and finally his prosperous and mature years in which he was free to explore the supernatural side of the world which had always fascinated him. With nostalgia and poignancy, he depicted his lively, lovable and oddball family and friends. Without illusions, he also painted the terrible events in history that claimed the best of his youthful years. Interestingly, he also spoke with frankness about his encounters with inexplicable mysteries.


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[Aesthetics] Shuji Terayama (I): A deck of Tarot cards, dark and strange

Shuji-Terayama01Shuji Terayama [寺山修司] (1935 – 1983), avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer, film director and photographer, is not for the faint-hearted.

I dived into his mind-bending universe with the purchase of an artbook called Terayama Shuji no Kamen Gaho [寺山修司の仮面画報], which is brimming with sketches, photos, quotations and explanatory notes on his works. I have to say that he was not an icon of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s – 1970’s for nothing. He was way out there. To give you an idea of the sort of strange and surreal images that gush forth from his high-powered imagination, below are two pictures of props used by Tenjo Sajiki [天井桟敷], an experimental theatre troupe which he formed in 1967. The first one is called ‘Machine for an Indolent Audience to Appreciate the Classics’ [怠惰な観客のための名作鑑賞機械]:
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[Food] Of Japanese cuisine and the law of the universe

Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959)

Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959)

The Japanese gourmet Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959) (actually he is a man of many hats – aesthete, chef, writer, ceramic artist, calligrapher, painter, seal carver, philosopher, entrepreneur, cultural critic, socialite –  but for the purpose of this post let us think of him as gourmet) once wrote about a conversation he had with a guest that is almost like a zen koan of its own:

Guest: Sensei, please tell me about the the essence of cuisine.

Kitaooji: It is something you produce in order to eat.

Guest: So we produce cuisine in order to eat. Then, sensei, what it is that we eat for?

Kitaooji: We eat in order to live.

Guest: Then what do we live for?

Kitaooji: We live in order to die.

If you simplify this into a formula: to cook => to eat => to live => to die. In other words, we cook in order to die.

The reason why I mention him is because he is the one who solved a mystery that has been on my mind for many years – namely, why is cuisine called ryori [料理] in Japanese?

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[Book] ‘Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold’ (2006) by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave

GoldWarriorsThis is the follow-up work of the Seagraves after their controversial book The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family (1999).

Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold (2006) is the chronicle of how the Japanese military joined hands with yakuza and indigenous gangsters alike throughout Japan’s conquered territories in Asia to systematically blackmail, terrorize and loot civilians of valuable assets during the Pacific War. At the risk of simplifying a very complex story that took many decades to unfold, essentially the Japanese military had outsourced spying, intelligence and counter-intelligence activities to the yakuza. The yakuza in turn forged links with indigenous gangsters in occupied lands, who provided valuable information as to what wealth was owned by whom in the local areas and helped to make these blundering operations both effective and efficient. At the top overseeing these activities was Prince Chichibu, younger brother of the Showa Emperor.

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[Book] ‘The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family’ (1999) by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave

The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family (1999) by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave

An eye-opening account of the Japanese Imperial family from the Meiji Era onwards. It is explosive, controversial and fascinating. It chronicles the colourful life of the bon vivant Meiji Emperor, followed by the reign of the Taisho Emperor and whispers of his mental insanity in corridors of power, to direct war-time involvement on the part of the Showa Emperor and senior-ranking princes and their subsequent bailouts and evasions of war crimes in the post-war era, and finally to the effective hostage of the Imperial Family in the hands of Right-wing conservatives up to the present day.

Two things from the book impressed me in particular:

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[Book] ‘Lost Japan’ (1996) by Alex Kerr

LostJapanReading this book was like having a long conversation with a sophisticated, level-headed observer of Japan who has spent decades digesting the country’s culture and history. Alex Kerr (1952 – present) is a rare mind who possesses a deep appreciation of Japan’s aesthetics and is nonetheless not blind to her darker, dysfunctional sides. In addition to being a Japanologist (he did Japanese studies for his undergraduate degree at Yale), he also has the unique advantage of being also a Sinologist (afterwards he did Chinese studies at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar). In addition to being a scholar and aesthete, he also has the uncommon experience of having also worked as a businessman during the Bubble Era. Only someone with his background could have had the insight and authority to say things like:
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[Book] Lee O-young (III): A cultural theory of rock-paper-scissors

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Continuing from Part II of this series. Lee O-young – having highlighted some key differences in outlook between the East and the West as embedded in linguistic structures in the first half of Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors” – then proceeds to the main argument of his book. He argues that the game of rock-paper-scissors is a metaphor for understanding how East Asians perceive the balancing forces of nature and adopt the game to govern certain aspects of human relations.

Rock-paper-scissors is a game of random chance. Anyone has the chance to win at this game. It is also a game that is outside the traditional top-down structures of social relations. More importantly, the game reflects the idea that there is never an absolute top-dog or winner in nature (even the strongest or cleverest mammal can fall prey to germs). So rock is defeated by paper, paper is in turn defeated by scissors, and scissors is in turn defeated by rock.

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[Film] The bitter Kodak smile in Japanese cinema

I have always thought that the word kushou [苦笑] means (by dictionary definition and popular usage):

To smile at something that is bitter to you and look bitter while you smile.

But over the years of having watched dozens of Japanese films, including nearly everything by Yasujiro Ozu [小津安二郎] (1903 – 1963), I am beginning to think that there is another kind of kushou. A more subtle kind perhaps. It is namely:

To smile at something that is bitter to you and not look bitter while you smile.

For some reason, I have only spotted that smile in Japanese films so far. You will know that smile instinctively once you have watched enough of them (whether they are directed by Ozu or not, for his influence is lasting and widespread). It is the Kodak smile that you usually only see in advertisements of toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics or the like. If a shot of the smile were taken out of the context of the film, you might even be fooled into thinking that the smile was induced by joy. But that smile always appears in some tragic context.

Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

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[Manga] ‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’ by Hikaru Nakamura (Part I): the Venusian woman, the myth of Tannhäuser, and the meaning of ‘recruit’

'Arakawa Under the Bridge' [荒川アンダー ザ ブリッジ] Vol 1 - 14 by Hikaru Nakamura was serialized on Young Gangan between 2004 and 2015

‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’ [荒川アンダー ザ ブリッジ] Vol 1 – 14 by Hikaru Nakamura was serialized on Young Gangan between 2004 and 2015. It was partly adapted into anime by Akiyuki Shinbo in 2010.

Synopsis: Kou Ichinomiya is born the scion of a powerful commercial empire in Japan and is himself a high-achieving university student who is already running his own business enterprises. One day, he falls over a bridge and falls into a river, and is rescued by a young woman named Nino, who claims to be an alien from Venus. Kou asks her for a way for him to repay her, and Nino tells him to make her fall in love with him, thus beginning Kou’s life of living under the bridge with her. Kou gradually learns that under the bridge is the home of a group of eclectic, borderline insane individuals with hints of mysterious pasts involved in espionage, warfare, ESP experiments, the mafia, high politics, stardom and space travel…

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