The Way of Taiko

The Way of TaikoAuthor: Heidi Varian
Publisher: Stone Bridge
ISBN: 9781611720129
Released: September 2013
Original release: 2005

There are very few books available in English that are devoted to taiko—Japanese drums and drumming. In fact, there are only two that I know of: Heidi Varian’s The Way of Taiko and Shawn Bender’s Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion. Out of these two works, it was The Way of Taiko that first addressed the subject in depth. Originally published in 2005, by the time that I seriously started studying taiko a few years ago The Way of Taiko was already out of print and my dojo’s copy of the book was literally falling apart. And so, I was extremely pleased to learn that Stone Bridge Press was releasing a second edition of The Way of Taiko in 2013. In addition to Varian’s main text, the volume also includes an extensive glossary by David Leong and a foreword by Seiichi Tanaka—credited for introducing modern taiko to the United States.

After the prefatory material and introduction, The Way of Taiko is divided into three major sections which are then followed by the glossary and other resources for reference. The first part, “A Brief History of Taiko” is just that—a concise survey of the history of taiko drums and music from their mythological beginnings to their modern styles of performance. Notably, Varian addresses the place taiko holds in America as well as in Japan. The second section of The Way of Taiko, “Understanding Sounds and Movements,” takes a closer look at the drums themselves as well as other instruments and vocalizations used in taiko performance. Also explained in this section are some of the more visual elements of taiko, such as the players’ attire and movements. The main text of The Way of Taiko closes with “Training in the Way,” focusing on four major aspects of learning taiko: kokoro (spirit), waza (action), karada (body), and rei (etiquette).

For the most part, although updated and revised, the content of the second edition of The Way of Taiko is nearly identical to that of the first. What really makes the second edition stand out from the original printing is the increased values of production quality. The binding is much better and the colors are much sharper and more vibrant. Since the entire volume is in full-color, this really adds to the overall presentation of The Way of Taiko. The improved color is particularly welcomed for the dozens of photographs that are included in the volume exhibiting the power, dynamism, intensity, and beauty of taiko. Seiichi Tanaka’s San Francisco Taiko Dojo is predominantly represented in the photographs (Varian was associated with that dojo and it is the oldest taiko dojo in the United States), but other groups and soloists from both America and Japan are also featured. It is wonderful to be able to see the joy and spirit that the performers put into their art.

The Way of Taiko is a small but informative volume and very approachable, suited for those with a general interest in taiko as well as for those who are more actively involved in the art form. As a taiko player myself, I enjoyed learning more about its history, meaning, and form from a performance perspective. My dojo has a slightly different style and lineage than most of the groups discussed in The Way of Taiko, but I still found the book to be a very valuable resource. What will probably vary the most from school to school is the level of formality and the etiquette followed, but Varian describes the most proper forms so following her guidelines will aid in avoiding offense in most situations. What I probably appreciated most about The Way of Taiko was how many different aspects of taiko Varian addresses: its history and its future, its art and its science, and taiko’s total incorporation of mind, body, and spirit. The Way of Taiko is an excellent resource and I am very happy to see it back in print again.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Awakening, Escalation, Confrontation

Mobile Suit GundamAuthor: Yoshiyuki Tomino
Translator: Frederik L. Schodt
U.S. publisher: Stone Bridge
ISBN: 9781611720051
Released: April 2013
Original release: 1979-1981

The first part of the massive Gundam franchise to be officially released in English was a trilogy of novels by Yoshiyuki Tomino that were initially published in Japan between 1979 and 1981. The novels are a reimagining of the original 1979 anime series Mobile Suit Gundam which was directed and primarily developed by Tomino. Based on the trilogy’s 1987 edition, the novels were originally translated by Frederik L. Schodt and published by Del Rey between 1990 and 1991. They subsequently went out of print but were released again by Stone Bridge Press in 2004 in an omnibus edition with a revised translation. The omnibus, too, went out of print only a few years later. It wasn’t until 2012 that the license was able to be re-secured, but Mobile Suit Gundam: Awakening, Escalation, Confrontation is once again available in a newly redesigned omnibus. It also includes some of the concept design sketches form the original anime series as illustrations.

In Universal Century 0079, the colonists of Side 3 rebelled against the Earth Federation, establishing the Principality of Zeon. During the ensuing war, half of the solar system’s human population was annihilated before the two sides of the conflict could reach a temporary ceasefire. In less than a year, the relative peace came to an end. The fighting began again as the Federation and Zeon forces were caught up in an arms race. Each side continued developing more and more advanced and powerful weapon systems and mobile suits. Combined with the emergence of Newtypes—humans with astounding powers of intuition and expanded consciousness—the conflict quickly escalated. No one is entirely sure what the Newtype phenomenon means for the future of the human race or what dangers those with Newtype potential will present, but both militaries are resolved to harness their abilities in order to gain an advantage in the war.

I haven’t seen the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam anime series in its entirety, but I do know that the novels are a darker, more mature, and more detailed take on the story. The ending of the trilogy is significantly different from that of the anime, as well. My first real introduction to the Gundam franchise was actually through Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s manga series Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, which is also a retelling of the original anime. If I am to be completely honest, I much greatly prefer the manga over the novels. However, simply by the nature of the medium, the novels allow Tomino to explore the world of Mobile Suit Gundam in greater depth than either the anime or the manga; some of the specifics about the characters and their motivations can be found nowhere else. But this can also be a drawback—at times, Mobile Suit Gundam: Awakening, Escalation, Confrontation reads more like an insider’s guide to the Gundam universe rather than a set of novels.

I like the story of Mobile Suit Gundam as well as its setting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t nearly as fond of the novels’ execution. There was an annoying preoccupation with who was or wasn’t, or who could or could not possibly be a Newtype. Though frequently debated, the characters never reach a solid conclusion and constantly change their opinions on the matter. This is somewhat understandable since the Newtype phenomenon is a new step in human evolution that has yet to be strictly identified or defined, but it’s particularly frustrating when the author doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the concept, either. I do like the Newtype theory, though, and it is a very important part of Mobile Suit Gundam. I also like that the novels show both sides of the conflict between Zeon and the Federation from multiple perspectives. Mobile Suit Gundam is an ambitious war tale with a fairly large cast of interesting characters. But in the end, I have a feeling that the novels will appeal most to readers who are already fans of the franchise.

Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima

Author: Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato
Translator: Hiroaki Sato
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
ISBN: 9781611720082
Released: December 2012

My introduction to Japanese literature was through Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility. Ever since, I have been fascinated by his life and works. It has been nearly forty years since a major biography on Mishima has been released in English. I was very excited when I learned that Stone Bridge Press would be releasing Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato at the end of 2012. The English-language edition is actually an updated and expanded version of Inose’s 1995 Japanese Mishima biography Persona: Mishima Yukio den. Sato was primarily responsible for the adaptation, expansion, and translation of the English-language edition of Persona. It is a mighty tome. With over 850 pages, Persona promised to be the most comprehensive and complete biography of Mishima available in English.

Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka was born on January 14, 1925 to Azusa and Shizue Hiraoka. His upbringing was a bit peculiar—his controlling grandmother snatching him away from his parents. As a child he often struggled with health issues, but exhibited an intellectual precociousness and a talent for writing at a young age. Mishima would eventually become one of the preeminent and most visible authors of his day. He was also an extremely prolific writer, responsible for creating thirty-four novels, more than one hundred seventy short stories, close to seventy plays, six hundred sixty poems, and numerous essays, articles, and other works. Many of Mishima’s writings have been translated, but only a fraction of his total output is available in English. He was also involved in the film industry, served as a subject and model for photographers, and was active in martial arts and bodybuilding. Later in life, becoming more politically active, he was a vocal supporter of the Tennō system in Japan. Mishima ended it all in a shocking act of ritual suicide on November 25, 1970.

Persona really is the most comprehensive single-volume work on Mishima currently available in English. However, in part due to its length, it is difficult to recommend the biography as a introductory resource. Before attempting to read Persona, it is useful to have a least some basic understanding of Mishima and Japanese history in general. Persona isn’t strictly just a biography of Mishima—it places him within a greater context of economic, bureaucratic, political, literary, and cultural Japanese history. While Mishima always remains an important touchstone, frequently Persona uses him a launching point to address other aspects of Japanese history as a whole. Occasionally the authors seem to wander off on tangents that aren’t directly related, but Mishima and his enormous personality are always there in the background even when they’re not at the forefront of the work.

Although Persona generally follows a chronological progression, beginning with Mishima’s family history and background and ending with his suicide and its aftermath, the biography is organized more by subject and theme. The authors do not limit themselves to adhering to a rigid timeline, which allows them to bring together related material more efficiently. In addition to the main text, Persona also includes notes, an extensive bibliography, and a thorough index. Though its length may be daunting and it’s not always a particularly easy read, Persona really is an incredibly complete Mishima biography. Addressing both Mishima’s public and private personas, it delves into areas of his personal life (including his sexuality) which I haven’t seen as thoroughly explored in English before. While not a biography for the casual reader, reading Persona is well worth the effort for someone with an established interest in Mishima and Japanese history.

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West

Author: Frederik L. Schodt
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
ISBN: 9781611720099
Released: November 2012
Awards: Stuart Thayer Prize

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West was written by Frederik L. Schodt and published by Stone Bridge Press in 2012. It is Schodt’s seventh book dealing with Japanese culture and history. I am primarily familiar with Schodt’s work as a manga and anime scholar and translator, but as can be seen with Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe and several of his other books, his knowledge and interests extend to other subject areas as well. I first learned about Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe because I follow Schodt’s work in general. I was interested in reading the book for that reason, but also because I happen to have an interest in Japanese history as well as in the performing arts.

After a brief preface explaining how he came to write the book, Schodt launches into the main text of Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe. The first chapter, or “act,” is appropriately titled “Setting the Stage” and provides the necessary background and historical context for the book. The next three acts—”The Risley Act,” “Going for Gold,” and “Into Asia”—explore the life of Professor Risley, the stage name of American showman Richard Risley Carlisle. Acts five through nine—”Yokohama, Japan,” “Taking America,” “At the Exposition,” “The Long Way to London,” and “The Matter of the Contract”—follow the formation of the Imperial Japanese Troupe and their nearly two-and-a- half-year tour of seven countries: the United States, France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. Act ten, “Final Acts” traces the end of Professor Risley and the troupe and their lasting influence. The book is completed with an afterword, notes, select bibliography, and a thorough index.

In 1866, the eighteen men, women, and youths from the Sumidagawa, Matsui, and Hamaikari preforming families who would make up Risley’s Imperial Japanese Troupe received the first official passports granted to ordinary Japanese citizens. Since the mid-17th century, the Japanese government had severely limited travel into and out of Japan. The opening of Japan helped to ignite an interest in Japanese art and culture across the world. A large part of the Imperial Japanese Troupe’s success was due not only to the members’ skill but to the perceived exoticism of their performances. For the first time the world at wide was being introduced to Japanese culture. At the same time, ordinary Japanese were finally allowed and able to see the world beyond their own country. The tour of the Imperial Japanese Troupe was a meeting, meshing, and clashing of cultures. And while the group was away, Japan itself was undergoing a revolution as the Meiji era was ushered in.

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe was absolutely fascinating. Additionally, Schodt’s writing is an utter delight to read. Although Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe has been thoroughly researched and has an academic bent to it, the book is still easily accessible and approachable even for more casual readers. One of the things that I particularly loved about Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is that it is filled with reproductions of historical photographs, artwork, newspaper clippings, playbills, advertisements, and so on, including sixteen pages in full color. They are a fabulous addition to an already great book. I enjoyed Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe immensely. It’s an incredibly engaging work on 19th-century popular culture and very easy to recommend.

Death March on Mount Hakkōda: A Documentary Novel

Author: Jirō Nitta
Translator: James Westerhoven
U.S. publisher: Stone Bridge Press
ISBN: 9781933330327
Released: September 2007
Original release: 1971

Death March on Mount Hakkōda: A Documentary Novel by Jirō Nitta (the pseudonym of Hiroto Fujiwara) is a semi-fictional account of a disastrous winter military exercise that occurred in the Hakkōda mountain range in Japan in 1902. I first learned about the Hakkōda Mountains Incident while reading Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt’s work Yurei Attack!. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about the tragic event which is what lead me to Death March on Mount Hakkōda. Although dramatized, the book is one of the few extensive resources about the incident that is available in English. In fact, Death March on Mount Hakkōda, written by Nitta in 1971 and adapted into the film Mount Hakkōda in 1977, is one of the major reasons that so many people know about the disaster. Even in Japan, the Hakkōda Mountains Incident had largely been forgotten only a few decades after it happened. Stone Bridge Press first published James Westerhoven’s English translation of Death March on Mount Hakkōda in 1992 and then again in 2007 in a reprint edition.

As war with Russia was looming on the horizon, the Japanese military began to prepare for the conflict. Of particular concern was that an attack might occur in winter. The Russian army was equipped and able to cope with the intense snow and cold while the Japanese had limited experience with winter assaults. In an effort to change this, the 8th Division was given the task of determining the possibility of crossing the Hakkōda mountain range in the middle of a harsh winter, a challenging enough endeavor even in good weather. Two captains, Kanda from the 5th Regiment and Tokushima from the 31st, were charged with planning and developing the exercise for their respective regiments. Scheduled for January 1902, the already difficult crossing coincided with one of the worst winter storms and lowest temperatures to ever be recorded in Japan. The 31st Regiment was largely successful in its attempt. The 5th Regiment, however, was not so lucky—out of the two hundred ten soldiers, only eleven made it out of the mountains alive.

After addressing the basic stages of planning and preparation of both regiments, Nitta turns his attention to the 31st’s attempt at crossing Mount Hakkōda. Tokushima was able to secure complete control over the exercise, developing a longer and more involved trek than that of the 5th’s. Tokushima and his men faced dangerous conditions and deadly fatigue. Even with everything going as well as it could, they had an extremely difficult time. Nitta captures this exceptionally well and realistically. It also drives home how dire the 5th Regiment’s plight was. One mistake after another complicated matters more and more as Captain Kanda was met with repeated interference from his superior officers. Even knowing that the tale of the 5th Regiment ends in tragedy doesn’t detract from the novel’s tension and effectiveness. If anything, it makes it even more nerve-wracking since even the smallest mistake and poor decision is known to play a part in the resulting disaster.

Nitta’s writing style in Death March on Mount Hakkōda is very straightforward, even factual, with very little embellishment. This actually works to his advantage. Based on a true story, Death March on Mount Hakkōda doesn’t need to exaggerate an already disastrous event to make it a compelling story. In addition to the main novel, Nitta also incorporates a small section explaining the real life consequences of the deadly winter exercise. There is also an excellent afterword by the translator which places Nitta and Death March on Mount Hakkōda into historical and literary context, including the known differences between the novel and confirmed history. Although Death March on Mount Hakkōda is based on actual events, it is important to remember that the novel is a a fictionalization and dramatization of the Hakkōda Mountains Incident. It can be easy to forget this fact—Nitta has done his research and how he presents the story is chillingly realistic and believable.