A flute is blown, a tone sustained, strung like a bridge of sound across an otherwise silent expanse. By flute I mean the shakuhachi, the most important of traditional Japanese wind instruments. “Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20th-century avant-garde flute repertory,” writes David Loeb in the Kōhachirō Miyata album’s liner notes, “were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.” The sounds are ones I reimagine come evening as I listen to birdsong. As May concludes, it’s time to plant. ‘Tis summer–nearly so. If not for rain, I’d have been at the pool reading Reclaiming Art, a book by Weird Studies podcaster J.F. Martel. Or perhaps I’d have finished Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I find the latter troubling in its traditionalism. Japanese communists of the 1930s regarded Tanizaki as a reactionary in the years prior to the Second World War. His writings failed to adopt a recognizable ideological “stance.” He was a foot fetishist; a masochist; his writings explore the erotic and the grotesque. To the ideologues of his day, this made him “decadent,” his worldview colored by nostalgia for premodernity and by an embrace of fantasy and the unconscious. The elements I admire in Tanizaki, however, are his visceral aversion to capitalist modernity, his respect for embodied being, and his desire to live well.
It is the discussion of aesthetics in Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows to which I am drawn as I contemplate objects that have “come into appearance” at the level of the trash stratum. The book is one I gleaned just this morning from a bin at Goodwill. It begins with an appreciation for traditional Japanese architecture. Tanizaki mourns this architecture’s defeat by the trappings of modernity: electricity, lightbulbs, flush toilets. “A man who has a family and lives in the city cannot turn his back,” he writes, on these “necessities of modern life” (1). Places of beauty and meaning undergo “improvement.” Homes of paper shoji give way to homes of glass. This change provides the occasion for Tanizaki to reflect on “how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science” (7). “The facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms,” he writes, “might well have presented themselves in different form” (7). ‘Tis a delicious thought. Tanizaki’s thought experiment supplies the premise for an alternate history. Tweak the premise a bit and you get Sesshu Foster’s novel Atomik Aztex. Or better yet, Foster’s latest book, ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, co-written with Arturo Ernesto Romo.
2019 is for me a search for ways to re-engage lovingly with reality. I need to shake off and step out from under the frozen pose of feeling crushed by it. Let go, relax, get loose. Dive into Light In The Attic’s new compilation Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990. These tracks of ethereal, gossamer-fine wisps of furniture music from a corporate future-past sometimes resonate with human-sized sadness as on Hiroshi Yoshimura’s “Blink.”
Empire of Signs, the label that reissued Yoshimura’s Music for Nine Post Cards, knows how to weave around this “recovery” a good account of the work’s origins amid the bubble economy if 1980s Japan. Simon Reynolds calls it the “Fourth World Japan moment.” If only I could re-conceive myself as young, free, and driven. I would cook myself chestnuts. The picture would be big enough, robust enough. Life would feed me its signs, crows would speak to me, we’d crack jokes about malls and grocery stores. I wouldn’t just sit around all day surrounded by books.