バベルの図書館

June 7, 2010

Lately I’ve been trying to tap back into all the pastimes that used to capture by imagination and spark my creativity before I came Japan. I realise this makes it sound like some kind of ancient legend, and in sense it is; I can hardly recognise myself in some of the blogs of old, and I find my attention to detail dwindling with every changing season, each similarly consisting entirely of overcast, windy days, every over-sweetened coffee I naively expect to be otherwise, and each and every God-awful Japanese power ballad that assaults my dignity in each and every supermarket or department store.

Living in rural Japan is, despite what overzealous travel guides and intrepid tourists may have you believe, very monotonous and uninspiring, particularly when you live in a town with a ratio of about three or four semi-trailers to every one normal-sized car. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my job or my life here; far from it, however there are certainly times I find myself frustrated and angry as my remaining youth withers away in this oppressive ghost town. To some degree, my silent cultural rebellion has been working. I’m finding more time for exercising, reading, watching movies, and even video gaming, which (contrary to popular opinion) can be both innovative and inspirational. And of course, buying a car has helped the situation to no end.

I’ve also dived into the overwhelming and somewhat intimidating world of Japanese manga. When I say ‘dived,’ of course what I really mean is ‘cautiously dipped a single toe,’ but it’s a start. Does anybody remember those grotty underworld porn shops in the Nick Cage film 8mm? In truth, second-hand manga repositories aren’t too far removed from this kind of fetishism. Long, musky walls of paper swell and bulge with countless discarded volumes. Floorboards creak and groan while low-powered light globes barely provide enough illumination to make out the scrawl of characters along the spines. Dedicated fans, dotted like moths at seemingly random points throughout the network of caves like, spend hours reading entire series from start to finish, barely moving so as to conserve energy. Genre tags warn of all sorts of unimaginable debauchery within the hand-drawn black and white cells of the pages, and an author’s years of toil – scratching away at a dishevelled desk amongst piles of his hero’s works, on a sparse diet of convenience store instant noodles, begging for a publisher and praying for an audience – goes on sale for 300 yen for the entire series, twelve volumes, read once, immediately forgotten. But please don’t misinterpret; I believe the Japanese are lucky to have a pastime which is both so vast and rich, and so culturally unique. The breadth of material and styles which fall under the umbrella of manga is mind-blowing, spanning from the predictably trashy and vapid to highly intelligent, keenly-observed and moving.

One such notable entry is クロ號 (kurogou), a collection of short anecdotal stories about an orphaned black cat, his friends and foes, and his hapless owner. Sure, it sounds childish and simplistic, however this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our hero must deal with rejection, loneliness, disappointment, unrequited love and loss of innocence. Sound heavy? Sure, it is, but that’s what all great authorship somehow manages to do: transport the reader into another world, where separate yet parallel feelings exist as if they were our own. John K. Sampson of the Weakerthans has penned a beautiful couplet of tracks about his own pet cat, casting the creature’s own habits, needs and perspectives in a tangibly human light. Kurogou does the same. It ponders the secret life of felines and exalts their mysterious sentiment, while at the same time distilling their playful nature into its most innocent and adorable. I believe it’s out of print now, so I’ll have to hunt down second-hand copies of the remaining volumes. Looks like more tomb raiding is on the horizon.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this year I have decided to take on some added initiative with my classes and write their exams myself. I do this because of  the ludicrously regressive approach to assessments that my school takes when it comes to English (memorising a few phrases of vocab without understanding any of the underlying structure, mentally photographing a page of a textbook and then reproducing it verbatim for the test when an embarrassingly low-grade monochromatic photocopy appears with a few blank spaces sporadically added in for dramatic effect.

Of course, when I mentioned that I was making the test myself, and that it would be somewhat more challenging than what they were used to, I was met with the Japanese equivalent of a violent protest rally: stunned, vacant stares from everybody at once. I said that there would be no Japanese on the test, and more desolate confusion ensued. I seem to recall my high school German examinations, when I had to speak for a solid fifteen minutes about a variety of subjects, including a detailed analysis of a politically-charged movie called Sonnenallee about life in the GDR, which incidentally got me hooked on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (which, aside from going on exchange for six weeks, was probably the most rewarding part of my six years spent studying German).

I just hope that this little experiment of mine generates the reward for effort that I’m hoping for. Realistically I’m probably only making enemies out of my students, and it could be many years before they realise the opportunity they had at high school to make the most of their English education, but I hope they appreciate it one day.

Ocassionally I have these uncomfortably postmodern experiences when I stumble across some beautifully manicured creature in cyberspace. Maybe it’s a blog, a photography portfolio, a delicately-worded Twitter post, or some drunken happy snap that flashes up for a few fleeting moments on my news feed in Facebook, but all it takes is a split-second and inevitably I am immediately overcome with pangs of excitement and jealousy.

Of course, it always involves a girl, always excruciatingly hip, yet always with a knowing eye to the nostalgic appeal of past eras (knitting, second-hand paperbacks, cycling); lists of preferred authors and artists so taut as to withstand even the most strenuous pretentious indie stress-test; and a geographical location that jumps off the screen with all sorts of signifiers attached: venues so underground they are literally underground in New York City, indescribably drunken nights out rubbing shoulders with the indie nomads of the world in London, the schizophrenic fashion of Tokyo.

Maybe it’s just the Photoshop talking, but then again, maybe you are so utterly compatible with this girl, you are convinced that if you could somehow just meet her, make eye contact, offer her a light, then she would instantly see in you the same  hypnotic and addictive qualities you see in her, because you are so clearly soul mates. You are convinced that this girl embodies everything you admire and yearn for in the opposite sex, and that just makes the truth all the more painful: she is so far away, so abstract, and you are, and always will be, so anonymous.

The final insult – and the fatal moment when one resigns himself back to the common existence of the real world – is the recognition of a repeated name upon the wall, a discreet hand around the waste or resting upon a knee in a photo, an ever-so-slightly too prominent link to an ever-so-suspiciously trendy blog…and with this inadvertent pattern recognition (the tell-tale signs of an unfathomably cool, probably superhuman significant other), and the realisation that these kinds of girls exist in a dimension utterly inaccessible to the likes of you.

These are the moments when one leans back from his desk and averts his gaze for a brief few seconds, and is transported from his regressive fantasy back into the world of bricks and mortar, of voices echoing from outside his door, of money and debt and obligation, and of real, tangible opportunity.