Roland Kelts's Blog

April 30, 2017

April 22, 2017

KOTSUAGE , by Roland Kelts
Photos by Yuki Iwanami

The doctor's pencil drawing reminded me of one of those Etch A Sketch toys from the 70s. Its gray lines were asymmetrical and squiggly or squared off like sidewalk curbs. Other times they looped up from what I guessed were the body’s nether regions back to the heart.

He held the sheet of paper up to the window’s hazy light. “It’s really just plumbing,” he said.

He was the handsome younger surgeon, swarthy and Mediterranean-looking, and what he was showing us, my younger sister and me, was a solution to the problems they’d found in our father’s chest. Until our meeting that morning, the problem had been singular: an ascending thoracic aortic aneurysm, a swelling of his heart’s central artery that could be life-threatening if untreated.

But when they injected dye into his chest to get a clearer sense of the problem, the problem became plural. The procedure was called a cardiac catheterization, and it transformed his arteries into a colorful subway map, where you could see the blood routes that were slowed or nearly blocked.
“We have to combine the aortic surgery with a double-bypass,” the doctor said. “He has two more blocked arteries, here, and here. We need to create detours for the blood and will need to transplant one artery from his leg. It’s fairly standard. While we have him open, we should fix everything we can.”

“Standard.” “Plumbing.” Hardware fixes for the homeowner. Let Western science and its medical toolkit repair what’s broken in your system. That your father’s life is at risk is logical. That something could go wrong is obvious.

To me, it felt less like standard plumbing than flying: “Fasten your seatbelt, we got bumpy air ahead.” Sure, but that won’t help a whit if the plane goes down. Science knows that it could.

I had flown to Boston a week earlier from Tokyo, Japan, where I live and work for most of the year, to attend the surgery with my America-based Japanese mother and half-Japanese sister. It was April; the entire year had been full of disruptive feelings. Hasty emails of proactive hope (“only 1 to 3% chance of heart failure for men of dad’s age!”) silenced by nights of creeping dread. My family’s humorous optimism, partly an inheritance from my father’s small-town Pennsylvania roots, seemed to vacate us.

Months prior to surgery, when I visited my father at home in Massachusetts during the New Year’s holiday, his eyes would cast floorward in dismay at what was happening to him, to all of us. We used to crank up traditional jazz or swing albums from his lifelong record collection and sip a whiskey or three when I arrived at the house. But the diagnosis of imminent personal danger, the need for surgery, an invasion of his body, the risk and hospitalization meant dark, radical change to a future that long seemed immutable. That quietened him.

Before retiring at 70, he had been a marine biologist, a general ecologist, a botanist, an ornithologist, a professor, and an amateur jazz drummer and fan. The joys and assurances of being able to name the world’s natural wonders, to look at the veins of a leaf and identify the plant family and its history, parse the cadences of birdsong or the bone-chill terror of a wildcat screeching from the trees—his ability to decode all of this was at least one driver of my love of words, sounds, and language.

My mother, too, has always been an ardent reader and communicator. She speaks at least three languages with ease, has taught Spanish at several institutions, and takes visible pride in finding words for thoughts.

Yet the news of my father’s predicament rendered the three of us mute, or worse—cliché-addled and stupid. “We have to take it one day at a time,” I remember myself telling them in the still of their living room, wincing at the banality, fumbling on.

My immediate family’s negotiations with grief and pain were underway. Our track record had been lousy to begin with, so my expectations should have been low.

My paternal grandmother, I, died in a penthouse apartment at the Essex House Hotel in Manhattan in the 1960s. She was taking several antidepressants, and that night she was smoking in bed. She fell asleep and burned to death.

This sent my paternal grandfather, her husband, A, careening. A successful retired industrialist in a small town in Pennsylvania, he stopped playing golf and started drinking heavily, taking up with a young brunette ‘floozy,’ as they used to say, a gold-digger who drank so much that my father and his six siblings nicknamed her “wall-to-wall” to describe her nightly sways. The children and a doctor successfully talked my grandfather off the booze, but he was already damaged and grew ill. A heart attack killed him at 72.

After my grandfather died, my father suffered such severe migraines that he had to pull over onto highway shoulders and grip his temples until they went away. I was too young to understand the symptoms, but I sensed that grief of this intensity could be debilitating.

My Japanese grandparents lived a lot longer—my grandfather died at 94, my grandmother at 100. I lived in their home for a year with my mother when I attended kindergarten in their northern city of Morioka, Japan. They visited our American home several times when my sister and I were growing up, and to us, they were sweet-faced, generous, easy-to-please aliens: we couldn’t understand their native language and culture, but we got the message through smiles, giggles, pats on the head and back, and occasional stiff embraces.

But my mother attended neither of their funerals. Both times she issued terse, hardline excuses—not enough money to make the trip, too busy working right now. It was as if she couldn’t or wouldn’t or was unable to accept and honor their deaths. As a young woman who had left her homeland decades earlier and struggled to assimilate to American culture with an American husband and two US-born children, my mother might have felt that her parents were dead to her years ago. I don’t know.

After open-heart surgery, her husband, my father, was at sea in the ICU. The man who could recite the Latin scientific names for nearly every plant, bird, and furry in the New England forests looked at us blankly when we entered his room, reflexively pushing aside an untouched plate of paper-dry salad.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t let your call go through!” he said when he saw my face. “I knew you were downstairs the whole time and I told them to let you come up. They were having a pizza party in here last night. Pizza and beer. Jesus.”

I had only just arrived with my mother and sister. We were told not to come until he’d regained consciousness that afternoon. A tall, long-faced nurse with her hair in a towering bun came into the room. Tell them about the pizza party, she said to my father.

“Oh, it went on all night, Roland,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

And please tell them, the nurse added, that among the very last things we’re allowed to have up here in ICU, besides cocaine and marijuana, are pizza and beer.

More than heartbreaking, the processes of pain are absurd and embarrassing, their nonsense humiliating.

My father recovered from his surgery well. There were a few harrowing days of patching up the infected gash in his left thigh, which had been cut to move the second bypass artery up to his heart, a la the surgeon’s Etch A Sketch. But he seemed to be regaining strength and appetite. He would never ‘be the same,’ the head surgeon had warned us, because open heart surgery ‘takes the starch out of you.’ But he was still here.

A few months later, after I had returned to my life in Tokyo, I got a late-night call from my sister. She was in a car driving to our parents’ home. Our mother had just flown to Canada for a two-week trip, and my sister was on her way to take care of our father. She had called him three times. He wouldn’t pick up the phone.

I called their number from Tokyo at what was midday in New England. No answer. More alarming: no answering machine, no beep.

After a few frantic overseas exchanges, I told her to call the local police. The region was experiencing a midsummer heat wave, with temperatures over 100 F. The cops broke into the house and found my father almost fully naked in a room at the back of the first floor, slumped on the hardwood, perspiring and passed out. TV on, AC off.

An ambulance rushed him to the Emergency Room at a nearby hospital while I scrambled to get a flight to Boston the next day. (Turns out that major airlines have contingency seats for grievance flights, at least if you are a repeat customer. Grief is status.)

When I arrived at his bedside, I recognized my father’s face atavistically: the death mask. He was gray and faded, his eyes hollow even when I could tell that he saw me. He wheezed a ‘hello.’ Speaking seemed Herculean.

He had been infected by a bacterium: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, MRSA, a staph bacteria resistant to most antibiotics. That’s what the doctors told my sister and me that night, when my father looked already gone, or at least sidling toward the exit. The bacteria were in his spinal column, the neurologist said. They were in his knees.

Couldn’t we just do a little plumbing? I wondered. A little standard stuff?

But my father’s face said otherwise. You learn what dying is just as you learn about living: you confront it, stretch your muscles, learn to accommodate. You don’t learn from mistakes, I once read. You just learn what they feel like.

I learned the look of death in my American father’s face from my Japanese grandmother. I went to her funeral in my mother’s stead and arrived in Morioka from Tokyo at the end of her wake. She was laid out under sheets and bearing a tight kimono, something I’d never seen her wear, and she was horribly made-up but defined by her absence. In Japanese, it’s called the tsuya, the passing of night. I sat with my uncle and aunt and three cousins. We were listening to her silence.

Writing this now, I am embarrassed by my weak nerves and emotional incompetence. I took the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka, and in the taxi from the station to the Buddhist temple where she would be cremated and memorialized, I couldn’t tie my tie. I mean: I forgot how to tie a tie.

I texted my girlfriend in Tokyo, and she pointed me to a step-by-step website on tie tying. I had to concentrate hard to figure it out. None of the folds made sense, and I was nearly choking myself with crooked knots. The driver eyed me in the rearview mirror. I called my girlfriend minutes before arriving at the temple, and she walked me through the basics. I had tied ties for three decades. Suddenly, I’d forgotten how to do it.

Japanese funerals are largely Buddhist in ritual, though it’s a very distinct version of the religion that arrived from 6th century East Asia, colored by Japan’s polytheistic and animistic national faith, Shinto. The emphasis is on daily presence in nature, not scripture, ritual versus study. Japan can be simultaneously rigid in its behavioral norms and deeply sentimental.

In the temple, I fingered my juzu (prayer beads) during the chanting of the monks, which sounded like humans trying to be cicadas. It was a buzz, a gravelly buzz, and I tried to take comfort in what felt like urgent sadness. My grandmother, this woman, this soul, was gone, it seemed to say, and death is present. Stay alert. Pay attention.

And then came the closest encounter with the realms of both passage and presence that I could imagine: kotsuage. This is a ritual that makes death feel like it’s inside you. What happens: You and your family, in my case, me and my Japanese uncle, aunt and three cousins, retrieve from the ashes of cremation, the bone fragments of your relative—in this case, our grandmother, our mother.

The fire is still burning in the far corner. The ashes are freshly deposited. I am using chopsticks. I am connecting those chopsticks with my cousins, my uncle, and aunt, to my grandmother’s bones. In Japan, this is the only occasion on which two people are supposed to clasp the same item with their chopsticks. To do so in any other setting is sacrilege.

We are delivering her bones to an urn.

When I first learned of this ritual from my cousin, I begged out. I lacked the requisite physical delicacy, I’d told him, picturing my fat American fingers squeezing too hard, sending a bone fragment flicking through the air, knocking an urn to the floor. I couldn’t do it, I’d said. I can’t.

But the experience stirred feelings that grew peaceful and intensely intimate. I was touching my grandmother, participating in her transformation less from something into nothing, but from something into a something else. There was just us: me, my family, grandmother.

My grandparents lived most of their lives and died in Tohoku, the mountainous territory of northern Japan, years before its Pacific coastline was severely and in many cases irrevocably damaged by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of 2011. My grandmother’s family were farmers, once-wealthy landowners from Akita, a city on the main island of Honshu’s west coast, at the Sea of Japan. My grandfather was the son of a Bushido samurai family from Esashi, a mountain village just south of Morioka, the capital city of Iwate, on Japan’s eastern Pacific coast.

In the five years since the triple disasters, over 18,000 are officially tallied as perished, some two to three-thousand of whose bodies have not yet been found. Tohoku and Iwate, its northeastern prefecture, are Japanese place names I once associated with my year in a local kindergarten and the rural roots of my Japanese family. Now they are destinations for relief workers, demolition crews and journalists like me.

Last year, I visited Fukushima Prefecture’s Minami-soma, one of the most brutally devastated of Tohoku’s coastal towns, to meet Takayuki Ueno, a 43-year-old farmer-turned-victims’ advocate and local educator. The Ueno family’s presence on the land dates back generations. Standing at sunset beside his new home (built three years ago and ten yards from where his old one was destroyed), at the edge of puddled rice paddies wedged between leafy hills to the west and the sea to the east, it’s not hard to understand why he is staying.

Like many in constant trauma, he recounts the tragic events hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-to-minute—the calm after the earthquake, the sirens warning of a wave 9-feet high that rose 60 feet, the water surrounding and blocking his return home—as if they happened just yesterday, despite the five years of recovery and debris cleanup, his spacious and very modern new home, and a cherubic 4-year-old daughter, Sally, born five months after the disasters. Ueno is seated across from me on the floor at a low coffee table, a lean man with an athletic build who chain-smokes aggressively, as if in competition. “I started doing this after the tsunami,” he says, half grinning as he stubs out one cigarette and reflexively lights another. “Now I can’t stop.”

The bodies of his father and son remain missing. On select monthly Sundays, Ueno searches on a beach near the town of Okuma, a few miles south of Fukushima Daiichi, the most badly damaged of the area’s nuclear reactors. Local residents and government-hired construction workers often join him (the latter illegally using government-issued bulldozers and mining shovels), helping him dig through heaps of natural and man-made wreckage on the seashore for a fragment of bone, teeth, or tuft of hair that might be DNA-tested and verified.

Ueno believes that his son’s body, in particular, may have drifted down the coastline in the aftermath of the tsunami waves and washed up on one of the beaches. But at the time, he was prohibited from searching those beaches by local police and government authorities, because they were inside the zone designated most radioactive.

“It was a time of extreme effort,” he says after a long pause and exhalation of smoke. “The priority of a parent is to defend the child from anything and everything. I couldn’t save or protect my kids, so I thought I was the worst parent for a long time. I could’ve saved them, I kept telling myself, but the fact was, I couldn’t. When I found Erika’s body, I held her in my arms, and I apologized to her. I still need to apologize to Kotaro. I think if I had found Kotaro at the time, and if I’d looked into his face, I would have killed myself.”

The butsudan (family altar) in his house bears four football-sized ceramic urns, one for his mother, father, daughter, and son, arranged in a horizontal line behind portraits of each. Two of the urns are filled with cremated ashes from a kotsuage Buddhist ritual, in which the larger bones are separated from the ash by surviving family, like the one I experienced at my grandmother’s funeral, held at a nearby temple exactly one year after the tsunami. The other two remain empty.

Ueno is still angry. First, he had to get over the initial spike of rage he felt toward his parents.

Immediately after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, at 2:46 p.m., they called their grandchildren’s hillside school and were told that all were safe. But since the building might have sustained structural damage, the children should be picked up and returned to their homes immediately.

Ueno was working at a farm cooperative a few miles inland. His wife, Kiho, was a nurse at a local hospital, also miles from the sea and nestled in the hills. His parents were told to get the children out of the precarious school building and bring them to his home, less than a mile from the coast. Fifty minutes later, at 3:38 p.m., when his wife was on the phone with his mother to confirm their safety, a 60-foot wave swept through that home, washing away its first floor and most of its second, making them all tsunami casualties.

(To this day, Kiho believes she heard a female scream, but she’s not sure who it was—her mother-in-law, or her daughter, before the line went dead.)

“At first I just blamed them,“ Ueno says. “I felt a kind of hatred. Why did you let my children die? But later I thought that Erika loved her grandma so much, and Kotaro loved his grandpa. My wife and I were working that day, so my parents were helping us raise them. They were doing what they were supposed to do. So one time I thought: well, my kids are with their grandparents now, so maybe my parents are still taking care of my kids.”

But his anger toward the Japanese government, the nuclear industry, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operators of the power plant, is inconsolable. That the energy generated by the facility was used to power Tokyo’s moneyed and what he calls “wasteful” residents, and not the people of Tohoku and Fukushima, who continue to suffer its poisons, is “offensive and humiliating.” That their officially sanctioned incompetence prevented him from searching for the bodies of his son and father in the crucial days after the catastrophe, he finds unforgivable.

“It was their nuclear plant that caused the 12-mile exclusion zone,” he says, shaking his head. “I still imagine how many bodies may have been on those beaches.”

During our conversation, Kiho has been weeding the local grounds—something she does when they are unable to farm, when nothing is growing. But suddenly the door opens, and Kiho enters with their daughter, Sally, who has just returned from school.

Ueno is getting tired, smoking a little more slowly, his eyes blinking against emotional fatigue. “I know for certain that if my wife wasn’t pregnant then, and if my daughter hadn’t been born that October, we wouldn’t have a family now. Maybe I wouldn’t be here.”

Sally brushes past her mother and pauses in the living room to take in the scene, nods her quick acknowledgment of me, the foreign journalist, then swiftly turns toward the family altar. There, she bows low before each urn and portrait, pausing to greet the four members of her family that she’s never met. “Hello, grandpa. Hello, grandma. Hello, sister. Hello, brother.”

Then she takes a few steps back and shouts, “Tadaima!” “I’m home!”

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Published on April 22, 2017 13:37 • 2 views

April 10, 2017

March 20, 2017

March 4, 2017

July 19, 2016

Anime discovers a rural outpost

For the past few years, the beginning of July has found me on a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles to attend Anime Expo (AX), the largest annual North American convention devoted to Japanese popular culture, and its related industry-only event, Project Anime (PA). Both continue to break attendance records. This year, AX tallied 100,420 unique attendees, while PA brought together 102 international anime convention organizers with studio executives and their staff from Japan.
But aside from the personal encounters with the latest crop of cosplayers (anime and manga fans dressed in costume) and other fans, the events afford valuable opportunities to network with industry players and learn how the cultures and their media are changing.
Among first-time participants this year was Progressive Animation Works (P.A. Works), an anime studio unusually based in rural Nanto, Toyama Prefecture. The president and two employees were on hand to celebrate the company’s 15th anniversary, promote the July 4 Netflix worldwide debut of its first mecha series, “Kuromukuro” (Black Corpse), and see what anime’s future may look like outside of Japan.
P.A. Works founder and president, Kenji Horikawa
Over the decades, a herd of studios, including Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, bought real estate in the relatively inexpensive suburban neighborhoods west and northwest of Tokyo. But Kenji Horikawa, 51, the founder and president of P.A. Works, and a veteran of Tokyo-based industry giants such as Production I.G. and Tatsunoko Productions, promised his wife that they would move to her hometown in Toyama Prefecture when her parents grew old enough to need care.
I sat down with Horikawa in his suite overlooking the Staples Center in downtown LA. It was his first visit to an anime convention in the United States, and he was equal parts rueful and hopeful about the conditions in his industry. He has seen bankruptcy and bubbles, he says. Now he’s focused on anime’s global audience.
“Only one person came with me to Toyama when I opened (the studio),” Horikawa recalls. “Everything was focused on Tokyo, but I didn’t want to follow the trend. I wanted artists to go to rural Japan and do their work there. My idea was to break down the barriers between anime artists and staffers, to create continuity and concentration. I wanted to centralize the creation of anime under one roof.”
At first, no one wanted to leave behind the opportunities of Japan’s dense capital city for an enclave in the countryside. Toyama is on what is known as Japan’s “other coast” — the western shore at the Sea of Japan. Just three applications were submitted.
But as the P.A. Works slowly gained traction, two key subcontracts helped the studio garner respect: Ten years ago, it was commissioned to work on the hit titles “Fullmetal Alchemist” and “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.” In 2008, it released a successful original series, “True Tears,” its first as the primary creative studio. Suddenly Toyama was on the anime map.
"Kuromukuro" debuted on Netflix worldwide on July 4
“Our artists know that they’re going to a rural region in Japan,” Horikawa says. “If they fail there, they can’t just move to another company in Tokyo. So they have to be committed to making it work. I think that makes our studio superior.”
A more recent effort, the award-winning “Shirobako” (“White Box”), is an anime about anime — a story about five female artists and friends who navigate the daily trials and triumphs of the craft and business. Despite its inside-baseball world, the show has proven surprisingly popular, granting fans a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of an often difficult business.
P.A. Works studio in Nanto, Toyama-ken
According to Horikawa, “the biggest problem right now is that our industry lacks artists with skills. It takes five to 10 years to train a good animator. Right now, the demand from domestic and overseas markets is overwhelming us. We have lots of passion, but too little talent.”
As the market expands abroad, P.A. Works is focused on the local: stories that highlight the character of rural Japan and make the tradition-bound regions outside of Tokyo attractive and meaningful. One such series, “Hanasuka Iroha” (“Blossoms for Tomorrow”), features a fictional autumn festival called the Bonbori Matsuri (Paper Lamp Festival) that spawned a real-life counterpart in the Kanazawa seaside hot springs village where the anime is set. The first actual festival, held in October 2010, welcomed 3,000 visitors. For this, its sixth year, organizers expect 10,000.
“Most anime studios are hired guns. They work more like a machine to serve some business goal,” says Miles Thomas, brand data analyst at Crunchyroll, a global streaming site that hosts several titles by P.A. Works and had a prominent presence at this month’s Anime Expo. “But the heads of P.A. Works are intimately involved in what anime they make and why. They demand that the setting be as much of a character as the people who live in it. It’s clear that they love what they’re making, just as as we do.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.
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Published on July 19, 2016 19:55 • 40 views

July 14, 2016

My interview with NPR's Eric Molinksy on Hollywood "whitewashing" in its casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the forthcoming adaptation of "Ghost in the Shell." (NB: Her mother will be Japanese, Kaori Momoi.) For Eric's podcast, "Imaginary Worlds."

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Published on July 14, 2016 12:26 • 9 views

July 10, 2016

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Published on July 10, 2016 19:01 • 8 views

June 19, 2016

Drawing on the past of Osamu Tezuka


In 1977, American author and translator Frederik L. Schodt and three friends formed a manga-translation group in Tokyo, with the then-quixotic dream of introducing Japanese comics to a global readership. Schodt had arrived in Japan in 1965, courtesy of a father in the United States Foreign Service. He returned in 1970 to attend university after a short stint in the U.S. At the time, manga were everywhere in Japan, he says, and a lot more fun to read than textbooks.

Schodt became addicted to the gag-and-parody series published in boys’ magazines. But one day a friend loaned him a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s epic 12-volume “Phoenix” — and he was stunned. “It made me realize that the work of Japanese manga artists was sometimes approaching the best in literature and film,” he says.

So he and his translation team went straight to Tezuka Productions to get permission for their debut project. To their surprise, the artist, already a celebrity in Japan, known as “the god of manga” for hit titles such as “Astro Boy” and “Black Jack,” greeted them personally and said yes.

The five volumes the group translated by 1978 — without the aid of computers or photocopiers — found no American publisher and gathered dust in Tezuka’s Takadanobaba offices for nearly a quarter century, until Viz Media began releasing them in 2002.

But Schodt’s relationship with Tezuka continued to evolve. He began serving as the artist’s interpreter during trips outside of Japan, while also translating his work and introducing it to new readers. In 1983, Tezuka wrote the introduction to Schodt’s seminal book, “Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics.”

Now you can find Schodt’s illustrated likeness standing beside Tezuka’s in a panel from “The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Manga and Anime,” a 900-plus page graphic biography that will be published in English for the first time next month.

After appearing in serial form in Asahi Graph, the original Japanese paperback edition of the biography was published in 1992 as “Osamu Tezuka Monogatari,” three years after Tezuka’s death at the age of 60. It was illustrated and authored by Tezuka’s assistant, Toshio Ban, who quotes liberally from Tezuka’s own art and prose, including his autobiography, “Boku wa Mangaka” (“I am a Manga Artist”). The format of the English translation is based on the large-sized paperback of the Japanese original. The translation itself is, of course, by Schodt.

“It is amazing to me that I’m still doing stuff related to (Tezuka),” admits Schodt, who says their 12-year relationship was life-changing. “I’ve felt indebted to him in some ways. I felt he should be better known, and for me personally, this is a way of paying respect to him.”

Readers may recognize Ban’s name from the 2012 manga essay, “I am a Digital Cat,” a collaboration with Tokyo-based British novelist and nonfiction author, Peter Tasker, depicting a dystopian future Japan ruled by robotic cats.

Tasker was already familiar with Ban’s Tezuka resume, and describes the illustrator’s humor combined with a kind of ominousness as “absolutely perfect” for their collaboration. An admirer of Schodt’s books, he says, “I am a huge fan of Tezuka, especially the darker works. You see good people sometimes doing very bad things, and bad people sometimes doing good things. As Schodt has made clear, it’s a tremendously flexible medium capable of dealing with the highest and lowest of themes.”

Advance copies of the English version of Tezuka’s biography, published by Stone Bridge Press, contain only excerpted segments, but it’s clear that Ban is skilled at mimicking his master, evoking his circular designs and shifting, cinematic perspectives.

The story is linear, a chronological narrative of the experiences that shaped Tezuka. A grade school teacher encourages him to keep drawing at an early age. As he struggles to balance art with his medical studies (his father was a doctor), his mother advises him to “choose the path you love.” And as Japan recovers from the war, Tezuka goes to the movies, vowing as a young man to attend the cinema 365 days a year.

Laid bare are many of the roots of Tezuka’s artistic obsessions: birth, death and reincarnation, the brutality of war, the power of mythology and philosophy, literature, medicine and the world of insects. (He incorporated the kanji ideogram for “insect” into his pen name, named his first studio, Mushi Productions, after a Japanese word for “insect,” and created a scathing social satire in the early 1970s called “The Book of Human Insects.”)

For Schodt, translating the biography revealed even more about a man he describes as deeply complex, ambitious, competitive, and relentless in his pursuit of knowledge.

“The biography mentions that he felt like he needed a better reference book to describe insects in his collections. So he actually created these pages of insect drawings, and they’re almost photorealistic, done with ink and pen and in color. He was probably like 12 or 13, and it’s just phenomenal,” says Schodt. “He spent an inordinate amount of time in the woods collecting insects and observing how they lived. Seeing them die, sometimes killing them. Seeing this cruel world of insects and their struggle to stay alive.”

Tezuka’s own life struggle ended far sooner than most expected, and Schodt notes that the biography debunks myths about his public persona. Despite being authorized by Tezuka Productions and produced by his former assistant, “The Osamu Tezuka Story” is no hagiography.

The character at its heart has a prickly temper, frequently embellishes or invents stories to dramatize his personal life and is a manic workaholic rarely seen by his family. Artist Ban’s principal memory of his former boss is summed up in two words: “Always working.”

Yet the diligence has arguably paid off. Tezuka is much better known outside of Japan than he was when he died in 1989, and while he never saw his books published in English during his lifetime, today there are several translations of Tezuka's work available, more than that of any other manga artist. And that’s partly because he created more.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.
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Published on June 19, 2016 08:27 • 10 views

June 9, 2016

Godzilla Resurgence: Japan Reboots Its Most Iconic Monster

After a twelve-year hiatus, Godzilla returns to theaters in Japan this July, and could be more relevant than ever.

By Jonathan DeHart

If the trailer released in April is anything to go by, Godzilla Resurgence (Shin Gojira), could set a new bar for the series.

Set to a dramatic musical score and devoid of dialog, the minute and a half of footage teases viewers with scenes of epic destruction, as Godzilla looms above, swaying what appears to be the largest tail in the series’ history. Fleets of tanks, helicopters and battleships unleash a vicious onslaught of firepower against the gigantic, irradiated lizard – to no avail – as panicked military and government officials frantically formulate a game plan and terrified citizens flee for cover.

As the 29th installment in the monster’s sprawling filmography is being met with widespread anticipation, it begs the question: What gives Godzilla so much staying power?

“Godzilla resonates because it’s a great character, visually, acting-wise, all the ways that characters become great. It is a great anthropomorphic representation of forces beyond human control,” Matt Alt, author of numerous books on Japanese culture, including Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide,  told  The Diplomat.
Yet, as great as Godzilla’s appeal may be, it only goes so far. The film’s co-directors Hideaki Anno (Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan) are keenly aware of the challenges at hand. “Godzilla went through these stages, resetting itself, developing and then succumbing to exhaustion, until it just got so big it had to stop,” Higuchi said.

Higuchi’s solution: Get back to basics. This essentially means casting Godzilla as it was in the original films – a monster hellbent on destroying civilization. In the 1950s this meant drawing on recent memories of Tokyo being razed by Allied bombings. Today, the imagery beamed out to screens across Japan following the natural disasters that have beset Japan in recent years, from Fukushima to Kumamoto, lend gravitas to the scenes of destruction left in Godzilla’s wake, as Alt mused in a recent article for The New Yorker.

“One of the things that’s hard to grasp for foreign audiences is that while the monster is obviously fictional, Japanese don’t see the scenes of destruction as simply just a dramatic backdrop. It’s something that could happen here,” Alt said. “I think that Godzilla Resurgence is going to heavily play up that natural disaster aspect, echoing the fears many Japanese have about the potential for another large-scale earthquake.”

In response to the trailer, Roland Kelts, author of the hit guide to otaku culture, Japanamerica, added: “Shots of the mobilizing blue-suited civil servants and piles of broken planks and debris quite nakedly echo scenes of the aftermath of the great Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.”

In the quest to create such harrowing footage in a believable way, Higuchi has vowed to employ a “hybrid” approach to special effects, involving a mix of cutting-edge computer graphics, an oversized Godzilla doll and actors moving through miniatures. The barrage of artillery featured in the trailer is courtesy of the Japanese military, which agreed to collaborate with the film crew.

Despite growing media attention on the remilitarization of Japan, Alt downplayed the possibility that the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) role in the film could be part of a right-wing agenda. “I think the deployment of the military in this film is rooted less in nationalism and more in the newfound respect for the JSDF that grew out of their rescue efforts during the 2011 tsunami and other disasters,” Alt said. He added: “The directors, and Anno in particular, have a real fetish for military hardware.”

This mélange of production elements leaves no expenses spared, and is a far cry from the methods used to create the original Godzilla films. Kelts is a self-proclaimed fan of the old-school tokusatsu techniques used by Toho Studios in the early days. He fondly recalls a far simpler, inherently comical model of the monster, tramping about a city made of cardboard.

“For me, the ultimate Godzilla of my dreams is the tokusatsu rubber-suited version that aired on late-night TV,” Kelts said. “The sheer physicality of both the creature and the model cities and landscapes was and remains irresistible. And unlike roaring or growling American giant monsters, Godzilla screeched like a strangled bird, which I found far more intimate and haunting.”

He continued: “The tokusatsu Godzilla made me think of a drunken sailor gone to seed, with its pocked, squashed and squinty-eyed face and sagging paunch, swinging blindly at the air, then stomping on stuff just for the hell of it.”

The image of a sailor hints at a deeper point, Kelts noted: “Several Japanese critics have pointed out that the original 1954 Godzilla was meant to embody the enraged spirits of Japan’s dead soldiers, who had been dismissed as losers and forgotten as the country embraced its former American enemy and the spoils of capitalism and Westernization. In the form of Godzilla, those spirits rise from their graves at the bottom of the sea, irradiated and vengeful, and proceed to crush the apartment buildings and office towers of a modernizing Tokyo.”

Today Japan finds itself at a very different crossroads. Embroiled in a number of territorial disputes and a decades long economic malaise, the country is now more focused on maintaining its status as a leader in Asia than wrestling with its nationalistic past.

Given these new realities, Alt said, “I don’t expect the new film to return to the tone of the 1954 film because the regional political calculus has so dramatically shifted.”

Kelts also downplayed the idea that the new film is likely to take on an overtly political tone, saying: “It’s hard for me to speculate without seeing it. [But] if Godzilla starts stomping on foreign tourists in Ginza, or takes a swipe at the tower in Pudong, then we’ll know.”

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Published on June 09, 2016 04:42 • 10 views