The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainAuthor: Yasunari Kawabata
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780679762645
Released: May 1996
Original release: 1954
Awards: National Book Award

Prior to reading The Sound of the Mountain I had only read one other novel by the distinguished Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata–Thousand Cranes, one of the three works to have been cited when Kawabata became the first Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes and have been meaning to read more of Kawabata’s work for quite some time now. Although it probably isn’t his best known work to have been translated, The Sound of the Mountain does have the distinction of being one of Kawabata’s longest novels. The volume was completed in Japan in 1954 after having been serialized for five years. Also in 1954, the novel was adapted as a live-action film directed by Mikio Naruse. The Sound of the Mountain was first translated into English by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1970 for which he won the National Book Award for Translation.

Shingo Ogata is an aging businessman in postwar Japan. His memory has started to fail him, his hair turns whiter as each day passes, many of his friends and acquaintances have already died, and he begins to be plagued by peculiar dreams. There is nothing he can do to halt the steady decline of his mind and health, but what concerns him most is the decline of his family and the unraveling of his children’s marriages. The philandering ways of Shingo’s son Shuichi are an open secret but his son’s wife Kikuko remains devoted to him, although perhaps even more so to Shingo. Shingo’s daughter, too, is having marital problems. The situation may or may not be temporary, but she has left her husband and is currently living in her parent’s home along with her young children. The house is full, the family’s relationships are strained, and Shingo is conflicted over what he should be doing about it all and over his developing feelings for Kikuko.

The Sound of the Mountain is a relatively quiet novel. Shingo has his personal struggles and internal strife, and there is plenty of family drama, but the work largely consists of snippets of the everyday lives of the Ogata household. None of the characters in The Sound of the Mountain are particularly exceptional in any sort of way. Their lives and their troubles, while certainly having a great impact on those around them, are mundane. Kawabata’s characterization of the individual family members is often very subtle and nuanced, as is his portrayal of the intricacies of their interpersonal relationships. As much as The Sound of the Mountain is about Shingo growing older, it’s just as much about the transformation of his family. All things must inevitably come to an end. Shingo knows this, and knows that his life, too, will eventually end, but he still feels guilty about and responsible for the direction his family and his children are heading.

It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, but overall I think I probably prefer Thousand Cranes over The Sound of the Mountain. However, the two novels do share some similarities: a focus on people and how they interact, a sparse writing style laden with symbolism, and so on. In the case of Thousand Cranes it was the Japanese tea ceremony that provided an underlying framework for the narrative while in The Sound of the Mountain it’s Shingo’s dreams and the change of the seasons–the steady progression of time. The Sound of the Mountain has a resigned, melancholic air to it. The novel isn’t particularly uplifting, but in some ways it can be comforting to see a realistic depiction of a family trying to come to terms with the changes both in their lives as individuals and in their relationships to one another. The Sound of the Mountain captures those fleeting moments of joy and of unrest, revealing that in any stage of life people are at least partially defined by those closest to them.

Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist

Utsubora: The Story of a NovelistCreator: Asumiko Nakamura
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781935654766
Released: June 2013
Original release: 2010-2012

Although several of Asumiko Nakamura’s manga have been licensed for digital release, Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist is currently her only work that has been translated into English and made available in print. I truly hope it isn’t the last to be seen from her; although I was already familiar with Nakamura’s distinctive art style, Utsubora was my introduction to her manga and I loved it, and with each rereading love it even more. With the arrival of the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival, I was inspired to take another, deeper look at the manga. In Japan, Utsubora was a short, two-volume series published between 2010 and 2012. The English-language edition of the manga was released in 2014 by Vertical and collects the entire series in a single volume. Due to its mature themes and its erotic content, Utsubora is one of Vertical’s relatively few manga specifically intended for an audience of adults who are at least eighteen years of age.

Although Shun Mizorogi is still considered to be a successful and respected author, it has been quite some time since he has written anything of note. As a result, he has become withdrawn and is tormented by his lack of ability. Finally, his most recent work Utsubora shows great promise. A return to his roots as an author, Mizorogi has given his fans and critics what they have been waiting for. But when a young woman plummets from the top of a building to her death, the apparent suicide somehow connect to Mizorogi, the authorship of Utsubora begins to be called into question. Both Mizorogi’s close friend and fellow author Yatabe and his newly appointed editor Tsuji suspect something. Even Mizorogi’s niece Koyomi, who lives with and adores him, is able to recognize that her uncle has been behaving out of the ordinary. Utsubora and a young woman named Sakura Miki are the only remaining connections Mizorogi has to the death of Aki Fujino, and they are consuming him.

Utsubora is a dark and twisting tale. Nakamura’s distinctive artwork is exceptionally effective in adding to the manga’s moody, erotically charged, and slightly disconcerting atmosphere. The lines of her illustrations are very thin, creating at the same time a sense of sharpness and focus as well as a feeling of softness as they cut and curve across the page. Nakamura’s art in Utsubora is undeniably sensual and arresting. The eyes of her characters are particularly expressive and draw attention to themselves. The artwork of Utsubora, much like the manga’s story, can simultaneously be vaguely ominous and oddly beautiful. It’s really quite stunning and Nakamura is incredibly skilled. Through her artwork and through the body language of her characters, she is able to convey their uncertainties and their desires, their inner turmoil as well as their outward actions. Overall, Utsubora is an intense and even compelling work.

The plot of Utsubora is complex, the relationships and connections between the characters forming a tangled knot that is drawn tighter and tighter. The manga can be confusing and there is quite a bit of ambiguity that is never completely resolved. The only person who really understands everything that is going on is Sakura, and she is deliberately manipulating the situation, mixing together both truths and lies in order to influence those around her. She can’t control everything, though, and some matters in Utsubora are only tangentially related to what she is trying to accomplish. Although sometimes obscured by layers formed by the other characters’ personal struggles and pasts, the core of Utsubora is the despair surrounding Aki, Sakura, and Mizorogi. Granted, most of the characters are reaching their breaking points and are in danger of losing themselves completely; Aki’s death was simply the catalyst that triggered a dramatic sequence of events from which very few will emerge unscathed.

Manga Giveaway: Cinderalla Giveaway

It’s the end of the month which means it’s time for another manga giveaway! Because the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival is currently underway (featuring the work of Kaoru Fujiwara, Maki Kusumoto, Mitsukazu Mihara, Junko Mizuno, Asumiko Nakamura) I decided to do a tie-in giveaway. This month you all have a chance to win a copy of Junko Mizuno’s Cinderalla as published by Viz Media. And as always, the giveaway is open worldwide! (However, you must be at least eighteen years old to enter.)

Cinderalla

Way back in 2010, I had the opportunity to attend the Best Manga You’re Not Reading panel at the American Library Association’s annual conference. It was there that I was introduced to the work of Junko Mizuno, and specifically to her manga Cinderalla–a psychedelic retelling of the classic tale of Cinderella with zombies, yakitori, and pop idols added in for good measure. I had never seen anything like it before and I loved it. Mizuno’s brightly colored artwork in Cinderalla shows her mastery of a very distinctive and even beautifully stunning creepy-cute aesthetic. Quite a few of Mizuno’s manga have been released in English–and I’ve enjoyed many of them–but I will always remember Cinderalla as being my first.

So, you may be wondering, how can you win a copy of Cinderalla?

1) Have you ever read anything by Kaoru Fujiwara, Maki Kusumoto, Mitsukazu Mihara, Junko Mizuno, or Asumiko Nakamura? If so, tell me what you thought in the comments below. (And if you haven’t, you can simply mention that.)
2) If you’re on Twitter, you can earn a bonus entry by tweeting, or retweeting, about the contest. Make sure to include a link to this post and @PhoenixTerran (that’s me).

And there you have it. For this giveaway, each person can earn up to two entries and has one week to submit them. If needed or preferred, comments can also be sent directly to me via e-mail at phoenixterran(at)gmail(dot)com. I will then post them here in your name. The giveaway winner will be randomly selected and announced on February 4, 2015. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the Carnival!

VERY IMPORTANT: Include some way that I can contact you. This can be an e-mail address in the comment form, a link to your website, Twitter username, or whatever. If I can’t figure out how to get a hold of you and you win, I’ll just draw another name.

My Week in Manga: January 19-January 25, 2015

My News and Reviews

Last week I posted a review of Chōhei Kambayashi’s award-winning novel Good Luck, Yukikaze. Because I had enjoyed Yukikaze, the first novel in the series, I was looking forward to reading its sequel. Sadly, although there is some tremendously thought-provoking material in Good Luck, Yukikaze, I found it to be incredibly frustrating as a novel. Also posted last week was my first (and what will probably be my most substantial) contribution to the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival: a spotlight on Mitsukazu Mihara. I’ve previously written a little about her manga series The Embalmer, but this time I took a brief look at all of her manga that was released in English and examined some of the recurring themes found in her work.

Speaking of the Carnival, the hosts at The Beautiful World posted an excellent introduction which includes biographical information of the featured artists as well as an overview of gothic fashion and literary themes. Elsewhere online, Mangabrog has translated a conversation between Hiroaki Samura and Masashi Kishimoto. Chromatic Press has some additional comments on making Sparkler Monthly back issues free to read. (Most importantly, the magazine needs 1,000 subscribers by the end of July 2015 to ensure it survives into its third year.) And some great news from France, Jiro Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura’s manga series The Summit of the Gods (a favorite of mine) is being adapted as an animated film.

Quick Takes

Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of CapricornCorto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn by Hugo Pratt. A portion of Corto Maltese, a seminal comic created by Italian artist Hugo Pratt in 1967, was previously translated into English, however that release was criticized for its use of altered and reformatted page layouts among other things. Under the Sign of Capricorn is technically the third Corto Maltese collection, but it’s the first volume to be released in the series’ new English-language edition from EuroComics, IDW’s newest imprint. The goal is to release the entire twelve-volume series using the original artwork and oversized format over the next few years. Under the Sign of Capricorn is a great looking comic, the high-quality paper and large trim size shows off Pratt’s superb black and white artwork. The titular Corto Maltese is a sea-captain who, though he claims to have no enemies and to live only for himself, frequently finds his life in danger as he tends to side with the underdogs in their battles against those who hold power over them. (He’s a fantastic character.) Under the Sign of Capricorn is a collection of connected adventure stories, many with a slight touch of the supernatural and a lot more humor than I was anticipating. I’m looking forward to reading more of the series.

Noragami: Stray God, Volume 2Noragami: Stray God, Volumes 2-3 by Adachitoka. It took a little while for the first volume of Noragami to settle on its tone, but these two volumes have managed to achieve an excellent balance between the series’ humor and drama. They also explore more of the manga’s worldbuilding and delve more deeply into the mechanics of the gods’ relationships with their shinki. New characters and adversaries have been introduced as well. I initially thought that Noragami might be an episodic series–it certainly has a setup that would lend itself well to that format–but it looks like the manga will have an ongoing and increasingly complex plot. In a series about a low-level god of war who is trying to raise his status and gain followers, it’s not too surprising that other Japanese deities make an appearance in Noragami. However, some of them are portrayed very differently than their traditional counterparts. I was greatly amused by this, but then I already have some knowledge of Japanese religion and mythology. There are translation notes provided for readers who aren’t as familiar, but the delightful incongruities probably won’t be as effective without some prior understanding. However, overall enjoyment of Noragami doesn’t rely on esoteric expertise.

Tough Love BabyTough Love Baby by Shiuko Kano. While it’s not an exceptional boys’ love one-shot, Tough Love Baby was actually fairly solid. This was a pleasant surprise, especially considering my frustrations with some of Kano’s other early works. (And Tough Love Baby is one of her earliest.) Another pleasant surprise–since I’m into that sort of thing–was the somewhat reversible nature of two of the characters. Despite being the secondary couple, I was actually much more interested in the relationship between Tamotsu and Sora than I was in the relationship between Yoshino and Sachi. This was mostly because I ended up particularly liking Sora. (Tamotsu can be a bit of a jerk, though on occasion he does try not to be.) Sora is diminutive throughout high school, but undergoes a tremendous growth spurt upon entering college. Even though he’s much taller than everyone one else, adorable is still the best word to describe him. In some ways, Sora’s story actually parallels Sachi’s. After a three-year absence, Yoshino returns to discover that the cute thirteen-year-old boy he had developed feelings for has grown up to become a juvenile delinquent. Tamotsu is one of Sachi’s friends and a fellow tough guy, but he happens to be in love with Sachi, too. Which brings the story back to Sora, who greatly admires and falls for Tamotsu.

Random Musings: Spotlight on Mitsukazu Mihara

For the last two weeks of January 2015, the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival is focusing on the works of Kaoru Fujiwara, Maki Kusumoto, Mitsukazu Mihara, Junko Mizuno, Asumiko Nakamura. While I’ve read and enjoyed manga created by almost all of those women, Mihara is the mangaka that I’ve read the most of and am most familiar with out of the group. (Granted, that may in part be due to the fact that of the five she has had the most manga licensed and released in English.)

The Creator

Mitsukazu MiharaSadly, there doesn’t actually seem to be very much information available in English about Mitsukazu Mihara beyond a few well-established facts. She was born in Hiroshima, Japan on October 17, 1970 and for a long time was based in Osaka. (I believe she may now be working out of Tokyo.) She made her manga debut in 1994 and has been writing and illustrating ever since. Mihara is often credited as being particularly influential in refining the Gothic Lolita sensibility and she frequently served as a featured illustrator for the Gothic & Lolita Bible magazine.

Between 2004 and 2007, Tokyopop released many of Mihara’s works in English, beginning with her series Doll. Mihara is particularly known for her short manga with twists–even her long-form works tend to be fairly episodic–and she frequently employs darker themes and includes heavy psychological elements in her stories. Her manga is influenced and inspired by the problems and issues that she sees in society as well as by her own personal traumas. As she states in an interview from 2008 in the debut issue of the North American edition of Gothic & Lolita Bible, “Often, my greatest work is born during the bad times.”

The Manga

IC in a SunflowerAlthough IC in a Sunflower (1997) contains some of Mitsukazu Mihara’s earliest work, the volume was actually the last of her manga to be licensed in English. A collection of seven unrelated short manga, the volume includes her award-winning debut “Keep Those Condoms Away from Our Kids.” Another of the collected stories, “The Sunflower Quality of an Integrated Circuit,” would later be tied into her series Doll.

R.I.P.: Requiem in Phonybrian While there is some absurdity and black humor in R.I.P.: Requiem in Phonybrian (2000), the volume’s darker elements take precedent. The manga follows the angel Transylvanian Rose who has rescued the soul of a suicide, but he isn’t particularly happy about this turn of events, nor is he particularly interested in his new responsibilities of cleansing other souls. The manga starts out fairly episodic but quickly coalesces.

Beautiful PeopleBeautiful People (2001) is another collection of Mihara’s short manga and includes six unrelated stories. The volume features a range of genres and sub-genres including science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, post-apocalyptic fiction, contemporary drama, and suspense. In general, like much of Mihara’s work, the manga included in the volume tend to be darker in tone, but there are moments of brightness as well.

Doll, Volume 1The manga that Mihara is probably most well-known for, at least in English, is her six-volume Doll (2000-2002). The manga is a series of loosely interconnected stories of androids and angst that are tied together by the end of the final volume. Although the Dolls are an important part of the series, the focus of the manga is much more on the humans and their relationships to the Dolls and to each other.

Haunted HouseBecause it’s primarily a comedy, Haunted House (2002) stands out from the rest of Mihara’s manga available in English. Granted, it still has elements of horror in an Addams Family sort of way. Sabato Obiga is a teenager who desperately wants two things in his life: a girlfriend and a normal family. Unfortunately, the eccentricities and occult interests of his “death flavored” relatives would seem to make both an impossibility.

The Embalmer, Volume 1My introduction to Mihara’s work was through her series The Embalmer (2003-2013) and it remains my personal favorite of her manga. Sadly, only four of the series’ seven volumes were released in English. I’ve actually written a little about the series before, specifically in regards to the main character and the role of embalming in the story. Less fantastic than many of Mihara’s other manga, the series has a strong grounding in reality.

The Themes

Princess White SnowThere are many themes and variations upon them that appear and reappear throughout Mitsukazu Mihara’s work. One of the most prominent elements in Mihara’s manga is the inclusion of families. Even Haunted House, which is so unlike many of her other works, has a family at its core. The families in Mihara’s manga are often broken and in need of healing, but underlying all that turmoil and trauma is an understanding of the immense importance of family and the profound influence, both positive and negative, that a family has on its individual members.

Similarly, there is an intense longing for love and connection that pervades Mihara’s work. Her characters are searching for someone they can be close to, someone they can trust, someone they can reach out to. Sometimes this is found within their families, and sometimes they are forced to look outside of them to satisfy those needs. Love takes on many different forms in Mihara’s stories, and its potential to end in tragedy is just as real as its potential to end in redemption.

Maturer themes dealing with sex and sexuality have been present in Mihara’s work since the very beginning. Her debut manga “Keep Those Condoms Away from Our Kids” (collected in IC in a Sunflower Circuit) tells the story of a near-future Japan in which the birthrate has plummeted because younger generations have completely lost interest in sex. In the post-apocalyptic vision of “World’s End” (collected in Beautiful People), a peculiar twist of fate means that a lesbian and a gay man may be the only survivors. Perversion, fetishism, bondage, and sadomasochism can be seen in much of Mihara’s work as well, but perhaps most obviously in Doll.

Although frequently viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, Mihara isn’t afraid to look at the harsher realities of life and the darker sides of human nature. Abuse, obsession, sexual violence, and other harmful deviant behaviors can all readily be found within her work. Many of Mihara’s characters are suffering, whether from the actions of others or from their own personal demons and psychological disturbances. There is tragedy, sadness, and pain in both their lives and their relationships. Life isn’t always pretty, and Mihara doesn’t shy away from that fact in her manga.

People can be cruel and are capable of terrible things. As is seen again and again in Mihara’s work, it takes a human to be inhumane. The monsters in her stories are often the ones showing the most empathy and caring for others. Sometimes those monsters are literal–like the vampire in “Blue Sky” (collected in Beautiful People). Sometimes they are beings of human design–like the clones in “Alive” (collected in IC in a Sunflower) or the Dolls. And sometimes they are other people who are for one reason or another shunned, abandoned, or reviled by the rest of society. But there is some hope in humanity that remains–people are changed, often for the better, by their interactions with those “monsters.”

The EmbalmerDeath and dying are themes that frequently make an appearance in Mihara’s work, but at the same time an immense respect and reverence for life can always be seen. Matters of life and death are most realistically examined by Mihara in The Embalmer, the series focusing on those left behind to grieve the deaths of their loved ones. The characters must respond to that loss of life in a very personal way and their relationship with death is constantly changing as a result. Requiem in Phonybrian and many of Mihara’s short manga take a more fantastic approach to death and the afterlife, but emotionally it is all still very real.

Mihara’s manga deal extensively with dualities. This is visually epitomized in the Gothic Lolita aesthetic which Mihara frequently incorporates into her work, but it is also present in the narrative themes that she explores. Light and darkness. Beauty and ugliness. Innocence and perversion. Love and hate. Purity and corruption. Human and inhuman. Hope and despair. Life and death. They are pairs of concepts that are so closely intertwined that it is simply impossible for them to be separated from each other.

They are all also qualities that exist simultaneously within a single person or a single story. Although often viewed as positive or negative characteristics, Mihara’s work shows that they aren’t necessarily inherently good or bad. Rather, it’s a fixation on a particular ideal or other imbalance in those qualities that truly causes harm. Mihara’s stories, just like individuals, contain many complexities, contradictions, and layers. They can be shocking and surprising and may often have more depth to them than might first appear.