Thursday, July 03, 2008

Japan Overdose

Surely scholars smarter than me have begun to figure out why so many Japanese artists fascinate themselves with matters of truth, thought and the natures of identity and reality. Or maybe it's just the artists I've been encountering lately.

On the one hand, I finished up Kobo Abe's The Box Man last night, which is exactly what it says it is: a story about a man who wanders through town with a box on his head in an attempt to obfuscate his identity and existence as a part of his society. In his travels he encounters an old hospital with a nurse who drops her clothes for no reason, and a doctor looking to pay him off so he can take his place as a box man.

The game is on from there: Abe hops from narrator to narrator with a frequency that leaves you unsure at most times who is actually speaking. It's a frustrating move, but one probably by design in a novel so focused on themes of anonymity and identity theft.

While the concept itself intrigued me enough to buy it [combined with Abe's reputation from Woman in the Dunes], by the halfway point I felt like I had become involved in a physical fistfight with the book's clunky, heavy prose. It's either the case of a skilled writer capturing the voices of characters who are a little ill and not writers in the first place; or it's the result of a pisspoor translation. I can't tell you which. Ultimately, the book left me cold. I couldn't summon up one image, one metaphor, hell I can barely tell you one plot point from the thing.

On the other hand, I finished up Satoshi Kon's 13-episode series Paranoia Agent this week as well, and I can tell you at least half a dozen scenes that give you more to think about in 45 seconds than Abe does in 150 pages.

Starting as a mystery piece centering on a series of street assaults by a teenager with a golden baseball bat, PA quickly transforms itself into a meditation on guilt, and personal responsibility, and consumer culture, and despair, and the internet, and isolationism, and so on. The assailant transforms from a flesh and blood 'holy warrior' to the manifestation of a country's desire to escape the pressures and loneliness that accompany life in the 21st century. There's more symbolism jammed in the climactic revelatory scene than....well, probably anything I've seen in at least the last 12 months.

Still, the series is not without its flaws as well. Even at a scant 13 episodes, the series still feels padded, abandoning the main story arc after six episodes in order to cultivate the mythology surrounding 'Shonen Bat.' Characters enter and leave the stage with such frequency it's impossible to connect with many of them [which might be intentional on Kon's part, another comment on how incapable of bonding with each other we've become]. And Kon is the sort of director who loves to toss out mysteries he has no intention of explaining [a complicated mathematical equation that never has its result revealed; a 'next episode' preview at the end of the final show in the series, etc], which are compelling as exercises, I suppose, but ultimately left me rolling my eyes.

That said, you could do worse things with your time than checking out the series. Me, I think I'm a little burned out on Japan, and incomplete endings, and shows that look good but make no damn sense, and books with plodding narration. I was going to jump into Ryu Murakami's 'Coinlocker Babies' next, but I think I need some good old fashioned, dumb, Western reading.

After I watch Machine Girl.


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