This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted here.
For more information about the week, head over here.
Today I am thrilled to welcome Zoe Marriott, author of the fantastic Shadows On the Moon, to Portrait of a Woman. She will be talking to us about her passion for Japanese culture and her favourite books.
I'm really not an expert on Japan. People think that I am because I wrote Shadows on the Moon, which is set in a faerytale version of Feudal Japan. I've been praised for the amount of historical detail included, and sometimes people assume I must have visited Japan many times. But the fact is that I've never been there even once, although it's my life's ambition to, one day. And I've barely scratched the surface of this fascinating culture.
I actually kind of like it that way. It means I've got so much more to learn, and that's the best way to feel about anything you love the way I love Japan. Because I really do. If Japan were a person and not a country, I would totally be it's stalker (also, wouldn't he or she be *gorgeous*?). Japan's many years of conscious and careful isolation up to the nineteenth century have resulted in a wealth of music, art, folklore, shared images and dreams and history which literally have no counterpart in any other country. In Europe and the Americas, in Russia, even in the middle east, it's possible to trace a mythological figure from nation to nation, transforming as he goes, or find a hundred different versions of the same story. Even China shares some of this. All that stops when you hit Japan. The fairytales and under-the-bed monsters, the turns of phrase that the Japanese people take for granted are utterly new and alien and all the more breathtakingly lovely and terrifying for that!
The only other country I can think of with this kind of unexplored culture is Australia. But the aboriginal peoples of Australia were slaughtered and oppressed by white settlers who tried their best to stamp out the history of the land they had taken by force. The surviving indigenous people resent appropriation fiercely (for good reason, since they are trying so hard to recover and conserve that culture themselves!). The Japanese, on the other hand, still have a dominant and evolving cultural identity within their own nation. This allows them to appropriate freely from the rest of the world in their own media, and so it seems fair to borrow a little of their culture in return, even as an outsider.
The obsession started young for me. Really young. So young that I can't tell you how old I was, only that I was small enough to sit cross legged in front of the television set and not get yelled at because my head was in the way. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'm pretty sure it was raining, but that's pretty much the only stuff I can remember about that day because every other braincell I have is taken up with the glorious, amazing, life-changing thing I saw. Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Laputa - now known as Castle in the Sky.
I'm pretty sure I never recovered. I mean, Disney was all very well (and you'll have to pry my copies of Beauty and the Beast and Tangled out of my cold dead hands) but COME ON. I'd never seen anything like Laputa in my life before. Beautiful, funny, disturbing, tragic, terrifying, unique and bittersweet, it exposed me to emotions and images that stayed with me for life. The girl flinging herself from the plane in desperation. The pendant glowing with a beautiful and sinister glow and her featherlike floating process through the sky, peaceful and serene. The glowing crystals in the underground caverns. The strangely lovely and mournful robots and their bird-like mechanical voices. The great city fallen to ruins, all covered in giant trees the size of skyscrapers and thick, jewel-like moss. When my brother tracked down a copy of this on DVD for me for Christmas one year (back before it was widely released in the English speaking world) I cried all over him. Not the reception he was probably going for. But it meant that much to me.
I think I've spent the last twenty-odd years of my life searching to recapture that feeling - the feeling of diving headfirst into a magical and unexplored country - again. Once I figured out who'd made Laputa I tracked down every other film he'd ever made and devoured them. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Nausicaa, My Neighbour Totoro, The Cat Returns. And when I ran out of Hayao Miyazaki I moved onto Paprika and Millenium Actress by Satoshi Kon. All these are a great place to start exploring this powerful artform and beginning to gain an inkling of how fascinating Japanese culture is.
The Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga. Readily available in English, it's a four volume 'slice of life' series about a diverse group of friends and acquaintances (and their teachers) in the first years at Japanese high school. It's a poignant, touching, hilarious and wonderful portrait of how it feels to be young, with the constant rush to grow up doing battle with a nostalgia for fragile innocence which is inevitably slipping away. It's also beautifully drawn, and a great introduction to manga conventions, like reading from right to left.
Fruits Basket? It's a long running (now complete) series about a family who bear an ancient curse: they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac when someone of the opposite sex hugs them. The story follows the misadventures of a young girl who gets mixed up with them by chance, grows to love several of them in different ways, and tries to help them overcome the curse. It starts out cute and fluffy and gets gradually darker, and is like a masterclass in subtle characterisation, presenting easy stereotypes to the reader and slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the contradictory, complex, real person beneath. Don't watch the anime though; it cuts off with a nonsensical ending nothing like the manga and left me very frustrated.
Not keen on paranormal? Then how about just plain old hilarious? Ouran High School Host Club (again, a long running series that is now complete) is probably one of the the best mangas I've ever read. It freely mocks and subverts normal shojo (that's girl's manga) tropes while at the same time squeezing laughs out of them. Haruhi - a poor, out of place, genius scholarship student at a prestigious school full of the superrich - stumbles into the middle of a group of bored, privileged kids who run a 'host' club to amuse themselves. The tables turn constantly. One minute Haruhi is beliguered and bullied by the rich kids, the next they're scrambling to impress Haruhi. The anime for this is also superb, though it cuts off waaaay before the manga finished, so be prepared.
Bleach (which is also a very decent anime, if you skip the filler arcs where they were waiting for the manga to catch up and just shoved any old nonsense in there). It's a great, action-packed manga about Shinigami, Japanese soul reapers, and a young human boy who ends up accidentally taking on some of their powers and - well - kicking monster ass with a huge-ass sword. Can you ask for more? Neither the manga or the anime are complete though. I'm personally freaking the heck out over current developments, so be warned.
Hyouta Fujiyama is a brilliant mangaka in this field - her books are sweet, funny and feature some of my favourite art. Spell, Lover's Flat, Freefall Romance and Ordinary Crushvols. 1 and 2 are a good place to start, if you can get them. Fumi Yoshinaga, the author of The Flower of Life, that I mentioned above, also dabbles in this field. She wrote Moon and Sandals vols. 1 and 2 and The First Class is Civil Law vols. 1 and 2, brilliant works about learning to accept other people for what they are, if you wish to be loved the same way in return. Lily Hoshino is another mangaka whose art is breathtaking. I love My Flower Bride, My Flower Groom and Love Quest. Another favourite is Little Butterfly, by Hinako Takanaga, which is three volumes, but available in an omnibus edition - a truly epic, and yet completely down to earth story of the transformations caused by true love. For anime in this field? If you can find a copy of Winter Cicada - the story of two young Samurai on opposite sides in the Japanese civil war, who fall in love - you're in for a treat, although you should have tissues handy. LOTS of tissues.
Some of these are available on Amazon or even in your local bookshop. For others you might need to go to specialist manga and anime sellers, or buy secondhand. But I promise that you will be well rewarded! Exploring Japanese culture is a journey which I don't think I'll ever come to the end of, and the more people who are travelling with me, the more fun it will be.
Thanks Zoe for this post! I now have quite a few books (and anime) to track down on Amazon!
You can stalk Zoe: