25 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Kotaro Isaka’s Remote Control, translated from the Japanese and published by Kodansha International.

(Quick side-note: the closing of Kodansha International sucks. That’s all I have to say about that. I’m out of witty attacks for today.)

Will Eells is: a University of Rochester student getting a certificate in Literary Translation Studies, a promising young Japanese translator, one of our contributing reviewers (thanks NYSCA for the funding to make this possible), and a very enthusiastic reader of international fiction.

Kotaro Isaka has written a number of novels, but I believe this is the only one to be published in English translation. In Japan though, his novels have received quite a bit of praise and attention, starting with the wonderfully named Foreign Duck, Native Duck Coin-locker, which won the Eiji Yoshikawa Newcomer’s Prize for Literature. He has also been nominated on four occasions for the Naoki Prize, which is given to “the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author.” According to Wikipedia, “the winner receives a watch and one million yen.” The four nominated titles are: Gravity Clown, Children and Grasshopper, Accuracy of Death, and Desert. He won the Honya Taisho in 2008 for Golden Slumber (aka Remote Control).

Here’s the opening of Will’s review:

I’m just going to fess up right now: I’m a bit of a culture snob. I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened in my upbringing that led me to be this way – that I can’t check out a summer blockbuster without reading the reviews first, that I prefer listening to the local college or independent radio station to KISS (at least when I don’t have my iPod and car adaptor on me) – but at this point all I can do is play with the hand I was dealt. With books, this means that my elitism extends to the point that I can’t even look at any sort of mystery, crime novel, or thriller without a hefty dose of cynicism and distance. I don’t even really know why that is; maybe we should call it the “James Patterson exhaustion” effect. But I’m pretty sure that in the history of my book-reading life, I can only recall maybe three books that I’ve read that fall under this category: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Natsuo Kirino’s Out, and (I guess if you consider it a psychological thriller) Ryu Murakami’s Piercing. I was pretty lukewarm about all of these.

In my defense, I realize this is an annoying and extremely close-minded way to experience the world, and I couldn’t possibly proclaim that everything I’ve ever enjoyed was of the highest cultural value. But I say all of this to preface my review of Kotaro Isaka’s conspiracy thriller Remote Control, and admit that its target audience was probably not me.

But lo and behold! It was actually pretty good.

Remote Control takes place in a possibly now, possibly near-future Japan, where the city of Sendai has been outfitted with “Security Pods” in all public areas that can capture 24-hour surveillance in all directions, and can record and track nearby cell phone activity. It is here that the newly elected Prime Minister is assassinated during a parade by a bomb flown in by remote control helicopter. All evidence points to former deliveryman and accidental-actress-rescuing media darling Masaharu Aoyagi as the culprit in the assassination. But is he really the criminal everyone thinks he is?

Click here to read the full piece.

25 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m just going to fess up right now: I’m a bit of a culture snob. I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened in my upbringing that led me to be this way – that I can’t check out a summer blockbuster without reading the reviews first, that I prefer listening to the local college or independent radio station to KISS (at least when I don’t have my iPod and car adaptor on me) – but at this point all I can do is play with the hand I was dealt. With books, this means that my elitism extends to the point that I can’t even look at any sort of mystery, crime novel, or thriller without a hefty dose of cynicism and distance. I don’t even really know why that is; maybe we should call it the “James Patterson exhaustion” effect. But I’m pretty sure that in the history of my book-reading life, I can only recall maybe three books that I’ve read that fall under this category: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Natsuo Kirino’s Out, and (I guess if you consider it a psychological thriller) Ryu Murakami’s Piercing. I was pretty lukewarm about all of these.

In my defense, I realize this is an annoying and extremely close-minded way to experience the world, and I couldn’t possibly proclaim that everything I’ve ever enjoyed was of the highest cultural value. But I say all of this to preface my review of Kotaro Isaka’s conspiracy thriller Remote Control, and admit that its target audience was probably not me.

But lo and behold! It was actually pretty good.

Remote Control takes place in a possibly now, possibly near-future Japan, where the city of Sendai has been outfitted with “Security Pods” in all public areas that can capture 24-hour surveillance in all directions, and can record and track nearby cell phone activity. It is here that the newly elected Prime Minister is assassinated during a parade by a bomb flown in by remote control helicopter. All evidence points to former deliveryman and accidental-actress-rescuing media darling Masaharu Aoyagi as the culprit in the assassination. But is he really the criminal everyone thinks he is?

Of course not. Author Kotaro Isaka makes things interesting by changing up the structure of the novel just a little bit. Like in a movie, he starts the novel off at a distance, letting the reader experience the assassination almost second hand, relying on information passed on by the news. Then, he slowly zooms in until the reader finally gets to follow Aoyagi, as he tries to figure out what in the world is going on.

Obviously, for any thriller to be enjoyable it must be exciting and keep the tension going at all times. And overall, Remote Control does exactly that, even when the narration switches from the fleeing Aoyagi to Aoyagi’s ex-girlfriend and bystander Haruko. The chain of events even makes sense, more or less, with things going right in ways that aren’t too far-fetched and things going predictably or plausibly wrong, just when you think it might actually work. There are implausabilities, of course, and even a little silliness (assassination by remote control helicopter? Really?); that just goes with the conspiracy thriller territory. The biggest plot misstep is more of a problem with character development – where we the reader are supposed to be sympathetic to a crucial helper of Aoyagi’s, who absolutely deserves no such sympathy no matter what the circumstance (to say anything more would be a huge spoiler, even if I hated the way the character was handled).

Looking at the individual elements of Remote Control show a handling of pretty standard tropes: assassination, an ordinary guy caught up something beyond his understanding, the possibility of shadowy government interference, so on and so forth. What makes Remote Control stand out among other thrillers, at least to me and my admittedly little experience, is its unsubtle and incredibly critical portrayal of the media, journalism, and the 24-hour news cycle – allowing the public to point fingers without the facts, manipulating and shaping public opinion before “truth” can even have a chance to emerge:

“If you confess, we’ll try to see that things go a little easier for you. This is a terrible thing you’ve done, but even so there might be extenuating circumstances, something in your background we can emphasize to get a little sympathy out of the media.”

“There’s nothing in my background and nothing in the foreground – I had nothing to do with this!” Aoyagi’s frustration was mounting.

“I mean, we could create the impression that something in your childhood led you to do it.”

“Create the impression . . .” The conversation was getting so weird that Aoyagi was unsure what he was trying to say.

“We can still stir up a little sympathy for you – it’s a matter of creating the right image.”

“You mean you’ll manipulate the facts,” said Aoyagi.

“The image,” Sasaki corrected. “That’s the nature of these things. Images may not be based on much of anything, but they stick to you like nothing else.”

And of course the security pods lead to direct (and in-text) associations with America and the invasion of civil liberties through the Patriot Act.

The description on the cover likens Kotaro Isaka to Haruki Murakami, which is accurate only in the vaguest and most over-simplifying of ways: the everyday hero caught up in an unexpected adventure, the language being easy to read, and an on-going reference to the Beatles’ song “Golden Slumbers” (which is actually the original title of the novel, changed in English, I assume, for headache-inducing copyright reasons). This is no fault, I believe, to translator Stephen Snyder, who keeps the language from stumbling so as to facilitate this page-turner to keep the pages turning – the greatest achievement for making this enjoyable novel accessible to potential readers looking for their next beach-side read.

Kotaro Isaka, although touted as a mystery writer on the back, has a number of books that looked interesting (and are non-genre) when I was scanning bookshelves in Tokyo, so I truly hope this work is successful enough to see more of his work translated into English. Is this thriller a literary game changer? Probably not, but I can’t deny that I was genuinely excited to see what was going to happen next. I can’t say I’m hooked to the adrenaline thrillers and mystery novels can bring, nor can I tell how this compares to other works in the genre. But for this anti-thriller snob, it was a heck of a ride.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., which was translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and published by Kodansha International.

We’ve already mentioned this book on Three Percent several times, including in this JLPP interview with Michael Emmerich, and more interestingly, in relation to this piece he wrote for CALQUE and the “ensuing debate/exchange it provoked.“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=1171

As if those pieces weren’t enough to get one intrigued, this is a book about a woman who wakes up with a penis growing out of her big toe and runs off to joint a “traveling performance show with other sexual misfits.” Sounds pretty crazy and fun, no? Well, unfortunately, Monica wasn’t as enamored with it as she had hoped to be:

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Monica does love the translation though . . . To read the full piece, click here.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Not only does Kazumi appear naïve, but perhaps a bit daft. For instance, when she questions her boyfriend, Masao, about being homophobic, her ruminations sound much more authorial than an authentic voice of a innocent twenty-year old whom just discovered that she had a penis:

Come to think of is, was the fact that Masao had sex with women proof that he wasn’t a faggot? He thought penises were dirty and he didn’t like the idea of sex with men, but he felt no qualms about sticking his dirty penis into my mouth at the same time that he emotionally felt closer to men than women. He was so confused, his emotional life so riddled with contradictions, he couldn’t possibly be normal! . . . But then who was I to talk? I had a penis.

Exactly. The main character does have a penis and this it what it takes for her to recognize someone else “riddled with contradictions” because apparently, she hadn’t noticed any of his contradictions in the three prior years that they had dated. This is what makes the main character inconsistent and then, unbelievable. Throughout the book, Kazumi is sickened and frightened by the idea of lesbianism, finding the idea of sticking her toe-penis in a vagina “gross.” Later, she experiments with a woman after she leaves her current boyfriend, Shunji, and finds that perhaps it isn’t as disgusting as she thought it was, but still not convinced that lesbianism or any other relationship is worth it:

Then he began preaching: “Forget this lesbian stuff! Nothing ever comes from two women getting together. I guess it can’t be helped if a woman is too ugly to attract a man—that’s a reason to turn lesbian. But you’re cute. Don’t you think that you should just stay with this Shunji kid here?”

I hardly knew what to make of these bizarre statements. True, maybe nothing came from two women getting together, but nothing came from a man and a woman getting together either—nothing but babies. Or did he know something I didn’t know? I had no idea whether or not there women who turned to homosexual love because men wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and I couldn’t help wondering what led Utagawa to believe there were. And what made him think he could be so arrogant as to decree, even if he wasn’t explicit about it, that women who could attract men were better off in heterosexual relationships—that they should mold their sexual proclivities to the needs of men, rather than stay attuned to their own desires?

Again, this sort of interior monologue runs contrary to Kazumi’s alleged innocence. Also, I get nervous as a reader when the author has the character asking questions. Matsuura has Kazumi asking questions in her mind frequently and it wears on the reader because it’s a lazy way of developing character. The reader is smart enough to ask those questions without the character doing it. So, this kind of intellectualizing does nothing for the reader in terms of believability of Kazumi as an innocent or even as a fully developed person.

Ultimately, the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stereotypes of what sexuality is. They give method to the intellectualization of gender and sexuality, but no meaning or passion. Matsuura intellectualizes the hell out of any attraction or passion so that by the end of the novel, the idea of sex of any kind seems joyless. More time spent on investing in the characters would have made me care, made me believe in Kazumi and her “apprenticeship.” As grating as this novel is, I found the translation above the material and hoped at some point, the writing would match the translation. Instead, I felt relieved that I was rid of her and her sexual musings and wished someone more fun would have grown a toe-penis.

....
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