#JanuaryInJapan: Reading and Watching Tokyo Vice

Something completely different now for January in Japan – not really a Japanese literature challenge as such, but an account of Japanese vice and crime written by someone in the know – and the TV adaptation of it, which incorporates a lot of actual Japanese language and perceptions.

Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice, Corsair, 2010

I met Jake in person at Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016 and we chatted a bit about Japan, so I felt compelled to buy his book, although it was ‘true crime’, a genre I don’t read that much. However, he described the book in the following intriguing way (in interviews):

You could also say it’s about a sleazy Harry Potter finding that he can oust yakuza Voldemort from power but only at a great cost. And Voldemort lives.

Over the next six years, I read certain passages from it, but not the whole book (it contains all sorts of stories from Adelstein’s time as a reporter for Yomiuri, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan)… until I heard that a TV series was coming out. Although the series was initially only available on HBO, I was finally able to watch it on BBC iPlayer throughout December and January. I like to watch one episode at a time instead of bingeing, but I watched it on consecutive nights, as it was quite thrilling.

So I was able to compare the two – and what month better to do so than in January in Japan?

In the book, there are many different anecdotes and characters – after all, the book covers approximately 12 years of crime reporting. The book has far more explanations and subtleties (far more shades of grey) – but it does not hide the fact that some investigations took years to develop and were often never satisfactorily resolved. In the TV series, some of the incidents and interactions were repeated verbatim, but other scenes or characters were conflated, woven together, and certainly made to seem concurrent or happening over a very short period of time to heighten the dramatic tension. I think those changes are justified most of the time – and charismatic performances from several of the Japanese actors meant that there was less of the ‘white saviour’ narrative here than there might have been in the book.

Actually, I am not accusing the book of that either. Yes, perhaps the author is a little proud of the corruption and horrendous stories he uncovered (he was involved in investigative journalism in the Lucie Blackman case, for example) and it is undeniable that the yakuza, the Japanese government and the media often have a cosy ‘understanding’ which makes it difficult to surface such stories. But I don’t think he is glorifying himself: on the contrary, I found his candour in admitting his mistakes, his cultural misunderstandings, and his disillusionment to be quite refreshing. In some ways, it reminded me of Lost Illusions by Balzac, which I am also currently reading. You go into journalism with the idea that you are chasing after the ultimate truth and that you will change the world… and then find yourself having to compromise and making very little real difference.

And yet the senior reporters and mentors at Yomiuri greet the budding journalist with an idealistic speech about the value of the work they do:

It’s not about learning – it’s about unlearning. It’s about cutting off ties, cutting out things, getting rid of preconceptions, losing everything you thought you knew… You learn to let go of what you want to be the truth and find out what is the truth, and you report it as it is, not as you wish it was. Journalists are the one thing in this country that keeps the forces in power in check.

Ah well, only if they do their job properly and are not funded by various individuals with particular political preferences…

Tokyo Vice – TV series

Of course everybody is very good-looking in the TV series. I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Elgort, and he is far taller and blonder than the real-life Jake Adelstein. However, that makes him stand out even more as a gaijin (foreigner). What surprised me is that the TV Jake is not necessarily presented all that sympathetically – he is stubborn, makes mistakes, is selfish, treats others badly at times. I was wondering how the real Jake felt about that – but when I read the book, I realised that the author is quite hard on himself too.

Meanwhile, I fell in love with the young Japanese actor Sho Kasamatsu, who plays a yakuza underling who gets a little too friendly with Jake and a foreign girl, and develops too much of a conscience.

But it’s not just the actors who are pretty: the production values and cinematography are quite good-looking too, even when we go off exploring the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. I particularly liked the bilingualism of the show – the American actors did their best to learn Japanese, while the Japanese actors learnt some English, and the dialogues incorporate both.

The first season ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but I understand a second season is forthcoming. Of course, having read the book, I have my suspicions about how some of the storylines are going to end…

On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, Danis painter). From www.the-athenaeum.org
Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, a 19th/early 20th century Danish painter). From http://www.the-athenaeum.org

I stopped watching the recent TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn on the BBC after the first episode, although Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. No, it was not because of the incomprehensible mumbling which had a record number of complaints letters streaming in. Instead, it was because it felt all style and no content. For a witty and fair review of the film vs. the book version, see here.  I don’t know if it’s the influence of Scandinavian crime dramas, but I’ve noticed in quite a few TV dramas lately that moodiness and atmosphere inevitably lead to lack of pace. So we end up with lots of shots of photogenic protagonists staring into the distance at even more photogenic landscapes. And the story, which could have been told more effectively in 1-2 episodes, spreads out endlessly and glumly over 5 or even more evenings.

This doesn’t just happen in TV series, of course. I’ve  attended a number of writing workshops where participants have read out a beautifully crafted chapter from their work in progress… containing an intimately observed but interminable description of dust motes. Or the main character stares at himself in the mirror for quite a few pages. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding about what constitutes good writing or literary fiction nowadays. Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary. Most of the fiction we consider ‘classic’ nowadays was written as potboilers, with little thought beyond entertaining the public and making some money out of it. Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas – there is incident aplenty in any of their books, as well as outstanding writing. Of course the writing is uneven, too, and there are often passages in their works that are crying out for a good editor.

I am not making the mistake to equate ‘lots of incidents/events’ with a good novel, or even a good plot. I’ve read far too much crime fiction by debut authors, where the main protagonist goes from one implausible situation to the next tricky one with barely a moment to breathe and bandage his wounds or feed her cat (yes, that gender division does appear on occasion still). That is equally boring as speculating about the inner life of dust particles.

Still, if I want to penetrate the enigma of sparkling dust motes or understand the world through a character’s gaze upon him or herself in the mirror, then I prefer to read a poem, a short story or an essay. There is really no need to extend it to novel-length, just like there is no point in extending a TV drama over 5 weeks if it has nothing new to say in each episode (unlike the genuine Scandinavian article, ‘The Bridge’, which had me gasping in shock and amazement every ten minutes).

Can you forgive a novel (or a TV drama) its lack of pace, plot or characterisation if it has enough moody atmosphere or beautiful writing? Or are you sometimes ashamed to admit you are bored by great stylists?