However deftly one might argue the importance of a basic literary canon
, an egregiously large gap remains in the curriculum of most English
classes – a gap easily accommodated by the inclusion of Eastern, specifically Japanese, texts. Why is Japanese fiction and film
avoided in literary education? Its inclusion is not a matter of multicultural political correctness
(no course would be able to study a text from every country in the world), nor is the missing material an easy way to give a different political or cultural perspective. Japanese texts present an entire side – a valuable side – of storytelling that is virtually ignored in most classrooms.
It is difficult to contest the fact that students need stimulation. Education, after all, is about exercising our brains – using literature as both entertainment and mental resource. Japanese stories present this stimulation in aesthetically unique ways. There is much depiction of shocking situations, a nearly universal reversal of Western expectation, and a certain lack of conclusion that adds to personal involvement with the piece.
Even before looking at literature, it is easy to see that the American film culture carries with it specific desire-production and emotional expectation. My former roommate and huge fan of popular Hollywood movies, Sarah Barnes, expresses a desire for the predictable. Her favorite aspects of film storytelling are the love story and depiction of triumphing over obstacles such as war (two of her favorite films are Braveheart and Gladiator). She appreciates a level of believability, but also “wishes that the couple ends up together – none of this tragedy stuff.” A pleasing resolution is extremely important, especially when it comes after a painful trial or period of uncertainty. In the case of literature, there is often a worldly lesson involved in the story that highlights the themes of the trial.
A classic example of Sarah’s preferred film type is the recent Spiderman 2, a huge box office success in America. A love story is featured prominently (between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson), and the main character spends the entire middle portion of the movie trying to decide whether he should continue to be Spiderman or not. Most telling of this type of story is the way the end is depicted: just when things begin to point towards disappointment with Mary Jane marrying another man, she changes her mind and goes back to Peter, completing the traditional love story arc.
Interestingly enough, even in an independent film considered ‘atypical’ and ‘edgy’ by Hollywood standards, this drive for resolution is almost exactly the same. In Secretary, the hero begins as a borderline, self-injuring wreck, and the love is tinged with scenes of sado-masochism. The ending, however, retains that overcoming predictability outlined by Sarah: the main character runs off in her wedding dress to be with her ‘true love’.
The thread that runs through these Western films is not necessarily one of ‘happy endings’, but of definitive endings. It’s the kind of story that can comfortably flash ‘The End’ before the credits, dropping the curtain with a bang. After all, William Shakespeare, the most permeating figure in Western literature, is hardly confined to happy endings. There are Shakespearean comedies (Twelfth Night) and tragedies (Romeo and Juliet), each with a completely different treatment of the world. The visionary resolution, however, remains: the deaths of Romeo and Juliet serve to teach their families a valuable lesson, raising their fates above an arbitrary accident. As Sarah insisted in her interview, the most satisfying element of these stories is the resolution, and the fact that “something has been accomplished.”
In her collection of essays, Art Objects, Jeanette Winterson writes of the artistic experience losing something through expectation: “When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out." There is a certain electrical current in something new, something jarring that creates a rupture in traditional texts. The problem with including only the Western canon in classes is the matter of predictability: provided with such an easy, encapsulated sequence of events, people stop thinking about the story at hand. Their expectations become fixed; they know how it will end. The stories are stable, irreversible.
There is a creative aesthetic pervasive in Japan, appealing to those of us that loathe predictability, that aims to avoid the drudgery of expectation at the expense of comfort. Author Haruki Murakami relates this to the difference between a humorous (stable) and serious (unstable) existence: “When you’re serious, you could be unstable… when you’re humorous, you’re stable. But you can’t fight the war smiling.” What ‘war’ could Murakami be referring to? Perhaps the Japanese feel obligated to attack the status quo with ‘unstable’ storytelling, an aesthetic that creates options outside of ‘The End’.
Film director Kiyochi Kurosawa, for example, in explaining his own film aesthetic, says, “Every once in a while I come across a character that I don’t want to become a criminal, kill himself, or go insane." Pause. "The only other option is to destroy the world.” Kurosawa has completely eliminated from his consciousness the possibility of ‘accomplishment’ or ‘overcoming a trial’. The ‘ending’, if one could call it that, demands either destruction of self or apocalyptic violence brought to the point of hyperbole.
While some (albeit few) American storytellers have taken it upon themselves to conclude their stories in this way, an important cultural contrast is that this subversive style is as important and common in Japan as the predictable love story has become in America. Haruki Murakami refers to his contemporary, Ryu Murakami, as ‘mainstream’. Ryu Murakami, however, author of Coin Locker Babies and Almost Transparent Blue, among other novels, “privileges the margins over the center,” according to critic Stephen Snyder. “Murakami’s fiction insists on aberration, on difference, on the irreconcilable.” The fact that Murakami’s fiction is widely appreciated in Japan indicates the general populace’s appreciation at being jerked out of their predictable lives. Like the people who populate Ryu Murakami’s fictional world, the Japanese have an aesthetic sense in which “the mundane represents a kind of threat from which they must flee, an anxiety for which they seek therapy in violent conditions and degraded situations.”
One need only glance at the text of Coin Locker Babies to identify Murakami’s distaste for predictable themes. The plot involves two young men, Kiku and Hashi, who are abandoned in coin lockers shortly after birth and spend their entire lives on the fringes of society trying to find the mothers who left them. Were this a popular American novel, the resulting scenes would likely involve prejudice (teaching a lesson) or acceptance (overcoming an obstacle). Murakami, however, flings something completely different at readers, who may react with confused expletives when Hashi kills his wife and ends up in a mental institution while Kiku and his model girlfriend cause the apocalypse by dropping deadly amounts of poisonous gas all over Tokyo. This ‘ending’ is the beginning of something else.
Textual evidence of the intent of Japanese storytellers abounds in all genres of fiction and film. While Coin Locker Babies is a modern blockbuster, even classic prize-winning Japanese authors do create, in a sense, to destroy. One of the most renowned novels to come out of Japan is Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea (English title). The story tells of a sailor who decides to give up his life of ‘glory’ and get married – much to the horror of the fiancée’s young son. The son and his gang of friends, disgusted with the world in general, decide to murder the sailor for his cowardice – and they do. This is a strange success, and one without resolution, as the novel finishes with the sailor drinking poison. The intense irony is capped throughout the book with lines like, “There was no glory to be found, not anywhere in the world.” The son is the most prominent character, but is a reader supposed to be pleased with his ‘success’? As Eri Izawa writes of stories found in Japanese animation, “The fight is never easy, and the path is often unclear… even triumphs are mixed and bittersweet.”
An important aspect of this subversive storytelling is the almost universal ignorance of genre. An American reader, when introduced to a Shakespearean tragedy, knows exactly what to expect, from doomed beginning to tragic end. Similarly, an audience seated for a romantic comedy know and want to smile and laugh the entire time. The contradictory element in Japanese fiction and film is that there is no inevitable. This is why it requires such brain power to experience: switching gears so fast is a challenge and often alienates the lazy or ignorant.
Even popular Japanese comics, supposedly created for the masses, resist categorization. Tokyo Babylon, a comic series by famous artist group CLAMP, begins rather innocently, with three friends joking together and having unusual adventures. One develops a crush on another, and much flirting ensues. But in the final volume, the older friend, Seishirou, admits that he is really an assassin with no emotions, and that he has been masquerading as their friend the entire time. Subaru goes into a coma, Hokuto is killed, and Seishirou wanders off, unharmed. Er... the end. What began as romantic comedy ends as destructive tragedy. This does not happen in Western canon. Yet with Japanese artists, one finds it over and over again.
Audition, a popular cult film directed by Takashi Miike, begins slowly and innocently. Just when the audience settles into a sweet romance, nightmarish imagery and graphic torture follow. Even in blockbuster horror hits such as Ring, when an expectation-filled American might assume that the ancient evil has been vanquished, something even more horrible happens, and a main character dies. The end?
It is important, however, to avoid treating this aesthetic as a resounding national pessimism. Various projects prove that the point is not to distress as much as it is to shock – to bounce an audience out of its comfortable, society-sanctioned seat. Takashi Miike, for example, director of many horrorfests including Audition, helmed Happiness of the Katakuris – a family-centered film featuring zombies and upbeat musical numbers. Of Coin Locker Babies, Haruki Murakami says, “When I read it for the first time, I was shocked,” and he means it as a compliment. There is something to be said for the unexpected, for the shocking: it forces new perspectives and an open mind.
Japanese artists often question even themselves by ignoring a traditional ‘resolution’ entirely. The evil portrayed in Ring reveals itself as a never-ending, vicious cycle. Haruki Murakami explains the lack of ‘ending’ in many of his novels by claiming that “Conclusion means nothing at all.” What better way to explain the value of the unexpected? This Japanese artistry, this discomfort, facilitates discussion much more readily than any story with a neat bow tied at the end. For once something is finished, what good does it do to talk about it?
In the Tao Te Ching, a classic text with a large presence in Japanese literature and life, Lao-Tzu writes simply, “Who knows how it will end?”
Regardless of your background or location, artistic stimulation requires texts like those produced with this Japanese creative aesthetic. As resistant as an American mind might be to strange ideas, the Japanese art will always ‘object’, as Jeanette Winterson puts it. The Japanese find a certain optimism in the concept that art is a hellish ride that spits you out, grateful for reality, when it is over. Winterson writes, “We want and we don’t want, the cutting edge, the upset, the new views. Mostly we work hard at taming our emotional environment just as we work hard at taming our aesthetic environment… are we happy with all this tameness? Are you?”
Absolutely not, say Murakami, Mishima, Miike – for that is the real nightmare: an intelligent person mired in one country’s comfort zone.
Clamp. Tokyo Babylon. Los Angeles: Tokyopop, 2004;
Izawa, Eri. “The Romantic, Passionate Japanese in Anime: A Look at the Hidden Japanese Soul.” Japan Pop! Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture. Ed.Timothy Craig. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000;
Lao-Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Stephen Adiss and Stanley Lombardo, trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993;
Macias, Patrick. Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion. San Francisco: Cadence Books, 2001;
Miike, Takashi, dir. Audition. Omega Project, 2000;
Mishima, Yukio. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. New York: Vintage International, 1994;
Murakami, Haruki. Interview. The Paris Review, Summer 2004: 115-151;
Murakami, Ryu. Coin Locker Babies. Stephen Snyder, trans. New York: Kodansha Publishing, 1995;
Nataka, Hideto, dir. Ring. Omega Project, 1998;
Snyder, Stephen. “Extreme Imagination: The Fiction of Murakami Ryu.” Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan. Ed. Stephen Snyder. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999;
Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York: Vintage International, 1997.