Friday, January 25, 2013

Book 114, Palau: "Falling Blossoms" by Hiroshi Funasaka

Really shouldn't be wasting more time on my blog, given that there's still a script and several articles and a lesson plan I should be working on. But this reading list does give me direction, dammit, and those directions take me in awfully surprising places sometimes.

F'rinstance, I can't find a native author from the nation of Palau (independent in 1994, bitches!). But I do know that it's the site of one of the most horrific battles of the Pacific War, one in which the Japanese - rather than other Asian races - ended up doing the most suffering.

There are already established popular history books looking at this war from the American perspective. But who knew that Singapore had published a translation of a Japanese perspective - with a foreword from Yukio Mishima, no less! Seems Hiroshi Funasaka was Mishima's kendo instructor - even gave him the very sword that Mishima used to commit harakiri in 1970.

This book was first released in 1965 as 英霊の絶叫 (Eiri no zekkyo), which actually translates into "scream of remembrance". Indeed, it's this very angst, the rawness and bloodiness of the account that probably drew Mishima to the material. "This is not a novel, nor a literary work, nor even a kind of autobiographical record," he wrote. "It is the manifestation of his cries, the roar of his life proclaiming a long unnoticed reality.

We begin the story with Funasaka's visit to the island of Angaur in 1965, discovering the bones of his comrades still clutching helmets and swords and the flag of the rising sun - then back to 1944, when the Americans are attacking their base on the island while the soldiers strengthen themselves by singing songs of the sakura while the coconut trees around them explode with napalm and machine-gun fire. Over the course of the battle, Sergeant Funasaka gradually loses almost all of his men but three, then loses the functions of his legs and his right arm, then loses even those three comrades, and lies starving and dying of thirst and heat in a cave with the other Japanese, still loyal, still angry, still deadly: able to launch katana and pistol and grenade attacks on American soldiers by crawling up to them through the bushes.

It's awful stuff. And not just because of the gore - the Japanese soldiers are so hungry, they eat the maggots from one another's wounds - but because of the depth of the indoctrination; how Funasaka recounts his drive to exterminate the Americans from the island, regardless of their superiority of numbers and resources and firepower and technology, just because he believes it is shameful to survive, not to return with his friends as ashes in Yasukuni Shrine. (This stuff's narrated in the thick of it, so it's hard to tell till a few paragraphs later that this is an ideology he's actually abandoned now.)

But the hero of the story - at least according to Funasaka - is Corporal Forrest Crenshaw, the American GI who takes care of him after he's captured as a POW. A former truck driver, Crenshaw learned to speak Japanese in the barracks and made a concerted effort to reach out to this guy who was obsessed with accumulating enough matches to go out in a huge suicide attack, trying, trying to bridge their cultures without obligation. The story zips between past and present, so we see them still at loggerheads 20-somethings in one paragraph, and genteel successful 40-somethings visiting the shrines of Kyoto in another. And still trying to bridge differences, to make their ideals understood.

According to this text, Funasaka actually converted to Christianity in 1972 - Crenshaw had bugged him to accept the defeat of Japan as God's will - and I can't help noticing that this was seven years after the book's initial release and two years after Mishima's act of sepukku. Could Mishima have been inspired by the spirit of bushido in this book, missing in capitalistic Japan - and could Funasaka have been driven by this terrible action to absolutely repudiate his culture, turning instead to a foreign god to sever his connection to the Yamato spirit?

Idle speculation. Seriously, though, this book should be put back into print - a wonderful comparative resource for war buffs.

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Representative quote: I am so close to death, my body is broken and filthy, I thought, but at least I should die with a clean heart. Hana ga sakura, minyen wa bushi. (A warrior among men is like the cherry blossom among flowers.) These are words which I love. Up to the moment I die, I want to live courageously, with a heart free from fear. This is the Way of the Warrior - to give one's life selflessly in the line of duty. I completely believe this. I was going to have to ignore the fact that I was going to die dirty, starving and full of bugs.

Next book: Oliver Sacks's The Island of the Colourblind, from Micronesia.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Back from Myanmar!

But once again, I'm crazy-busy with Flying Circus Project. Almost finished with the Palau book though. Might be a good time to show off the books I've harvested!

Not that many, all told - just this book from Mandalay popular historian U Sein Myint, plus a book of Burmese folktales I'm having trouble tracking down right now. More eventually!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kindle's broken again.

In Yangon still, blogging for the Flying Circus Project. I'd been hoping to catch up on research about the country while I was here, reading Aung San Suu Kyi's Freedom from Fear and Thant Myint-U's Where China Meets India and George Orwell's Burmese Days. And then this happens:

Not even a year since the last time this happened (which was also my fault). Similar stories: was carrying Kindle in bag, opened bag to find the screen damaged. This time the Kindle was covered by a folder, though - evidently that's not enough protection. Can't look after anything properly.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book 113, Guam: "Attitude 13" by Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo

I've just flown into Myanmar, where I'll be maintaining the Flying Circus Project Blog for the next two weeks. I'm terribly short of sleep, and I've just learnt that we're not gonna get the chance to meet Aung San Suu Kyi at the Freedom Film Fest.

So let's get this over with, shall we? (I want to invest in a nap now so I can live larger later.)

Honestly, Attitude 13: A Daughter of Guam's Collection of Short Stories isn't that great. The style has a strong whiff of the amateur and the plots tend to end anticlimactically. If I had to grade these, I might give a B+ if I were being kind (some are better than others, though: Chirika's Pepper Plant, which won the author a prize with Latte Magazine, isn't half bad).

But the content is what saves the day. Taimanglo's exploring what it means to be a Guamese Chamorro woman in the 21st century - no longer sarong-clad natives to be studied by anthropologists, but college students in Honolulu, expatriates in Seattle, army officers serving their terms of duty in Afghanistan while their daughters wail for them on their home islands, 88 year-old marathon runners in nursing homes with spiky pink and blue hair. Also explored is the condition of being biracial: the author is Chamorro-Korean, and she's described what it's like to be labelled a Jap in school and denied recognition of your true island heritage in the clumsily titled Yes I Am. And also a rather nice fantasy piece at the beginning: an encounter between a washed-ashore mermaid and a jeep-driving, zori-wearing, culturally deracinated Guamese girl in today's world. (Yes, there are stories about boys and men too, but it's clearly womanhood that takes centrestage.)

I suppose I'm drawn to this cultural testimony - not just because I love how foreign vocabularies collide with English: chenchule', pica, buñuelos aga', dinugan, donne', finadene', Hafa Adai - but also because so many texts from Oceania are written by outsiders. Immigrants, colonists, anthropologists, wayfarers - they have the resources to talk about these cultures, not the natives themselves.

Taimanglo happens to be an emigrant, though - she's lived in San Diego and now she's a military spouse in Washington, if the Internet's to be believed. Well, better brains draining out and speaking out than brains staying mute under scrutiny, I suppose.

Damn, I need sleep. Later!

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Representative quote: I left the movie theater and the cold Washington air embraced me. It was almost midnight and I was out with my fiancé. This was the 18th movie I watched with a date. You can feel happy for me. This was my own doing. I didn't get to the age of 35, engaged and still a virgin, by accident. I am a Goddess on purpose. I am a beautiful Chamorro woman, on purpose. My fat is no longer my shield. 

Next book: Hiroshi Funasaka's Falling Blossoms, from Palau.