Books: This Great Stage of Fools
November 22, 2023 · 0 comments
By Jonathan Clements.
“Aren’t you making a mistake,” asks the lady selling cinema tickets.
“Almost certainly,” sighs Alan Booth, a man who came to Japan to study classical theatre, and who finds himself glumly commissioned to sit through a ghastly Japanese teen movie so he can review it for a newspaper.
No, says the ticket seller. This. Film. Is. In. Japanese.
She has entirely failed to notice that they have both been speaking Japanese all along – not for the last time in Booth’s exasperated chronicles of life as a gaijin in the Land of the Rising Sun.
At the time of his death in 1993, Booth was already famous for having written one of the best-ever books about travelling in Japan. The Roads to Sata (1985) chronicles his misadventures walking the literal length of the country, from its northernmost tip in Hokkaido, all the way to the titular cape in southern Kyushu. Few Japanese travel books have ever come close, in part because so many of them relentlessly play upon the motif of the hapless gaijin. A Japan veteran of some fifteen years’ standing, Booth spoke Japanese well enough not to have to guess at what was going on, which only made the scrapes he got into all the more entertaining.
His second book, Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan, lacked the north-to-south narrative thread of his debut, but still offered illuminating insights into the roads less travelled in rural Japan. It ends with the author reporting a tell-tale tingle in his gut that would eventually be revealed as the cancer that killed him, aged 46.
That, I thought, was that. Although I continued to recommend The Roads to Sata anytime someone asked me for a book about the “real Japan” – along with Alex Kerr’s waspish Dogs & Demons – I assumed that there would be nothing more from Booth. It took a generation for his editors and estate to rustle up This Great Stage of Fools, an anthology of Booth’s journalism, which chiefly comprised movie reviews for the Asahi Evening News.
Booth first arrived in Japan to study kabuki theatre, giving him a knowledge of Japanese dramatic traditions that brooked no nonsense. His reviews take bold and, at the time, controversial stands against much of the Japanese exceptionalism of the era. It’s not that Booth was hard to please, merely that he refused to believe the stories that the Japanese media told about itself. He takes great pleasure in pointing out that a third of the Japanese movie industry churned out nothing but pornography, and a certain rueful annoyance that one of the best films of 1980, Seijun Suzuki’s Ziegeunerwiesen, was beloved by critics but screened in a 90-seater tent on the roof of a department store. For all those spuffing with excitement about Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (pictured), Booth points out that Japan’s greatest director couldn’t even get arrested in his homeland until George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola offered to finance his comeback.
Booth is entertainingly excoriating about the “drivel” on Japanese television and in Japanese movie theatres, railing against talentless himbos and off-key soubrettes. The peak of his fulminations comes in his take-down of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, which he flays not for its exploitation or its low-brow aims, but for being “pompously lacking in humour.”
With a degree of nerdish delight, I discovered that This Great Stage of Fools has an entire section of anime reviews, with Booth according the creators of the 1970s and 1980s a degree of respect that he refused to grant the purveyors of V-cinema. His first chronological review, of Rintaro’s Galaxy Express 999, zeroes in not on the director, for whom this was a cinema debut, but on the “editorial” contribution of Kon Ichikawa, the renowned filmmaker whose involvement in the anime classic has been largely forgotten by posterity. Booth finds in Galaxy Express 999 an unexpected poetry and fantasy, “a world where lithe and beautiful females are in love with pitiful dwarves.”
“The art of animation can hardly have reached a higher plateau anywhere than it has in Japan,” he observes, “and… the result is frequently dazzling.” He devotes an entire article to querying who is the intended audience for Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a film which he finds particularly harrowing because its doomed heroine, Satoko, is “so intolerably like a real four-year-old.” He appears not to have noticed, or at least neglects to mention, that Fireflies was screened in Japan on a double-bill with My Neighbour Totoro, a film which he rates as “one of the finest animated children’s films ever made.” His daughter Mirai is clearly at the forefront of his mind, in both his horror at Fireflies and his adoration of Totoro, which he admits to seeing multiple times on video in her company. He makes Mirai the focus of his subsequent trip to see Kiki’s Delivery Service, a father-daughter outing high in expectations, and disappointing in comparison with its predecessor. “If I were a young child, I would be very pleased indeed if my parents took me to see [Kiki],” he writes, “but if I had already seen Totoro I should wonder, perhaps, why the little flying girl slipped out of my dreams so very soon, while Totoro stayed there forever.”
It is remarkable how much the English language has changed in the last generation. I was taken aback momentarily by Booth’s reference to an “avocado pear”, and it took a while for my mental gears to grind into action to remind me that this was, indeed, the full name for what is generally known today as a plain avocado. Booth was working in the pre-internet world – sometimes it is hard to persuade Millennials and their successors that there truly was a time when articles were written on paper and retyped by their editors, and one expects it would be a surprise to Booth to learn that the manga and anime world would generate their own publishing industry after he died. So we can hardly blame him for transcribing the name of Galaxy Express 999’s creator as “Reiji” Matsumoto, or the occasional slip of the pen, like Frankie Howard instead of Howerd. It would have been nice if his helpmeets at Bright Wave Media had fixed those errors for him with the occasional Google check. Such gentlemanly redactions are commonplace in volume-form releases of bitty journalism, but have possibly been avoided here on the grounds that Booth is no longer around to oversee them, and the idiosyncrasies of his writings from forty years in the past are themselves historical curios worth preserving for posterity.