John Nathan is the Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Having relocated from the United States to Japan in the early 1960s to enroll as the first American regular student at the University of Tokyo, he became the translator of novels by such Japanese literary luminaries as Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima as well as a documentarian who revealed unseen corners of Japanese private life to America. He went on to write books on Mishima, the Sony corporation and Japan itself. His latest book is a memoir, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3 part one] [MP3 part two] [iTunes link]
I was thinking about the idea of what I call “Japanophilia”, the affinity for, the attraction to, things Japanese. It seems like more the rule than the exception with modern kids in America. When you got into Japan — this was the early sixties — how common was it?
Not particularly. As a matter of fact, that's probably one of the reasons I was drawn to it so powerfully. It was really like, as I said in my book, having a pet monkey. Lots of kids studying Albert Camus, this, that and the other thing, Western philosophy and so on, but almost no one was studying or particularly interested in Japan in those days.
Was it that case that — you say this in your book — just seeing one character drawn was what led you into this whole life?
In an earlier draft of my memoir, I had written the truth about that: I set that story down with as much panache as I could manage, then I said, “Is that really what happened? I wonder if it is.” I've told the story fifty times, and now that I actually write it on the page, I question it.
Like so much in a memoir — which is really not so much about memory as it is about persona, it turns out when you actually write one — I think that's what happened. But it may be embellishment, to be honest with you. Certainly these two characters I do remember being drawn for me on a napkin by a Japanese kid who had come to Harvard.
It was a very unusual word. This word in English is “whitlow,” an infection beneath the finger- and toenails. I do think, at some point very early on, I stared at these two… pictures, basically, and thought to myself, “My god, these two things mean that? In that case, I want to learn more about this language.” I think there's some truth in that. Whether that's the only thing that impelled me to go check out a Japanese language class I couldn't say.
But you did check out Japanese language, and how did that draw you into the fold of —
It's just one of those things. I watched this professor who was very, very fluent talking about a Japanese writer and chalking these characters on a blackboard with tremendous energy and adroitness. Something just took me over. Of course, if that had been a Chinese teacher, I would have had a totally different life. It's the same Chinese characters, but if this had been a fellow teaching Chinese literature, I might well have signed up for Chinese studies. But it was a Japanese teacher, as it turned out.
I began taking the language, and I remember, having intended to be a Latinist and study Greek and Russian and a bunch of other things, I fell in love with this language very early on in my study of it. What's the explanation for that? I couldn't possibly tell you. But by the time I was through four years of school, I was fanatically committed to and submerged in the pursuit of this impossibly difficult language.
The phrase you use just now and in the book, “Japanese was my pet monkey” — what does that mean?
I remember that when I was a young man — when I was a boy, really — my father, who was a painter, rudely transplanted the family from very familiar New York to totally unfamiliar Tucson, Arizona, which was really a frontier, Twilight Zone-like environment. I felt very out of place in it. The only thing I knew how to do better than the other kids was to raise my hand first when a question was asked in class, which was exaclty the wrong thing to do.
I didn't know how to hunt, I didn't know how to kill wild boar with bows and arrows and so on. I remember feeling that I needed something to distinguish myself that would somehow protect me, and for some reason I thought I would love to have a pet monkey. No one else had a pet monkey, and that would make me special and maybe the object of admiration, or at least interest instead of derision, which was what I was feeling.
My parents didn't indulge me; I didn't end up with a pet monkey. But looking back on my career in Japan, I have to acknowledge, and did in this book, that there was at least an element about this choice of something so, at the time, arcane, exotic, unfamiliar to everyone that played into my attraction to the subject; it made me feel a little more confident than if I had tried to study Henry James and found myself in competition with the people around me who were these prep school boys who had done a lot of literature when I hadn't.
Would you have done the same had you been born in, say, 1980?
Not at all. Good question; I was about to say that. After 1980, this element of exoticism and unfamiliarity probably wouldn't have surrounded, as an aura, the choice of Japanese studies. I, in the same circumstances, would have had to do something else. I would have had to take Old Norse to feel that I was equally in an unfamiliar clime.
Learning Japanese, how long did it take you, as a Westerner, to get to the point where you could convincingly speak it to a native Japanese? Or do you ever get to that point?
Oh yeah, of course I did, but it took me a very long time. There are a few Westerners who have. Japanese is a very difficult language to learn to speak, for a variety of reasons I won't get into right now. I studied for three years at Harvard, and when I got to Tokyo, although I could read, with difficulty, modern stuff, I would ask a question and the answer would come back too fast.
It took me a long time to develop what I would call a fluency. It was three years at the University of Tokyo, as a regular student listening to lectures, that really helped me break through that initial wall and get to the place where I could handle the language. After that, I studied frantically, urgently, all the time, singlemindedly attempting to learn it well enough to that the Japanese would stop pointing fingers at me and saying, “Oh, isn't that charming; you're trying to speak our language.”
It used to drive me crazy. I had that additional incentive, which people had in the sixties, even seventies, of being made to feel ridiculous for even attempting to break through into this culture by means of fluency in the language, which helped me somehow work even harder at it. Eventually, I became very fluent.
The classic story you hear from people who go to Japan is that, no matter how good a Westerner speaks it, you will always find people who pretend not understand you. Has that situation come along since you first went?
When I was first there, in the early sixties, that situation obtained dramatically, wherever you would go. You would get into a taxi cab and tell the fellow where to go in perfect Japanese, and he would turn to the Japanese companion and ask them, “Where do you wanna go?” Or you try and buy railroad tickets and people would wave their hands in front of their faces, which is the signal for “Can't understand, call for an interpreter,” and so on.
That's changed a very considerable deal over the decades. I would have to say that the Japanese are still surprisingly parochial about their international understanding, that everybody can get by just fine in their culture as they can in ours, and I still encounter people who give you the standard “Do you use chopsticks? How amazing! Can you read the little phonetic scripts? How amazing! You don't read characters, I'm sure” and so on, and so forth. It's much, much better than it used to be.
What does that say about Japanese identity, about what they think about themselves, the fact that they assume foreigners shouldn't be able to grasp their language like they can?
What it says, in my own view, is that they are very uneasy about their own identities as Japanese, and there's a defensiveness which is put up between themselves and outsiders attempting to break through into some kind of par with them.
The French are very arrogant; you can never speak French well enough to satisfy a Frenchman. But that comes from a very different part of the brain, it seems to me, having to do with a certain kind of cultural arrogance, than the Japanese situation, where everything is kind of shaky, where identity itself, particularly in moments of crisis, is shaky.
How did you get to point where you were translating literature? I know that's a long story, but what brought you to that occupation
I always was in awe of writers, and of literature in general. The translator, in those days, seemed to me to be someone who — how can I put this? — was sort of in a halfway house between normalcy and the wild, absurd craziness of artistry, so to speak. I dreamed that it would be a wonderful thing to do, as a means of becoming a writer, a very challenging and worthwhile métier.
In my own case, I was very lucky. I saw the opportunity to do this in a bigtime way; it dropped into my lap. I had done a few stories and published them in a small quarterly publication called The Japan Quarterly when a fellow from Alfred A. Knopf named Harold Strauss came to Japan searching for a new translator for Yukio Mishima. Donald Keene, who had been his translator, was working on something else and had declined to do the next book. Knopf had a deadline and an obligation to Mishima to get a new book out, and Harold, who was the only person in American publishing in those days who knew any Japanese at all — there's a lot of controversy among us about he actually knew, but he pretended to know a lot — was in Japan searching around.
Someone said, “Well, there's this American guy who rides his motorcycle to the University of Tokyo every day. He seems to speak with rapid-fire, surprising fluency. You oughta meet him.” So I got this phone call from Harold Strauss saying to me, “How would you like to meet Yukio Mishima?” Of course I was overwhelmed by that, and I did meet him, and one thing led to another and I became the translator of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea when I was 23 as a result of this very good fortune.
Yukio Mishima, at least in this country, we think of as the guy who committed suicide after trying to rouse the Japanese army, but what sort of a guy did you know at that time? Of course, it was much earlier than when he had formed his own paramilitary outfit and all that.
Creepily, It wasn't that much earlier, believe it or not. I met Mishima in 1963, and he killed himself in 1970, so it was only seven years, an amazingly steep incline that he traversed between that moment and the final end, although there were many elements about him at the time that I didn't even know very well which were pointing in that direction.
The man that I met and knew was the most flamboyantly international Japanese artist, known around the world. He'd flown in a fighter plane, he'd conducted a symphony, he'd been to America and all around the world, he wore British suits, he lived a very gaudy, showy life. And of course he wrote prolifically, both popular potboiler novels and serious ones. By 1963, he'd already created some of his best works.
He was a flamboyant, famous personage on the Japanese scene who was very good at letting each person he was involved in see about him only that aspect that he wanted to reveal. Each person had a different sense of who Mishima was. Consequently, when he killed himself seven years later, there were lots of people, including me, who thought, “My god, I thought I knew this man, but look what he's gone and done. How can I possibly account for this?”
It's so interesting you say that he was international in that way, and yet is known now as the ultimate nationalist, in some ways.
Absolutely. Ultra-nationalist, really. There is, of course, a huge contradiction there, and there are complex reasons, some of which I understand and undoubtedly many which I don't, that drove him into this position. If I had to sum it up in a word, and I actually wrote a whole book about this particular conviction of mine, I would say that he had created for himself a situation in which he was able to feel that he was a warrior on a battlefield dying a martyr's death.
The only way he could do that in a “weak, piping time of peace,” to quote Richard III, was to create a mini-insurrection and simulate a situation in which he could be a warrior killing himself, committing hara-kiri. That takes you in an ultra-nationalist direction, obviously, even though, up to the day before, he would have conversations with Donald Keene and many, many Westerners. He was not a xenophobe by any means at all, except in this guise and pose that he took onto himself.
To get off on a bit of a tangent, Japanese nationalism and death — why are they so intertwined?
When you look at bushido, the way of the samurai, the way of the Japanese warrior, you can say that it's one of the world's most highly embellished and complex death trips. The standard proprietary protocol book for the samurai, In the Shadow of the Fallen Leaves, Hagakure, which Mishima actually wrote a lot about, begins with a long section on the warrior's constant, day-to-day, hour-to-hour readiness to die, and to die nobly, bravely and heroically. They carry rouge in their little brocade bags so in case you're sliced, you won't look pale at the time of death and so forth.
Death in the cause, and the death of a martyr, particularly but not exclusively, had always been one of the principal goals and virtues in the way of the warrior. That's a — much too shallow, to be sure, but — schematic explanation of the connection between death and ultranationalism.
How did you approach the project of translating the Mishima novel? What did you think you were in for, versus what you actually found the task to entail?
That's a great question — this took place, you know, about 45 years ago, right? I was very excited, I know that. I went out and bought myself the same Mont Blanc pen that all the Japanese bigshots used. It cost about 200 bucks; my total pay on the Mishima job was 400, so I spent half of it on this fat, cigar-like fountain pen and a big notebook so I could feel just like Mishima. I worked at night. I have to say that I took to this very naturally from the very beginning. I read this material with excitement and some very considerable fluency, and then I began to transform it into English.
That process, from the beginning, particularly in Mishima's case, always felt very natural to me. I can't tell you a story about how I expected one thing and found the other to be the case; I didn't have expectations. I just had this experience which I thrived on and relished as I went along. Of course, it's much easier on some level to translate someone else's novel than it is to write one of your own, that's for sure. The fact of the matter is that just now, 45 years later, I'm finally writing a novel and beginning to consider that maybe I can be a novelist too, now that I've grown up. That shows you how much easier it is to do one that the other, in my case.
The job of translation — it's not something people generally know about the nuts and bolts of. I think there's a perception that the translator, being fluent in the original language, reads it. and then there's a line direct from their brain that translates it, and their hand just writes it out. I know it's not that simple, and you know it's not that simple. Why is it not that timple?
First of all, even in languages that are related to English — Romance languages, for example — there is an enormous chasm separating the mode of expression, the genius of expression, in, say, French or German, from the mode of expression in English, the intentionality to communicate in English. So it's not as though there's ever a simple one-to-one equivalency that the translator needs merely invoke and mechanically create.
When you're talking about moving across a gulf between a language like Japanese and a language, now we're talking about a stellar gulf, like the distance between the stars. Basically, you have to read. All translation begins with reading. Ideally, you would be the writer's best reader. Now, that's unlikely, but you should be able to read everything in the text, including things the writer didn't intend, so that it sings to you in exactly the kind of melody he was hearing himself as he wrote.
Then, there's what I've always thought of as a mystical transitional phase, the bridge phase where you allow this music to go through some kind of filter in your linguistic and creative self and begin to reformulate it in English, with equivalence and so on. The third part of this is that, ideally, the translator should be as good a writer in his own language as the original author is in his, which is of course very, very unlikely, if not impossible. I used to tell myself — for many, many years I nourished this fiction, a comforting fiction to me — that even if James Joyce had known Japanese as miraculously well as I did, he wouldn't be as good a translator, because I had a special translator's gift.
I must tell you that, quite a while ago, the magic of that incantation went away and I realized that was complete nonsense, and that in fact if James Joyce knew Japanese as well as I do, he would be a much better translator than I, of Kenzaburo Oe in this case, because he was a much better writer. But certainly, there's very little about it that is mechanical or automatic, that's for sure, which is why, sophisticated as the new computer technology for translation has become, I think it's ultimately very unlikely that you get great translations, for example, of great poetry, great fiction, great prose, processed by a machine.
I read a lot of Japanese literature, but I don't know Japanese, so I'm reading it in translation. I tend to follow the translators that I think do a good job, because maybe they'll do justice to an author. What do you think typically separates a good, serviceable translator of Japanese literature from a great one?
Good question. If I gave you volumes of fiction, one by Hemingway, one by Henry James, Joyce, Steinbeck or something, and you opened them in the middle of the books, you would immediately discern striking stylistic differences among them, You would see something like a voiceprint — that's called style.
If you open volumes of Japanese fiction, you would find the same thing: Tanizaki has an unmistakable style, as does Mishima, as does Oe. If I were to give you volumes of Japanese literature in English and ask you to open them, I dareday that you might be able to distinguish by theme: if what you saw was about feet, you'd say, “Oh, this is Tanizaki.” If you saw someone being kissed which invoked images of death, you might say Mishima. But you would be at pains, you would be in a real fix, if you tried to see an absolutely unmistakable stylistic differentiation among these works.
That's where the crux of it comes. Recreating the author's voice is the ultimate task, in my own view, of the translator. How do you do that? Who knows? Can you do it? Yes, if you understand style and have style of your own. All I can say is that when you open something in English that's been translated from Japanese and get a sense that there is a real stylistic coherency and presence in when you're reading, then you can probably be sure that you're in the hands of a better translator.
You've translated Oe, you've translated Mishima. What were the biggest differences in those jobs?
Great question. Mishima is someone who had tremendous envy for, and a longing to belong at the center of, Japanese things. That is to say, he wanted to be part of a tradition of aristocracy and elegance that he actually wasn't by birthright. Therefore, his language was a kind of a model extraordinaire of Japanese operating at its most tradtional and appropriate brilliance. That means that when you translate Mishima, if you find the right little stone, you can put it into a mosaic and it will fit, it will click in, because he's doing to the Japanese language something which is brilliant but which is not violent.
Oe, like many people on the outside of things — he was reading Camus, for example — was at pains to destroy the Japanese language. As a matter of fact, he would write and then he would rewrite in such a way as to completely unpack and tear part, and then rebuild in rhythms and formats and syntaxes which were very, very unsuitable to, inappropriate for, the language. That's much, much harder to do, because when you try to recreate the voice of Oe in English, you have issues of piling syntax with these heaping things that will break the syntactical back of the English sentence. Mishima ultimately is much easier: if you're just patient and know some words, chances are you'll get a mosaic that looks like Mishima. With Oe, it's a very different matter.
Is it true, what I hear that, in Japanese, Oe writes “Western”?
Oe has been accused of “reeking of butter,” which is a way of saying foreignness, from the moment he began to write as a junior in the University of Tokyo. And of course it's true that this is a man who was immensely, deeply read in Western languages: French, German, English, Italian, Greek, you name it. It's also true, as I mentioned to you, that he was trying to break down the Japanese language into something else. Tanizaki, when he read early Oe, said, “If this is Japanese, I'm putting my fountain pen away.”
It's certainly true that Oe writes a Japanese language which is a brutalization, in some sense, but is that Western? I would say certainly not. It in fact is a language which incorporates rhythms and syntaxes that evoke Western structure, but it is entirely his own, and to call it just an imitation of Western language is nonsense.
Give me your impressions of the literary climate of sixties Japan, because it sounds like a wonderful scene to be in, and you were right there.
There's this Japanese word the bundan, which means the literary community. The bundan in the 1960s was in its heyday. You had all of the old great guys still around — Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima — and then you had a whole group of new postwar writers, younger guys, who were there and very exciting, and there really was a sense of fraternization, and an understanding of the difficult, lonely, challenging task that writing was.
When you were around these people, observing, submerged in, or at least having access to this community, it was a very exciting experience. Today, the bundan scarcely exists at all. Japanese writers may occasionally meet each other at parties, but there's no more brotherhood, no more community of creative writers. And of course, there aren't as many great writers anyway. The writing community was exciting. There were more talented people alive and at work in Japan together at that time than at any time before or since.
Do you think you could hazard a guess as to why that disintegration happened?
Some of it has to do with what we might just call zeitgeist. There are times in every literary history when you get more, greater and more important writers than at other times. Society, for complex reasons, nurtures them, gives them things to say, stimulates them, provokes them, whatever. It's hard for me to figure out why the sixties should have been as cohesively exciting as they in fact were, except, what I could say is that the war was a tremendous discontinuity and a tremendously frustrating impediment, jamming up, damming up of literary energy. That broke open in 1945, and it's possible to say that it took fifteen years for that unleashing of tremendous energy and vision, dedication and excitement, to reach maturation, which it did in the sixties. I'm just hazarding an explanation, but it seems to me not entirely implausible.
In your new book, you discuss your friendship with Kobo Abe and Oe, who were friends at that time. What was it like to be this third point of that triangle?
It was unforgettable and amazing. Oh boy, I mean — Abe was sort of like an elder brother figure, maybe ten years older than Oe. Abe would scold Oe and reproach him for being careless or whatever. Oe was actually in awe of Abe for much of that time. I met Abe the first time when Oe brought him to my house one day. There was a knock on my door, and I opened my door. There was Oe, and behind him was this Japanese. “I want you to meet Kobo Abe,”
This is an amazing time; when Kenzaburo Oe brings Kobo Abe to your house, that's far out. And Abe, who was always en Epicurean, showed up with this bottle of Bulgarian brandy, which he insisted was much better than French brandy. So we sat around and we talked about identity and Jewish identity. As you know, Abe grew up in Manchuria, was there at the end of the war when the Russian Cossacks rode their hordes through his house, and had a huge obsession with the nature of identity, which is a central theme of that he does.
They were as different as two people could be. Oe was kind of a country bumpkin, uptight, rigid in many ways, whereas Abe was as open and as loosey-goosey as you could imagine. This is a little contradictory, I realize, but Abe would put on his special imported Viennese leather driving gloves when he got into his BMW, which at the time was the only BMW in town. Oe was, of course, riding his son on his bicycle and looked at this with a combination of dismay and judgment.
In every way stylistically they were totally different guys, but they were very close, and of course they were very smart, and they loved to talk about literature. To be sitting around there as the youngster in the group — I was five years younger than Oe and maybe fifteen years younger than Abe — I was in my mid-twenties when this was going on, and I would go to their houses, and they would come, and the wives would be there and we'd just sit around and talk and I would do a lot of listening. I would also shoot my mouth off, which I'm very embarrassed about when I recall it now. But it was a great way to spend time, I can tell you.
I was translating Oe at the time. I never really translated Abe, even though he wanted me to. I did one short story. Something didn't draw me to his work, and it was a little bit awkward, actually, as the years went on, because a translator is very important to these guys, and there weren't that many good translators around. They knew I could translate, and that was maybe one of the sources, originally, of their interest.
We had a kind of sympathetic harmony: we would talk about things, we would resonate off each other. I wouldn't presume to put myself in their class, but in my own way, I guess I managed to hold up some kind of an end that they enjoyed being around. We just had a good time together, really.
How did you become a documentarian in Japan?
Film is another thing that I always knew, even though I had never done it, that I could do. Don't ask me why; I just knew. The first thing I did was a film called Full Moon Lunch, an hour-long documentary designed for PBS. I had this idea to do a trilogy of films that would take cameras into absolutely ordinary Japanese life more deeply than had ever been done before, and to try to create portraits that would take American audiences beyond cliché and caricature to the Japanese as just real people like ourselves: equally contradictory, equally wise, equally foolish, what have you. I just wanted to do this.
My film thing began before this. Oe had made me his agent for film scripts about his books in the United States. One day, when I was at Harvard the second time around, in the late sixties, in the society of fellows I was at the time, I was forwarded this script written by someone working for Burt Lancaster Productions, an American adaptation of A Personal Matter, a novel I had translated. I thought it was really lame, literal and plodding, so I said, “Okay, I'm in this marvelously enviable position. I have two years to do what I want. I can do better than this.” So I scotched that project and began to write my own screenplay about A Personal Matter.
I worked on it for a long time, for about a year, and of course the society of fellows viewed this as a decadent digression or descent from the high level I was supposed to be operating on. I remember very clearly, this fellow named Wassily Leontief, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who was the chairman of the society in those days, came to me and said, in his heavy Slavic accent, “You know, Mr. Nathan, there is a Yale guy who's applied to get into the society who is also a screenwriter.” I said, “Oh, that sounds wonderful. What are his chances?” He said, “He has no chances. First junior fellow, then butterfly. Never other way around.” Which was Leontief's way of letting me know that he didn't think screenwriting was an avocation I should be pursuing.
In any event, I wrote this thing, took it to New York, and ended up with some agents who liked it and were going to get produced. I wanted to direct it. I just did. I was arrogant, I suppose. They said, “No, you can't direct it.” I said, “What if I get Hiroshi Teshigahara involved and do it with him?” They said okay. We brought Teshigahara to this country and the project fell through. But as Teshigahara was leaving to return to Japan, I brought up the idea of making a film about American deserters from Vietnam in the Japanese underground. Four months later, he raised the money for that, and we made this film together called Summer Soldiers, which infected me with filmmaking. I guess that's how I should've begun.
Five years later, as a professor at Princeton, I thought, “I'd love to do some more stuff.” I raised money to do this first documentary of mine called Full Moon Lunch, and went to Tokyo with some money, used the same crew we had with Summer Soldiers, and in the course of a summer found this marvelous family of caterers in downtown sort of Cockney Tokyo and shot, wrote and edited this film, which I took back and showed to PBS. They just said, “Wow. We'll put it on the air right now.” It was broadcast nationally a few weeks later. In those days, I took those sort of things almost for granted. Now, I realize that's quite a nice thing to have happen. It got excellent reviews, and that's how I begin.
What impression of Japanese people existed among Americans that you wanted to either contradict with your movies or augment or somehow change?
I wanted — I shouldn't use the word “contradict” — to enlarge and complicate, deepen, the sort of clichéd version of the Japanese which had obtained since Pearl Harbor, which is, “Here you have an inscrutable, fox-like, dangerous, lethal, humorless little people who run around and smile at you while they're planning to bomb your harbor.” Which is sort of the way the Japanese were held here. All the rest was left out in the process of caricaturizing.
There was a lot of work to do; it's not as though I had to make little corrections. It seemed to me, having lived there for many years at that time, loving the Japanese in many ways and obviously not loving them in others, that a great way to do that would be to show people how these Japanese really were, just in their daily lives. That's what I set out to do.
Were you surprised by anything you found there, or did you already know what you were going to get going in?
I ended up doing three of these things, and each one is sort of a portrait of an individual or a family. In each case, there were all kinds of levels of revelation that would surface in the process of making a documentary film. I certainly didn't know what I was going to get going in; I just knew what I hoped I would get, which would be an individual, fascinating, different from American yet undeniably human and in that sense familiar portrait of people who were different from ourselves, yet very like ourselves, as every man is like every other man.
The second in the series, Farm Song — what was your idea that led you to the farm?
I had been north in this particular part of Japan before. It always struck me as a very interesting region. This is in the snow country, to the north of Tokyo 300 or 400 miles and then a little bit inland from Sendai, for example. It's a rural area, and there's sort of a dark, laconic, uneasy feeling about it which attracted me, which appealed to me.
It's so different from the sort of Tokyo briskness and brittleness on the surface which my first family manifested in the film. The notion of “What is a Japanese farmer like?” — I thought, “Does someone in Nebraska who gets onto a combine and drives across hundreds of acres of wheat beneath these icy blue storms forming, could they possibly imagine this totally different world which is nonetheless a farm world?” That's why I wanted to do it.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you got [Toru] Takemitsu, the great composer, to score that one, right?
Yes. That was wonderful. He was a friend, a very, very close friend of Oe's. He and Oe were really best friends, and I had known Toru for some time. I had known him in New York, and I had known him in Tokyo. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. One day we were working on the rough cut of this film, and I thought, “God…” I just called Toru and said, “I want you to come and see this. If you like this, would you do the score?” He came in, we showed him a two-hour version, and he said, “I'll do it.” I thought, “Wow.”
The real wow, of course, came about five weeks later. One doesn't — at least John Nathan didn't — tell Takemitsu what kind of music he wanted him to write for this movie. So he comes back with this amazing score for about eight instruments, including bass flutes and drums and all these other wonderful things. I think, by the way, that this is one of the greatest film scores Takemitsu ever wrote.
And the most amazing thing was his choices of where to put the music against the picture, which were not my choices. He would do these things which I would never have dreamed of doing, which just transformed these moments of the film. I remember the first time we actually put the music up against the picture, it was a breathtaking experience. What he had done was so amazing. We didn't have a lot of money, and Toru at that time was getting huge fees. He didn't take that much money for himself, and his instrumentation was relatively minimal. But it's just extraordinary.
He was scoring for Kurosawa and such at that time, wasn't he?
Oh, everybody, But more importantly than that, the New York Philharmonic was commissioning him. He was, at that point, a hugely-known international composer.
What are your impressions of Takemitsu the man?
Takemitsu was a tiny, frail man, very modest and retiring, with immense intelligence and creative power that would knock you across the room when you were around him. He was a philosopher; he wrote very complexly about music and other things. He loved movies.
You know, I used to go into movie theaters in Tokyo at one point — and a couple times in New York, even — in the middle of the day, which was something frowned on. There would be like three people in the theater, two perverts, and Takemitsu would be sitting there watching the film in the third row. I couldn't believe my eyes; I would sit there, and there would be Toru-san.
He was very warm. He was funny. He was an enchanted presence, enchanted and enchanting. Charmed. Strangely otherworldy, in a funny way, but very there at the same time. It's hard to describe him — I have difficulty doing it — but just a wonderful and gifted guy.
The third documentary in the “Japanese trilogy” — a fair departure from the first two in terms of the scale of subject. You move from these two families to Shintaro Katsu, the famed movie star, Zatoichi.
You're certainly right to say the Katsu film was very different from the other two. Japan has its own gangster, Frank Sinatra, Las Vegas mix of stuff. I thought to myself, “Who's the most virulent character that I know that crosses these world?” I came up, of course, with the most vulgar, the most violent — also talented, in his way, of course — and that's how I chose the movie start Shintaro Katsu.
I went to Kyoto to see him. He was directing himself in those days, in this ongoing series of movies about the blind swordsman. I went with a print of Full Moon Lunch, which he asked me to show him. I thought, “Oh my god, he's going to see this very banal — from his point of view — ordinary thing, and he won't like it,” but in fact he did like it, so I made this movie.
It's in many ways the least good of the films, because I was not clear enough that I wanted to be like him, somehow, as I made the film. In fact, I did transform: my voice got deeper, I drank more heavily, I ordered people around. I emulated his style. There's not enough explanation or distance. There's too much homage and too little critical portraiture.
But my purpose was to shock American audiences into the realization that this aspect of Japanese life also existed. When I showed these films to one of my major benefactors in New York, the executive director of the Luce Foundation, she rose after about fifteen minutes into the Katsu film and walked out of the theater, which was very embarrassing and awkward.
What offended her about that?
Katsu has offended particularly female audiences; he's a very vulgar, rude, crude, violent guy, with some extremely refined elements as well underneath the surface. Many Japanese were offended. They would say, “How dare you title a trilogy 'The Japanese' and include a vulgarian like Katsu as though he's representative of the Japanese?”, which is a point that I, today, of course understand. In those days, I was extremely defensive about that.
Was Katsu thought of in Japan as a vulgarian widely, or was that more of a revelation to Japanese audiences? Was he known as what you showed him as?
When you think of the Rat Pack, that's the way the Japanese related to Katsu, and that's the kind of image that he labored, very successfully, to convey and project.
I guess I should be clear on what the reaction was to your documentary. You describe a few negative reactions in the book, but you also describe the positive reactions as well. Who was it that liked it? Who was it that disliked it?
I don't really know much about “Japanese” reaction to the film, because these films have only been shown in a very limited way in Japan since they were made many years ago. Interestingly, as far as Katsu himself is concerned, I thought that Katsu liked this film. I remember him having said things like, “I've discovered myself in here, and I'm a pretty likable guy,” My dear friend Donald Ritchie, in his memoir, describes sitting around talking to Katsu and saying, “I knew Katsu hated Nathan's film.” I assume that was probably the truth, because it reveals aspects of himself that he didn't like, maybe, I don't know.
Here, the film was critically rather well received. I think the Christian Science Monitor called it “a ribald adventure in personality” and so on. There are some people who enjoyed it. I think it's not nearly as good a film as the other two. There's not enough explanation, and as I say, it's too identified with its subject. There were a lot of audiences, particularly in the academy, who were offended by this picture. It's not as though they had to insist that everything be the moon shining on the lake and cherry blossoms and so on, but this went too far.
I was reveling in how over-the-top it was at the time, with my necklace I wore and my three packs of cigarettes a day habit, my rough voice, my big hands, the whole thing. I thought that was just great and very groovy, but a lot of people didn't.
What was it like keeping up with Katsu's entourage when you had to film this thing?
It was murder. It was very hard. First of all, the crew that I was working with, with whom I was very close by this time because we'd already done two other films together, were terrified to be working in Kyoto. As they told me and as my production manager told me, the Kyoto filmmakers were gangsters themselves, and since we were going to be filming a film, if we got in their way… everybody was very uneasy.
As it turned out, nothing like that happened. Everything went fine. Katsu would go out all night and charter bars and geisha clubs and kick everybody out and party. He could do this day after day after day and go straight to the set, having consumed god knows how much vodka and brandy. Nobody else could do it. We had several people in the hospital in the course of the month we spent following him around. People were just dropping like flies.
We had to be on call for all of this, hoping as I did to capture some of this stuff. Nothing a filmmaker hates worse, a Japanese filmmaker in particular — at the end of the day, a Japanese filmmaker goes home, takes a hot bath, and sits there and plays mah-jongg with some cigarettes and some brandy and some whiskey. They do not like to stand around all night waiting to go out to a bar. I had a lot of difficulty managing my own crew.
You had this quote from him in the book. He says, “In Japan, you cannot win.” What did he mean?
A lot of what Katsu said was spoken through a haze of alcohol and drug-induced delusion. It's a little hard for me to tell you exactly what he meant. He was just saying, I think, “You seem to be carrying on here as though you belonged, but no foreigner ever really belongs here.” I took it in a very different way than that, but it hit me very hard.
My whispered answer to myself was, “I think he hit it right on the head. I'm outta here.” Shortly after that, I did leave Japan for a number of years, looking to put it behind me because I felt that the pet monkey kind of attention that I was earning for myself wasn't genuine, and wasn't going to satisfy my insatiable desire to feel special.
What do you think was motivating him during his life? What was he going after?
This is a very complex guy. Remember that he was the eldest son of a great shamisen master who was the founder of his own shamisen school, so Katsu had been raised as a musician, and a very good one, on this instrument, and was expected by the family to take over this very lucrative, wealthy empire that his father had built. Interestingly, Teshigahara, the director, was in exactly the same place, except more even grandly, because his father was the head of the school, the Sogetsu Flower. For that reason, Katsu and Teshigahara had a very close bond.
He begins that way, and undoubtedly has some very inflated expectations about himself as an artist. Then he meets James Dean in America and decides — god knows why — “I want to be a movie star.” So he tries that for a while, it doesn't work, then he becomes Zatoichi and becomes a bigshot and a super-duper movie star, but in a very limited sort of way.
You know, I would say that Katsu, who was very talented in many ways, was very lacking, ultimately, in clear, long-term vision. His indulgence in drugs and ad alcohol and everything else may have made it very difficult for him. I think he was very unmoored. My principal evidence is that he had an opportunity to star in a Kurosawa film, which would've been an amazingly wonderful thing for him. Kurosawa had actually cast him as the lead in The Shadow Warriors, as it's known in English. On the first day of the shoot, Katsu shows up on Kurosawa's set with his own documentary team. Kurosawa asks, “What's this?” He says, “Well, I'm going to make a film school, and I want to shoot myself working for you.” Whereupon Kurosawa immediately fires him and hires [Tatsuya] Nakadai.
Now, any moron would have know that you do not go to Akira Kurosawa's set with your own film crew and tell him that you're going to do something. That's just not the way it works. This was the Emperor; he was known in Japan as “the Emperor.” I think Katsu did himself a terrible, career-damaging disservice, because he was a good actor — at least, he might have been. In Kurosawa's hands, who knows what kind of a performance he might have given. After all, Toshiro Mifune is horrible in any movie but a Kurosawa movie. That's partial evidence that a great director really does control and create a great actor, to some extent.
If you'd asked Katsu — I mean, he had a very arrogant, inflated vision of himself, but ultimately he was a very sad man, and he met a very unfortunate end in bankruptcy and drug illness and all kinds of other stuff.
How did you run away from Japan when you decided it was time to disassociate yourself a little bit from the country that had been your thing?
What happened was, my film Summer Soldiers, the film I made with Teshigahara, opened in New York at the Lincoln Center film festival and did quite well critically but was a complete and total bust. It ran for like two and a half weeks at the 68th Street Playhouse and that was the end of it. One of the many things I regret about my life, if I'm in the regret mode, is that I hadn't stuck with it and gone to Hollywood at that point and tried to keep working. But in fact, I had been offered a job at Princeton, at that moment had two young kids, and thought, “You know, this film isn't gonna take me anywhere, so I'd better do something else.”
I became a professor at Princeton, and I was there for seven years. At the end of the seven years, 1979 was the year, my wife, Mayumi Oda, who was a very well-known printmaker, among other things, had decided that she wanted to move to California. I decided that I would go with her, for various reasons, but one of the principal ones was that I wanted to feel like I was still the head of the household, that I would go and take her with me. In fact, that isn't want happened, really. I just resigned my Princeton full professorship at that moment, something Princeton took a while to forgive having done and which was sort of crazy.
That coincided with this sense of mine that the Japan thing had played out, and Katsu had given me his warning. I made that film in 1978, and this was the following year. I thought, “Okay, I'm gonna leave this whole deal, go to California and be a regular filmmaker and I'm not going to have anything to do with Japan.” So I moved. I threw my credentials away, and it was pretty scary. I found myself living in Mill Valley, sitting at a typewriter, an IBM Selectric, like 800 million other guys, writing a screenplay. Who was I? I was nobody. Not that I'd been anybody before, but at least I had a Japanese job before. That's how that came about, and that went on for quite a long time. It took me into a whole new career of filmmaking and writing and so on that had nothing to do with Japan whatsoever, until the end of the eighties. I was away completely for more than ten years.
How would you characterize your experience in the American film industry, getting in and what you did there?
Disastrous. I was a bust. I wrote an original screenplay based loosely on my life in Arizona as a high school kid with a band of kids from the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. I had these wonderful jazz musicians that were blind, and I called this thing The Gentlemen of Rhythm. I took it to Hollywood, and the writing got me a bunch of jobs. Nobody wanted to produce the film, but I ended up writing television movies for NBC and for everybody, sort of. But only one or two rounds, and I got paid very well for that.
For the first six or eight months, I thought, “Wow, this is great.” Then, of course, I wanted to do something of my own, and that's where I got in trouble. I couldn't really sell anything, and I couldn't write anything, and I got all tied up in knots about Hollywood and hated it and resented it. At that point, a business film came along, In Search of Excellence, and I took off on that tangent, began making these long business documentaries.
I had no reason to do that, and I shouldn't have done it, I suppose, but that's what I did. For ten years, that carried me in a totally different direction as a filmmaker. I ended up directing commercials for AT&T that ended up on the Super Bowl and stuff like that. It was all sort of exciting, but it never went anywhere. It was aimless, basically, sort of an aimless ten years of being in the film business.
During that stretch of time, I take it you weren't working toward any goals that you actually held. Or did you feel like you might have been at the time?
No, even at the time I knew that I was neither pursuing my interest in Japan — which I hadn't lost, really — or furthering my career as a filmmaker. I was doing all kinds of movies, but they were business movies and television commercials. It was not necessarily all junk, but it was stuff I had no particular urgency about doing. I didn't feel it was what I ought to be doing. That was a very, to me, lucrative and ungratifying ten years of my life which I wish I could have back.
Was the idea behind a lot of it to just see what you could be without Japan in the picture at all?
Originally, I think that was my incentive, to prove to myself that didn't need Japan, didn't need the exoticism of Japan, to excel. Some people would say, “Gee, John, it seems to me as though what you proved was that you did.” I don't know if that's fair. By some lights, I suppose I was moderately successful in these other things as well — everybody doesn't get a commercial that he writes and directs on the Super Bowl — but I don't think the conclusion I came to was that I couldn't make it without Japan. Rather, what I was doing was taking me in the wrong direction.
During your time in the academy in America, how satisfying did you find that experience?
Apparently I didn't find it nearly as satisfying as I ought to, or I wouldn't have resigned! I subsequently regretted having resigned. After all, I was a full professor at Princeton in my low thirties. We had a beautiful place to live, and the students were wonderful.
Ultimately, I felt frustrated about being “only” a college professor. Now, there are many great teachers and great professors who are thrilled to be “only” college professors, and there are others who are thrilled to be a college professor some of the time, and something else some of the time. I suppose, ultimately, that's what I became: thrilled to be a college professor some of the time and hoping to be other things other times. That's how I describe myself now.
What brought you to make The Colonel Goes to Japan, the documentary on KFC and their campaigns in Japan?
That was another one of these things that just fell my way. There was a very powerful and successful Israeli television producer, who at the time — 1980, 1981 — was producing at WGBH Boston a very interesting series of half-hour programs called Enterprise. Each one was a business story with a real beginning, a real middle and a real end — documentary portraits, basically, of the business process. This was underwritten by Merill Lynch, doing very well.
Out of the blue he said, “I've seen your Japan movies, which I like very much. Would you be interested in making a business film for us in Japan?” I said, “Of course not. I hate business.” Then I thought, “Wait a minute. That might be interesting.” I went to Japan and found this marvelously funny story about this crazy guy who was running Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tokyo and made a noir portrait of his attempt to insinuate Kentucky Fried Chicken into the daily lives of the Japanese, which he did, very successfully and diabolocally.
How does one manage to do that? I don't picture KFC as something that — stereotyping, perhaps — a Japanese person would like.
That's a great question, because what determined me to do this particular program was an advertising session I was invited to observe in which the Japanese company McCann-Erickson Hakuhodo, which was a joint venture in Japan at the time, was pitching a new commercial campaign to this fellow who ran the American business there. The campaign was called “KFC as Traditional Southern Food”.
They always start with a 60-second great big production number, and they had a storyboard. The story it tells was of the Colonel as a seven-year-old baking some rye bread, and then there's a dissolve. Twenty years later, the Colonel's traditional love for food and cuisine and the south transforms into Kentucky Fried Chicken. They're playing “Old Kentucky Home” and so on. The American guy says, “What? Who's gonna buy that?” They said, “Well, we've tested it.”
It turned out to be the most successful food commercial campaign ever staged in Japan. They sold, Kentucky Fried Chicken as this traditional southern, aristocratic American food. At that time, the early eighties, this sort of mystique of the United States still obtained. That would never work today, although I must say that, not that long ago, about five years ago, a student of mine here at UCSB went to Tokyo and sent me back a menu which completely blew my mind: Kentucky Fried Chicken's Christmas announcement, in which they advertised that most American families celebrated Christmas day with a bucket of KFC and all the fixings. This became the greatest Christmas year gross for KFC in Japan. It still works! This was not so long ago; maybe six years ago. I couldn't believe my eyes when I received this menu. That was the story that I followed in that film.
What does it say about the Japanese consumer — there may be an analog in the American consumer somewhere — that they buy that particular way of framing the product, that this is an aristocratic southern thing — I guess the focus is tradition, that's what they're pushing.
If you track Japanese consumer patterns from 1945 to the nineties, you see this over and over and over again. When [Akio] Morita put out the Walkman, the first thing he did was to sell it in the United States. He didn't even release it in Japan. Then he brought it back, and this became known as the “boomerang effect”: “If the Americans loved it, we love it too.” This went on as a social phenomenon in Japan for a long, long, long, long time.
I think the bloom is very much coming off the rose at this point; it has been for some time. Who knows what they were thinking? Were they thinking about Gone with the Wind? It was sold as an American nourishment package. One of their campaigns said, “American mommies, when they pick their little kids up at preschool and early kindergarten, their first stop on the way home is KFC.” So the Japanese began releasing these little packages, after-school packages. All the moms would go there and buy their kids this stuff. It's just absolutely amazing.
Especially for something that seems so far out of the Japanese culinary tradition — it couldn't be farther.
Absolutely right. It's true.
You came back to Japan to do this documentary. Did you find anything that made you say to yourself, “Why did I ever leave Japan?”
Yes, I must say I did, although the truth is, though I made that film, I went back and made a bunch of other Enterprises about American things. That didn't lead, at that point, to an extended engagement in Japan again.
I felt happy to be there and I felt nostalgic and even rueful about having left the thing behind. I felt this even more powerfully later, when I went back in the middle of this commercial career that I found myself in in the late eighties. The National Gallery of Washington asked me to go make a film about eighteenth-century Japanese art, which I did. At that point, when I began filming calligraphers, I thought, “Oh my god, why haven't I been doing more of this?” That let me in the direction that brought me here to UCSB in 1994, after about a fifteen-year hiatus from the academy.
This is probably something that I should bring up. It'll shed light on your relationship with Japan: what Saul Bellow called you.
That's a very painful story that I did include in the book. Bellow came to Tokyo in 1974. I happened to be there at the time. I was of course in awe of Saul Bellow then, and, as a writer, now. I thought that novelists were the coolest people in the world, and Saul Bellow was way up high on my coolest-people-in-the-world list.
I was in a position in those days that when someone like Bellow came, I was often asked to be his guide. I undertook to take Saul Bellow around in his Virgil in Japan for a couple of weeks, and he had a sort of rocky time. His ego was getting in his way a lot. We had a good time — I thought we did — I took him to my home, I did this, that and the other thing and got to know him quite well. The day before he left, he said to me, “John, you are the best squaw man I have ever met.”
I didn't know what a squaw man was, and I said, “Saul, thank you. What is a squaw man?” He said, “Oh, a squaw man is a wealthy scion of an east coast American family who is suffering insecurity complex problems and who goes west and marries an Indian woman and sets up housekeeping with her in a tent on the reservation in a teepee, and that's his way of feeling special.” I, of course, was married to Mayumi Oda in those days, so Bellow was telling me that I was living in a teepee with my Japanese wife in order to feel special, which felled me like a crowbar at the time. In combination with the subsequent Katsu remark about “you cannot win,” that's when I added it up and said, “Okay, I'm outta here, I'm leaving my teepee.”
Do you think Bellow meant to insult you, or was that just kind of a humorous jab? I can't imagine that being delivered in any way that makes it seem innocuous.
You know, it was very deliberate. All I can say is — and I certainly don't want to speak ill of the dead, also I think he was a great genius — that he was a very nasty fellow. I have lots of evidence for that. I don't know; he just indulged in a mean impulse of the moment.
Someone else listening to this would say, “Oh, Nathan can't even see that Bellow was right.” Perhaps that's also true, but even if it was right, it was a very mean thing to say to somebody who had just spent two weeks doing everything to give hm a good time in Japan.
Speaking of Bellow and his type, a lot of very well-known people have walk-on roles in your memoir: there's Saul Bellow, there's Werner Herzog, Stewart Brand, Roy Scheider, Sandra Bernhard. There's so many that cross your path. I wonder what effect that had on you, your perception of celebrity culture, meeting all these people that didn't always show their most beautiful side to you.
I'm a pretty old guy. I've been around for quite a while, and so it's not surprising that I've met a lot of people. There are many people that I feel very fortunate to have not only encountered in a passing way but spent time with: people like Barney Rosset, for example, the great octogenarian publisher, founder of Grove Press.
The Hollywood bunch never stuck me as being that interesting, compared to the writers, whom I much prefer to spend time with. I do feel, looking back on my life, that I've been very fortunate. It's been a very rich experience for me. I've had a chance to meet a lot of wonderful people whom I look up to, who taught me a lot and who inspired me to behave in ways I might not have been able to think of doing otherwise.
The very title of your book, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere — “carelessly,” that's no mistake that word is there. Why that one?
A friend of mine who just read this book and who knows me quite well but I haven't seen in a long time says he was struck by the melancholy irony that runs through it. There is a fair amount of rue in this book, which is what I feel about my life. I feel that I have lived carelessly, not meaning insouciantly, by the way, but meaning without paying appropriate attention to things that should have mattered more.
This is going to be a real problem in Japanese; it's very hard to translate this into a decent title. I'm going to have to use something else, as a matter of fact. I tried to tone down the mea culpa to the extent that I could; nobody wants to read somebody putting on a hair shirt and lacerating himself. But there is a lot of regret in that book, and when I say living carelessly, that's what I mean. I think I have lived carelessly.
You've lived carelessly to the extent that you focused on certain things despite what was more important at the time. What was it that would draw your attention away from the more important things?
In this case, I'm mostly talking about relationships. People that I didn't treat with appropriate respect or care, or relationships that I let come unstiched or undone. I could extend that, actually, without getting into some kind of a hugely self-abnegatory spasm.
I think my life has been more or less “thrown,” which is a word I think Werner Herzog stole from Heidegger. It means not really planned. I have lacked a certain kind of continuity in my life, which I think has cost me a lot. I look at people I know who've been married for 45 years and lived in the same house in Cambridge or wherever. I and my family, we've moved maybe 40 times in that same period of time, between California and then Boston and then back and then here. Continuity is, I think, a valuable thing to have, something I did not obtain. Now, I value it perhaps much more than I ever did before, so that's good.
There's a phrase you use in the book that stuck with me. You talked about your “unceasing efforts to undermine” yourself. Is that literally true? Were you unceasingly undermining yourself in life?
Now we're starting to sound a little bit like an armchair psychiatric session. I don't think I've been aware of that, but I think recently, as I look back, I can in fact identify certain self-destructive tendencies of my own that kept me from achieving the kinds of levels in things that I would have liked to achieve.
Why is this the time to write a memoir? You've got books in you, you're working on books still, it's certainly not the end of a career.
I wrote it fairly quickly once I got it started, but it's been a good four years that I've been dealing with it and working on it. Why now? First of all, one feels one's own mortality closing oneself as you approach 70, which I'm doing. I've had some difficulties at home, with my kids and so on, that made me feel — I think this is actually a foolish thing to feel, now that I've done this, but — I want my kids to have some kind of a more positive sense of me than I felt they had as I began writing this book. It was kind of a gift from me to them.
I am still able to write. You say “Why now?” You get to be a certain age, you think, “Who knows next year whether I'll be able to write this or not?” It just felt like the time I wanted to do it. It wasn't like I should wait so I can do some more cool things that I could get in there. It seemed like now is the time to do it, and I'm very glad that I have done it.
You know, one of the things I'm most grateful about is that it has already served me as a kind of bridge across my past to reach out to people whose acquaintance I've let drop and want to renew. I can send this to people who would get a special pleasure out of it, and use that as an opportunity to reconnect with them. I'm very grateful to have it for that reason.
That's carelessness, you see. That's the carelessness in the title, letting connections lapse. Turns out the older you get, the more poignantly you understand that letting connections lapse is not a good idea.
Have you already got some people from your past back into your circle?
I have. In the early chapters of this book, a Japanese fellow named Kenj Naito appears, who's this wonderful young guy whom I first met at my post-Harvard job at Nomura Securities on Wall Street before I came to Tokyo. I hadn't seen him for — oh my goodness — thirty years. I went to Tokyo, and having written about him, I wanted to reach out to him. We became very close again. I sent him this book; he was very moved. That's an example. I could actually give you twenty examples of that.
On April Fool's Day, I'm going to be speaking about the book at Harvard, which is a place I always love to go back. The Reischauer Institute invited me to be there. That night, my wife and I and my daughter and son, my whole family, are going out for dinner with six other couples, all of whom were my former Harvard roommates. I haven't seen some of them in thirty years. Several of these guys are very illustrious guys now, and I was able to send this to them and say, “Here I am.” It helped me un-stop whatever it was that had clogged these connections, and it's a great thing to have.
You write a book about Mishima or Japan, it's very different. This is a book about me. It's like showing someone a mirror or giving them a portrait. I don't know how to describe it, but it works very powerfully.
I talk to people about entering into creative endeavors, and they always say one of the main rewards is that the works will connect you with people. It sounds like this one has more of that going on than even your average — if you write a novel, you'll find some people, but if you write something about yourself, this is going to have those people in it, and that'll be another draw for them, won't it?
Exactly. On the downside of that is the people who are not in it. You know, I originally wrote this not even imagining it would be published, because I thought memoirs are hard and I'm not a famous guy, so… and I'm very, very thrilled that Simon and Schuster took this book. But when you write that way, you're not in consideration about anybody particularly. What comes out is what comes out.
I was conscious of people in my life. Some, I didn't know what to write about them. Now, of course, I realize there are people who are going to get this thing and go right to the index and find themselves not there or in a few lines and are going to feel neglected or overlooked — hurt, abandoned, angry, who knows. Not to mention the interesting aspect having to do with one's family and how you reveal the family and what the family feels. I've had already a lot of… stuff around that issue, having shown the family sections and seeing how it goes down with them and so on. It's a very sensitive thing.
It seems to me that a writer of any memoir — and some admit to this — would ask themselves, “What are people going to learn from my life?” Is that a question you asked yourself?
Honestly, the answer would be that, consciously, I don't think I asked myself that question. It's not so much a question as it is a conviction of some kind: there are things about my life which brought me pleasure or understanding or pathos which I've always wanted to share with others. My movies are all about that, and my books too, in some sense: my desire to bring out and give you something that I've had. Whether you're going to learn from it or not? Maybe. I don't know about that.
But I think if it moves you in some way, that would please me. What I asked myself is, “Are there things in my story which others will find moving?” Beyond just interesting. Is that the same as learning? I don't know if it is, but I don't frame the question quite that way. I frame it, rather, in some kind of an emotional way: “Is this something that will move them the way it moved me?” And I hope it does.
Now that you've had all these experiences in Japan… and elsewhere, how had your attitude toward Japan come along? There are times in the book that it seems like the best thing thing that happened to you. There are times it seems like the bane of your existence, that you're tied to it.
The last chapter of this thing is called something like “Disengagement”, and I really say that I felt a considerable abatement inside me of the passion that I had felt in the past for Japanese studies and for Japan itself and for living in Japan. I feel a renewed interest in other parts of me that are undeveloped but that are part of my legacy, certainly.
The novel I'm writing now, hard, is about the lower east side of New York, which is where my roots are. I'm very interested in that world, for the first time in my life. I'm studying Yiddish for the first time in my life. I've swung into another place where I feel a real affinity. I was with my 20-year-old son this fall in Tokyo for three months; I was teaching at ICU and he was living with me and attending classes. He kept saying to me, “Hey dad, what is this place got to do with you?”
I said to him, “Toby, that's a really good and a really troubling question, and I don't have a great answer.” I began talking about things which are real: their sensitivity, their delicacy, the beauty of the stories. But he would look at this enormous, hulking New York guy, and he was saying, “What is this all about? What are you doing here?” Sometimes, in recent years, I confess I've asked myself that question. “What am I doing here? What was I doing there?” I think I understand many things about why I was there. It's not clear to me that it's as imperative I be there now as once it was.
You're a teacher at UCSB. You teach classes pretty regularly and you have kids of several ages. You're seeing a generation that's very much into Japan. Being someone who was interested in Japan kind of on the vanguard of that in America, what do you think of the way Japan — Japanese culture, Japanese stuff — for some American kids, a refuge?
I'm not the best person to ask about that. You're talking, of course, about anime and manga and some design elements and stuff like that. That's what it's about. You're talking about the otaku movement. This year, at ICU, we had students from UC campuses, and a number of them — maybe there were thirty kids total — studying in this program in Tokyo. More than half of them were computer and game addicts and freaks whose principal interest in Japan was this.
I have a very strong negative reaction to that, and I conducted myself accordingly. I said, “Look, you guys want to study that, you study that. I'm going to teach you wonderful things about Japan that you don't have any idea about, many of which are the fundament on top of which all this other stuff that wows you stands.” I don't know what to say about this. There's certainly a vitality in this kind of thing. I don't know whether these kids get as close as they might to the essence of what this is all about by approaching it through, say, manga or anime.
Do you ever meet kids you teach that are interested in Japan in the same way you were?
Good question. Yes, I do. Those are the students in whom I feel the most interest. They're sort of rare, I would say, but they're certainly there. Kids who are genuinely moved, in some ways they can't even express, by something they're feeling about Japanese sensibility, Japanese culture, Japanese achievement, who just want to pursue it because they feel as though they love it. Those are the kids I look for, and I do have them regularly, if in very small numbers.
What do you try to impress upon these kids? What do you want them to understand?
I don't expect them to understand this or that or anything else specific. I try to suggest to them that if they're feeling what they are, what they really need to do is pursue the essence of that by learning more and more, so they can get to a place where they understand what they feel and have reasons for feeling it. I want them to expand the focus of their interests, and I want them to deepen it. I want them to learn Japanese well, I want them to work hard, I want them to learn to read, to do all the things that I did in the process of rooting myself in this very foreign society and culture.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.