The treasure of Tournai

In 1653, in a small Wallonian town of Tournai, builders excavating a cellar at the back of Saint Bryce’s church, across the river from the ancient city centre, came upon an immense hoard of gold, jewels and other treasure – among them, still resting on the finger bones of the individual buried with this unbelievable wealth, a golden ring with the inscription: Childerici Regis.

Here was the tomb of Childeric I, the first historical ruler of the Salian Franks – and father of Clovis I, the first king of all Frankia. Here was proof that Tournai – which started out as Tornacum, a backwater Roman settlement on the road to Cologne, and ended as a somewhat backwater Belgian town on the border with France, was the birthplace of modern France, of the Carolingian Empire – of Europe itself. For the French, it was the equivalent of discovering a tomb of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur’s father – if King Arthur was real, and all the treasure within intact.

The most famous, and mysterious, of all the treasure were the 27 gold-and-garnet (the Franks loved garnet) “bees” or “cicadas”, which would have been sown into the king’s garments – the clothes having rotted away, they “bees” remained in place around the skeleton. These were, according to some, tribal symbols of the Salian Franks – which, over the centuries, have evolved into the fleur-de-lys symbol of French kings – and were taken up as crest by Napoleon.

The treasure, having survived twelve centuries under ground, did not survive the next two. After a long odyssey, during which it found itself in Vienna, then in Paris, in the chaos of mid-19th century France, the treasure was stolen from its keeping place in National Library – and unceremoniously melted for its gold and jewels. Little of it remained, including two of the bees – and some copies of sword and equipment thankfully made soon after the discovery.

I visited Tournai earlier this year – along with a number of other places in Belgium and Netherlands where parts of my books take place, and it was a strange, exhilarating feeling to walk the town’s streets in the footsteps of Childeric, Clovis and Queen Basina (spoiler alert – I return to Tornacum and Frankia in “The Shieldmaiden’s Honour“). Today it’s a sleepy border town. Oddly enough, there’s barely any mention of its ancient royal past anywhere. The most prominent and celebrated monument is its enormous, looming Romanesque cathedral – the seat of the first Bishop of the Franks, Eleutherius – a medieval bridge gate over the Scheldt, and the town square; I can’t imagine an English town behave in such a way – one only needs to visit Tintagel or Glastonbury to know how many “Childeric Fries”, “Clovis Herbal Teas” or “Basina’s Roman Spa” should there be in Tournai, to bring in the tourists. I guess a real king is not as profitable as a legendary one…

Beautiful Dreamers

We Couldn’t Become Adults, dir. Yoshihiro Mori, Netflix, 2021

“How many times have you seen ‘Beautiful Dreamer’?”

“Maybe twice.”

“That’s all? (…) I always played it while I was home.(…) Don’t you think the movie’s really nice? It’s always the day before the school festival. Could there be anything better?”

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beatiful Dreamer is probably my most watched anime of all times – alongside Takahata’s Omoide Poro Poro. One of Mamoru Oshii’s (he of Ghost in the Shell) earliest feature films, it takes the simple surrealist gag comedy setup of the original TV series and uses it to create a masterpiece of the genre, in the same way Groundhog Day took Bill Murray’s and Harold Ramis’s dead pan slapstick and transformed them into a buddhist essay on passing of time.

Much like in Groundhog Day, the characters of Beautiful Dreamer start off trapped in a single-day time loop within tight geographical confines of Shimo-Tomobiki. But unlike Groundhog Day, their situation is not altogether unpleasant, and once they realize their predicament, most of them accept that there’s little they can do but enjoy the eternity. Because the day they’re trapped in is the day before the school festival: arguably, the best day in the otherwise unenviable life of a Japanese student. Crucially, not the festival itself; the actual event, often little more than a wearisome chore for the organizers, can never match the anticipation, excitement, hard work and the sense of companionship of the days leading up to it. No wonder, then, that it’s this festival-eve that’s used to create what eventually turns out to be a beautiful dream, custom made for the beautiful dreamer, Lum.

But one cannot live in a dream forever. Not least because even the best dream eventually reveals its flaws. Characters that don’t fit the narrative are forcibly removed; the repeating drudgery threatens the very fabric of the oneiric reality; and eventually, those forced to relive the perfection day after day threaten a rebellion in the perpetual paradise. The beautiful dreamer must wake up – and grow up.

The few sentences in Yoshihiro Mori’s We Couldn’t Become Adults which open this post might seem just a throwaway scene, serving to show off the ‘quirkiness’ of the protagonist’s elusive love interest. But if you have seen Beatiful Dreamer as often as she – or I – have, you’ll know this scene encapsulates the entire movie, and through it, an experience of an entire lost generation. Mori’s protagonist, Sato, a 40-something late Gen-X ‘creative’, wasted his years in pursuit of something he was promised in his youth, but what could never be real. Stuck in the same repeating loop of anticipation as Lum’s classmates, never reaching a fulfilment, he withers away, as all around him the world moves on, for better or worse.

Foreshadowing the experience of Western Millennials, Japan’s late Gen-Xers grew up in the rubble of a better past and unfulfiled promises. There is a post-apocalyptic quality to the Lost Decade, something I find eerily familiar, having spent my childhood in similarly post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe of late 80s and early 90s. The promise made to Sato’s generation – and to so many after them, all over the world – was of finding something better, something more exciting than the salaryman-with-kids drudgery of their parents. A life that is ‘not ordinary’, to quote the movie’s often repeated line.

Unless you’re one of the very lucky very few who managed to build a succesful life out of their ‘not ordinariness’, the only other way out of this self-inflicted loop, like in the Beautiful Dreamer, is to wake up – and grow up. What counts as plot in Mori’s movie is book-ended by two realizations: the first – that even Sato’s oddball of an anime-watching girlfriend, Kaori, “dropped out” of the loop and moved on to have an ‘ordinary’ life. And the last – that this is fine. At the end, there is neither optimism or pessimism to be found in the movie’s ending – just an acceptance of reality as it is. A dream was only a dream. And, to break with another Gen X cliche, there is no Matrix to emerge into on the other side, just a little more of the same old.

It’s far from a perfect movie; if not for the mention of Beautiful Dreamer, I probably wouldn’t be moved to write about it to such an extent. But to me, it provided that rare moment in art, when two pieces compliment each other, each providing a commentary on another and helping to understand one another’s message, even if one of these is a movie I’ve seen literally countless times before.

The Song of the Tides – locations

Tomorrow is release day of the Song of Octa novella – or Book “5.5” of the Song of Britain – “The Song of the Tides“. The entire story takes place in Armorica – today’s Brittany.

LAUREA – Ile de Brehat

Aerial view of the island of Bréhat in Brittany
A sparsely inhabited island in antiquity, just off the northern coast of Brittany. Other than as the place of disembarkation of several legendary saints arriving in Armorica, there is little mention of it before the Middle Ages.

WORGIUM – Vorgium, Carhaix-Plouguer

Centre d'interprétation virtuel de Vorgium
Capital of the Osismes, and an important cross-road town in Western Brittany. In its heyday, the largest city in all of Armorica. Its modern name comes from “Caer Ahes” – the Fortress of Ahes.

GESOCRIBATE – Douarnenez

Remains of an ancient Garum factory, from Gallo-Roman peri… | Flickr
Gesocribate is only mentioned in Tabula Peutingeriana, as the last stop on the road from Vorgium. Though many historians identify it with the city of Brest, there is also possibility that it refers to the harbour of Douarnenez, famed for its garum factories, as seen above.

CAIR INIS – Ile Tristan

Douarnenez. Un exercice incendie en cours sur l'Île Tristan -  Brest.maville.com
A small tidal island in the bay of Douarnenez. Inhabited since ancient times, long associated with the legend of Sunken City of Ys, and the romance of Tristan and Iseult. It is said that the tomb of the two lovers is somewhere on the island.

The Wrath of the Iutes – Map Reveal

In 10 days, “The Wrath of the Iutes” will be released on Kindle – and on paperback around the same time – so it’s time to reveal the new map for the 5th book of the Song of Britain saga.

“The Wrath…” takes place in Armorica, Isles of Scilly and what is now known as Wales. It’s in Wales that most military action happens, with armies moving from fort to fort and ships going from port to port, so the one new map drawn for this book is one of Wales – or Western Britannia Prima.

Incidentally, this is my second novel that is partly set in Wales – so did my first book, the Shadow of Black Wings, and even the map was somewhat similar, if a fantasy version. I can’t tell myself if it’s just a curious coincidence or is there something special about Wales that makes me go back to it time and time again?

“The Wrath of the Iutes” locations

It’s time for another of the “locations” post – I like to think of my books as much as a travelogue as action novels, and the travels of my characters in Book 5 take them to the very north-western edges of the Empire: from Armorica to Northern Wales.

The Wrath of the Iutes” is released on July 1st – pre-order now!

ROTOMAG – Rotomagus, Rouen

A major harbour on the River Seine, once the second most important city in Gallia Lugdunensis, now capital of Normandy.

REDONES – Condate Redonum, Roazhon, Rennes

A market town and bishopric on the frontier of Armorica, now capital of Brittany.

Worgium – Vorgium, Karaez, Carhaix

The remains of Vorgium are visible at the interpretation center
The largest Roman city in western Brittany, capital of the Osismii, then of Cornouaille. Medieval name comes from Caer Ahes – the Fortress of Ahes.

Cair Wortigern – Craig Gwrtheyrn

A large Iron Age hillfort in Carmarthenshire, on the shores of River Teifi, one of several associated with Vortigern.

The Forks – Tre’r Ceiri

An enormous, spectacular hill fort on Llyn Peninsula, used up to 5th century. The valley below, Nant Gwrtheyrn, is another place associated with Vortigern, who is said to have been buried somewhere in the area.

Hrodha’s Fort – Caer Gybi, Holyhead

A small Roman fortlet at the very end of the Mona road – the last harbour before Hibernia, the Edge of the Empire.

Silurian Isca – Isca Augusta, Caerleon

A major Legionnary fortress and a garrison guarding the main harbour of what is now Wales.

“The Blood of the Iutes” locations

In “The Blood of the Iutes” the action moves from Britannia to northern Gaul and Germania, introducing a slew of new locations in what is now Belgium, northern France and western Germany.

TORNAC – Tornacum, Tournai

One of the oldest towns in Belgium, the first capital of the Salian Franks.

Notre-Dame de Tournai, Belgium

TRAIECT – Trajectum ad Mosam, Maastricht

Ancient crossing town on the Meuse River.

File:Maastricht, maquette laat-Romeins Maastricht (F Schiffeleers, 1992)  05.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

AKE – Aquae Grani, Aachen

Hot springs resort town, popular with the Legionnaires stationed at the Rhine. Later, capital of the Frankish Empire.

Roman arches - Picture of Aachen, North Rhine-Westphalia - Tripadvisor

COLN – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, Cologne

Capital of the Germania Inferior province, the greatest city on the Roman Rhine.

TOLBIAC – Tolbiacum, Zulpich

A small crossroads town, with roads leading to every corner of Gaul. Place of many famous battles.

ICORIG – Icorgium, Junkerath

A small fortress, guarding an important pass into the Eifel Mountains.

TREVIR – Augusta Treverorum, Trier

The capital of all Gaul, seat of the Emperors.

Silence: Not Silent Enough (review)

Scorsese’s Silence is a movie naturally within my sphere of interest, so of course I knew I had to see it, but between this and that, it took me over a month before I found time for it. Was it worth it? Weeeell…. kinda.

First, the good bits: the visuals are verging on genius. Rodrigo Prieto fully deserves his second Oscar nomination for cinematography. Japan (or rather, Taiwan playing the part) hasn’t looked that bleak, cold and unwelcoming on screen in a long while. It’s a welcome change from the usual way of portraying its landscape, especially in western cinema. You can feel every lashing of the cruel ocean, every damp waft of fog; the light, the wind, the rain, all play at least as much part in the first half of the movie as the actors themselves (it did help that the weather in London these past few days was the bleakest I remember). Somewhat jarring in all this is the use of sounds associated with Japan’s hot, dry summer – cicadas, summer birds – for the ambience, but I’m guessing it’s not something most viewers would notice.

Speaking of actors: there’s no bad acting in Silence (it is a Scorsese, after all) but of the three Westerners, a woefully underused Adam Driver steals every scene he’s in – I won’t be the first reviewer to note he should’ve gotten the lead; Andrew Garfield is mostly adequate – though he comes into his own the nearer the climax we get – and Liam Neeson plays “Liam Neeson’s priestly figure” – though more Qui-gon Jinn than Father Fielding. The entire middle act of the movie hinges on the performances of the Japanese, and what performances they are! A veteran comedian Issei Ogata is ridiculously brilliant as “Inquisitor” Inoue – easily a role of his life. Tadanobu Asano, here without his trademark goatee, is almost his equal, his polite, disarming smile hiding the cold, ruthless efficiency of a government official; it’s lucky he came in to replace Ken Watanabe, whose overbearing charisma would likely imbalance the scenes with the interpreter. Yosuke Kubozuka‘s Kichijiro is a shining light of the movie, a tragically comic character of which we learn tantalizingly little: a movie with him as the main protagonist would make a much more compelling story, if not exactly the story either Endo or Scorsese wished to tell.

So in terms of pure cinema craftsmanship, from cinematography to acting, Silence is a very good movie. Where it fails is the script – a script which Scorsese and his pet writer Cocks developed for decades, but which nonetheless suffers from several major drawbacks.

The deadliest sin is the use of narration. Ironically for a movie titled “Silence”, there’s barely any silence at all, especially in the first and third act. There were moments where I prayed for Andrew Garfield to just shut up and contemplate his predicament quietly for a while. I haven’t seen a voiceover narration this pointless and distracting since the producer’s cut of Blade Runner. There is virtually nothing that the voiceover adds to what’s already shown on the screen; at times, comically so, when we are literally told what’s happening before our eyes, as in the scene where some prisoners are given sake and the narrator comments: “they were given sake”. Scorsese keeps slavishly to how Endo’s book is written – the narration follows Father Rodrigues’s letters and diaries at first, then the voiceover keeps quiet where the book is written in third person, to return to voiceover at the end, just as Endo returns again to letters. I can’t fathom what made Scorsese film it this way, as if forgetting he was making a movie, not an illustrated audio-book.

The script is too uneven to be fully enjoyed; the movie’s a little bit too long, a little too repetitive at times, and the climax falls flat due to pacing problems. Its treatment of Driver’s Father Garrpe is criminal. A potentially crucial secondary character is reduced to a few bits, and in the end, it’s not even certain why he was there in the first place. I can see why Garrpe is important in the book, but in the adaptation his role fizzles out with barely any consequence to the plot or character development. Again, it seems like a matter of slavishly following the written source: Garrpa’s in the book, so he must be in the movie, even if his presence amounts to almost nothing. (Father Ferreira is similarly underused, though his role in the plot is more clear; Liam Neeson fails to switch between two versions of his character, and if his decision has any negative consequences, they are never clearly shown. He may have wanted to play it subtle, but subtlety at this point was not necessary.)

The one moment where Scorsese decides to modify the story – the final scene – belies both the message of the source material and the movie itself. The ending is far too unambiguous, far too easy, considering the complex and multi-layered psychology of everything told before. And, I feel important to note, it is a false ending, at least as far as the history of Christianity in Japan, and the Far East in general, is concerned. The sapling did not take root in the swamp, other than in the hearts of a tiny minority whom Endo himself represented.

What other problems I have with Silence are problems with both Shusaku Endo’s narrative and Christianity in general, so they don’t belong in this review. Despite these criticisms, it’s still a good movie – and definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if at all; I really can’t praise the visuals enough. It’s just a pity that it falls short of the brilliance it could have been if only Scorsese had more faith in his own skill as a cinematic storyteller (I mean, come on! You’re Martin Fuckin’ Scorsese!) and less devotion to the source material; although judging by that change to the last few seconds of Rodrigues’s story, even that’s not certain.

“The Vanished” review: disappointingly cliche.

I first noticed this book because of the traffic it was bringing to my old post about Tokyo’s Sanya district. “The Vanished” seems to be making a lot of noise in the Japanophile, and not only, circles – and the premise of the book is promising: telling the stories of the “Evaporated People” – johatsu –  the deliberately missing people of Japan, those who have fallen through the cracks of the system and ran away to start a new life in a different part of the country.

But from the start, there are a few problems with the premise. For example, is Japan really a place with unique numbers (and categories) of disappearances? The book quotes the number of the missing, for any reason, at 120-180,000 a year. But in UK, with half of Japan’s population and with no natural disasters, there are 200-300,000 people going missing every year. It would seem the French author might find a more interesting story across the Channel, rather than traipsing half-way across the globe…

Another problem I notice early on is that, although the book was published in France just two years ago, there is already a sense of it being out of date. Most of the interviewees “evaporated” during the Lost Decade of the 1990s, out of fear of debt collectors and the mafia, or because of economic hardships their companies had suffered – which is hardly a uniquely Japanese experience. The Sanya as described in the book is not the Sanya I know today, with the slums and “extended stay” hotels being torn down to make place for trendy backpacker hostels, boutique cafes and art galleries. Abenomics may be controversial, but it’s changing the surface of the places described in the book at a pace that’s difficult to keep up with, and it would perhaps be more interesting to read about how the forces of gentrification and a flood of cheap yen tourists impacts the local population, rather than slog through another cliched description of the homeless sleeping at the train station (as they do all over the world), or a woeful tale of the author getting lost in the meandering, narrow streets of suburban Japan (it’s the 2010s, don’t you have a GPS in your phone?).

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Shining future: one of the trendy new hotels in Sanya

The one unique aspect of the Japanese “evaporation” that is, indeed, worth exploring and reading about – and which is the supposed main topic of the book – is the organized and efficient manner in which it is happening. Instead of the government or the NGOs dealing with the scale of the problem, everything is left in private hands. The stories of the secretive companies engaged in the “night escapes“, which provide everything from unmarked removal trucks to cash-in-hand jobs in remote parts of the country, make for a good, intriguing read, but they are too sparse and too few to make up for the rest of the book, petering out after a few chapters. The authors seem to be aware of it, spending far too long explaining how difficult it was for them to find enough contacts to fill out the 200 something pages.

Half-way through, the narrative degenerates into a rambling sequence of non-sequiturs, brief essays only vaguely connected to the theme of “vanishing” or escaping, and veering dangerously at times into the “wacky Japan” or “mysterious Orient” territory: the seclusion of the hikikomorithe suicide cliffs, maid cafes, the Tohoku earthquake, the North Korean abductees; these are all topics worthy of separate research, and having them thrown in among the other stories only compounds the feeling of not having enough proper material for what is, for the price (£12 in half-price e-book deal) a fairly short collection of words and photos.

These cliches accumulate until, at last, I am almost forced to give up reading further, as Mauger begins quoting from the antiquated and often discredited Chrysanthemum and the Sword“. This only confirms my suspicions that her understanding of Japan is merely skin-deep and full of preconceived opinions. It is a pity: a better author could take the subject and go into some really interesting places with it. Perhaps somebody having more sympathy to Japan and the Japanese way of life might notice that the “evaporations” seem, after all, a better way of dealing with the hardships of modern urbanized life than suicide or turning to a life of crime. That even though places like Sanya or Kamagasaki are considered “slums” in Japan, life there is still infinitely easier, and safer, than that in actual slums of Africa or South America. And finally, perhaps somebody would find a way to write an entire book about this single topic, one more deserving of the hype and raving reviews than this jumble of random, forcefully cobbled-together stories.

japan-maid-cafe1
Apparently, these girls also count as “evaporated”.

Kamagasaki: Japan’s biggest slum

Kamagasaki, Home to approximately 25,000 people — absolutely dwarfing Tokyo’s equivalent, Sanya — the area is a far cry from the neon-lit, modern image of Japan’s sprawling urban centres. Although as a cruel reminder, Abenobashi Terminal Building, the country’s tallest, now looks down on the district and its residents with cold, unseeing eyes. Just like the city that sanctioned it. A nameless place, with faceless people.

I just stumbled on this article about Osaka’s equivalent of Sanya, which I wrote about before a couple of years ago. Go read the rest of it here.

From what I hear, like San’ya, Kamagasaki has become a backpacker destination due to cheap hostels. It would probably be my choice of accommodation as well, had I ever needed to stay the night in Osaka… I can only expect it to eventually gentrify, again like San’ya, though where will its current inhabitants go when that happens is anyone’s guess.

 

Writing Inspirations: Netflix

As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.

I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra 🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.

Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.

Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.

Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.

The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.

And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.

Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.