Monday, 21 June 2010

Anthems for Nowhere

i.m. 29.5.37 – 24.6.89

Like the stream, time, gently, little by little, goes by

Two funerals from twenty-one years ago, both consumed then and now as quintessentially ‘Japanese’ moments. The Shōwa Emperor and Misora Hibari, high culture and low populism, national essence and national sentiment, both representing tradition and unique qualities, matching one another as sites of national memory and mourning.

The tragedy of Misora’s early death – she was only 52, and still a powerful performer – and her life story of poverty and struggle make this mode of consumption all the stronger. Hard times – and the upbeat attitude and determination of the ‘Tokyo Kid’ – were one of the truths of the Shōwa era, and, amidst the desolation and frenzied transformation of the post-war Japan, it’s easy to see how the perfectly pitched nostalgia of Misora’s music created its audience.

Still, something’s missing. There’s more work with memory to be done, more effort needed.

To live is to journey, searching for the dream world

Love, and awe at such beauty, were my initial responses, and they remain my main feelings about her music. That quavering, almost failing sound the best enka singers battle with Misora manages to push further than others, and to add to it a roughness, a strength and precision of sound I find, more and more, moving. She does wonderful things with what Barthes calls ‘the grain of the voice’ and, instead of working on the stage expressiveness of the pheno-song and its ‘meanings’, Misora’s art is of the geno-song,

the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the language where significations germinate ‘from within language and in its very materiality’; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where melody really works at the language – not at what it says, but at the voluptuousness of its sound-signifiers, of its letter – where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work.

I hear Misora when reading Barthes’ lines on the erotics of ‘the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucus membranes, the nose,’ the jouissance of the grain of the voice. (This, incidentally, is why Kim Yon Jya, whom I usually admire, is so unwise to issue recordings of 川の流れのように: her emotionality and attempts to ‘communicate’ the material, so often effective, have here to compete with the listener’s aural memories of Misora; the effects are damaging).

With these feelings I’m hardly alone: sometime during the 1990s ten million people voted 川の流れのように the great Japanese song of all time.

I find myself to have been leading a life
 without even a map for guidance.

It’s that status as the great ‘Japanese song’ which suggests productive – and political - comparisons between the cultural events of the passing of the Shōwa emperor and Misora’s death. We consume the imagery and spirit of both figures – and the cultural logic of what they’ve been used to found, solidify, set in motion – in particular and determinate ways, ways that point to how the post-war settlement sustained itself.

In a short-hand version: it’s important, and far from accidental, that the greatest Japanese performer of all time was Korean.

Takayuki Tatsumi argues, in Full Metal Apache, that the Shōwa Emperor was “the ultimate cyborg, [who] constituted the essence of postwar Japanese body politics.” His transformation into from religious officiator to gentleman general to dapper chap through to virtual salary-man matched the shifting positions of Japanese capitalism and its self-presentations and, if the famous photo with McArthur represents one moment of national humiliation, each further photo imaged and staged how national rebuilding and repositioning was to look. After the initial post-war years of social upheaval and chaos – mass rallies on May Day, a Communist Party ascendant, riots and street battles in Ueno – the Shōwa Emperor is ‘reprogrammed’ into a new mediated, cyborg body politic formed by US and ruling-class Japanese interests: ‘pure’, stable, national, ordered, timelessly Japanese. His image tracks a political project of exclusion.

Isn’t Misora the presence shadowing this process, its Other somehow hiding in plain sight? Isn’t her Zainichi status – like Rikidozan’s when he redeemed Japan in the pro-wrestling boom - the obscene supplement, her music excess to the Shōwa Emperor’s superego?

It’s not just that she was Zainichi, a Korean, even though that does matter and is enough to enrage many a Japanese nationalist and xenophobe (cf here the appallingly racist ‘debates’ on her ethnicity at her Wikipedia entry). That biographical detail matters, naturally, and its erasure from public commemoration and celebration is an indictment of official Japanese racism. What’s more intriguing is how, like the Shōwa Emperor’s ‘cyborg’ transformation, Misora’s Zainichi, outsider status was precisely what enabled her to take part in the creation of the ‘typical’ Japan for which she is now remembered. As John Lie argues

She became the prototype of all idols (aidoru) in postwar Japanese culture. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Misora personified what was ‘authentically Japanese’

Personification: again, like the Shōwa Emperor, there’s something about the ideology and mystique of bodily representation at work here. Misora’s life as an actual human being fits very uncomfortably with the mediated memory of her as the image of Japanese ‘Misora Hibari’: the racism and poverty her Zainichi family experienced would make her childhood unrecognizable to many, and her persecution by NHK for her brother’s alleged gang connections kept her for many years from taking part in the Red and White Song Battle, surely the marker of a singer’s status and presence. There’s bad faith, naturally, in her current veneration. (That bad faith, incidentally, isn’t without its own unitended ironies: the last time I was in Nagasaki I saw a Misora Hibari-themed pachinko game, nicely eliding a Zainichi image mainstream Japan can’t acknowledge as Zainichi with a vice of its own it can’t stop from associating with Koreans).

Her role in the creation of a unique Japan goes deeper still; as Lie argues, Enka, which reached its peak of popularity as Misora reached hers, so often presented as the ‘quintessential’ Japanese musical form – with Misora as its quintessentially Japanese practitioner – draws on and relies upon elements of Korean traditional music and European light music, to say nothing of the many Korean and Zainichi Enka stars who populate its top ranks.

Without knowing it I have been walking 
along a long and narrow path

A number of historians – Sakai Naoki and John Dower among them – have produced work in recent years arguing that our image of Japan as a monocultural society is a product of the post-war period, and that the reality of human interaction and culture on the archipelago is a much messier one than this image allows.

What’s striking, though, from a view to the history of culture, is how important outside elements have been to this monocultural self-presentation. From Rikidozan to Misora, the cultural monuments of Shōwa Japan are ‘Korean’ as much as they are ‘Japanese.’ There’s an anxiety to the nationalism and xenophobia of the Shōwa era, an excess to its exclusions that demonstrate their futility and falsity. It’s wholly appropriate that Misora Hibari provides the soundtrack to those gestures at the same time as she undoes them.

Looking over my shoulder toward my home village far away

Those scare quotes a paragraph ago aren’t, I think, an academic affectation: part of what’s useful in remembering Misora’s story now is the chance she offers us to unpack national certainties. There’s nothing to be gained if we replace Japanese ‘ownership’ of this great singer with Korean ‘ownership’, as in the DPRK biography of Rikidozan entitled I am a Korean!, an anxiously insecure move if ever there was one. South Korean nationalisms have been as unjust towards Zainichi experience as Japanese ones through the years and, under the Park dictatorship, some forms of traditional Korean music sounding like enka were banned for their suspect debts to Japan.

Lie is closer to what I think is important when he writes that “national purity cannot be found in music, sound does not respect musical borders.” The grain of that voice makes a first, distancing or clarifying, appeal.

Misora remembered this way might also re-position her in our thoughts for the future. It’s not that Misora doesn’t ‘belong’ to her Japanese fans anymore, or that her unacknowledged Zainichi heritage changes its place in Japanese culture, memory and nostalgia. The hope, rather, is that we might highlight how that Zainichi place has always been there, and how it might offer a position from which to move beyond the sterile (and US driven) nationalisms of the region. This is partly, to be sure, a question of acknowledging multiplicity and reality, partly also a chance to imagine new political positions and loosened loyalties.

The most insightful comments on that possibility I’ve read so far come not from a philosopher or a singer, but from a footballer, DPRK striker Jong Tae Se:

"My homeland is not Japan. There's another country in Japan, called Zainichi, [and] none of these countries - South Korea, North Korea and Japan - can be my home country, because I'm a zainichi and therefore Zainichi is my native land."

That ‘native land’ is nowhere, and the richer for it. What’s so moving about Misora Hibari’s art, the precision in the grain of her voice, is the way it inhabits that impossible land.


Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’ in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977).

John Lie, Multicultural Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

Takayuki Tatsumi, Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Ghost in the Shell

Matthew Stoddard’s essay on Ghost in the Shell, cognitive mapping and the ‘desire for communism’ is well worth reading. It’s very clever and thoughtful and good fun, and nicely complements Amy Shirong Lu’s insightful “dialectic reading” of Oshii’s work as containing both an old ghost and a new shell: the ‘new shell’ all our favourite option, the posthuman future and its political potential (“I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”), its ‘old ghost’ those stereotypes of maternal function and nurturing which follow images of the female.

Stoddard’s essay reminded me of two questions that stuck in my mind after first seeing Ghost in the Shell (and I’m referring only to the 1995 film here; the manga and Innocence have their own relative autonomy and, for reasons which will become obvious through the post, I won’t watch the misguided CG folly of Ghost in the Shell 2.0).

Firstly, when did Tokyo stop being the future? There’s a politics to the associations of dystopia and China here, of course, but I don’t think it’s enough (or the main politico-aesthetic question, as I’ve argued before about Code Geass) to point in that direction. There’s a post-Bubble aesthetic sorting itself out here; worth wondering what follows on.

Secondly, how does the video imagery of Ghost in the Shell fit with Stoddard’s comments on memory? The connections between the film’s philosophical and posthuman or postmemory ambitions and its strategic use of perspective, surveillance and recording are obvious, sure, but it’s the video part of all that which is so striking. It’s not so much that these devices are dated now, but that they do the work of being troubled by the idea of mediated memory and mediated identity and subjectivity in very different ways to how digital recording and technology does when given similar chances in more recent anime. In one sense, naturally, Ghost in the Shell’s work here – messing with our longing to separate those long mystical moments against the puppet master plot and the fashioning of the robots – is familiar. As Giovanni Tiso argues:

“The seemingly opposite and equally apocalyptic visions of amnesia and hypermnesia, of a crisis of memory and of total recall, endlessly projected by consumer culture, stand in a complex relation which is reciprocal and inclusive as opposed to antithetical and exclusive.”

It’s the damage of transmission in video – the introduction of new material and ‘distortions’ which render an original impossible and a copy new – that seem to carry so much weight in Ghost in the Shell, and to be used to prompt reflection. Kinks, bends, flickers: all these features serve to draw our attention to memory’s mediation, and to point at the plot line covering memory’s crisis and reproduction.

From this distance, though, don’t they look much more like memory’s calling cards, its material traces? Used as we are to forms that stop before they ‘age’ (the DVD left in the cupboard that then stops playing; the memory stick which doesn’t function after coming out the wrong side of the wash cycle; the file corrupted between computers), these earlier images of memory’s vulnerability and malleability come over to us as something like memory’s resistance. When considering aesthetic devices and explorations I think Ghost in the Shell’s effort at mimesis of imperfect recording and flawed or ‘damaged’ perception marks it out as important to consider in any treatment of the development of narratives of the crisis of memory. Quite what that importance is I’m not able to tell you – sorry if you read this far in the hope of a momen’t wisdom – but Stoddard reinforces my sense I’m right to feel it’s there.

Monday, 7 June 2010


You may fasten my chains
Deprive me of my books and tobacco
You may fill my mouth with earth
Poetry will feed my heart, like blood
It is salt to the bread
And liquid to the eye
I will write it with nails,
eye sockets and daggers,
I will recite it in my prison cell -
in the bathroom -
in the stable -
Under the whip -
Under the chains -
In spite of my handcuffs
I have a million nightingales
On the branches of my heart
Singing the song of liberation.

from Defiance, by Mahmoud Darwish.

[Translation taken from Our Roots Are Still Alive: the Story of the Palestinian People (New York: Institute for Independent Social Journalism, 1981), p. 137.]

Thanks to friends in Kakehashi / JRCL (日本革命的共産主義者同盟) for the photo.