Monday, March 28, 2011

New Review: Rieko Matsuura's "The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P"

Good evening once again my friends. I come to you once more to redirect you to another review I wrote, since I'm just everywhere on the internet these days; this time it's the cult '90s bestseller The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P by Rieko Matsuura, and translated by Michael Emmerich, which I wrote for the newly revamped Chin Music Press blog.

Matsuura is an interesting figure in the Japanese literature community. I have the Japanese edition of her latest novel Kenshin, another "transformation" type book, only this time someone turns into a dog. I haven't read it yet, or even looked at it really, but it did win the Yomiuri Prize, which is a pretty big deal. She is also (according to her Japanese Wikipedia page) an avid (female) pro-wrestler fan.

As for other bitlits, I don't know if anyone looks at my Twitter feed (I'm totally on Twitter, you guys! Follow me!), but you may or may not have noticed that the cover for the US edition of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 has been revealed and it's pretty awesome. Chip Kidd (who designs a lot of awesome book covers) talks about the design of it here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

New Review: Kotaro Isaka's "Remote Control"

Hello internauts. Just a quick announcement that I have a new book review at the Three Percent website. It's Kotaro Isaka's Remote Control, which was originally called "Golden Slumber" in the Japanese, based on the Beatles' song of the same name.

I've talked about Kotaro Isaka here before a little bit ("Golden Slumber"/Remote Control was actually one of the books my Japanese teacher recommended to me to read), and I've even translated him a little bit for fun (Accuracy of Death seems like a much easier sell for foreign audiences, what with this goth/death renaissance we're having in pop lit. right now). He seems like he has some interesting books and is a promising young writer; though Remote Control wouldn't normally be my cup of tea I found myself caught up in it nonetheless. Nothing groundbreaking, but a very enjoyable read.

A sad bit of coincidence though: The novel takes place in Sendai, and I finished writing the review for it just two days before the earthquake and tsunami hit Sendai in real life. So if you haven't yet, be sure to donate to your organization of choice - just be careful of scams. I went with the Red Cross, myself.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bungakukai: a Japanese Literary Magazine

Today I got my hands on a number of recent issues of the literary magazine Bungakukai. According to the great and powerful Wikipedia, it is one of the top five most prestigious literary journals of Japan, the others being Gunzo, Shincho, Subaru, and Bungei. I'd only heard of Gunzo before because I've read about Haruki Murakami being published in it.

It is very much like an American literary journal, but a bit larger than the ones I've come across - it's a good 340 pages (for instance, Glimmer Train comes in at a little over 200; Paris Review certainly felt smaller when I held it in my hands at the bookstore a few weeks ago). It has short stories, poetry, serialized parts of longer novels, interviews, and essays. Also, they all have the same type of cover - that of large, scary-looking sculptures of various animals with the same zombie bugged out eyes.

Another cool thing about Bungakukai, especially in comparison to American literary journals, is that it comes out monthly. Not quarterly, or trimester-ly. I have no clue how well these magazines sell or how easy it is find them when in bookstores (I never thought to look for them when I was in Japan) but you would think that they're a bit more popular than our American counterparts.

Here in front of me I have the newest issue, that is, April 2011. There's some interesting stuff here, and a lot of names I recognize. The following is just a small portion of what it has to offer:

  • The "headline" so to speak is a new novel(la?) by Yoshimoto Banana called Juujuu ("Sizzle sizzle") - described as taking place at a steak house in Shitamachi. It's advertised as being 200 pages, but takes up only 60 in the journal - but each page has two columns so maybe that translates to 200 regular, paperback sized pages.
  • There's also a part of a serialized novel (part 11) by Masahiko Shimada  called 傾国子女Keikokushijo ("Prostitute children"?)
  • A conversation between Itoi Shigesato (essayist and Earthbound creator!) and Genichiro Takahashi called (maybe this is not what the Japanese is going for, but it sounds right to me, and also hilarious) "To 'Sayonara', or not to 'Sayonara': 30 Years of Japan and After." Described as: "The first dialogue between two people who together washed away the limelight of the '80s and ran through 30 years of Japan." I think this has something (everything) to do with the live tweet marathon Takahashi did at Itoi's office to promote his latest volume of literary criticism called "Sayonara, Japan: Japanese Novels 2."
There's of course, much much more, but these are the things that jump at me, since these are the names I can recognize in Japanese.

Still, pretty neat, yeah? Maybe I'll do this again with some of my other volumes. Let me know if any of you out there are even interested.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vertically Challenged: What's Going On With the J-Lit Scene in America

About a week and a half ago on February 24th, I saw through my Twitter feed that Vertical Inc., one of the only publishing houses devoted to Japanese literature and non-fiction was being bought out by Kodansha and Dai Nippon Printing. (You can see the original article at Publisher's Weekly). Then, a few days ago, the Japan Times reported that Kodansha International (unfortunately, the other publishing house for J-lit) was shutting down entirely.

Needless to say I was shocked and flummoxed. My initial thought was, Shit, that's bad news. But also really dumb - why would Kodansha acquire someone if they knew they were going under? Of course, that's what you get for not reading the words carefully: Kodansha International, a subsidiary of Kodansha was shutting down, not the parent company itself.

Also part of this deal is that Kodansha is starting a new manga line called Kodansha Comics, which will reacquire the rights to the titles put out by Del Rey, including, I imagine, critical (and personal) favorites Genshiken and Nodame Cantabile. Will we be seeing new reissues of these manga? Dunno. But it might be cool if they did with some deluxe packaging or new odds-and-ends. Vertical will continue to put out their classic and cult manga like their Tezuka properties which is nice, because their art design is pretty damn spiffy.

Honestly, the news that Vertical has been bought out actually brings me some sense of relief. Don't get me wrong; it sucks that Kodansha International is no more. They were the first to publish Haruki Murakami as well as more contemporary fare like Kotaro Isaka's Remote Control - which I suppose is now officially the last piece of fiction they're publishing before shutting their doors.

BUT, Vertical has been struggling for a long time. And for a while, Vertical was the tops. Obviously, I am a little biased towards them - they put out Sayonara, Gangsters for God's sake. Do I have to tell you again how it is one of my favorite books ever, or that Genichiro Takahashi is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors? But even beyond that, they've put out novels by other important and popular contemporary writers like Kaori Ekuni, Koji Suzuki, Randy Taguchi, etc. etc. etc. In fact, if you look at the numbers, according to the Translation Database upheld by Open Letter Books, in 2008 Vertical put out 10 of the 23 Japanese language fiction books, and only 1(!!!) of 15 in 2010. Big drop. For a little bit, Vertical was looking to be a very important player in the J-lit scene.

But that was years ago now. Lately, all they put out is manga, and even before then, they focused a little more on genre fiction than straight-up literature. So, even if Vertical will still be in charge of the artsy manga while Kodansha Comics puts out the popular stuff, there's a very good chance that Kodansha International's death will be Vertical Inc.'s rebirth, at least from a literary fiction stand-point. I sure hope that's the case. We can't being losing both of the only two Japanese-centric presses...right?

The other issue with J-lit right now is what's going on with the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (note that a lot of that info is out of date now), who yes, are holding a translation contest at this moment, but whose online presence has grown to almost nil (the translation contest is literally the ONLY info you can get on the JLPP website right now). Read Japan, which sounds basically like the JLPP in function and scope, might help bring more J-lit in English translation, but they have yet to announce any projects. The JLPP is an integral part to getting more Japanese literature on US shelves, but have been steadily declining in titles over the years, according to the research by David Jacobson at Chin Music Press (a great article that you should look at and that I've used for a lot of the research in this here article).

Anyway, it doesn't look great, but hopefully things will be turning around, and Vertical will keep on keepin' on (particularly with more non-genre literature please).

(P.S. - It might be a little unfair to call Vertical and Kodansha International the only Japanese centric presses. Stone Bridge Press is also pretty Japan-centric, and have a number of titles I'm interested in reading, including In the Pool. Tuttle and Chin Music Press also have vested interests in Japan, and then, of course, there are the big presses and the (few) big names. Basically, I think all publishers should show a larger interest in Japanese literature, but obviously my opinions are totally biased. It also made me realize how all of these presses have to sell non-fiction/manga/miscellany/classics to support their forays into contemporary literary fiction, which is too bad, but that's the business.)

UPDATE: I just checked the JLPP website and they seem to be up and running full speed ahead again - they even have a list of their work up! List looks great too... some really interesting stuff that I hope publishers will pick up.)