Too Many Prizes: España, aparte de mi estos premios by Fernando Iwasaki – A Review

España, aparte de mi estos premios (Spain, Besides Me These Prizes) by Fernando Iwasaki is a very Spanish novel, one whose humor and satire is directed at the literary prizes that fill Spain’s literary scene and Spanish customs as if they were carried out by the Japanese.  The affect is often humorous for one who knows Spanish culture and he manages to create a parody that is often insightful, although a little  repetitive.

The book is structured around 7 literary contests. Each chapter, which is a self contained story, is prefaced by the rules of the contest, followed by the story, and then the results of the judging panel. It is helpful to know before going any farther that Spain has more literary prizes per capita than any other country, so many that it seems as if everyone has one a prize, even if they are from the most obscure organizations. The contests are meant to celebrate whatever body is sponsoring the award, some are nationalist such as the prize for the best story that celebrates Basque food, others are completely ridiculous, such as the Seville soccer team that sponsors a prize for a story that must include something about the team.

The stories all feature at least one Japanese person who has some sort of link with Spain. In the first story, a Japanese soldier in the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War hides in a cave in Murcia for 70 years until he makes a sudden appearance on a Survivor like reality show that takes place in a cave, killing several of the contestants with his samurai sword. At first he is treated as a criminal, but when he is found to be a veteran the parties of the left celebrate him as a heroic veteran and he becomes a national phenomenon. Books about him become best sellers and the media follow him 24 hours a day, showing him when he falls into a coma, on TV on a live feed. He is given awards by the local government for his service. When he wakes from the coma and learns about the last 60 years of history he commits suicide. On finding that he has written hundreds of haikus in the cave, the local government is quite happy because they can now build an amusement park of Japaneses tourists.

The story then ends with the judging. As with all the stories, the story wins, but the judges note that the story has not really celebrated the group’s interests and has only set the story in Spain. For next years contest, they would like the ability to not have a winner, something that is specifically outlawed in the rules of the contest.  In latter stories, the judges will complain that the story had almost nothing to do with the sponsoring organization. In the story about the soccer team in Seville, the story actually celebrates the team rival.

Iwasaki uses these frame stories to make fun of contemporary society and its obsessions. Whether skewering reality TV shows, molecular gastronomy, soccer fanatics, governments only interested in looking good, or the vanity of literary prizes Iwasaki is able to paint a telling portrait of modern Spain. Mixing in the Japanese characters allows him to both show the history of the Japanese in Spain, and to offer the outsider’s view of Spain. While the Japanese act in the same extremes of national character that his Spaniards do, the ludicrous things that become nationally celebrated, such as frying sushi leftovers in oil and serving that only, raise the question, why is this Spanish thing we do so celebrated? If someone use shrimp shells, as one character does, to create flan, is that breaking some sacred culinary tradition and is the opposite, fried sushi leftovers, actually more pure because of its simplicity?

Iwasaki, like a good parodist, doesn’t give any answers, but it is obvious he thinks that the culture of literary prizes has gone to far. At the end of the book, he gives several commandments for creating stories:

The stories that you send to the contest will never be important to the history of literature. In reality, not even for literature.

Los cuentos que envíes a los concursos nunca serán importantes para la historia de la literatura. En realidad, ni siuiera para la literatura.

Write a story that can be like a literary mother cell that you can clone for every contest. Don’t worry. Clones always are better than the original.

Escribe un cuento que sea como una <<célula madre>> literaria que puedas clonar para cada concurso. No te preocupes. Los clones siempre salen mejores que le orininal.

If you characters are going to be divorced, make the divorce happen before the story starts. People don’t like it when you only write about problems. In addition, four out of five literary judges are divorce or soon will be.

Si tus personajes van a estar divorciados, procura que el divorcio se haya producido antes de que comience el cuento. La gente ya lo está pasando muy mal para que encima tú sólo escribas sobre problemas. Además, cuatro de cada cinco miembros de jurados literarios están divorciados o les falta poco.

My only complaint in an other wise fun book is the repetitiveness of some of the stories. Every story includes a passage about the Japanese soldier that was found on a Pacific island in he 1970s who didn’t know the war ended. While that statement fits within his overall parody and his notion of the mother cell, it practice it is a little tiresome. If he could have found a different way to approach the idea it would have been better.

Over all, España, aparte de mi estos premios is a fun read by one of Spain’s newer generation of writers. I’m sure the book will never make it into translation because it is not universal enough, it would good to see one of the chapters in a collection some day.

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater – A Review

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater
Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is a beautiful book about the art of Manga Kamishibai, a precursor to manga, and a phenomenon that lasted for only about 30 years in Japan before succumbing to the powers of television. Manga Kamishibai is the art of story telling using a series of pre-drawn comic panels of about 12 x 12 inches to entertain and later educate. The Kamishibai men would set up in a park or public space in Tokyo or other big city and entice the local children to come see the show. They would sell the kids candy, which is how they made their money, and then would narrate the adventure described on the cards. The men would use different voices and act out the stories, keeping the children entertained with a hybrid of theater and comics. It was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that disappeared with the coming of TV and after school study sessions that left children with little free time.

The art runs the gamut from western movie inspired work, to more traditionally Japanese styles. However, they all have a comic sensibility with broad strokes instead of fine detail which made it easier for the audience to see the drawings. The stories were a mix of super heros, such as the Golden Bat who looks more like Superman with a skull for a head, and samurai tales. The stories will last about 20-40 stills and each week, and like the Saturday serials in the US the stories would change rapidly to insure the kids would continue to come. At its height before the WWII, there  were 100’s of Kamishibai men and near 40 studios producing the slides.

The book also has a chapter on Kamishibai during WWII when it was converted into propaganda. The charactures of the evil Americans is somewhat funny. They all look like Alex Guiness in Bridge on the River Kwai. The focus of the propaganda was to tell the Japanese that the Americans were brutal savages who took no prisoners. At the beginning of the war, the Kamishibai told of Japan’s great victories, but as the war began to go badly the Kamishibai switched to an educational focus and explained how to fight fires and other civil defense matters, most of which were useless against fire bombing. Unfortunately, during the fire bombing many of the Kamishibai publishers were destroyed along with the art work. After the war, the US used the Kamishibai men to spread the new changes that were coming to Japan.

Eric Nash’s text makes for interesting reading and Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is more than just a pictures of comics, but a cultural history of a little know element of Japanese culture.

Departures – A Review

Departures is a movie for crying if the tears streaming down the faces of several women in the audience is any indication. While the movie is about undertakers, it is really about family and the search for the healing when a family falls apart. The film follows Daigo a cellist who is laid off from his job and takes a new job in his village of birth as an undertaker. For western audiences undertaker here means someone who washes, dresses, and makes up the body as the family watches. It is very ritualized and as they do the washing the film suggests there is not so much a closure but a briefest healing for the families. At first Daigo is the reluctant novice, but he soon learns he has a talent for the job and begins to like the ritual of it. As he begins to understand the job more and how important it is for the families to see him clean the body, his family and friends distance themselves from him. Yet he perseveres and when those same families and friends see him wash the bodies of their loved ones they understand how important he is to the process of taking care of the dead. In addition to the families who watch him work, Daigo is also trying to come to terms with his father who abandoned him when he was just a boy. It was so long ago he can not even remember him.

The power in the film is located in continual sense of healing, of the families who have been arguing about the death, suddenly seeing the loved one as they were or as the family wants to remember the loved one. The grief is naturally hard on the families but the under takers, but the ritual is calming not only in the sense that the family sees a new the loved one, but the grief becomes part of the ritual which in turn becomes part of the ritual of life. From the sense of healing Daigo and the other undertakers become part of life cycle of the town they live in and as much as the film is about the dead it is about the rituals about the every day. It is not by chance that Diago has to leave Tokyo to find the calmer rhythms of a Japan from the past. Ultimately, when Diago resolves the issues with his father not only is there the same healing for him that he has seen with the families, but the course of life has made its natural progression. To compare Departures to a Japanese tea ceromony or the care taken in flower arangements might be over stating it, but the movie leaves one with that sense of tranquility and suggest while that ritural and tranquilty may not end grief it helps.

Scenes from Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s From A Drifting Life

Words Without Borders has a short section from the Manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s new book From A Drifting Life, which is forthcoming from Drawn and Quarterly. As usual, Tatsumi mixes a bit of manga history with everyday life in Japan after the war. Even if you don’t read graphic novels, it is interesting.