Sunday, 29 June 2014

Battery


I started this blog on June 23rd last year. So this post marks a full year of posting, not very much of it in the last months. That's likely to continue (or get worse) for the next few months, as I struggle to meet a work deadline. For now, here's the next review.

バッテリー (Battery, 1996) is the first in a series of six children's novels of the same title by あさのあつこ (ASANO Atsuko, born 1954). I haven't read Battery II-VI, published from 1998 to 2005, so I don't know how the story goes on from here. There's a film with the same title from 2007 and a television series from 2008; but I haven't seen them and don't know whether they're based on the whole series or only part. The first book is structured as a complete narrative, with a ring composition motif in the titles of the first and final chapters; but a lot of elements of the story are still only slightly developed at the end of the book. American readers will probably recognise the use of the word "battery" in the title, which according to Wikipedia, "refers collectively to the pitcher and the catcher" in a baseball team. I'm English, and I don't know much about baseball. So I can't say how well it's portrayed.

The book follows twelve year old Takumi (巧), who had been the star pitcher in his primary school team, as his family moves to a new town, over a few weeks of the spring holiday before he starts middle school. Takumi is the book's main character, convinced of his own ability as a pitcher, and with no interest in anyone around him (almost every chapter has him saying, "As if that matters" or "What's that got to do with me?" more than once). Takumi's family are returning to their home town. His father has been transferred there after becoming ill from overwork in his previous position. They are moving in with Takumi's maternal grandfather. Takumi is happy about this, as his grandfather was very active in baseball. His mother is less happy. She had felt that her father neglected her for sports, and in reaction had married a man with no interest in baseball. In particular she is worried that he will involve her younger son, Seiha (清波). Seiha had been seriously ill when he was younger, and his mother now treats him over-protectively. Seiha wants to play baseball too; but Takumi is hardly willing to acknowledge his existence. (It isn't clearly stated, but I think it's implied that the family neglected Takumi when Seiha was sick, and that Takumi resents him.) Beyond the family, the most important character is Gou (豪), like Takumi a boy about to move up to middle school, and a baseball catcher. Takumi is relentlessly concentrated on his own achievements. Gou is more easy going and kinder, noticing the feelings of those around him.

The story follows Takumi's interactions with his family and with Gou and other baseball playing boys. The narrative and dialogue style is simple but lively, painted in a few bright colours. Much of the narrative follows what is going on inside Takumi's head. His thoughts tend to go round in circles, which is realistic, but a little wearying to read. The story progresses (not very fast) through conversations, where everyone brings out into the open underlying issues without much reserve, but without ever getting to any resolution either.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Magic Flight

KANOU Tomoko (加納朋子, born 1966) is a writer of 日常の謎 (nichijou no nazo, puzzles of everyday life), a genre of detective stories, where the mysteries are minor events, with no serious crime, often with no crime at all. 魔法飛行 (Mahou hikou, Magic Flight, 1993) is the sequel to ななつのこ (Nanatsu no ko, Seven Children, 1992), which I read some years ago. I didn't feel like rereading it, so I can't write a proper review. The basic set up is of a young college student IRIE Komako, retelling a mystery from a children's book that she's a fan of, her fan letter to the author, which happens to mention some minor mystery she has come across in real life, the author's reply, solving the mystery. So we get two sets of short story mysteries, one (the stories from the book Komako has read) involving a small farmer's young child and his friend, a mysterious girl who solves the puzzles he brings her, the other from the external narrator Komako, whose puzzles are solved by the author she writes to. For a little more detail, you can read Ho-Ling's discussion here. I don't share the view that mysteries need a murder; but I would agree that the stories feel a little too diluted for a mystery fan. They may have had too little ambition as mysteries; but as a narrative exercise, with different kinds of narration, paired related mysteries, and an overarching larger mystery, they certainly deserve admiration. 

The narrator's enthusiastic retelling of the stories from the book within the book was a slight hurdle for me. In real life, we tolerate that kind of thing from good friends; but they generally don't succeed in communicating the qualities of the original in the slightest. If you've ever listened to an acquaintance performing the parts of a classic Monty Python sketch, backtracking here and there, because they've forgotten a favourite bit, you'll know how tedious this can be. Komako's internal narration is not that bad, and of course one feels sympathy for a fan's enthusiasm; but it still felt as though I was looking at the stories of the internal narrative through clouded glass.

The way that the story in ななつのこ develops makes a continuation of this format impossible; and I was wondering where a sequel could go. In 魔法飛行, there are only four stories, each featuring a single mystery. If I remember there were more mysteries in the first book (7 times 2?). So the mysteries here are much longer than those. Komako is now writing to 瀬尾 (SEO, I think: the book doesn't provide furigana for the name), a young man she met in the first book; and sending him accounts of her daily life, written up as stories, but unfinished. Seo comments on the writing and also solves a puzzle in the stories. But then, after each story and Seo's solution of each mystery, there follows what seems to be a letter to Komako from a reader of Komako's stories, written as if to the fictional character Komako. The writer of these letters describes them as letters from a different dimension, and compares him or herself to children writing a letter to Santa Claus or to people who write to Sherlock Holmes. This is an interesting idea and certainly sets the reader wondering where it is heading. These letters from nowhere are the larger mystery of the book, growing darker as the stories progress, in contrast to the generally light tone of Komako's narrative.

The stories also show a greater interest in drama or in classical detective story elements like inexplicable situations than most of those in the first book. The puzzle of the first story is very minor (why would a girl enter different false names in the college lecture attendance register?) and serves more to introduce the major characters and their lives; but the following feature such things as an attempt to save a life, a ghost story of a painting on a bridge of a boy who died in an accident there turning into a painting of a skeleton, and an apparent case of communication by telepathy.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Suspicion

疑惑 (Giwaku, Suspicion) is a 1982 novella by 松本清張 (MATSUMOTO Seichou), first published, according to the Japanese Wikipedia page, as 昇る足音 ("The sound of footsteps on the stairs"). It comes printed with a second novella, which I haven't read yet. It was made into a film (also called 疑惑) in the same year, 1982; and as this was being shown near me earlier this week, I hurried to read the story before seeing the film.

The novella follows the trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband. ONIZUKA Kumako (鬼塚球磨子) had been a bar hostess in Tokyo, with yakuza connections and a criminal record; but she had risen in the world by marrying the rich Hokuriku businessman SHIRAKAWA Fukutarou (白河福太郎). Shortly after her marriage she had had his life insured for a huge sum. When one night the couple drive off the dockside of the local harbour and only Kumako swims out of the wrecked car, the police suspect that it was no accident, particularly after finding a spanner in the car, which Kumako might have put there as a tool to break the glass to get out.

The novella follows the case in a distanced way, either through the eyes of the local crime reporter, whose reports have made the story a sensation even in the national press, or with the general distanced view of public knowledge. We start some time after the actual crime, shortly before the trial, watching the attempts to find legal representation for Kumako, whose reputation from the press coverage makes lawyers unwilling to take her case. Finally she receives a court appointed representative, a specialist in civil law, from whom nobody expects much.

The style is generally very dry and factual. Only rarely does Matsumoto attempt vivid description, more of places than of people (who generally get a few traits, which are then repeated on each appearance). The dryness actually works very well, especially at this length, giving the work something of the feel of a documentary. That does make the ending a bit problematic. There's a too predictable "Oh the irony" ending, whose shape you can make out from about half way. I was really hoping that that wasn't where Matsumoto is heading, but it was. That's perhaps a matter of taste. The detection part of the story is quite solid, and the depiction of a trial being swayed by the judgement of the press is well done.

The film is directed by NOMURA Yoshitarou (野村 芳太郎), who made many films based on Matsumoto's books. I was not very enthusiastic about his version of YOKOMIZU Seishi's Yatsu haka mura in an earlier post; but I think this works quite well. There are two main differences between book and film. Firstly Kumako becomes the main character. Now in the book, Kumako is a very compelling figure; but we never see her at first hand, only through the eyes of public opinion or reports of others. This is clearly part of Matsumoto's deliberate narrative technique; and it neatly supports a major theme of the story, the judgement of public opinion. The idea of making a major character who never appears is possible in film too: KUROSAWA did it in Stray Dog. But of course this is a little harder in a courtroom drama. The change has consequences. In the book, readers will probably be ready enough to think that Kumako is a bad person, as far as they can judge; but the film makes her more complicated. The second major change supports that emphasis on Kumako's character. The lawyer is a man in the book, a woman in the film, a divorced mother, whose child is in the custody of the father and his new wife. The diligent, strict, self supporting lawyer is played as a contrast to Kumako, who is given to tantrums and relies on manipulating men. The film speeds through the earlier parts of Matsumoto's story to get to the introduction of the lawyer, transferring some elements forward (a little implausibly, sometimes) to the point where she can play a role in their discovery.

The deductions in the book come more or less whole through to the screen, but the actual arguments are downplayed and replaced by more dramatic revelations, which also have the effect of making the case less ambiguous than Matsumoto left it. The direction does still have some of the problems common in films by lesser Japanese directors. Like the book, the film generally has something of a documentary style, which it does quite well; but the acting of many minor characters is stagey in a way that jars with the rest of the action.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Witch of the West is Dead

西の魔女が死んだ (Nishi no majo ga shinda, The Witch of the West is Dead, 1994) is a prize winning children's book by 梨木香歩 (NASHIKI Kaho, born 1959), made into a film with the same title in 2008. It is the story of a twelve year old Japanese girl, Mai, and her English grandmother, with whom she spends a month at her house in the country, sent there after refusing to go to school.

The story starts and ends with chapters set a few years later, when Mai learns that her grandmother has died and again visits the house in the country. What comes between is then an extended flashback. We see Mai gathering wild strawberries with her grandmother and making strawberry jam, walking on the hill at the back of the house, and doing household chores, including washing clothes by hand (or rather foot) since her grandmother doesn't have a working washing machine. Her grandmother claims to be a witch, and Mai decides to train towards the same ability. There is nothing unambiguously magical in the book; and the training largely consists of the household chores mentioned above, along with efforts of self control like getting up early. Grandmother instructs her in housework and at the same time dispenses wisdom about life.

I found this a difficult book to enjoy. Too much of the grandmother's wisdom seemed to me the kind of thing that people believe because it's comforting. And although I've often enjoyed stories that involve descriptions of simple activities like cooking, cleaning and gardening, the books that pleased me that way had a vividness that seemed lacking here. The simplicity and placid flow of Japanese prose is a particular strength of several of its better writers; here, it felt a bit lifeless, perhaps because there seemed too little complexity behind it. But the story does develop some complexity as it progresses and it left a better impression than my not very enthusiastic remarks above might suggest.

The bunko edition comes with a short story sequel, 渡りの一日 (Watari no ichinichi, "One day's crossing", 1996), following Mai and her friend Shouko over one day.