It has been quite the while since last I posted, having completed, more or less, the project of serializing my [first] book over the course of 2015, and since then, though I have been hard at work reading and writing, as I always do, because I was a little burnt out on comics (or [comics]—do I have to write it like this from now on? I’m not sure… anyway, I had made what, to my mind, was a closing if not definitive point, so it was time to let that point stand and see what people thought. In a few weeks, I will likely begin working on a version of the book formatted for print on demand and easy pdf distribution, and once that is done, I will also compose an epilogue of sorts—a “lessons learned” to correspond to the “why I bothered” of the preface—to append to that version, though it will also appear here.
So, I am not going to get into an extensive post mortem of [Comics] as Reading at this time. I do not yet have the distance from it to accurately assess whether I believe now that it was worth the while or how I should have approached things differently. I will say, on a purely visceral level, that I am far more satisfied, emotionally that is, with this effort than many of my previous endeavors. When I completed my dissertation, I went into a very deep depression for several weeks, made no easier by everyone around me constantly telling me that I should be happy that I had finished my Ph.D. Nothing is more infuriating than people telling you to just be happy when clearly you are not. To give you a sense of how much of a funk I was in, at my dissertation defense I literally described the document sitting before me as a “productive failure.” Productive, to be sure, for I felt as if I had personally learned a great deal in writing it, but also a failure, because I could not see how having written it and having passed inspection qualified me for the professoriate I, at the time, so desperately wanted to be a part of. It perhaps says a great deal about me that I quite often pretend not to have an academic credential I clearly earned, but let’s hold off psychoanalyzing me for the time being.
The ready to print pdf will be somewhat delayed, because I have finished writing and am now transcribing my first novel. In case you were not aware, I generally write everything, with some exceptions, by hand first and then edit as I type it. The process is tedious, but it forces me to pay attention to how things read rather than just how they work in my head, when I am conjuring them. Fret not, though, for there will be regular [manga] content this year, though it will take a slightly different form this time around.
Kindai Manga Translation Project
Over the years and in the occasional book and article, I have remarked upon the significance of Japanese [comics] from the kindai period and their importance not only in understanding [manga] as a historical phenomenon but also in recognizing a number of aspects of [comics] form one sees in Japan that are consistently elided in critical treatments, both in Japanese and Anglophone discourses. My own theoretical writing makes extensive reference to these texts, hardly any of which are available to the non-Japanese reader.
So, to that end, I have decided to engage in an ongoing project to translate, first of all, the works of Kitazawa Rakuten and Okamoto Ippei. Over the past year or so, I have used some of my non-existent funds to acquire what original materials and high quality reproductions I can, but many still remain out of my reach, due in no small part to cost. However, I managed a real coup in getting the Rakuten zenshū for a modest price, so I will begin there, focusing at first on those [comic] texts which demonstrate a certain formal ingenuity and those that deal with the changing roles of women in modern Japanese society. Once I have built up a substantial oeuvre of selections for Rakuten, I intend to do much the same for Ippei as well.
My hope is, should y’all approve of my efforts, to, in the future, beg for enough money to acquire the more expensive materials and dig around for the works of other artists, such as, in no particular order, Shimokawa Hekoten, Kawamori Hisao, Ogawa Jihei, Yamada Minoru, etc. It is important that I find these works in their original form and not, as is commonly available now, in reprint, because modern black and white reproductions obscure a number of salient features, like, for instance, how many kindai manga appear in color. This Kawamori Hisao [comic] I discussed in a post sometime ago with image scanned from the multivolume Manga zasshi hakubutsukan
was originally printed in color, when it appeared in the July 27, 1925 issue of Jiji manga.
Speaking as one who has always been suspicious of projects which ask for funding before ever proving they can actually deliver on what they promise, I intend for these selections of Rakuten’s and Ippei’s work to function both as proof of what I have always said about them in my critical work as well as a proof of concept for what I hope to be a long term, ongoing translation project. At that point, I may even be interested in collaborating, if others are interested in helping take on this burden, so let me know if that’s something you would be like to participate in, once you see where I am headed with all this.
Theories of Seduction
The initial focus in this translation project on the Japanese modernist fascination with “new women” is not, as you can imagine, a matter of mere happenstance but, in part, a way of prepping myself for my next major book project, still in the research/planning stages, which, for the time being, will likely manifest as a feminist poetics as parody of Lacan’s notion of objet petit a, with constant reference to the lyric output of Shiina Ringo and Jean Grae in various media and performance milieux. This concept, which I am calling, for the moment, petty object b, is equal parts refracted psychoanalysis (especially Freud, Lacan, and Klein) and, as it turns out, a comic sensibility. What I mean by that is a sense of materiality and textuality that is at once constitutive and subversive, a sense that evolves, I think, quite clearly out of what I have to say in the latter chapters of [Comics] as Reading and which eluded me when I first tried to tackle the problem in my dissertation.
A taste of what is to come, direct to your eyes from my notes:
Why seduction? – if the Lacanian structure of desire is a form of algebra [re: the L-schema] or calculus—at any rate algorithmic, then if you know what effect you want to have upon the subject of desire, then it should be possible, even if with great difficulty, to solve for x or, in this case, a, the little a autre, the agalma, the object position corresponding to the subject’s system of desire—seduction, then, because feminist re-presentation or embodying or whatever you want to call it contains little in the way of an understanding or integration [sic] of the kind of hermeneutics in which the courtesan, the temple prostitute, and the torch singer are all equally skilled.
If that reads to you as so much gobbily gook, worry not. Though the germ of an idea is there, I proffer the excerpt from my notes in part to show how much more inscrutable my writing becomes, when I know the only person reading it is likely to be myself.
So, it is not just “women” in general, a problematic category to be sure, dependent as it is upon an obnoxious gender binarism, that will concern me, but how two “woman” artists in particular address the relationship between performer and audience—or, more precisely, the image of the performer as an object of desire in a complex, mediated game of seduction. Therefore, in addition to kindai translations, I will also compose the occasional critical missive on more recent [manga] texts that address this complex of desire in some way.
For example, of late I have been reading Anno Moyoko’s Bikachō shinshi kaikoroku (Memoirs of a Lecherous Gentleman), the story of a “sex worker,” as we say nowadays, named Colette, living and working in a turn of the century brothel in Paris. When I read its Amazon reviews for the first time, I was struck by how both the positive and negative reviews justified their assessments on the grounds that it was wholly similar to her earlier Sakuran. By this logic, the [manga] is good, because Bikachō gives the reader more of what was so good in Sakuran, and it is bad, because these themes were already covered in that work so why bother doing it all over again? The negative reviews were also remarkable for their prudish expectations—have they never read any of Anno’s other josei [manga]?
To play the curmudgeon, as I so often do, Bikachō is actually quite different from Sakuran, even if the two texts are concerned in large part with closed worlds of prostitution and decadence. In fact, Bikachō announces its theme quite explicitly in the first chapter, hentai or “perversion,” for the brothel where Colette dwells is not any ordinary whorehouse, but one in which the “lecherous gentlemen” of the title act out their most explicit and, quite often, masochistic fantasies.
To that end, Anno frames the brothel itself as a stage, with its employees playing various parts in a psychodrama meant to re-enact the gentlemen’s most deeply seated and most profoundly embarrassing fantasies. In the very first chapter a bourgeois messieur by the name of Edgar, comes to the brothel to re-enact a fantasy based on a recurring childhood episode in which he had to, painfully, on his knees, buff and polish his father’s freshly shorn scalp. In this now more explicitly sexual re-enactment—Colette is on her knees the whole time fellating Edgar as the vignette plays out—with the Madame of the brothel in the role of his stern, observant mother and the one-eyed janitor in the role of his bald father.
The fundamental difference between Bikachō and Sakuran is that desire here is staged, not just duplicitously commodified as it is in the earlier work, and the subject/object positions this sex act demands reflect, to my mind, a more clearly psychoanalytic framework than what we see in Kiyoha’s irrationally romantic delusions. Bikachō is much less straightforward, for Colette on her knees clearly reflects the gentlemen’s being on his own, and when Anno gives us a close-up of Colette’s face (above) as she su—ahem, performs oral sex, her eyes show quite clearly that her attention is directed away from her appointed task, to observe whether the little play of desire goes according to plan, whether they have accurately solved for the messieur’s objet a as orgasmic ah!
I may have more to say about this at a later date, as I figure out my own thoughts concerning the theoretical significance of this “game of seduction,” but, for now, know that there is more in store and, should your own thinking stray toward the prudish, you may want to be a little careful about what you read here. Fair warning.