I’ve never been drawn to manga (Japanese comic books), despite my love of Japanese pop-culture and appreciation of certain animEntire series review -
I’ve never been drawn to manga (Japanese comic books), despite my love of Japanese pop-culture and appreciation of certain animes (Japanese animated movies and shows). It’s always seemed so…ridiculous. I say this as a man who loves ridiculous and absurd things. Why something both Japanese and ridiculous does not appeal to me is a mystery. Nevertheless, I decided to give Mushishi a shot, partially because I had watched some of the adapted anime and partially out of a desire to experience more aspects of Japan. Though the anime was slow compared to others I’d seen, I knew that its themes of mythology and mystery would appeal to me in book form. After reading the ten volume set of Mushishi, by Yuki Urushibara, I am delighted that I gave it a chance.
I’m unsure when in Japanese history Mushishi is set. The main character, Ginko, walks around in what looks like relatively modern clothing, but every town he visits appears like something from the medieval age. There are guns, but nothing more advanced than that (no cars), and no town seems to have more than a dozen inhabitants. This could be Japan in the 1700s or Japan in the 1900s. Ginko’s purpose in life is to help people deal with a natural phenomenon known as mushi, which means ‘bugs’ in Japanese. Mushi are atypical bugs in that they have far larger and more immediate consequences on the environment around them. The only folk who can see the mushi are specially trained mushishi; thus the title. Ginko happens to be an especially great mushishi and seems capable of performing feats no other mushishi ever has.
Each of the ten volumes has five different stories in it. Some overarching characteristics stretch across each volume, but every story is unique and can conceivably be read on its own. It’s almost like a television show in that regard, which makes it especially well suited to an anime format. As this is my first manga, it occurs to me that perhaps this style of storytelling is common with the serial nature of the medium. Every story has supernatural aspects to it, and each tale has Ginko trying to solve the mystery of which mushi is affecting people he meets. No two stories feature the same mushi, and so the array of mysteries involved is impressive. Urushibara is given freedom to follow any whim or creative jaunt that she pleases as there do not seem to be any wonders that these mushi are incapable of (for good or ill).
Thankfully, Mushishi isn’t a murder-mystery-manga. Though the mushi aren’t always benevolent (as nature is not always kind), they don’t murder or maim indiscriminately. Ginko might cure an illness caused by a mushi or in fact save someone’s life, but any darkness inherent in the story are those shadows and demons at the periphery of our own vision; not malevolent forces of evil. It creates a rich narrative full of mythological influences and simple human motives.
The artwork is similarly subdued, unlike many manga which often seem overdrawn and unrealistic (not that I’m arguing for realistic manga). Instead, Urushibara’s line-work is elegant and stylish. My favorite parts of her illustrations come at the beginning of each story, where she takes great pains to create watercolor pages. They’re so gorgeous that I often found myself pausing, not really wanting to move on with the story because the initial panels were so beautiful. I understand how time consuming creating those parts likely was, but I couldn’t help wishing for the whole book to follow this format. Mushishi doesn’t feature exaggerated reactions or superheroes throwing moon-sized fireballs around. The magical effects of the mushi are understated and often invisible. It’s the reactions of the human characters that form the narrative of each tale, making these stories ring true to human experience.
I won’t review each volume, but I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite stories (light spoilers).
-The final volume has a story called “The Eternal Tree,” and as anyone reading this likely knows my love for trees it should be no surprise that this one speaks to me. It’s about a massive Japanese cedar tree that is chopped down. A man who once came across the tree happens to eat one of its fruits, and thus has all the memories of the tree planted in his mind. The age and size of the tree are mushi enhanced, and so Ginko knows what’s happening even if there’s little he can do. It’s a story about how trees and humans can have special connections, and the apex of the tale comes when the man realizes that the tree has been protecting his village for as long as the village has existed (even after the tree’s death). -In Volume 6 there is a story called “Banquet in the Farthest Field” that is about a special sake that only mushishi can really make full use of. I liked this story because it lets readers into the shadowy world of the mushishi, offering tantalizing glimpses of things that Urushibara has left unsaid for most of the series. It also has lots of lovely looking sake in it. -In Volume 3, a story called “The Heavy Seed” appealed to me. This one is about a seed that appears at random on someone in a village (caused by mushi of course), and when that seed sprouts it makes for an unusually bountiful harvest. The side-effect of this is that the villager dies. I liked this story because it speaks of self-sacrifice, and because it was one of those stories where Ginko can only offer information to people, allowing them to choose whether or not to keep things as they are or change them. -And the very first story in the first volume is called “The Green Gathering”, and tells of a boy whose drawings come to life. My love for this story is evident; what writer doesn’t want to see their stories come to life? It’s a wonderful launch to the series.
I think what makes Mushishi so good is what makes many tales of speculative fiction good: it weaves the mystical nature of the supernatural in with real human stories. We can connect to this type of storytelling, but also feel the mystery and magic that some of us so heartily crave. At this point, I am resolved and excited to try and re-watch the anime version of Mushishi. I wasn’t ready for it the first time, and while the stories will all feel familiar to me, I’m positive I’ll have a new appreciation for seeing them in motion.
In considering the full spectrum of Japanese literature and film that I've absorbed in my life, it became clear to me as soon I as finished PremodernIn considering the full spectrum of Japanese literature and film that I've absorbed in my life, it became clear to me as soon I as finished Premodern Japan that I should have read it before doing anything else. It is such a comprehensive look at Japan from its earliest written records up to the Meiji restoration that it puts anything I could be reading or watching into a solid, real state.
Premodern Japan is a history book, and a fairly broad one at that. It covers almost two thousand years worth of Japanese history. Basic Western history books usually cover the period of Ancient Egyptian civilization into the various eras after, which this book does not. Written records in Japan did not stretch back that far, and Premodern Japan begins before the CE break, the year one as history records it, and not much before. History is hazy for the country pre Common-era times, and mythology is as much a source as anything. According to some of the earliest myths, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu created Japan as the first among all nations, and every Emperor has been divined by Her since the dawn of time (I didn’t even know Japan still had Emperors, but apparently a fellow named Akihito is the current one). Premodern Japan covers those initial mythologies, then becomes more factual up to the middle of the 19th century. It does so in a comprehensive and incredibly readable way.
Could I tell you the history of Japan now? Not really. I could likely recite a few facts, tell you what a few terms meant, and might even be able to place a name should you toss it my way. The point of Premodern Japan isn’t to make one an expert in Japanese history, at least as far as I can tell. Rather, the point of the book, much like whatever World History book you may have read in college or high school, is to give an outline of Japanese history in such a way that you feel a grasp of the country from one point in its existence to another. Before I read his book, I had only the vaguest idea of how the country was formed, what the Emperors functions were, what the term Shogun even meant, or why and how Japan closed its borders for hundreds of years to all outside influence. My knowledge to this point had been picked up here and there from movies and literature, neither of which have any responsibility at accuracy.
Thanks to this book, I now feel equipped and intrigued to dive into more succinct history books about Japan. Not only does Premodern Japan boast a dizzying bibliography of sources to follow up with, but it’s given me specific points of interest to learn about. I now know that the early rulers of Japan were often female. I’d like to know more about that, and will be looking for a book that dives deeper into those early female leaders (particularly the famed Himiko). I learned that ninja were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in popular culture, and that the notion of a samurai’s honor, so prolific in our thinking, is not really as romantic as we might wish to believe (most of the samurai in Japan’s history were more interested in greed and self-survival than they were in duty, loyalty, and honor).
It’s odd how growing up with history classes in school, even if I wasn’t always paying that close attention, has molded my general framework for how the world was formed. Yes, those books had a Western bias and left out key areas of the world, but I can see a timeline in my head of where and how the main body of Western humanity coursed across the land and where the hearts of civilization were. Premodern Japan has done a similar thing for me, as I can now close my eyes and watch the rise and fall of Shoguns and daimyo and various other political powers as easily as I can envision Alexander the Great sweeping across Europe or the Civil War tearing America apart. It’s refreshing, and I can hardly believe I attempted to study Japanese culture without giving myself this most basic of lessons first.
And here are a few nerd moments. As I neared the end of Premodern Japan and the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the book started to feel like a novel to me, and I was visibly excited as I read about the final players in this very real drama. After finishing, I found myself eager to learn more.
From the little research I’ve done, it seems as though Baptism of Fire is fourth in the Witcher series of books, but I don’t know if that’s right or nFrom the little research I’ve done, it seems as though Baptism of Fire is fourth in the Witcher series of books, but I don’t know if that’s right or not because there are two canonical books of short stories that precede the novels. Baptism of Fire is the third series installment, set after Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt, and it makes more sense to call it that because it deals with the events surrounding Ciri, the Child of Destiny and focus of most of the events of Sapkowski’s universe. The true protagonist of these books is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher himself, and while the viewpoint is usually through his eyes, he is merely a player in events far larger. Ciri is the eye of those whirlwind plot points.
Baptism of Fire opens with Geralt wounded from a fight that occurred at the end of The Time of Contempt. He took on a wizard and lost horribly, which is the first time I’ve seen that happen to Geralt. In the video games, death is common, and there is always one monster or another who gets the upper-hand. In the books, Geralt is combat-flawless, at least up to his meeting with Vilgefortz. We can presume that in his younger days he took a licking or two, information we can read from the scars covering him. Vilgefortz almost kills him, and we find him in Baptism of Fire recuperating in Brokilon, the forest of the dryads where very few people are welcome. Geralt again shows his worldliness in his associations with these odd creatures.
The main thread of the novel has Geralt leaving Brokilon and traveling in search of Ciri (fans of the third game will appreciate this), who disappeared from the world’s view at the end of the previous book. Readers know exactly where she is, and indeed a decent amount of Baptism of Fire has her marauding about with the bandit group who dub themselves The Rats. Her motivations for doing this are never clear, but I believe it is hinted that she’s sick of being so damned important and wants to act out. This is an understandable reaction for a teenager; even one destined by prophecies.
I loved Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt. They opened up the Witcher universe in ways that The Last Wish, Sapkowski’s first book of short stories about Geralt, could never have done. They begin a saga, a real Game of Thrones style look at a world full of war, violence, political intrigue, and of course sex. It’s dark fantasy at its near-best. Those two books move well, delivering action and lore at a good pace and never feeling weighed down. Baptism of Fire does feel weighed down, and in fact has been the most difficult Sapkowski book to read due to its plodding nature. It reminds me, in a way, of The Fellowship of the Ring, which many have criticized as being a travel novel in its second half. Baptism of Fire does something similar, and has us follow Geralt and his merry band all over the lands of Angren and its surrounds. There are breaks in which we visit the various sorceresses integral to the story, and of course our Ciri moments, but most of the book feels like it’s just moving from point A to an eventual B.
However, it occurred to me as I was thinking about this style of writing how necessary it is; and ultimately, how rewarding. In The Fellowship of the Ring, things happen during the fellowship’s march to Moria that are important, if not all that interesting to read. Tolkien is able to describe the landscape of Middle Earth in a way that no other method of storytelling would allow. He is able to have his characters interact in a way that only people not in immediate danger could interact. Hobbits are taught swordplay, Boromir is tempted by the Ring, etc. Baptism of Fire is similar, in that it allows for meaningful moments between Geralt and his boon companions, and this might be particularly important as Geralt is about as lone-wolf as protagonists come. This long march through war-torn lands and dense forests humanizes Geralt the Witcher in a way that none of the novels have done yet, aside from the parts where he shows love for Yennefer. We see Geralt get drunk in this novel, see him quarrel endlessly with Dandelion, watch as he reveals and then befriends what anyone else might consider one of the most evil creatures in the lore. These things would not have happened had the novel been an action packed set piece from start to finish. Baptism of Fire manages to mix its action and lore and character interaction better than the other books, and is maybe a more memorable experience because of that. I’d be hard pressed to even tell you what happened in Blood of Elves or The Time of Contempt, outside of the big set piece events. The same might be said for Baptism of Fire, but I know I’ll not forget those smaller moments that made Geralt less of an invincible monster slayer and more of a human.
A frank look at ways to improve your mental health and outlook on life, in a language that we of the nerd variety can understand and appreciate. ThankA frank look at ways to improve your mental health and outlook on life, in a language that we of the nerd variety can understand and appreciate. Thanks, Emily....more
I think this book is mostly well written, but its message is garbage and I wouldn't let a child read it. If you're interested in my thoughts on the suI think this book is mostly well written, but its message is garbage and I wouldn't let a child read it. If you're interested in my thoughts on the subject, check them out here - https://goldnotglittering.wordpress.c......more
I have a habit of judging books by their covers in a very literal sense. I have a particular fondness for trade paperback editions with attractive artI have a habit of judging books by their covers in a very literal sense. I have a particular fondness for trade paperback editions with attractive art. I refuse to buy something bent up or with a movie version cover (those are the absolute worst, making me wish to avoid both the book and the movie). The version of Shipwrecks I found at a used bookstore was not pristine, but the artwork is a beautiful Japanese wave, Mount Fuji showing behind it: simple and elegant. I knew nothing of the author at the time, but I’m always on the hunt for new Japanese literature so I bought it. That colorful artwork, itself perfect and simple, disguises a tale of darkness and suffering that illuminates the hard life of medieval peasants in feudal Japan, their superstitions, and the lengths to which they’ll go merely to survive. The book reminds me most of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is indicative of its grim nature.
Shipwrecks takes place in an unnamed coastal village somewhere on one of Japan’s islands. It plays home to around 16 families of varying sizes who all live and die by the grace of the sea. They fish, forage along the beach for supplies and food, and occasionally, as the title suggests, scavenge from ships that break open upon the offshore coral reef. The village is a destitute place where citizens often sell themselves into bondage to neighboring towns so that their families can eat. Starvation is a misstep away. Despite the hardship, despite the struggle, no one living in this village would ever choose to live anywhere else.
This loyalty to village fascinates me; the idea of putting roots down so firmly that living anywhere else seems unquestionable. Most young people in our own society want nothing more than to get away from where they’re raised. I’ve lived in the same town for more than a decade, but I still don’t feel rooted there, and I’m usually looking for an excuse to leave. Shipwrecks highlights the villager’s fear of the outside world, the unknown, and that fear keeps them rooted every bit as much as their loyalty. We no longer possess a fear of the unknown. We are entrenched in safety, and knowledge is at the literal tips of our fingers. The villagers in Shipwrecks feel so rooted that they’d rather starve to death than leave, and banishment is the worst punishment one can receive. The pivotal point of Shipwrecks is a shipwreck, called O-fune-sama by the superstitious villagers, and its occurrence takes on religious significance to the villagers. They perform elaborate rituals and pray to their gods that a ship will founder on the reef nearby. They even take steps to assist a ship’s course to destruction, which becomes one of the main themes of the book. While they see the O-fune-sama as life-giving and god-given, the story’s undercurrent suggests that the gods have little to do with it unless it is to serve up the retribution for their actions.
My discovery of Shipwrecks was happenstance. I’d plucked it off my shelf because it was relatively modern, published in 1982, and one of the few Japanese authors I’d not yet read. It’s proving important to my larger understanding of Japanese culture from an anthropological standpoint. I haven’t yet delved into pre-modern Japanese history yet, but Shipwrecks is a slice of medieval Japan that could prove as enlightening as any textbook. I can in some ways liken it to watching The Wire or reading a Gore Vidal novel. I’ve already seen parallels between Shipwrecks and Mushishi, a mange I've been reading, particularly in their depictions of small Japanese villages where superstition and tradition walk hand in hand.
I wouldn’t recommend Shipwrecks to most readers, even those interested in more popular Japanese literature. It’s not action packed. Yoshimura is a master of time, and in particular the passage of time. The majority of the book is a drawn out description of seasonal changes, with minute details about how to catch fish and make clothes from the bark of linden trees. It’s not a novel for those short of attention span, but it’s literary and beautifully written, and I feel as though the patience of reading it is rewarded. There is a drawn out tension to Shipwrecks that hovers perpetually at the edge of the page, and an undefinable longing that clashes with the villagers sense of place. It’s a novel of simple people who are caught up in something complicated, which is a timeless theme but one that never seems to wear thin.
I read The Counterfeiter over the better part of a day. It’s a short read at a mere 128 pages, and it’s a book of short stories. It’s divided up intoI read The Counterfeiter over the better part of a day. It’s a short read at a mere 128 pages, and it’s a book of short stories. It’s divided up into three sections, with the title story, The Counterfeiter, taking up most of the book’s real estate. Obasute and The Full Moon are shorter, and constitute the back half of the book. I’ll take this story by story, but it’s not a huge book, nor an intense read, so this review may run a little short.
The Counterfeiter is far and away the strongest and most interesting of the three tales. It takes places in post Meiji-era Japan, so I found comparisons to The Master of Go almost immediately. Both hearken to a lost age and struggle with modernism and the efforts to maintain tradition. The Counterfeiter follows a biographer as he travels around Japan during and after World War II, chronicling the life of Keigaku, a famous artist. As he struggles to find information about his subject, he becomes more interested in a man named Hosen Hara, accused by many in the art world of copying the paintings of Keigaku. As the story progresses, it becomes Hosen Hara’s biography, and Keigaku, while still remaining the subject of the narrator’s eventual work, becomes a background character who serves as constrast.
Hosen Hara is the more interesting man, for the obvious reason that he is flawed. Keigaku is the consummate perfect artist. He has never made a mistake, has won all the awards, and is distinguished in his field. Hosen Hara, who befriends Keigaku at a young age, lives forever in his friend’s shadow. He is the Salieri to Keigaku’s Mozart, never matching and always chasing the genius of his rival. His efforts to counterfeit the paintings of Keigaku are Hosen Hara’s attempt to prove to everyone that he is just as good as his friend. In many cases the forgeries are good enough that they fool almost anyone not trained to spot a fake.
By his life’s end, Hosen Hara has mostly given up painting and instead makes fireworks at small villages in the countryside. This doesn’t possess the prestige of painting, but Hara finds in it something he can attempt perfection in. I thought this theme of chasing perfection was relevant, especially in our own time when the slightest mistakes can ostracize a person from everything society views as vital to a good life.
Obasute is shorter, and slightly less fleshed out, but I really enjoyed it’s themes of isolation and myth. Mount Obasute is a real spot in Japan, and there is mythology of it being a place where people would drop off the elderly, instituting a banishment for the crime of being old (the term obasute literally means to abandon a parent). Whether or not this ever happened is not made clear in the story, but the very thought of it is possibly the most depressing thing I can imagine. We have an entire system of social security in the U.S. that is counter to the very idea of this, and abandoning people who most need us seems to me inhuman.
The story wraps around this mythology. Central to the narrative is a family, and as the story progresses, each family member seems to desire being taken to a place like Mount Obasute and dropped off so that they can finally be alone. I’m reading Precarious Japan right now, and much of it deals with a very real problem called hikikomori. Hikikomori are young people who willingly cut themselves off from society, often not leaving their room or dwelling for long stretches of time. They are social outcasts, willingly, and possess a social anxiety that seems crippling. I thought of this problem, these hikikomori, while reading Obasute. It takes place after World War II, a time in Japan where everything, social, political, and moral, was breaking down. The booming Japan of post-Meiji times had been shattered, and while it would rise again economically, for a long stretch Japan had no center. The family members in Obasute could think of nothing better than abandoning the world and living alone on a mountain, much like some young folks in Japan today can think of nothing better, in an era where capitalism rules the world, than locking themselves in a room and ostracizing themselves from the madness.
The Full Moon is the story I found less captivating than the others, though it still dealt with interesting themes and carried in it that post-war tragedy felt throughout the entire collection of stories. The Full Moon chronicles the rise and fall of the president of a corporation, a relatively new phenomenon in Japan at this point. This story actually reminded me a little of The Wolf of Wall Street, both for the corporate narrative and because it manages to detail the life outside the office, one that is often secretive and full of scandal. It’s not as strong as the other two stories, but is still an interesting window into the life of a 1950s corporate man of post-war Japan. This collection of stories was, I think, a decent introduction to Inoue. Nothing in it made me want to read his entire lexicon right away, but I do want to explore some of his longer works, particularly in light of The Counterfeiter story being the strongest of the three.
This book is garbage. The "facts" in it are extremely questionable, and there only ever seem to be two sides to ANY issue in the entire book. Shades oThis book is garbage. The "facts" in it are extremely questionable, and there only ever seem to be two sides to ANY issue in the entire book. Shades of grey apparently don't exist in the millionaire world.
I managed to get through the book purely as entertainment, and any financial advice or value within its pages is taken with the biggest grain of salt you can find. Read it to laugh. Not to make money....more
I can't believe this book was published in 1992. It has basically predicted the current course of the Internet and virtual/augmented reality, and poteI can't believe this book was published in 1992. It has basically predicted the current course of the Internet and virtual/augmented reality, and potentially the course of our "franchised" country as well. Loved everything about this book except for maybe the ending, which wrapped up everything but left me somehow wanting something else. ...more
I've been listening to Dan on Giantbomb for however long he's been on the podcast, and if you'd have told me at the start that he had this kind of depI've been listening to Dan on Giantbomb for however long he's been on the podcast, and if you'd have told me at the start that he had this kind of depth to him, I'd have probably laughed. He talked about wrestling and drinking, and though he was funny and a good fit for the podcast, his having anxiety wasn't something I'd have considered.
But listening to him more, I have seen some depth to him, and this book really pushes that home for me. So much of what he's going through parallels many of my own experiences, which seems to be common given how many folks seem to approach him with similar stories. This book is a good primer for anxiety issues, and an interesting look into the life of a video game personality. My only critique is that Dan needs an editor. ...more