London Spring 2017: All the Japanese Stuff

I spent the weekend in London with Shannon eating a vast amount of cheap Japanese food and visiting all the shops, from Muji in Covent Garden to JP Books next to the Japan Centre.

Seriously, JP Books is an awesome little shop I’d totally forgotten about and look at all the amazing Midori/Traveler’s Company stuff they have! SQUEEEE! I was actually rather restrained; I bought a load of cheap Muji Passport notebooks the previous day which were much cheaper than Midori ones. I bought a single insert, an unmarked diary, to use as a bullet journal/to do list. Oh and a copy of the first volume of the Your Name. manga.

Muji was actually a chance encounter; I’ve seen them but hadn’t actually gone into one. It’s very minimalist, very chic and kind of like a mix of a department store and a 100円 store (except nothing costs 100円). They had a massive range of stationary and I did buy some cool scissors which are going to be great when it comes to saving space.

I met Shannon in Leicester Square and we went back to Chinatown for dinner, eventually settling on the Tokyo Diner for dinner (karaage, yum) and also picked up tickets to see the sub of Ghost in the Shell that happened to be showing on Saturday night. I’ve not actually seen much anime on the big screen and this is a classic. The seats were cheap (because my CEA card is FTW) and actually really comfortable considering the size of the Prince Charles Cinema.

We ended up passing the theatre showing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a lot. Shannon’s been trying to teach me how to use the London buses thanks to the power of Google Maps and her local knowledge. But, on my own, I still tend to use the tube which is a whole other blog post re my continuing quest for a new guide dog. It’s sometimes faster, though I did quite enjoy the forty-five minute bus ride to and from Shannon’s as it gave me lots of time to look out upon London and, also, read.

Shannon’s learning Japanese and it’s kinda prompted me that I need to brush up my own skills. While in the Japan Centre, I picked up a copy of にんぎょうひめ(人魚姫)aka The Little Mermaid from the picture book stand and started reading. It’s kinda nice to know I can read kids books without much of an issue but that’s a long way from, for example, light novels or manga which doesn’t have furigana.

So I have a goal … that’s good.

Wandering the Japanese sections of London has made me want to go back to Kyoto, to Sendai and to other places. It’s a nice dream to have in mind and plausible even if it won’t be for quite some time. I do want to improve my Japanese however, as I’m woefully lacking in certain areas (grammar and verbs, for example) even though I can translate Japanese to English quite well.

So reading this is going to be a fun challenge:

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The Ultimate J-Horror Showdown: Sadako vs. Kayako (貞子 vs. 伽椰子)

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Mainly because of my love of Japan, I watched a lot of J-Horror when it was originally a thing. This was back in the early 2000s when Ring was, literally, the scariest movie out there. I remember watching it on a VHS (oh the irony) that I’d rented from Blockbuster, engrained subtitles etched into the bottom of the screen. I devoured movies like Dark Water, Tomie and, later, Juon (both the TV and movie forms) and One Missed Call. As well as any anime which even looked like it might retell classic horror stories like Kaidan.

That movie gave me nightmares for two freaking weeks. I still describe myself as having Sadakophobia, though, correctly, this should be onryophobia as Sadako is a specific kind of spirit (an onryo). Even having seen dozens of black haired, white-robbed female ghosts, Sadako remains the one who scares the literal shit out of me.

This was where I learned an important kanji: 呪い. Noroi or curse.

Western curses get broken by true love’s kiss but Japanese curses, they have the endurance of a marathon runner. They don’t die, they just get worse and are more akin to viruses which are transmitted from person to person. You can neutralise them but you’ll probably die, you and all those you care about. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending and dying of fright is a common occurrence. Worse you can catch them just by passing through a place, typically the spot where someone died a violent death or a haunted house.

They kill you and everyone around you, spreading like the plague. You can’t stop them, only hope the wrath at the centre of it ever satiates a morbid hunger.

Ring was the first Japanese novel I tried to read, bought from a tiny Japanese bookshop in Colindale in London. But it was far too advanced for me, eventually I tag-teamed it with the English translation as I was able to pick out some of the kanji. The book has a totally different vibe to the movie and remains one of my favourite works of fiction, with the sequel, Rasen (らせん/Spiral) coming a close second and that was more a medical thriller whereas the first was a detective story with a supernatural twist.

By the time the … interesting American version of Juon came out (whitewashing and trying to make J-Horror accessible to Western audiences in completely the wrong way), I was riding the wave of the second anime boom and working in the industry as a journalist. I wrote several articles both on the movies, I even got my name on the box of the American remake of One Missed Call but I also wrote a lot of obligatory Halloween issue pieces about the genre.

Juon is an interesting movie, from a narrative perspective, as it’s not told in a linear fashion. Also, there have been a lot of movies. It’s told in the vignette style, jumbled up so you really have to concentrate. Whereas Ring has Sadako turn into a vengeful ghost after dying in a well, the centre of the curse in Juon is a house in Nerima, one of the wards of Tokyo. There’s a mother, Saeki Kayako, and her child, Toshio, were brutally murdered by husband and father, Takeo, who then kills himself in remorse/or was murdered by Kayako.

The non-linear story-telling was what caught my attention with Juon and held it. But, as protagonists, both Sadako and Kayako fascinate me.

Depending on whether you read the novel and watch Ring 0: Birthday, Yamamura Sadako is either a smallpox victim thrown into a well because she was a hermaphrodite or an introverted young woman with psychic abilities called nensha (inherited from her ‘mad’ mother Shizuko) whose ‘good’ incarnation was a little girl and whose ‘evil’ form is the onryo we all know and fear. I prefer the book version but let’s move on. In the movie, she psychically alters a video tape (retro!) that plays a mysterious and terrifying collection of jumbled scenes showing a well, a woman brushing her hair in a mirror and the characters for ‘mountain’ (Sadako’s last name means ‘mountain village’).

Oh and if you don’t show the video to someone else in the space of a week by either copying the tape or physically sitting them in front of a YB (thus spreading the curse), she crawls out of the well in the video, out of your TV and scares you to death.

Kayako, on the other hand, is a loving mother and a fantasist. Her fixation on her son’s school teacher ends her life when her jealous and abusive husband finds her diary. Her victims range to anyone who visits the house, some murdered by Takeo, others strangled by Kayako’s long hair. Toshio, and his cat Mar, serve as the harbingers of the curse, appearing to many of the characters dragged to their doom.

Given their popularity, a versus movie was practically ordained. Originally it was an April Fool’s joke but has since been confirmed as a real thing and it’s coming out in a matter of months, right in the middle of summer (Japan tends to celebrate ghost stories in summer because of the Obon festival).

From the looks of the trailer, it looks to be good and appeals to me in so many way. Not less because I’m curious how the two are going to meet (Sadako’s well is on an island and the Saeki house is in suburban Tokyo). Plus the video is cracked and knackered; who even has a VHS player these days? Hell do modern kids even know what one is?

I can’t wait to find out!

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The Liner Notes: “Irezumi”, Shinto and Failure

 

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I wanted to start writing about my processes when writing a short story, notes about ideas or links to things which inspired me to do the writing. I’m calling this series The Liner Notes in homage to the booklets which came in CDs with the lyrics and, now and again, notes from the composers/bands about what inspired the album in the first place.

I’m in the middle of writing a short story called “Irezumi” (刺青 which is used as a word for Japanese tattooing but actually translations as ‘stay’, referring to the way the ink used lingers permanently under the skin). The title is a double entendre and the story is one related by a master tattooist about the time he met a woman whose tattoo, of a bamboo forest, mysteriously began appearing one night.

I started off this story knowing several things:

  1. It was narrated by a tattooist in Meji era-Kyoto (who refuses to give his name but is third in his lineage and took the first character for his artistic name, Hori—, from his own master) in the middle of a country-wide the clamp down on his art.
  2. A woman comes to him with a mysterious tattoo (in her case a grove of bamboo saplings on her ankle) that appears to be getting bigger by the day. She says it’s not something she had done but rather appeared one morning and has been growing since.
  3. The reason why had something to do with the period of modernisation known as the Meiji Restoration (or Meiji Ishin) when Japan thought modernisation was cool and so tried to catch up to Europe as far as possible, banning samurai from carrying their swords (in effect: taking from them their souls), clamping down on irezumi and wearing European clothing rather than Japanese dress.
  4. The narrator visits a blind seeress, an itako, in some obscure village who explains what’s going on.
  5. The narrator fails in his task to help the woman with the mysterious tattoo.
  6. The world is irrevocally changed but the change also forces a new status quo.

I know the theme of this story is sacredness and the narrator’s failure in his task. The image above is a torii gate made of stone which I snapped while in Japan, that rope represents the start of sacred space (it’s called a shimenawa or 七五三縄). Anything can be sacred from shrines to rocks and trees (called yorishiro/依り代), you can tell because there is typically shimenawa surrounding the object. But what if a person is sacred?

Of course, Shinto has a concept for this which works beautifully for the story: yorimashi (憑坐) (the second of which is the same character as the one in miko (shrine maiden/巫女) BTW. Yorimashi are basically kami vessels or god-stolen/occupied bodies and this is the crux of the story, as is the concept of purity and divinity.

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The thing about writing this kind of fiction, I’ve discovered, is no one is going to shout at you for writing historical fiction. I’ve always shied away from this genre, convinced someone was going to decry my fiction for errors. It’s not about getting every detail correct, more about creating a convincing world and Japan I know enough about (from going there and nearly a decade specialising in all things to do with the culture) that I can do that.

Some of my favourite parts of Japan involved randomly wandering around Shinto shrines, washing my hands and mouth in the fountain like the one here, mostly while cherry blossom fell around me. Shinto is a religion of purity and sacredness but both can be found and adopted, anything can become a kami and anyone can see the spirits existing in nature around us. I figure, though tattooing involves blood (something normally verboten due to the impurity) the art itself, the healed product, that can be a sacred thing, a meditation on life and a lifelong reminder of something important to the person being tattooed.

Now that is sacredness right there.

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