In praise of shadows: anime, culture, critique, analysis (maybe)

(I will try to tackle a whole lot of different things in one fell swoop. I hope you have enough patience to bear with me.)

Although the Philippines is a country known to suck up to the United States (and in case you didn’t, you do now), like all cultures it also has idiosyncrasies all its own. Among its many idiosyncrasies, the one I’ve noticed most recently is the nature of its bookstores. In contrast to the American bookstore which nurtures intellectual growth (they provide tables and chairs and do not seal their books: everything can be read for free as long as the book[s] are not taken out of the store), the Philippine bookstore stifles it unless they can make money from the consumer. Like tins protecting canned goods from spoilage, most books here are sealed hermetically with plastic; and if one inquisitive reader gets caught opening it, he gets kicked out of the store. Of course, he will also be shamed because of this. The only ‘pages’ of any book one can explore is its title and its synopsis at the back. Most of the time, opening it is really prohibited. The Filipino bookstore is parsimonious and stingy with its information. This may be among the reasons why our country is so backward today: this is an example of ‘crab mentality’ at its worst: if we can’t make profit, you won’t improve either with your knowledge, either; we’ll all just drag each other down. It’s a vicious cycle that just drags down more and more Filipinos into the decadent quagmire of retrogression and degradation. This may seem pessimistic, but it’s life here.

I was positively astounded, thus, when I saw in bookshelves labeled ‘General Fiction’ Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, and it was uncovered and unsealed! It thus allowed the conveyor, if only at the site, a free-for-all exploration of it. I was happy because I was quite unwilling to spend a large amount of money (here in the Philippines, anyway) for a book: that’s the reason why I go to our university library, after all. Sadly, however, In Praise of Shadows was not in our library, so it was as if I had been given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to read an aesthetic essay by one of the authors of most renown in Japanese literature, contemporary or otherwise. I was also reluctant to purchase the book because its value-for-volume was bad: I am quite unwilling to pay eight American dollars for a seventy-page tome. That’s almost my daily budget, and I’m not as profligate as to spend it on that.

Despite drowsiness and fatigue (I’ve read a lot this past week and didn’t even get decent sleep yesterday) I forged on to read the book within two hours. I read it as slowly as I could, however: a book that short does not sate or satiate a mind in foment. If taken in analogy to food, reading a book like that quickly would just amount to an appetizer. I would not want that.

As for the book itself, Tanizaki, as usual, wrote about the bifurcation of the traditional Japan from the modern Japan. (I read Some Prefer Nettles about a year ago.) He praised the shadows – which I think symbolized the simplicity of tradition and Japan’s austerity. He wishes to relive the past once again, but he himself admitted that it was a fleeting dream. He argues that the darkness was the silent agreement between nature and the human being. When one shines or flashes brightness on this agreement, its flimsy link will be all but decimated. Tanizaki also speaks of Japan’s mistake of emanating Western ideas and concepts, because he believed that tumultuous times would cease to exist if one returned to the past, in the darkness, the epitome of man’s solitary yet unifying bond with nature. (Or so I think. It can be argued that Tanizaki was a clairvoyant: he wrote this essay in 1933 – only some years before the Second World War.)

His writing, although not much in agreement with my perceptions and opinions, was at times just sublime – I sighed at the beauty of his statements regarding the old and the modern toilet: he could still write so profoundly even when discussing about such trite objects. He wrote that the old toilet was better because it was subdued and earthy, and one with nature so much that poetry could be written under the dim moonlight in contrast to the gaudy modern toilet filled with tiles and electric bulbs. (And he wasn’t trying to be funny!)

Similarly, I also loved how he talked about the green, iridescent lipstick that was once rampantly used by Japanese women in the olden times before the incipience of Western cultural assimilation. His writing was just so evocative, so dreamy that I could picture a Japanese woman of the time he described. Although not among his greatest works, In Praise of Shadows is a wonderful exploration of Japanese aesthetics – and is an entertaining book. The short length also helps.

Reading it as a gaijin who appreciates Japanese culture, I could just realize why there’s widespread impersonality in Japan right now (as can be read in different news). The bunraku has become Westernized and anime is its avatar; the Kabuki and Noh plays have now become well-intellectualized doramas, but these are still Westernized in their own way. What was once purely Japanese has now been injected with a multitude of different Western concepts, and this can be seen with the Western clothing in most anime; in addition, probably the big eyes normally seen in it, and sometimes bathetic melodramas count as Western influences. What was once classical is now a mongrel; and because of this, the Japanese are forgetting what little they could call emanating from themselves in the arts they have left, and this produces problems.

They have problems because they could not conciliate with their past, and this leaves them as alienated people. (Incidentally, Japan has among the highest suicide rates in the world.) Tanizaki was quite prescient in perceiving that although one may accept change, one must not forget who one is.

(I’m not trying to start a fight with my Japanese readers; I have read In Praise of Shadows, and from the news I’m hearing, and from my own observations I have written this post. Please do not take this post to heart, and if you do find some things offensive kindly comment so as to call my attention and I will try to rectify the problem as soon as possible. Have a nice day, everyone.)

20 Responses to “In praise of shadows: anime, culture, critique, analysis (maybe)”

  1. meganeshounen Says:

    Which bookstore do you frequent? National Bookstore in Sta. Lucia also lets you read as much as you want, as long as it’s already been opened. Very useful for reading their manga archives hidden in a small space near the magazine rack. *hint hint*

    Was able to finish reading the GSeed manga and got up to date with Genshiken without spending a buck with that. Now… if only they would put in those other School Rumble tankoubons…

    On the topic of Japan losing its own identity, I think the proverb “a prophet does not become revered in his hometown” applies there. You see Japan looking to the Western world and copying its ways and cultures, and you also see some (diehard) foreign otaku trying to behave like pseudo-Nihonjin with their cries of “kawaii”. Oh, and maybe you can also count in PPZ.

    On a side note, I was in a hobby shop when I heard a couple of girls who were talking about the best “seme” and “uke” pairs. I shivered.

    Anyway, globalization is inevitable with tech nowadays, but of course there are at least some people who still preserve their ancient heritage through practice. Something to do with miko, prolly.

  2. cebukitty Says:

    have you tried asking the salesladies nicely if you can please take the book from its plastic protection so you can read it? meganeshounnen is right, National Bookstore allows you to read books for free. In fact, a handful of times, salesladies in National bookstore Cebu voluntary offer to remove a book from the plastic cover when they see me reading the BLURBS. Same thing happens to me in CAGNAAN (sells european trade books here)

    as an alternative, you can use amazon.com to electronically peruse the first few pages of the books they offer for sale.

    and if all else fails, and you just HAVETA read a book only its not available here in the country or is too damn expensive, there are lots of ebooks in the cyberworld yours for the taking. channel bookz in irc undernet is one of the best sources for free *wink, wink* ebooks out there.

    of course for true blue bibliophiles, nothing beats the erotic texture and the luscious fragrance of an actual book…

  3. Michael Says:

    I did that in NBS Davao and I got scolded … and when I asked if it could be opened, they said no. So I don’t think it’s the rule; I think it’s more of the exception. 😐

  4. In Which Our Japanese Forbears Undulate Themselves Into the Friscalating Dusklight « This Recording Says:

    […] Instead, it contains Tanizaki’s musings on aesthetics: on toilets; lamps; lacquerware; heating systems and stoves. Tanizaki obsesses over whether it is worth the considerable expense to conceal the wiring in his house. He obsesses over the proper color of the broth in his bowl of miso soup. He obsesses over everything. […]

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    somehow, i dont think you got the whole idea he was trying to bring across in the book.

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