Just this random spark, my curiosity, and my library card: everything I needed to expand my horizons, to counter the inclination to withdraw when the news seemed menacing.
But April’s #HereandElsewhere was necessarily narrowed, with my mid-March library holds perpeturally “in transit” since the public system closed to “flatten the curve”. By the time those books and films arrive, my calendar will display some other picture. (The duedates on my borrowed items now read July and August.)
Meanwhile (or, Quarantinewhile, as Stephen Colbert would say), my Kyoto choices are limited. How I wish I still had my Mishima and Yawabata volumes; I think there’s one in each writer’s oeuvre which would have suited this month’s theme perfectly.
Instead, I began with a favourite book from childhood, Katherine Paterson’s The Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973): one of the first books I encountered as a young reader which introduced me to a culture different from my own. It stood out—as much for my initial resistance as for the story itself.
Her Bridge to Teribithia (1975), I just loved; eventually I’d discover The Great Gilly Hopkins and Jacob Have I Loved (1980) too; but I didn’t expect to enjoy The Sign of the Chysanthemum.
Why? It was about a boy; I was haunted by the mask on the cover of its companion volume, The Master Puppeteer (1975); and, the main character was named Muji, servant to the swordsmith Fukuji.
The characters in my favourite books were named Anne and Emily, Harriet and George (Famous Five!). There was a single Asian family in the village I lived in, with younger children. In that community, I didn’t fit in either, and if they felt as ill-at-ease as I did, hopefully they’ve been able to leave it behind too. Even recent (2016) census data shows that only 0.03% of the population there is a visible minority.
In the fifth grade, we studied the animals of Africa (I’m not very good at drawing and it was a group project), and in the seventh grade, there was a story in my reader about Sadako and her Paper Cranes (not assigned, but I read it). In between, everything I knew about other places, I learned from books and television; everything I knew about Japan, I learned from Katherine Paterson (and, soon afterwards, the TV mini-series, Shogun).
Kyoto seemed fantastical:
“He could make out at once the long complex of roofs that were the Imperial Palace, though as a commoner he had never been closer to the actual buildings than the stables. The glistening waters of the Kamo River flowed to the east. Across Gojo Bridge, antlike processions were moving to and from Rokuhara on the east bank. Sails of fishing boats and merchant vessels dotted the river.”
She created characters whose lives were adventuresome enough to keep me turning pages, characters who were wholly believable for a young girl whose limited experience of the world was that it was 99.7% white. (Paterson was born in 1932 to American parents who worked in China as Christian missionaries; Katherine’s first language was Chinese and she came of age in China, moved back to America during WWII, and travelled to Japan in 1954, also for religious work. Not a whiff of her theism in this novel, though.) No doubt, the illustrations, by Peter Landa, were inviting to younger-reading-me too.
Next, I watched Makiko’s New World (1999), an educational film based on a young bride’s 1910 diary, chronicling her life in a busy merchant household in Kyoto. (I watched on Kanopy, via my public library: they also have several good films screening for free now, including Ex Libris, the film about the New York Public Library. Looking for a movie date?)
With her blessing, a descendant arranged for this volume to be published in 1995 (Stanford University Press) certain it’d make good reading because Makiko doesn’t fit the stereotype of a confined “old Kyoto” bride; her husband ensured she enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom and she includes private information in her records (information about festivals and family members, for instance), whereas the men in the family who kept diaries recorded only concrete details.
At twenty years old when this diary begins, she married into the Nakano Pharmacy family three years earlier. With footage of contemporary Kyoto and an abundance of archival images (diarist included!), we learn of her fascination with western food and culture. In one instance, she records their having enjoyed beer from Munich in an evening, served with bananas. (They do dramatize portions of the diary, but Makiko’s character shines through; this makes up for the dramatizations.)
In other Kyoto viewing, I’ve started watching the Violet Evergarden series (2018), produced by the Kyoto Animation Studio.
(In a particular mood, anime suits me brilliantly.)
This story is based on a 2014 light novel series about a young girl who has experienced some trauma, now working as an Auto Memory Doll, at the post office, where she is a ghostwriter, who prepares letters for those who need to send them but who cannot write or, for some other reason, cannot express themselves.
What a great way to explore questions about memory and longing, love and regret. (There are two longer features to follow, and two other series on my watchlist from this studio: Love, Chunibyo! and other Delusions and K-On! Admittedly, I’d not heard of KAS until this was in the news last year. What a tragedy.)