The Only Right Thing to Do

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do.”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Oblique Strategy: A line has two sides

I rarely remember my dreams. When I am able to grasp the wispy end of something as I’m waking up it is always some form of daily frustration, like my car won’t start or my key won’t fit. I guess that’s why I can’t remember my dreams – they are simply more boring versions of my daily life.

This morning, though, as I crawled out of bed, I remembered. I was hitchhiking through Japan with two other people, a young couple. Why we were three was hazy, though there seemed an adequate explanation somewhere. At the time of the dream we were wading through a rice paddy, each clutching a train ticket. The tickets were paper and plastic, white and bright yellow, and valuable.

Ahead, rising out of the rice, was a track on a levee and a simple station. The biggest passenger train in the world was stopped there, vibrating and smoking. As we approached, it blew its whistle and slowly pulled off, just as we arrived. I was frustrated at the fact we had missed the train, and clutched at my ticket in frustration.

A minute later, we realized that this massive transportation system was too large for one single train, and a second, identical one came huffing into the station. Suddenly elated, I had my ticket stamped and boarded the nearest car. My two companions followed close behind me.

The rest of the dream consisted of me exploring the various cars up and down the line. They were laid out in a linear cornucopia of delights, each car more opulent and fascinating than the one before.

My alarm went off – time to get up and go to work. I hit snooze to see if I could drop off again and visit a car or two more, but the train had sped off to somewhere unknown.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), by Thomas Houseago
Nasher Sculpture Center
Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Read it online here:
Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

In any case, he had to learn how to move his body. He couldn’t lie there staring up at the ceiling forever. The posture left him much too vulnerable. He had no chance of surviving an attack—by predatory birds, for example. As a first step, he tried to move his fingers. There were ten of them, long things affixed to his two hands. Each was equipped with a number of joints, which made synchronizing their movements very complicated. To make matters worse, his body felt numb, as though it were immersed in a sticky, heavy liquid, so that it was difficult to send strength to his extremities.

Nevertheless, after repeated attempts and failures, by closing his eyes and focusing his mind he was able to bring his fingers more under control. Little by little, he was learning how to make them work together. As his fingers became operational, the numbness that had enveloped his body withdrew. In its place—like a dark and sinister reef revealed by a retreating tide—came an excruciating pain.

It took Samsa some time to realize that the pain was hunger. This ravenous desire for food was new to him, or at least he had no memory of experiencing anything like it. It was as if he had not had a bite to eat for a week. As if the center of his body were now a cavernous void. His bones creaked; his muscles clenched; his organs twitched.

—-Haruki Murakami, Samsa in Love

I always think about believability in fiction. You don’t have to worry about this in non-fiction… it’s by definition true and believable, even when it is wildly unlikely. But fiction has to be believable.

One important idea is “making a deal with the reader.” This has to be done right away, preferably in the very first sentence. You have to alert the reader, make a deal with the reader, and then keep up your end of the bargain.

The best example is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Turning into a giant cockroach in the middle of the night for no apparent reason isn’t believable, is it?

But Kafka writes his genius opening line:

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

You see, Kafka has made a deal with the reader. If you continue with the story, you have agreed that people can be changed into a giant cockroach (vermin) for no reason. He offers the deal, you accept it, and he keeps it.

Today, I planned on stopping for lunch, by myself. I looked forward to the quiet and the break. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to carry my Kindle or even a book. No problem, the library was right next door and, looking in at the New Fiction display, I saw a copy of Men Without Women, Stories by Haruki Murakami. Bingo.

While I ate, I looked through the table of contents for a brief selection, something I could read during the short sliver of time I was allotted. I found Samsa in Love, and was able to finish before I had to head back to work.

Samsa in Love is Metamorphosis in reverse. It starts out with Gregor Samsa waking up in his bare room, now transformed back into a human. He remembers little of being Gregor Samsa, but even less of the time he spent as a cockroach (except for a strong fear of birds). The story tells of his first few steps in becoming human again, including falling fast in love with a hunchbacked locksmith sporting an ill-fitting brassiere.

The story makes a deal, and sticks with it.

Interview with Haruki Murakami:

Is each book you write fully formed in your mind before you start to write or is it a journey for you as the writer as it is for us as readers?

I don’t have any idea at all, when I start writing, of what is to come. For instance, for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first thing I had was the call of the bird, because I heard a bird in my back yard (it was the first time I heard that kind of sound and I never have since then. I felt like it was predicting something. So I wanted to write about it). The next thing was cooking spaghetti – these are things that happen to me! I was cooking spaghetti, and somebody call. So I had just these two things at the start. Two years I kept on writing. It’s fun! I don’t know what’s going to happen next, every day. I get up, go to the desk, switch on the computer, etc. and say to myself: “so what’s going to happen today?” It’s fun!

—-from The Guardian

(click to enlarge)
Adam, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, plus admirer
Cullen Sculpture Garden
Houston, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 19 – The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

The Sweepers
Wang Shugang
Cast Iron (2012)
Crow Collection of Asian Art

The Sweepers
Wang Shugang
Cast Iron (2012)
Crow Collection of Asian Art

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 19 – The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

Read it online here:
The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

Two weeks or so before, her seven-year-old nephew had come visiting, and had noticed the pomegranates immediately. He had scrambled up into the tree. Kimiko had felt that she was in the presence of life.

“There is a big one up above,” she called from the veranda.

“But if I pick it I can’t get back down.”

It was true. To climb down with pomegranates in both hands would not be easy. Kimiko smiled. He was a dear.

—-Kawabata Yasunari, The Pomegranate

Today’s delicate short story is by Kawabata Yasunari, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. He wrote several acclaimed novels, including Snow Country and the semi-fictional The Master of Go. But he was also known for his very short works, which he called “palm-of-the-hand” stories.

Kawabata Yasunari:

In Zen there is no worship of images. Zen does have images, but in the hall where the regimen of meditation is pursued, there are neither images nor pictures of Buddhas, nor are there scriptures. The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless. There are of course masters of Zen, and the disciple is brought toward enlightenment by exchanging questions and answers with his master, and he studies the scriptures. The disciple must, however, always be lord of his own thoughts, and must attain enlightenment through his own efforts. And the emphasis is less upon reason and argument than upon intuition, immediate feeling. Enlightenment comes not from teaching but through the eye awakened inwardly. Truth is in “the discarding of words”, it lies “outside words”. And so we have the extreme of “silence like thunder”, in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Tradition has it that Bodhidharma, a southern Indian prince who lived in about the sixth century and was the founder of Zen in China, sat for nine years in silence facing the wall of a cave, and finally attained enlightenment. The Zen practice of silent meditation in a seated posture derives from Bodhidharma.

—From his Nobel Prize Lecture

Buddah
Liu Yonggang, Chinese, b. 1964
China, 2013
Painted Steel
Crow Collection of Asian Art
Dallas, Texas

Big Man Japan

Another review of a movie you (probably) will never see.

Why do I do this? Everyone in the world is out waiting in line to see the last Harry Potter film (I’ve only read one of the books and seen two and a half of the films) while I’m holed up with my laptop when I should be asleep and here I am watching another WTF stranger than strange bit of Netflix Streaming. The last two movies I’ve seen (and, more important, written about) have been Quintet (a candidate for worst movie ever) and now, Big Man Japan.

I know its a cult hit – but I’ve never met anyone that admitted to actually seeing Big Man Japan. I don’t even know how I came across it – probably fell into some webpage that mentioned that it was on Netflix and I couldn’t resist.

Now, I used to see a lot of film and read a lot of movie reviews. The problem is that too many reviews, especially written ones, simply outline the plot of the film in detail and that ruins the whole thing, doesn’t it? So I quit reading reviews until after I had seen a film. My idea is to go in blind, sit there knowing nothing, my brain an empty vessel to receive the cinematic genius unfettered by previous knowledge or expectation. The only problem is that about the time I decided on this course of action I ran out of money and time and hardly ever get to see anything anymore. Anything except when I lose my mind and stay up all night to watch weird stuff like “Big Man Japan.”

Therefore, I don’t want to talk too much about plot details. It would be interesting to see this film without knowing anything at all. It would be interesting, but you’d be pissed at me because I made you waste almost two hours of you precious life on this weird shit. So I guess, as a public duty, I should provide fair warning.

You see, the first third of the movie is a documentary-type exploration of Masaru Daisato, a middle-aged long-haired Japanese loser. His wife has left him and he scrapes by in a cluttered place eating rice and dehydrated seaweed. He carries one of those little folding umbrellas everywhere. Cryptically, he says he likes the umbrella and the seaweed because, “It only gets big when you want it to.”

Everybody hates this guy, they stare, they throw garbage into his yard, and spraypaint insulting graffiti wherever he goes. His wife has left with his daughter, there is a rusting swing set peeking out from the bags of trash outside his house.

He talks about his job. He makes about 5,000 a month (five thousand what… I don’t know) and wishes he made 8,000. He says that there isn’t as much business as there used to be. Though he doesn’t work much, he can’t travel. He has to be on call all the time. He seems to have a problem with the United States for some reason.

About a half-hour in we find out what his job is. He is a hero. They clamp electrodes to his nipples and shoot thousands of volts into his body and he grows into a huge, hairy, chubby guy with a bad haircut and a piece of pipe for a club. Then he goes out and fights giant monsters.

These monsters are tearing up Japan like Godzilla, except that nobody seems to care much about it and nobody seems to get hurt. The monsters are strange, disgusting, bizzaroids with strangely human faces (one has to keep flipping his combover as he tears buildings up by their foundation). The fights are filmed, but they air on television at two in the morning and the ratings are terrible. His agent tries to find sponsors to plaster advertisements on his chest and back to bring in an extra income – but he is so incompetent, cowardly, and unattractive the sponsors are hard to find and harder to keep.

The Strangling Monster

The Strangling Monster

Okay, this sort of thing goes forward, getting odder and odder (I’m leaving a lot out, trust me), until the final climax occurs and then, I’m warning you about this, the whole thing really veers off into truly WTF (and I don’t mean Win The Future) land. It’s pretty stunning, really. I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this. All through the movie you can’t help but wonder how serious the movie maker is. Is this a somewhat serious exploration of Japanese Culture, Capitalism, Monster Movies, Religious Ceremony, Ramen Noodles, Asian Pop Culture, Ozu, our treatment of the Aged, Reality Television, Fame, Heroism, and many other issues… or is this simply a big joke thrown in our face.

The last part of the film leaves no doubt.

It’s sort of genius, really, in a sort of sick, ridiculous, and annoying way. The only problem is that by that point I had actually come to care about Masaru Daisato. The scene where he takes his pixelated daughter to the zoo is heartbreaking. I wanted him to find redemption. I wanted him to defeat his enemies and win the girl.

And that is what the film ultimately skewers – the viewer’s expectations.

Does watching strange stuff like this stretch the mind, or is it only a lonely excuse for killing some time when I should be sleeping, waiting in line at Harry Potter, or out drinking?

Oh, one last thing. Peggy wrote the other day about remakes. It appears that a Hollywood studio has bought the rights to remake Big Man Japan. Or will it be a reboot?

Big Man Japan

Big Man Japan, ready to transform.

The movie answers one long-nagging question. When the hero grows to monster size, where does his clothes come from? In Big Man Japan it is answered. A trunk with a pair of giant purple nylon underwear inside follows the hero around. Before he is juiced up to giant size, the shorts are raised up by a winch onto two poles and the hero stands inside these, so when he grows, he he attired.