Under the cherry blossoms trees in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. Photo: Getty
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To be Japanese today is to negotiate the conflicting dreams of east and west

It’s not surprising that alienation is a persistent theme in much of the country’s fiction.

Parade 
Shuichi Yoshida
Harvill Secker, 230pp, £12.99

Just So Happens 
Fumio Obata
Jonathan Cape, 160pp, £16.99

My grandpa was on the outskirts of Hiro­shima when the bomb fell on 6 August 1945. He walked through the city as it burned and fled by boat, having witnessed scenes of destruction and death that are hardly imaginable to me. But when the war ended, he loved the music of Bing Crosby and took his family to church for Christmas, not for religious reasons but for the romance of all things western.

Imperial Japan had fallen, replaced by a capitalist dream seemingly magicked into reality by American New Dealers. High schools were set up on the US model; industry shifted towards technology. As the money started to flow in, some, including the film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, mourned the passing of a more traditional culture. In Tokyo Story (1953), the aspirational bustle of young Japanese is shown to be a betrayal of older values. Similarly, Shusaku Endo’s novel When I Whistle (1974) tells the story of a war veteran’s emotional estrangement from his son, a doctor, who puts success in his career above family: the dereliction of a duty sacred to the national imagination.

To be Japanese today is to negotiate the conflicting dreams of east and west. Old-fashioned reserve and collectivism jostle with assertiveness and individualism. Visit Tokyo as a foreigner and much of it feels unreal: the sheet glass, air-conditioning and underground shopping districts alongside the Shinto shrines, street-food vendors and coin-bearing good luck cats. Perhaps it seems unreal to the Japanese, too. The country has worked hard to modernise – and to “modernise” has often meant to “westernise”. The homeland has become a strange place.

It’s not surprising, then, that alienation is a persistent theme in much of the country’s fiction. Shuichi Yoshida’s debut novel, Parade (2002), newly translated into English, is a curious entry into the canon of Japanese anomie literature. Unlike, say, Taichi Yamada’s In Search of a Distant Voice (1986), which follows an immigration officer’s attempts to track down a woman with whom he may have a telepathic link, Parade shows us a world where disconnection has become a paralysing norm. The characters here are not interested in interpersonal bonds, tele­pathic or otherwise.

The five twentysomething protagonists – flatmates “playing at being friends”, as the male prostitute Satoru describes them – make vague attempts at intimacy but are happy to float along, cut off from the mess of meaningful relationships. Ryosuke is a university student pursuing a mentor’s girlfriend. Kotomi is involved with an actor who occasionally calls her up for hotel dates. Mirai is a hardened drinker; she haunts the Tokyo gay scene, where she encounters Satoru and takes him under her wing. Finally, there is Naoki, the professional of the group, who doles out elder-brotherly advice when he isn’t out jogging or at his office.

The novel’s set-up evokes a sitcom – there is constant banter between the flatmates and their stories are woven together – but Koto captures the dynamic when she cheerily compares their home to an “online chat room”, whose users are “free to come in or out at any time”. To these shallow lives, Yoshida slowly introduces the threat of violence. Ryosuke begins to suspect that a neighbour is running a brothel; police officers knock on the door, warning of a prowler who has been assaulting women in the area.

Mirai first suspects Satoru but the perpetrator could be any of them, or none. Parade’s chilling denouement is all the more disturbing because the first 200 or so pages are committed to exploring the trivialities of city life – choosing which movie to rent, which takeaway meal to get for dinner. Imagine if Friends had ended with the revelation that Chandler was a psychopath – and that Joey, Monica, Ross, Phoebe and Rachel weren’t bothered by it. Yoshida locates horror less in violence than in the kind of atomisation that would permit it.

Out of the ashes: a funeral scene in "Just So Happens"

Fumio Obata’s graphic novel Just So Happens also addresses the impediments to real connection in modern Japan. Like me, Yumiko is a first-generation immigrant living in London. After over a decade here, she feels anglicised and increasingly cut off from the cultural rituals of her birthplace. When her father dies in a hiking accident, she flies home to attend his funeral.

Though rich in detail, Obata’s crisp drawing invites the reader to skip from panel to panel. It works best when it’s at its most documentary: a fireworks festival is captured in all its noisy wonder, as is Yumiko’s escape to a Shinto shrine where she witnesses a rehearsal by Noh actors. Noh becomes a motif for “codifying human forms” – a formalising of human feeling which, though “exquisite”, is ultimately restrictive. “I don’t want to be a part of your stupid play any longer,” says Yumiko to a masked actor in a dream, having decided that her life doesn’t fit into the conservatism of old Japan.

Maybe the Japanese – even those at home – will relate to Obata’s expat and her struggle to find an authentic world-view. Tradition will always be there but, for generations, the tug of a more western lifestyle has been equally compelling. Together, the books seem to suggest that we should pick a side or find a compromise between the two. Let one cancel out the other and Yoshida’s dystopia will surely follow. 

Yo Zushi’s new album “It Never Entered My Mind” will be released by Eidola Records in July

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.