Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Deconstructing Orientalism with Number9dream: A Review

Today is my first month anniversary . . . of not posting anything on this blog. I guess I got wrapped up in some stuff. I recently obtained a volunteer position writing for the Korean Embassy's Canada-Korea blog, which celebrates 50 years of bilateral relations; I started doing kendo again; I've started working on a series of videos introducing Koreans to Toronto; and my ongoing study of the Korean language continues to be as challenging as ever. In light of all these recent goings-on I haven't had time to do an awful lot of reading, which is somewhat tragic as I received a number of interesting books for Christmas that are now currently stacked on my bedside table. However, I did recently finish reading a book I originally started for my Japanese Fiction and the Nation class, which was really good and quite interesting. That book is Number9Dream by David Mitchell. The following, I feel, can only be described as a stream of consciousness that resembles a book review.

Some of you may know David Mitchell as the writer of Cloud Atlas, the genre mash-up that led to the motion picture a few years ago that had more than a small bunch of people riled up over its alleged racial insensitivity (I had a lot to say on the matter -- mostly in defence of the film). Number9Dream was written quite a bit earlier and, like Cloud Atlas, it is a pretty interesting piece of work in both its narrative and its social implications. Number9Dream tells the story of Eiji Miyake, a small-town Japanese guy who moves to Tokyo in search of his estranged father. The story is told in first person and follows Miyake through all sorts of unexpected twists and turns during his search. Some have him mixed up with yakuza, some have him pursuing (quite literally) the woman of his dreams . . . to say any more would ruin the story. There are quite a few surreal/magic realist moments in the story and sometimes you're not really sure if what is happening is in fact what is actually happening or if Miyake is just a really active dreamer. This is what makes the narrative so interesting, in my opinion.

However, the elephant in the room at this point is the fact that Eiji Miyake is quite obviously a Japanese person while David Mitchell is not, yet this David Mitchell is writing a story through the eyes of a fictional Japanese character . . . interesting. David Mitchell is originally from Ireland but lived in Japan for a number of years, where he met his wife (who is Japanese). Although he had not actually lived in Tokyo and was not (obviously) Japanese, he chose the city as the setting for this novel and a Japanese protagonist as the main character. In our class discussion about the book (which was before I had actually finished reading it), we were asked if Mitchell was guilty of cultural appropriation and/or gross inaccuracy in writing through the eyes of a character outside his culture and ethnicity, about a place he had never actually lived in (though I imagine he must have visited there from time to time).

The obviously not Japanese David Mitchell.
Mitchell presents Tokyo as a fast-paced, sprawling, overcrowded metropolis with tonnes to see and do, which in my experience is pretty accurate, though I've only spent a total of three days there. The most interesting part for me is how Mitchell dives deeply into the mind of Miyake and reveals his innermost thoughts about what he sees in the everyday -- a fashion style he thinks is silly-looking; a way someone talks that makes him uneasy; his musing about asking a coffee shop waitress for her number. The question I initially felt I had to ask myself was "Is this how a Japanese person would really react to such-and-such a situation? Is there something at all racially presumptuous about this?" Then I realized that was kind of a racist question in itself.

One could make the argument that a story set in Japan, featuring an all-Japanese cast, and written by an Irishman is in its very nature problematic. How can someone who is not Japanese accurately portray the Japanese experience through the eyes of a native? Wouldn't the story naturally be full of suppositions and essentially a eurocentric projection of what Japanese life is like for Japanese people, leading to some kind of neo-orientalism? I would disagree. In fact, I would argue that assuming an Irishman cannot accurately portray Japanese life is far more orientalist than assuming he can.

Eiji Miyake's character inspired one artist/animator to make a stop-motion project. Check out his work here.
The assumption that Mitchell's Tokyo is somehow inaccurate (on account of Mitchell's not being a Tokyo native or even Japanese) implies that Japan itself is unable to be fully understood by anyone living outside of it. I know from experience that there are a lot of people, Japanese and otherwise, who feel this to be true. They see Japan as being this unfathomable cultural entity that can never truly be penetrated (okay, get your mind out of the gutter) by an outsider. Is this idea not one of the most salient features of orientalism? The idea that the lands of the "mysterious East" are somehow too alien, archaic, or nuanced for us "civilized" Westerners to hope to understand? Well, based on what I've studied, yes, that's pretty orientalist!

Isn't it much more progressive to imagine for a second that the average twenty-something's life in Japan is probably not all that much different from the average twenty-something's life in Ireland, once we look past the somewhat arbitrary cultural nuances? After all, Japanese people go to school, they have homework, they date people, they try to get jobs, they go to the movies, they listen to music, they get sad, they get happy -- is that really so unfathomable? Eiji Miyake feels like a Japanese dude I might have met at one time or another, at a party or maybe while I was studying in South Korea -- he feels real. Mitchell lived in Japan and he probably has lots of Japanese friends and has probably had intimate conversations with them about their daily lives, hopes, and trials and tribulations, in much detail. Eiji Miyake could have been born from those experiences. Why not?

Here's a picture I took in Shinjuku's infamous Kabuki-cho in Tokyo, an area that is mentioned quite a few times in the novel and often associated with yakuza. 
The fact that Mitchell channels writers such as Haruki Murakami and Yasutaka Tsutsui in his narrative style is also pretty neat (if you've ever read any translations of these authors' works you will see it). It actually feels at certain points like you're reading translated Japanese literature -- I wish I could explain this better but it would take an entire post. The last and most interesting question we were asked about this book in our class was whether or not it could be considered Japanese fiction, on account of the subject matter being Japanese but the author being an Irishman. Honestly, I don't have an answer to this question; I'm still trying to figure it out myself. However, I feel that this sort of question will crop up a lot more in the near future as national and ethnic borders continue to become more and more blurred.

In any case, if you are looking for a challenging and engaging piece of literature that is as gripping as it is thought-provoking, then I very much recommend giving Number9Dream your time. I'm surprised they haven't made a film of this!                          


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