It was very much the year of two halves. By the time the calendar struck June, we’ve been to Poland, Japan, Germany, Luxembourg and France. We’ve sold the van, ended the journey (for now!), moved back to London, returned to regular office work…
The second half was very much six months of winding down, settling down and slowing down. Not much happened as we returned to a settled, “normal” life. I put this blog on more or less of a hiatus, and I hadn’t picked up on “Shattering Waves” almost until NaNoWriMo. It was the first time I voted in national elections in UK, and the first time I didn’t vote in said elections in Poland. I joined the Lib-Dems out of pity… Plus, we helped some friends move to London – and got rid of an old sofa 🙂 Oh! And, we went to the States in October, for the first time ever.
As the year comes to an end, I’m starting to pick up the pace again. “Shattering Waves” manuscript is finished – a couple of months of editing from now, it will be ready for a Spring release. What’s more, for the first time since finishing Volumes 1-4, I’m working on two books at the same time – I’ve started drafting Volume 8, albeit at the stately pace of 500 words per day.
That means that even if nothing else happens in 2016, at least this will be the year I finally end The Year of the Dragon saga. Now THAT is certainly something to look forward to!
We men have been speaking loudly for centuries, and at last, we have spoken all we had to say. As the male-dominated mainstream pop-culture engages in a cannibalistic downward spiral of reboots, remakes, repeated cliches and post-modern irony, it becomes obviously clear that women are our only chance for saying something new and original.
As male-dominated societies go, Japan is often seen as an extreme among developed countries, but its culture, too, is currently being saved by active, creative, independent women, whether in visual arts, music or film. The “new wave” of Japanese female film directors started about a decade ago, and Naoko Ogigami is my favourite – and perhaps best known – of these.
Most fans of Japanese cinema will have heard of at least one of her movies: “Kamome Diner”, the whimsical tale of a Japanese woman opening a low-key diner in Helsinki. That sentence summarizes the movie’s entire plot: little else really happens in the story. Characters come and go, little self-contained vignettes happen to them or around them. Life goes on.
The same one-sentence summary may be applied to Ogigami’s other late movies – “Megane” and “Rent-a-neko”. A woman travels to a lonely guesthouse on a tropical island. A woman wanders the streets of a city renting cats to lonely passer-byes. There is more of a plot in her earlier work – “Yoshino’s Barber” is a proper story, with an established setting, character development and a denouement of sorts; the English-language “Toilet” is half-way there – there’s a plot, but very faintly drawn, with many of the threads forgotten or leading nowhere.
This is storytelling that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese film-making: from Yasujiro Ozu to Yoji Yamada, you can draw a straight line of directors who revel in telling non-stories, sketching non-events, portraying characters in blink-of-an-eye snapshots; the cinematic equivalent of those hanging scrolls, which would present an entire landscape in a few strokes of a brush.
Ogigami’s movies are all that, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsy and magic realism, but with an added uniquely female perspective. You’ll have noticed that all the above summaries have one thing in common: a Japanese woman does something. The “Toilet” is the only exception to that rule, not just because the main characters are Canadian, but most of them are male; but even they are not your typical movie males: a cross-dresser, a suspected gay, an effete geek; one could easily call them “effeminate”, if the word didn’t have so many negative connotations. Rather, these are simply men drawn in the same subtle and original way as the women.
Most importantly, though, Ogigami’s women live in a world of female fantasy. And this is a dramatic change of pace from what most movie-goers are used to, which is, predominantly, a world of male fantasy. We are so used to seeing men in incredible, cliched situations, that we either completely ignore it, or, at best, shrug it off with an ironic smile.
Nobody wonders anymore about men of action withstanding multiple bullet wounds, chasing cars on foot, or being ever ready to sleep with beautiful women at their whim. These are male cliches that we take for granted, eagerly suspending our disbelief.
Ogigami asks us to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the fantasy shared by women not only in Japan. Her characters are all strong, independent, economically self-reliant – and single. Just like nobody asks how John McClane could survive all those falls, so nobody asks where Sachie got the money to run an empty restaurant in a foreign city; nobody knows what Sayoko really does for a living, even though her Rent-a-cat business obviously is not enough to support her. Nobody knows who their families are, what their surnames are, where did they come from, and where will they go. These are women who are not defined by their jobs, their families, their partners; none of this is important to what they truly are. And yet, you know they are full, three-dimensional characters. It’s that hanging scroll effect again: a simple sketch tells the whole story.
Run these movies through a Bechdel Test, and the results will be off the scale. Apart from “Toilet”, men appear as background or plot devices; there’s not a hint of romance: even what may seem like it in Rent-a-neko is swept away like the floating summer noodle before it gets a chance to develop. In these fantasy worlds, nothing, and no-one, stands in the way of a woman’s self-discovery. These are the most perfectly subtle feminist movies I’ve ever seen.
And then there’s the Obaa-chan. A character – or rather, a living trope – played by the enigmatic Masako Motai. The obaa-chan’s presence weighs heavily on what little of the plot there is, at once focusing and blurring the actions of everyone else around her. And although there is no actual connection between Masako’s characters in each movie, you could try to trace her progression of sorts throughout Ogigami’s oeuvre: starting out as a noisy and strict conformist in Yoshino’s Barber, she changes her ways and leaves Japan in search of new experiences in Kamome Diner; in the summer she sells shaved ice on Megane’s island, and, at the end of her life, is brought to Canada, to change the lives of her lost grand-children. In Rent-a-neko, she’s just a memory, a spirit in a shrine, but even in death (and I’m convinced that the dead grandmother in the movie is “played” by Masako Motai in absentia) she’s at least the second most important character in the story. Masako’s Obaa-chan is not the wise-but-sweet grandma of Miyazaki’s movies: rather, she, too, is strong, self-reliant, and with a blurry, unimportant past left behind. By the time we see her in Megane and Toilet, a lifetime of independence gives her a Yoda-esque presence and authority. She is the fulfillment of the dream that all of Ogigami’s characters, more or less inadvertently, pursue. And, as the symbolic final scene of Rent-a-neko shows, she has raised the next generation of independent women well.
Soon after the success of Kamome Diner, together with her producer, Kumi Kobata, and a few other female movie makers, Naoko Ogigami established an independent production studio, Suurkiitos. I am now going slowly through their catalog, and from what I can tell, the movies created there continue the tradition of telling beautifully sketched, simple, subtle stories with strong female characters. “Suurkiitos” means “Thank you very much” in Finnish, and it is a fitting name for a company whose work inspires so much gratitude in the viewers.
After living here for any decent length of time, it’s easy to grow tired of the seemingly endless slew of blogs either singing Japan’s praises or celebrating its weirdness. But the thing is, there’s a reason so many of them exist. While many of the claims bloggers in Japan make are somewhat exaggerated or simply rehashes of the same experiences foreigners arriving in the country decades earlier had, there are nevertheless times when living in Japan can make you realise that the country is actually quite special.
Just last night, for example, I found myself the recipient of a tiny but powerful gesture that made me feel – after more than eight years of living here – that Japan is pretty damn cool sometimes.
Last night, dear reader, a fast food company gave me 10 yen. That’s about US$0.09.
I was recently commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to profile dear old Yubari in a short article; you can read the fruits of that endeavor, should you care to, here. However, the piece was hacked about and chopped down to make it more digestible for the hurried browser, so I thought I would post the unexpurgated version here, the director’s cut, as it were, with the scenes that were left on the cutting-room floor restored. Veteran Spike readers will be familiar with the tale, but there were a few twists and turns in it I hadn’t anticipated when I began the research process. Revisiting all the places Spike made it to in the blog’s five-year run every five years or so would turn into a Sisyphean task, like the painting of the Forth Bridge; a fascinating grand travaux but not one I’ll be undertaking in this life. I apologize…
A year ago, I published the fourth book of The Year of the Dragon, “The Rising Tide“, with a solemn promise to myself and my readers that the book five would be released “soon“.
“Soon” is a relative term. On one hand, some authors churn out novels every other quarter. On the other, GRRM takes five years to finish one of his door-stoppers 😉 Writing and publishing a book is never a fast and easy job, especially since I had to start writing Chrysanthemum Seal from scratch. Still, I didn’t expect it to take a full year, so I feel like I should explain exactly what took us at the Flying Squid so long to get things done.
May 2013 – we spent most of it preparing the Bundle Edition of the first four books, as well as the paperbacks.
June-October 2013 – The long awaited Great Round-Britain Journey in our little blue campervan, Orca! The plan was for me to start writing Book Five on the journey, but the reality got the better of us. There was simply too much to do, between driving around, sight-seeing and writing the blog. By the time we got back, all I had were just a few pages of the very rough draft and some plot ideas.
October-December 2013 – The first really intensive period of writing, including a try at NaNoWriMo in November. I got up to some sixty thousand words by December, at which point I started burning out a bit. The cover was ready in December.
December-February 2014 – This period includes a long trip to Japan, to regenerate and gain inspiration. I manage to get writing again, and the result is the 1st Draft ready in February.
February-March 2014 – I go through three more drafts and revisions. The book changes a lot over this period – the end result is hardly recognizable from what I envisaged back in October! I take part in two collaborative processes, the NovoPulp anthology and the Steamlit Extravaganza.
April 2014 – The final (5th) draft is ready for Easter. A week later, it’s proof-read and formatted. As I write this post, the Amazon-ready mobi file is in the final read-through. With a projected upload to KDP on Wednesday, we’re still good for the May 1st release. The paperback will follow soon after.
What next? Well, I’ve already started writing Book Six. I can’t decide on the title yet, it’s going to be either “Sparrow Strike” or something with Fire… the title has to be dynamic, as we’re finally getting to see (spoiler!) some real war in Yamato. The cover is commissioned for late autumn. I do hope this one will be faster, although, once again, we’re planning a big campervan trip this year, starting May…
Incidentally, if you are, or know, a voice artist looking for work over on ACX, I’ve posted “The Year of the Dragon” as project, and I’m awaiting auditions on the royalty-share basis.
All the videos nominated for Space Shower TV Music Video Awards. Everything that’s been happening in Japanese music in 2013 – from the twee mori-girl new-folk of Ichiko Aoba, through brutal hardcore of BBQ Chickens to sheer mind-fuckery of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
There are some real visual jewels here: the tragi-comic “Dance My Generation”, subtle “Remember Me” and epic “Revelation” are among my favourites so far.