Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
For my thesis this year, I’m translating a section of Nasu Kinoko’s 1998 novel Kara no Kyoukai. Nasu is probably best known for writing Fate/Stay Night, the visual novel that sparked the now-massive Fate media franchise. Nasu is an interesting author whose works straddle the line between “serious” and “popular” literature—historically two very different categories, particularly in Japan. He’s somewhat similar to Murakami Haruki in this regard. Nasu is not, however, a particularly approachable author, and it can be difficult to understand the significance behind his recurring ideas and concepts without having read him widely. To help alleviate that, I’m going to use this post to briefly outline the central thematic conflict that informs all of Nasu’s work to date. For those who have already been exposed to Fate and/or Nasu’s other works, hopefully this will be enlightening. For the rest, it’s an introduction to an absolutely fantastic living author.
Nasu’s first major published work was the aforementioned Kara no Kyoukai. Kara no Kyoukai draws heavily on Taoist thought, starting with its title. Kara no Kyoukai literally translates to “Empty Boundaries” referencing the Taoist concept that distinctions between things are all ultimately psychological constructs and therefore nonexistent. The simplest way to explain this would be to ask, “How high is high?” We might look at a balloon soaring away and say it’s “high,” but there isn’t a clear threshold at which point it transitions from being “not high” to being “high.” Our distinction between “not high” and “high” is a relative, psychological one rather than a concrete one, and consequently Taoism holds that there is fundamentally no difference between something that is “high” and something that is “not high.”
This gets much more abstract, of course, with the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s writings containing phrases like “There is nothing in the world bigger than an autumn hair.” If you’re familiar with the relatively famous quotation about a Chinese philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly and then wondering whether he was actually a butterfly dreaming it was a philosopher, that also comes from Zhuangzi. When I say distinctions between things don’t exist, I do mean all distinctions, and not just the arbitrary ones. It amounts to an “everything is one” concept, though it’s not quite as simple as that distillation makes it sound.
Kara no Kyoukai is filled with paradox, with characters who are both alive and dead, shadows so novel they’re boring, outfits that are simultaneously traditional and Eastern and modern and Western. Nasu uses paradox to break down distinctions between things, forming a foundation of Taoist thought that runs underneath everything in the novel and that helps to establish who is “good” and who is “bad.” The characters who adhere strongly to rigid, Confucian societal structures are “bad,” or at least nearsighted, while the seemingly lazy, eccentric, whimsical characters who accept the world as it is and go where their natures take them are “good.”
Confucianism is consistently cast as a very bad thing in Nasu’s work. It roughly corresponds to the concept of materialism, though not so much materialism in the traditional capitalist sense as in the literal sense. In Nasu’s writing, a focus on the physical world and on societal approval is connected with moral and spiritual decay and often obscures the truth. The alternative to this, which usually uses Taoist or Buddhist concepts as something of an objective correlative, is a focus on the mind and on one’s internal world. Pursuing knowledge out of personal curiosity is good; pursuing knowledge for societal approval is bad. Collecting things for a love of the collection is good; collecting things out of a desire for material wealth is bad, and so on.
All of this holds true more-or-less throughout the Nasuverse. Nasu sometimes draws on Buddhist concepts or images in place of Taoist ones, but the concept of paradox holds strong, along with the sense that distinctions between things do not exist, and regardless of whether Buddhism or Taoism is the framing system of thought, Confucianism is thoroughly negative.
Connection to the Root
Nasu’s core thematic question, though, extends beyond this use of Taoist ideas. Rather, Nasu’s basis in Taoist thought is the framework against which his core internal debate is set.
Nasu’s works grapple thoroughly with existentialism, and particularly with the existential idea that there is no true underlying self. Existentialism holds that “existence precedes essence” which essentially means that individuals are defined entirely by how they act and that they are fully responsible for the actions they take. Individuals are free to take any actions whatsoever, and they are not bound by any externally or intrinsically imposed labels or identities. This leads to existential dread, which is the awareness that one can take any action, even if those actions have mortifying or unrealistic consequences. Imagine sitting in a crowded theater during a play and suddenly having the impulse to stand up and shout something to interrupt the show and draw everyone’s attention. You would never actually do it, but the awareness that you could is inexplicably terrifying. That’s existential dread.
Kara no Kyoukai in particular is a strongly anti-existential work. It insists that individuals do have fundamental, underlying selves and are therefore not entirely free to make decisions. It holds that existential dread is a false fear, as truly dreaded actions fall so far outside the underlying self that they are, in fact, impossible.
Kara no Kyoukai’s central conflict involves existential dread. One of the two protagonists, Ryougi Shiki, has violent thoughts and fears she will one day snap and become a murderer. The other protagonist, Kokutou Mikiya, insists that Shiki is not capable of doing so. Shiki espouses an existentialist view—that there is no underlying self, and that she is right to fear her own free will—while Mikiya holds the anti-existentialist view.
The novel ends up supporting Mikiya’s viewpoint, gradually deconstructing existentialism and building arguments for why it cannot be true. The novel ends with Mikiya meeting Shiki’s “underlying self” in a completely literal sense, and the underlying, fundamental personality informs Mikiya that the ordinary, projected Shiki he knows is nothing more than an outgrowth of the “real self” underneath.
After Kara no Kyoukai, though, Nasu’s writing began to exhibit signs of rethinking that view. Most of Nasu’s post-Kara no Kyoukai works have been divided into two halves, which Nasu refers to as “Near-side” and “Far-side” sections. The “Near-side” sections nearly always mirror Kara no Kyoukai, to the extent that some even reuse characters or names, and nearly all of them reuse concepts and plot beats. The “Near-side” sections espouse the same argument Kara no Kyoukai makes: that existentialism is wrong, and that individuals are bound to their underlying selves.
The “Far-side” sections, though, flip this. In the “Far-sides,” central characters strain against and often break from their underlying selves. Where in the “Near-sides,” the villains assert the non-existence of the self, the “Far-side” villains (typified by Fate/Extra CCC’s Sessyoin Kiara) strenuously insist there is a binding underlying personality and claim that attempts to break from that personality are futile.
Where the “near-sides” are deconstructions of existentialism, the subsequent “far-sides” are reconstructions. They accept as fact the arguments made in the “near-sides” and piece existentialism back together in spite of those arguments. Even if it is impossible to break away from one’s origin, it might be possible to change one’s origin. That sort of thing.
Interestingly, many of Nasu’s “Near-sides” were conceptualized very early in his writing career. With Fate/Stay Night, for example, Nasu had the “Near-side” planned even before he published Kara no Kyoukai, while the “Far-side” did not come into being until Nasu revisited the concept to turn it into a full visual novel. I think it is likely that Nasu’s views on existentialism have changed over time—that when he wrote Kara no Kyoukai he fully believed it’s ideas to be in the wrong, but that as time went on he grew less satisfied with his simplistic answer
The ongoing Fate/Grand Order is particularly notable in that it combines elements of both the “Near-side” and “Far-side” arguments. It is, in many ways, the synthesis to the thesis and antithesis that are the earlier arguments. It seems as if Nasu has come to something of a conclusion here—a way to break down the “distinction” between his existentialist and anti-existentialist works and to meld both philosophies into a cogent whole.
I will be interested to see whether Nasu moves on to a new set of thematic and conceptual ideas once he has finished with Cosmos in the Lostbelt, the current arc of Fate/Grand Order. With his existential question nearly resolved, he may be preparing to shift to a new topic.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting whatever he decides to write.
Over the weekend, I happened to watch the first three episodes of Persona 5: the Animation. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly (or if you know me well), you probably know that I think very highly of Persona 5, and you might be surprised that I’ve yet to watch the anime, but if anything my fondness for the original work led me to avoid the adaptation. Anime adaptations of books, games, and the like have a somewhat better track record than movie adaptations—which is mostly a product of having more screen time to work with—but they can still be sketchy.
The first three episodes of Persona 5’s adaptation are passable but not excellent. I don’t love the animation style, and the events of the show play out at a breakneck pace in order to keep up with the game, which can be confusing when watching. Rather than delving into weak adaptations, though, I’d like to examine a few adaptations that are especially strong in order to hopefully shed some light on what makes an adaptation successful.
The “simple” approach to making a strong adaptation is just to mirror the original work exactly. For a good example of this, look to The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, an adaption of the fourth book in the Haruhi Suzumiya series. Disappearance is the longest animated movie ever made (unless you count the long cut of the fourth Space Battleship Yamato movie, which wins out by a few seconds), and it uses its time to go more-or-less line by line through the novel. It’s an obsessively faithful adaptation, and it pairs this with a willingness to slow down and draw out moments of silence. As a result, it’s possibly my favorite movie period, just by virtue of being a faithful adaptation of a great novel.
It also uses Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie #1” in its score, which is always a plus.
The biggest weakness with Disappearance actually stems from its faithfulness to the original work—specifically, as it is an adaptation of the fourth book in a series, it isn’t particularly accessible to an audience unfamiliar with the earlier books. There’s an animated adaptation of the events leading up to Disappearance as well, and watching that solves the issue, but it does mean the movie doesn’t necessarily stand alone particularly well.
Persona 4: the Animation provides a more interesting example of a strong adaptation of an original work. Given the absurd length of the original Persona 4, the adaptation doesn’t have the luxury Disappearance does of adhering strictly to the original script. Unlike the early episodes of Persona 5, though, Persona 4 handles this transition smoothly, maintaining a good sense of pacing while still conveying the important points of the game’s story.
Persona 4 benefits from a director with a lot more experience, and it shows. Kishi Seiji has directed a wide range of truly excellent shows, from Angel Beats, to Hamatora, to Assassination Classroom. Kishi demonstrated a willingness with Persona 4 to break from the direct events and dialogue of the original game. This is a huge risk as far as adaptations are concerned, and even in the adaptations Kishi himself has directed it doesn’t always work—the Persona 3 movies do the same thing and generally fall flat, for example. For Persona 4, though, it works spectacularly.
Video games are somewhat more difficult to adapt as movies or animated series than books or comics are due to their player interaction and intrinsic non-linearity. In Persona 4 specifically, the player controls a silent protagonist for the duration of the game, which means the animated series needed to essentially develop a unique characterization for a blank-slate protagonist—named Narukami Yu in the anime—and then represent a wide swathe of the things a potential player could do on a given playthrough.
The early episodes of the anime are a bit bumpy, with the low-point being the episode that contains the character arcs for the minor characters Kou and Ai. Normally their character arcs would take place over the course of several in-game months, at the leisure of the player, and condensing them into a single episode is rather ineffective. In a sense, their stories are taken too literally, and they have a similar problem to the Persona 5 adaptation in that it moves much too quickly. Ai and Kou are both strong characters in the original game, but in the anime Ai comes across as extremely shallow (and annoying), while Kou ends up being pretty forgettable.
Fortunately, the show learns from its mistakes and avoids a repeat of that particular episode. Most of the anime focuses on the direct main plot elements from the game—which are generally well-executed, as is typical of Kishi’s work—but then at about the halfway point it revisits the side-story concept. Episodes 13 and 14 combined form a two-part episode: “A Stormy Summer Vacation.” This sequence roughly corresponds to the character arcs for a whopping five of the game’s minor characters, plus Nanako, the protagonist’s younger cousin. Rather than trying to squeeze the actual character stories from the game into this short timeframe, these episodes present an entirely unique story not present in the game itself. While this could have easily gone poorly, the result is probably my favorite part of the entire show—to the extent that I recommend those who play the game to also watch at least those two episodes just because of how fun they are.
The first of the two episodes is entirely from Nanako’s perspective. She sees Yu engaging in suspicious activities over his summer vacation, and she decides to dress up as Magical Detective Loveline, in reference to a fictional in-universe TV show. The episode has Nanako join with the other members of the Investigation Team (Persona 4’s main cast) to figure out what Yu is up to. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense initially, but Nanako is such a likable character pretty much any scene with her hanging out with the Investigation team has a wholesomeness it’s impossible to dislike.
The payoff, though, comes in the following episode, which shows the same period of a few weeks from Yu’s perspective. In the space of twenty-some minutes, the episode provides answers for all of the questions raised in the episode prior (many of which are hysterical) while also breezing through the five side-characters’ story arcs. Yu spends the weeks frantically racing back and forth between the five characters, helping them with their individual problems, all because he more-or-less is unable to say no to any of them.
The brilliance of these two episodes cannot be understated. While they are a thoroughly entertaining standalone story with no direct grounding in the original game, they actually represent the game better than a direct adaptation would. They capture the time-management element of the game’s Social Link system in a linear narrative format, which is quite impressive, and they provide important development for Nanako in particular that’s otherwise skimmed over in the service of advancing the show’s main plot beats. They also characterize Yu brilliantly, showing his desire to help others, his close relationship with Nanako, and (most importantly) his fabulous sense of humor.
Yu’s characterization is a triumph of the Persona 4 adaptation. His personality, while totally new to the anime, doesn’t feel out of place or overbearing—it’s entirely natural despite being entirely original. He’s still mostly a blank slate in that he has relatively little in terms of personal stakes, and his role is mostly as a facilitator for the development of the other characters, which is in keeping with the game. The anime brings an understated humor to this, though, that’s absolutely wonderful.
Yu is almost always straight-faced. His tone is level, and he’s exceptionally calm. This could easily lead to a boring or one-note character, but Persona 4 avoids this through a combination of irony and context. Yu often responds to situations with a hyper-serious melodrama that contrasts strongly with the mundane nature of most of Persona 4. While the anime should probably be classified as supernatural detective fiction, the meat of it is spent on the daily lives of its characters in the small town of Inaba. The protagonist’s universally stoic demeanor means he approaches murder investigations with the same projected sincerity as he brings to a summer afternoon spent fishing.
For a character with few facial expressions, he’s remarkably expressive, and it’s easy to tell whether his seriousness is genuine or feigned—what comes across in one context as intensity reads in another as amusement at the absurdity of daily life. Both types of situations earn his full attention and effort, but the emotion behind them is entirely different. For serious scenes, it feels as if Yu is meeting the plot with the appropriate degree of care, while in lighter scenes his melodrama both energizes the other characters and diffuses tension. His unflagging level of effort pushes the other characters on, while the self-aware silliness of it all keeps them from getting too caught up in their daily minutiae.
The end result of this is that Yu is a highly likable character. Two other characters—Yosuke and Naoto—still drive much of the plot, as they do in the game, but Yu becomes the emotional and thematic backbone for the rest of the cast, which mirrors the protagonist’s role in the game and doesn’t get in the way of the existing story.
The takeaway here is that if an adaptation doesn’t have the time or capability to be literally true to the original work, it can still work exceptionally well so long as any changes made stem from the purpose of the original. The summer episodes don’t come from the game, but they feel as if they could have. Their central conceits—Nanako’s precociousness and her affection for her cousin, Yu’s demanding schedule, the melodramatic urgency of the mundane—all stem directly from the original game. Similarly, while the protagonist’s personality is new to the anime, his role is nearly identical to that of the silent protagonist in the game, and his behavior and attitude are reflective of how many players approach directing his actions. As a result, he blends perfectly into the story despite being essentially a new addition.
When you look at other adaptations that change things from their source material and remain strong, you see a similar pattern. The Kara no Kyoukai films, for example, change a number of elements from the original novel, and yet all but one of them feel like faithful adaptations. They adhere to the concepts and thematic ideas behind the original work, and adapting for the screen becomes less a matter of directly converting the novel’s words to a visual medium and more a matter of creating a movie that embodies the heart of the work.
To go in the complete opposite direction, the Sword Art Online adaptation (which is widely panned and has turned many people off of ever looking at the books, sadly) makes a number of changes for entirely the wrong reasons. The adaptation focuses on providing a literal representation of the action of the novels while completely ignoring the thematic significance of everything that happens (most of which is contained in the novels’ narration). You’re left with what looks like a generic action series with characters who seem either too perfect (Kirito or Asuna) or whose motivations are confusing (such as the many female characters who have implied romantic connections to Kirito in the anime where no such relationship exists in the novels).
I would actually argue that thematic adherence is more important than complete matching of the literal elements of a work. Disappearance, for example, works not because it follows the book’s text directly, but rather because the book’s literal events are themselves largely metaphorical, and therefore representing them visually intrinsically covers the thematic purpose of the book. Where Sword Art Online’s narration is pivotal to understanding how its characters think and why they do what they do, Haruhi’s narrator often narrates contrary to how he feels, meaning the narration itself gives less thematic insight than the characters’ actions do. Haruhi’s narration characterizes the protagonist, but dialogue accomplishes the same purpose in Disappearance, and the meat of the work lies in the outward decisions the characters make over the course of the story.
I hope Persona 5’s adaptation gets better as it goes, but I’m not holding my breath. At least it isn’t offensively bad like Sword Art Online’s is. Enough of Persona 5’s thematic ideas are buried in its overt literal symbolism that even a direct-but-poorly-paced adaptation is likely to capture them passably. A weak-but-literally-accurate adaptation is preferable to one where changes are made that devalue the original work. Not every adaptation can be Persona 4.
The recent release of From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has sparked discussion about difficulty in video games. There's a lot that can be said about the topic -- and I've written about difficulty before -- but the conversation about Sekiro has me thinking about an unrelated and somewhat retro series: Touhou.
Touhou is an indie game series created by Ohta Junya (who goes by the pen name ZUN). It's a type of game called a "bullet hell," which (for the unfamiliar) is essentially an extreme version of old arcade space shooters like Galaga and Gradius. Touhou functions in essentially the same way as its arcade ancestors -- the screen scrolls continuously, and you control one character near the screen's edge as you dodge projectiles and shoot down enemies. Where Touhou differentiates itself from its predecessors is in its pace and resulting difficulty. As is characteristic of the genre, Touhou floods the screen with projectiles to the point where it's not uncommon for more of the screen to be filled with enemies than empty. Galaga's less crowded screens mean the game tends to rely more on snap reflexes, while Touhou play often centers on pattern recognition -- on learning enemy and projectile patterns and finding ways to reliably avoid incoming attacks. This is a useful skill when playing Galaga and the like as well, of course, but it's necessary for Touhou.
Touhou games are hard. I've only personally played the sixth game, Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil, and even playing on "normal" difficulty and using all available continues, I've never been able to beat the game. You might expect this to engender the sort of frustration many have reported experiencing with Sekiro, but for me, at least, it never has. Touhou is a series that can feel nearly impossible, and yet the difficulty rarely, if ever, comes across as annoying or unfair.
Touhou succeeds in this regard largely due to the implicit goals it sets. Touhou games are short, and when you lose, you have to start over from the beginning. These two factors combined mean losing is separated from failure. The goal when playing Touhou is not to win but rather to improve, which means losing is itself a valuable step in the process of learning to play the game. Similarly, beating the game is not an endpoint, as you can always try for a cleaner run or for a higher score.
Touhou's arcade-esque structure gives it a natural advantage in tackling this approach -- it's how the series "gets away with" being so dang hard. I see From Software as striving to apply this same core philosophy to a completely different type of game. The heart of Dark Souls (and presumably Sekiro) is not progression so much as building mastery. The games are good at this, no doubt, but they aren't perfect. Even with the focus on mastery, the games' sense of progression is still present and necessary. This isn't inherently problematic. Where games like these run into issues is when the progression-related and mastery-related goals come into conflict. After several hours of slamming your head against the wall that is a difficult boss fight, odds are you're going to get frustrated, even though you've likely gotten better at the game in that time.
This is especially true when the player just wants to move on with the game. For example, when the player is at the very end of the game, and the final boss is the only thing standing in the way of the satisfaction that comes with completion. Regardless of your stance (if you have one) regarding players cheating through Sekiro's endgame, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this cheating is happening. I understand and mostly agree with the sentiment that cheating in a game like Sekiro undermines the purpose and vision behind the work, but at the same time, the apparent prevalence of this behavior means there's a disconnect between Sekiro's reward systems and its difficulty. Mastery-based motivation works easily in games that are structured like Touhou. It's much more difficult to strike the necessary balance between mastery and progression in a game where overall progression actually matters. It's possible to get it right, and From Software consistently gets really close, but I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. It's something developers need to be cognizant of, and it's likely a case where extensive playtesting is necessary to make sure it works as intended.
...On a tangentially related note, I can't go through a whole post that's (partially) about Touhou without bringing up its music. There's a jazz band I'm quite fond of called Tokyo Active Neets that's done a number of covers of music from the series. It's top-notch stuff, and I've linked one of their renditions of "Shanghai Teahouse" below -- check it out, if you get a chance.
Yoshimori Makoto is probably not a composer you've heard of. As anime composers go, his list of credits is not especially long -- his best known scores are for Baccano! and Durarara!! -- but he is nonetheless exceptionally talented. To demonstrate why, I'd like to provide a few pieces from my favorite score of his: Hamatora.
I often cheekily describe Hamatora as a show about detectives with OCD superpowers. One character can move really fast while snapping his fingers in time to music, while another gains super strength any time he pushes his glasses up, for example. The first half of the show suffers from spotty plotting and mixed visuals, but it has a lot of style and the setup is great. By the time the studio Lerche takes over for the latter half, Hamatora is a true tour-de-force. The members of the Hamatora Detective Agency -- Nice, Murasaki, Hajime, Birthday, Ratio, and so on -- start as cheeky buddy-cop-style characters but grow across the whole work into compelling character arcs that address a wide range of weighty themes. Taken as a whole it's among my favorite animated series. Highly recommend.
That said, while Hamatora has a number of strengths, its music stands as its highlight. It is both eclectic and unified, spanning a range of styles while still maintaining a consistent jazzy vibe that runs underneath the tone of the whole show. It's really good stuff, and I've attached links to a few of the pieces below.
The Streets of Gold City:
Do or Die
Nagatsuki no Waltz
A Final Showdown
The most striking thing about much of Hamatora's soundtrack, I think, is how it manages to be simultaneously experimental and listenable. These five tracks are far from the weirdest the show's score gets, but even within them you have elements of unusual timbre, rhythm, and (at times) pitch. "Do or Die," for example is full of technical components that are highly uncommon for what is essentially a violin feature. The violin's introduction is a screeching and barely parsable glissando, and it transitions into a brief section that features chopping, a bowing technique designed to create a harsh, percussive sound. This is rare even in harmony lines -- for a featured, solo violinist to dedicate several measures to pure rhythm is quite strange.
And yet, in spite of all this, it just works. Yoshimori doesn't ask you to work to understand the strange compositional tools he's using. Experimental music is often distracting in its strangeness -- look at Kakegurui's score for a comparison -- but Hamatora's music has the "feel" of standard jazz. "A Final Showdown" is an ostinato in mostly seven that's frequently covered by completely atonal string-fueled sounds, but it's not difficult to listen to in the slightest. It's weird, but still fun.
Last week I brought up (in the context of poetry) how obscurity can keep experimental work from being truly great. "Yata MisaKi" was an example of a fascinating experimental work that pushes somewhat too far and becomes impossible to comprehend as a result. Yoshimori's music -- particularly in Hamatora -- is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It is experimental and yet approachable, and it completely avoids the trap of being too obscure to enjoy. He employs dissonance in a way that doesn't feel dissonant. He blends recordings of laughter into his music in a way that makes intuitive sense to the listener. One of Hamatora's pieces is a duet written for piano and slide whistle of all things. It's all bizarre, but it doesn't feel bizarre, and it's completely and totally brilliant.
If you get a chance to listen to the whole score, definitely do so. It's divided into two parts, one for each half of the show: the first is "Soup with Columbus's Egg," and the second is "Everyone Has It!" It's really good stuff.
2012 produced a fairly strange and mostly obscure anime series called K. Its reception was generally mixed, and although I like it quite a bit most of its value rests on its aesthetics -- stylish art, likable-if-flat characters, and (most importantly) a truly phenomenal score. Endo Mikio is not exactly a well-known composer -- K is basically the only notable thing he's done -- but the sound of K's score is super distinct and remains a go-to playlist when I need inspiration to think creatively. It's good "writing" music.
Most of K's score is instrumental, using primarily strings, piano, and light percussion, but there's one track within it that stands out as particularly unique. The piece, called "Yata MisaKi," would probably be classified as a rap, although I feel that genre to be somewhat of a poor descriptor. It's almost more like a spoken word poem, or perhaps a beat poem. It lacks the structure and driving rhythm rap tends to have, and the music serves as more of a tonal background for the words than as a true foundation for the piece. The poetry of the work comes out even written down on the page, though, and it's quite evocative if nothing else. I've provided the lyrics here for you to read:
A long day's night training
Shou toll plumber pasta bowl
Incognito shimedgy fortinero, shibby da
Sword genkai gamera brain
Wielding trucks, decks
Switching and grinding
The tourists with the digi and a camera flash
Crisp roasted garlic bread breath
Slaw limmer bomb hills
Riding the sneaks, he sneakers
The ramps and empty pools
This looks like a blunt wielding,
Speedy and chest bamboo
Café smoking papers
Bunker buster buster bonk headbutt
Stone, silly, stupid, brown and cupid
I'll rush in kitchen stadium puppets
Human daisha michibata shimagaki wax
Makita whack chasers.
Chocolatey smooth grip
Java street script
With sunny side banana split
Your best necks like guitars that use
Diffuse, stro molotov cocktails
Against the agnostic atheists, we are trying to save the whales.
AHABS, that mitt, black dragon
Emerald Lieutenant, predator vests
Fashion, liquid mercury
Surf on concrete
Terminating Monday hangovers with rice spirits and ceramic bearings
For all your Mabus
The wild fang pitching the two seamless
Judo brats leaving a strange look in your face
Don't break me, that's years of bad luck
Stuffed porcelain pork
That's what hammers are for
5-6, 360 back to dog's town
The dragon's dungeon, plungin'
If you are what I left out
And other types of paradoxical crossword puzzles
Scramble the backsides of the one God's fee I trust
Cross-eyed, tongue bow-tied, moth balls for raw kiss
Skid marks all over the walls
Street paper maché
Ash trays made from college degrees trying to be free
Don't get me wrong I bong bost the foot clan too
That's emperor's English
Street dodger, dunking dog-catcher nets
Knowledge distiller du vais villa
Season, fabulous Idaho
How she can see lazy boy forget chips
Crown Athlete Manuel Chuck Wagons
Chuckles and Sniggers
Always playin' it close
Not one to boast
Rocking to make sure my hammerhead stays afloat
Cowboy boy soil
Round up, grip tank
Sandy beach sunsets to sunrise, Vay-Cay
Caramel and peanuts
Blue cows ski, skates souls
Grinding, flip tricks
Kicks and pay day
Kick, push, play
Before the nonsense English leads you to write this off as an April Fool's joke (the timing is coincidental, I swear), take a moment to appreciate how crazy impressive this piece is from a craft standpoint. Setting aside the meaning issue, the actual technical elements of this work are highly impressive. Let's just start with this one stanza:
Chocolatey smooth grip
Java street script
With sunny side banana split
Your best necks like guitars that use
Diffuse, stro molotov cocktails
Against the agnostic atheists, we are trying to save the whales."
The stanza builds up a complex series of aural and semantic associations even without creating a clear or comprehensible meaning. Conscientious leads aurally into Chocolatey, while Chocolatey provides a color association with Java, which is semantically related to sunny and banana. Smooth, after Chocolatey, sets up the alliteration found in later lines with "street script" and "sunny side banana split." Sunny and banana split are themselves associated terms. The blue Java banana is also called the ice cream banana, which again ties the terms together semantically. The word split prepares us for the harsh enjambment of use with diffuse, which itself dissolves all of the associations that have been built throughout the stanza in order to allow for the next set of ideas to build.
The work also makes frequent use of paradox, starting with its first line: "A long day's night training." The confusion of day and night is not original to this piece, of course, but it immediately establishes the semantic impossibility that flows throughout the whole work. Paradox as a concept returns again and again, with lines like "Surf on concrete" -- presumably a reference to skating but a literal impossibility nonetheless -- and "rocking to make sure my hammerhead stays afloat," which has two paradoxes: the first is that rocking a boat would usually sink it rather than keep it floating, while the second is that a hammerhead should either sink (if it's a literal hammer's head) or swim (if it's a hammerhead shark). The work isn't just nonsensical, it's deliberately nonsensical -- which is to say, it isn't random words thrown together, it's words put together in ways that should be completely impossible by conventional semantic measures. It's as if someone expanded the classic meaningless phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" into a full-length poem.
It has shades of Lewis Carroll, I think, and of Literary Nonsense more broadly. Literary Nonsense is not nonsense because it is meaningless but rather because it has so much inbuilt meaning no overarching thread emerges. Yata MisaKi operates similarly in that it toys with language and association in really interesting ways, but it's extraordinarily difficult -- if not impossible -- to determine what the piece is about.
There are certain concepts and ideas that do jump out as perhaps being more significant, though. A few ideas are repeated or referenced multiple times. The first stanza ends with "Switching and grinding" while the last begins with "Ginding, flip-tricks," for example. Similarly, the lines "Café smoking papers" and "Ash trays made from college degrees trying to be free" convey nearly the same idea. The work also draws attention to certain lines -- such as the ash trays one -- by inserting longer, comprehensible thoughts in the middle of the apparent word salad that makes up most of the work. These longer phrases often follow patches of short, isolated nouns and adjectives, which means lines like "And other types of paradoxical crossword puzzles" immediately seem more important if only because they're less obviously nonsense.
Unfortunately, these emphasis points don't themselves create any clear or obvious meaning, and any guess I could make as to the message of the work would, I think, be reading too deeply into certain lines without accounting for others. For all the care that went into crafting this poem, its meaning remains frustratingly opaque (which is why most people write it off as nonsense). I don't claim to know what the purpose of this work is, although I'm fairly confident there's supposed to be something behind it.
The one thing I will say, though, is that it reminds me of a certain style of classical Japanese poetry: specifically, renga, or linked verse. Renga is a style of poetry where poems are written in halves, with each new section of poem forming a "complete" five-line poem when added to the section before. Imagine a poem that goes ABCDE, where each letter represents a stanza. AB would form a complete poem. BC would also form a complete poem, with a distinct meaning from AB. CD would be a distinct poem, and DE would be yet another, and so on. The "point" of Renga is to add a new ending such that the prior stanza takes on a different meaning from what it meant in context of the poem prior.
An example of this may be helpful, so here are a few sections from "A Hundred Stanzas by Three Poets at Minase" (translated by Earl Miner).
Despite some snow
the base of the hills spreads with haze
the twilight scene
where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plumb flowers
In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color
day break comes on distinctly
with sounds of punted boat
Earl Miner. Japanese Linked Poetry. 1st Princeton Paperback ed. Princeton, NJ. 1980. Print paperback.
So, for clarity, this would be a complete poem:
"Despite some snow
the base of the hills spreads with haze
the twilight scene
where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plumb flowers"
As would this:
"where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plumb flowers
In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color"
And as would this:
"In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color
day break comes on distinctly
with sounds of punted boat"
"Yata MisaKi" has somewhat similar in the way it operates, although it does it in even smaller pieces. Most words or phrases in the piece have two meanings: one in context of what precedes it, and one in context of what follows. In this respect it resembles Renga, more a combination of micro-poems than one complete work.
Reflections on Obscurity
The issue "Yata MisaKi" and works similar to it run into is this: if your work is so strange almost no one can understand it, is it still good? There are certainly examples of mostly-inscrutable works that are nonetheless excellent -- look to Tom Stoppard for some great examples of this -- but at what point have you pushed too far? I really like "Yata MisaKi" but it probably falls into the "too far" category, unless it's just meant to be an exercise in form and nothing else. Perhaps by divorcing itself from meaning it forces a renewed attention on sound and style, or perhaps it's meant as a commentary on meaninglessness... but whatever it's trying to do, it's not clear.
Experimental works can be really cool when they work well. I have no problem with an author or composer asking me to work to understand something, but there comes a point where a work passes beyond "intriguing" and drops firmly into "confusing" territory. The line is fuzzy, and something can be too obscure well still having elements of value, but even in a work where the meaning is intentionally unclear there should be at least an identifiable purpose or concept behind the work. "Yata Misaki" is brilliantly constructed, but I have no idea what it's trying to do, and in that respect, at least, it does not succeed.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition