Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki

Cover by Araki

Izumi Suzuki was part of what sounds like Japan’s post-60s New Wave of Science Fiction, in which (as in the UK at the same time) the country’s authors made a conscious attempt to move away from the commercial American style. Hers in particular became known as the “SF of manners”, though I’ve a feeling that phrase loses a lot through translation.

Born in 1949 (making her a contemporary of Haruki Murakami, whose world of jazz cafés and disaffected twenty-somethings she shares), she moved to Tokyo after winning recognition for some of her early writing, and there became a stage and film actor, as well as posing for the art-and-bondage photographer Araki. (That’s her, by him, on the cover of Terminal Boredom.) She was apparently introduced to SF in 1970, and began publishing it starting with “Trial Witch” in S-F Magazine in 1975. Her writing career seems to have gone into overdrive after the death of her ex-husband, the experimental jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe, with whom she had a daughter. (A 1992 novel and 1995 film, Endless Waltz, depicted a fictionalised version of the couple’s stormy relationship.) Her health declined, though, and she eventually took her own life in 1986.

Scenes from Endless Waltz (1995) – much honking of free jazz, but little about Suzuki’s writing

Terminal Boredom, published this year by Verso Books, is her first English-language collection, with seven stories by almost as many translators (Daniel Joseph, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Helen O’Horan, Aiko Masubuchi, and Polly Barton). There’s no indication of when the Japanese originals first appeared, which is a pity, as I like to at least guess at a writer’s development from knowing which are the earlier stories, but perhaps seven stories is too small a selection for that, anyway.

The opening story, “Women and Women”, is set in a future where “Women have been left carefully husbanding the scant resources of a planet stripped bare by men.” The few remaining males — essential for purposes of reproduction — are housed in an area known as the GETO, the Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy Zone. Suzuki gets round the traditional SF exposition problem by having her narrator, a teenager in this mostly-manless world, share the sort of wildly speculative myths about adulthood teenagers in any age do. To her, “Men are an offshoot of humanity… but they’re a deviant strain. They’re freaks…”

“Which is exactly why the males have to be kept in the GETO. If they were allowed to roam free, the radiation or whatever it is they emit would make all the women around them pregnant.”

But when she sees what she just knows to be an actual boy, of her own age, passing her home one night, she’s fascinated, and starts leaving messages for him to find.

Suzuki, from the cover of a Japanese collection

Male-female relations — always of a distinctly ambivalent kind, making me think of a less intense version of that from Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains — form the core of the book’s preoccupations, but it soon becomes clear the emotional disconnection that characterises these relationships extends to those between women, too. For instance, in “You May Dream”, the narrator too-casually agrees to the request of a friend, whom she spends most of the time feeling vaguely irritated by, to enter her dreams. This is a future where over-population has resulted in lottery-chosen people being suspended in cryosleep until enough spaceships can be built to take them off-world. Sleepers can bond with one chosen person and take up residence in their dreams. The narrator thinks of her friend as her opposite, even her Jungian shadow, which might make her sound like ideal dream material, but it turns out they’re totally incompatible: “She infused a syrupy wetness into my world.” The narrator soon finds herself reluctant to sleep, because of the burden of her friend’s too-different personality.

Perhaps the best story for capturing Suzuki’s tone is the last one, “Terminal Boredom”, set in a future where mass unemployment has resulted in a habitually bored young populace too unmotivated to remember to even feed themselves regularly. “Everyone,” the narrator says, “lives in a happy-go-lucky depression”, more (but only slightly more) engaged in what they see on TV than in reality:

“Ever since I’ve been old enough to really understand the world (these past two years or so), I’ve never once cried at a scene in real life. Whenever something serious happens, I just convince myself it’s no big deal… I’ve been fooling myself this way for long enough that it’s become a habit, and now nothing affects me.”

When a woman is murdered right next to her and the boyfriend she mostly can’t be bothered to meet, they can’t quite grasp what has happened, until they see it again, on camera. It starts to feel like the sort of world J G Ballard was always predicting — a future of boredom through enforced leisure relieved by explosions of violence — only, it doesn’t have the levels of wealth he assumed would go with it.

Suzuki’s is a world that seems particularly post-counter-cultural. The book flap describes her stories as “punky and pitch-black”, but the punkiness is most definitely of the “pretty vacant” rather than pogo-dancing variety. Characters don’t have friends so much as people they habitually hang out with, and get vaguely irritated by, though not enough to make them seek out other people:

“What are your relationships usually like?”
“Totally throwaway. I anticipate the break-up and hint towards it to prepare for a smooth exit.”

Japanese cover to her 1978 collection, Women and Women

Some of Suzuki’s characters (if not all of them, at some level) are just as dissociated from themselves. In “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, one of the narrators is a woman prematurely aged by a drug she overused, who approaches the still-young man she once had a relationship with, only to find he doesn’t recognise her, or at most thinks she might be his ex-girlfriend’s mother. In “That Old Seaside Club”, the narrator says she’s 19, but is haunted by a failed adult life she surely has not yet lived. “Night Picnic” is about a family who think of themselves as the last surviving human beings on a distant, non-Earth planet, desperately trying to cling to supposedly authentic human ways my mimicking what they see in old movies and read in old books. (As all the cultural references in this story were American, I wondered if this might have been a satire on US culture taking over Japan’s.) In “Forgotten”, the key difference the narrator’s alien boyfriend notes between humans and his own kind is that humans forget while Meelians don’t, which is why “we haven’t had a war on my planet for two millennia”. “Whose life is this? It’s completely empty,” says one narrator, of her own life, and it’s a quote that could fit any of her stories.

I’d like to read some more stories by Suzuki, though perhaps I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, as that malaise of disaffection can be hard to read too much of. A biographical introduction would be nice, too.

(Another story, “The Walker”, translated by Daniel Joseph, is available at Granta, though it’s quite different in feel from all the stories in Terminal Boredom.)

Suzuki’s 1978 collection, Teatime Anytime, in the only scene from Endless Waltz that shows her books

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Moving Zen by C W Nicol

Writing about Robert K Elder’s The Film That Changed My Life recently made me think about books that have changed mine (in that wordlessly changing way I wrote about), and the one that came most immediately to mind was Moving Zen by C W Nicol. Because I’ve never had much in the way of storage space, my personal library has seen a lot of books come and go, but Moving Zen (given to me as a Christmas present by my brother Garen back in about 1985) is one of the few that have stayed with me. Of course, I first read it because I was heavily into Karate at the time, but it’s the one Karate book I’ve kept, in part because it tells a story that isn’t just about Karate, but something far more universal.

First published in 1975, Moving Zen is C W Nicol’s memoir of the time he went to Japan (in the early sixties) to learn Karate. “I wanted it to be the simple story of a journey from white to black belt”, he says (in an excellent two-part interview which can be found online here (part 1, part 2), and which makes a wonderful afterword to reading Moving Zen), but really it’s about a young man finding a place (both inwardly and outwardly) where he truly feels at home.

The start of his first Karate lesson at the Japan Karate Association’s dojo in Yotsuya is the perfect illustration of this. A Westerner with only a smattering of Japanese, he at first finds the very atmosphere makes an outsider of him:

“Silence. I tried to draw myself into it, but it excluded me, and I held my breath lest I should make a noise, and hovered, uncertain, on the edge of it, for I did not know, and would not know for some time, exactly what we were doing.” — p. 9

And outside the dojo:

“Crowded Tokyo magnified my loneliness. In language and life-style, I lived apart from the people. I had not yet truly found a place to belong. Coming off an Arctic expedition, with its close and isolated companionship, did not equip me emotionally for dealing with huge, alien crowds, or for the many people I had to know, greet, and be friendly with.” — p. 18

As well as learning a martial art, and coming to understand a new culture, Moving Zen‘s subtitle, “Karate as a Way to Gentleness”, points to another conflict Nicol faces, this time with something alien inside himself, a raging temper he was prey to, which had led to him being involved in street-fights as a youngster, and he deals with the paradox of using a martial art as a means of learning to control these urges to violence, eloquently.

In fact, one of the joys of this book is just how well-written it is. Always clear and simple in style, it evokes the Japan that Nicol comes to know in a very Japanese way, using brief, accurate but expressive strokes to describe small incidents, sights and experiences:

“Outside, in the yard of a nearby farmhouse, a little grey-haired old lady bent over a broom, busily sweeping the fallen leaves of a gnarled and ancient persimmon tree. Dark clouds scudded by, over the curves of the eaves. And then came a gust of wind, and a thousand leaves clung to the wet roof, and tears came to my eyes, and my scalp tightened, and the wet leaves and the roof suddenly brought an understanding to me of something that was pure Zen, and therefore wordless, and Sonako and I went home for supper.” — p. 90

It’s these passages that provide some of the most moving episodes in the book, particularly in the final chapters where Nicol looks back on the many experiences he’s had in this once-alien country and realises how far he’s come, not just in terms of learning Karate (and earning his black belt), but in terms of ridding himself of his “foreign-bachelor isolation” and finding a way to truly belong:

“I was part of a family now… Each day was an object lesson in living, and I had so much to learn.” — p. 68

“It was as if the surface were calmer now, and I could begin to see beneath it, coming face to face with the warrior philosophies of Japan… I knew now that I had not come to Japan on a wild goose chase. It was all here.” — p. 100

Is a knowledge of Karate necessary to enjoy the book? I don’t think so, as Nicol was writing at a time when few Westerners would have known much about the subject, and he takes time to introduce the various concepts as he comes across them — mostly those relating to the spirit of Karate, the paradoxical heart of Bushido that turns a fighting method into a discipline, an art, a means of “perfecting one’s character”, rather than becoming some sort of killing machine. But this is certainly not an instructional manual, and the passages that explain aspects of the people and culture of Japan are as frequent as those about the martial arts. For me, there’s something about the very way this book is written, a calmness and clarity in its language, a simplicity in its insight into the many paradoxes of Japanese culture, and Karate in particular, that reveals how deeply Nicol was changed by the experiences he describes.

Doing a web-search, I was surprised to learn that C W Nicol is quite a celebrity in Japan, and has written more than a hundred books, not to mention plays and scripts for TV. He continues to practise Karate, and to follow his other passion, for the environment. His official website’s here, but alas (for me), it’s in Japanese. Amazon lists a couple of other English language books by him, though, so I may well be checking those out in the near future.

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The Sun

The Sun (or Solntse, 2005) is the third in a series of films by Aleksandr Sokurov, each of which focuses on a 20th century political leader from the darker end of the spectrum: Moloch was about Hitler, Taurus was about Lenin (neither of which I’ve seen), while The Sun is about the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in the days up to and immediately after the country’s capitulation to the US in World War II.

the_sun

In his production notes on the DVD, Sokurov says that Hirohito is a far more human figure than either Hitler or Lenin, thus making The Sun a more optimistic film than his others about the evils of totalitarianism.

I didn’t read the production notes till after I’d watched the film, but turned to them in the hope of finding out what the film was trying to say. If it is just that Hirohito was a far more human figure than the dictators Hitler and Lenin, then Sokurov’s hardly making much of a point. As the film presents him, Hirohito was a much more human figure simply because he wasn’t really in charge or even connected with what was going on in the war at all. (The Wikipedia article on Hirohito has a brief discussion of the Emperor’s actual involvement). In fact, for a large part of the film, I was wondering if The Sun wasn’t meant as a comedy. Hirohito’s peculiar facial tics and his childlike manner as he distracts himself with dictating notes about the Hermit Crab, and loses himself in a dead end of the war-bunker, made me wonder if there was some mental illness I was supposed to know about. When Hirohito sits down to talk to the incredibly-foreheaded General MacArthur, we get ridiculously inconsequential dialogue which only at one point actually touches on the war — and when it does, it shows Hirohito to be perceptive enough to understand what went wrong, thus raising the question of why he didn’t do anything to stop the war. There’s then a sequence in which Hirohito tries to light a cigar, ending in a peculiar shot of the Emperor lighting the cigar from MacArthur’s. At first it’s as if the two men are kissing, then it’s as if MacArthur was prolonging the event simply to humiliate the Emperor by puffing smoke in his face. But neither of these interpretations has any relevance to the two men’s relationship in later scenes. The film is full of such moments that seem to be saying something, but which don’t build on anything that occurred before, leaving me wondering what it was all leading up to. The Emperor finally animates and starts to talk about his one enthusiasm in life — marine biology — but MacArthur immediately interrupts him to say, bizarrely, he has to leave on an important errand. He goes out of the room and watches Hirohito, who, alone, proceeds to perform a little dance before playfully extinguishing all the candles on the table. MacArthur looks on, smiling as at a child’s antics. Earlier on, US war photographers had called the Emperor “Charlie”, likening him to Charlie Chaplin, underlining this air of childlike innocence.

The only dark moment in the film comes right at the end, when Hirohito has recorded a speech renouncing his divine status. He asks what happened to the engineer present at the recording, and is told the man committed hara-kiri. The Emperor pauses, surprised and upset. Then we get an outside view of a city — perhaps Hiroshima — that is totally devastated and still smoking, a place where thousands have died. It seems to indicate, to me, that an Emperor who can feel the loss of one man he met only briefly obviously didn’t understand the reality of what was happening around him during the war, where such tragedies were occurring every second.

(The film’s best moment is also its funniest, when the Emperor receives a gift from General MacArthur of Hershey bars. Everyone seems slightly awed by the presence of real, cocoa-made chocolate. The Emperor’s butler warns they might be poisoned. The Emperor tells him to try some. The butler nibbles a bit, then says with a shrug, “I prefer rice candy.”)

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