May 13, 2008

Well, various bleak things anyway. Don’t know why I put myself through them, really.


I’m in a phase (that I’ll very shortly be out of it, ref the whole bleak thing) of reading Japanese fiction, and the only real reason I can think of is that I’m trying to find a kind of idealised Japanese cyberpunk thing I can immerse myself into. For my mind, this ideal is a Blade Runner environment salted with the early, capsule-hotel/mad-tech/Chiba City-inspired elements of Neuromancer and seasoned with Cayce’s fleeting, surreal visit to Japan in Pattern Recognition. Trouble is, I can’t find anything like this anywhere. And why are so many Japanese to English translations so bloody flat?

Digressing. Out and Grotseque, by Natsuo Kirino.


Out was interesting. It’s the story of a quartet of Japanese women who work the soul-deadening nightshift at a lunchbox factory, preparing prepackaged lunches for the hungry Tokyo masses… probably a uniquely Japanese concept since we don’t have anything like that here. They have insipid, squalid, nihilistically boring lives and one of them snaps, killing her husband after she finds out he’s gambled away their life savings. Without anywhere else to go, she asks her friends at the factory to help, for money and favours, and they do, dismembering the body and getting rid of it. But one of them, who is pressed into body-part-disposal service very much against her will, doesn’t hide the head very well and things begin to fall apart. Cue an utterly psychotic Japanese mobster who indirectly loses his business concerns because of the murder, a police investigation and, bizarrely, a woman who develops a taste for what she’s done and finds that there’s money in the body disposal business…

It’s noir, it’s dark, it’s grim, it’s miserable and it’s full of sad, brittle, broken characters whose ennui and hopelessness keep them endlessly tottering on the brink. And some most of them fall. Depressing, true, but the twists keep coming and some of them are truly out of left field. Thus: cautiously recommended.


Grotesque, on the other hand, is not. “Cool, angry and stylish,” it says on the tin. Uh-uh. Ostensibly the story of two women who descend into prostitution on the mean streets of Japan and eventually get murdered, it takes forever to get going — endless boring crap about school lives and dysfunctional families and >>yawwwwnnn<< — and then meanders to a creeping, boring halt. Yes, the lives of prostitutes are horrible; yes, the world is a bad place; yes, bad things happen to innocent people.

But it could have been interesting, and it’s not. It’s cluttered with the trivia and minutiae of the lives of schoolgirls and boring nerds and sad, sad people and it doesn’t work. I found myself skipping great chunks of it just to find something actually happening, rather than people just talking about existential grief and the crapness of their lives and how little fun it is to sell yourself for ¥500 or whatever. Frankly, a complete waste of the three hours of my life I took to skim-read this drivel. Sigh.


Autofiction and Snakes And Earrings, by Hitomi Kanehara


Autofiction: more bleakness. Yea, verily? Indeed, although a much shorter book and interlaced with a nicely psychotic turn from the protagonist, who basically goes insane with jealousy whenever one of her paramours disappears out of her sight. The story runs backwards, beginning on a plane when she is returning from a second honeymoon and her husband disappears into the toilet (she thinks he’s shagging the stewardess and her mental state spirals downwards from there) back through three instances of her history as the reasons for her chaotic mindstate are quite eloquently revealed. There isn’t a great deal of closure but it was at least interesting, with the authorial voice quite compelling throughout. Again: cautiously recommended. -ish.

Snakes And Earrings is much better, possibly because it touches upon my idealised cyberpunk Japan as wistfully noted early in this entry. It’s a short piece, a little over a hundred pages, and the author’s first novel: according to the inner jacket blurb she left school at age eleven, started writing at fifteen and fired off her stories to her father who translated for them for publication. If that’s true, it works: it reads very autobiographical and very much the seedy, countercultural side of Japan, with a nod towards the Harajuku Girls and a sordid wink at Cronenbergish body modification horrors, albeit realistic ones (yay, split tongues!). It’s about body piercing, physical mods and the strange, twisted lives of those who live in this culture — and how they end. There isn’t a lot of hope in it, but in this case that works well: a short, punch piece like this is defined by environment and characterisation and they shine through like the edge of a razor blade. Definitely a good read, this one.


Finally, still in Bleak Genre but well out of Japan, we have a film: Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King novella The Mist:


The Mist



Darabont did two of the best Steve King adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Here’s his opportunity to cut loose a little and just make a balls-out horror film, and he did it in style. The Mist is about what happens to a little Maine community when a mysterious fog envelops the town, trapping most of the residents in the supermarket, who then find out that bloodthirsty monsters lurk in the bleary white world without. As per usual when people are put in a confined space and forced to try to get along to survive, it invariably turns into disaster.

The special effects are marvellous (although people really aren’t just thin balloon-skins of meat with hundreds of gallons of high-pressure blood waiting to spurt beneath it… however since I’m quite happy to see blood and guts in a movie I’m prepared to overlook this, and indeed even encourage it), the acting is more than acceptable (occasionally a little over the top or wooden, but that’s often a problem with Stephen King writing as source material: his dialogue doesn’t always translate well into what someone would really say), and the inexorable rising of the horror and despair is deftly handled.

And then there’s the ending, which… let’s just say that in the novella, King left things rather open. This doesn’t. It’s one of the most brutal, bleakest things I’ve seen in a long, long time. Brrr. And well done.

Enthusiastically recommended — but you won’t walk away with a smile on your face. You may, however, not want to drive into fog again. Ever. :O






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