Sunday, April 10, 2011

Distance and disaster

Hokusai's "Great Wave off Kanagawa," 1833
I was in Oregon when the quake and wave first struck Japan last month. More specifically, I was in a little comfort food eatery called Belly in downtown Eugene, sipping a martini. Roughly 24 hours earlier I had arrived from Tokyo via Portland.
I had given two talks, answered questions, and chatted with students and faculty from the university that day, mostly about my usual topics: Japan’s contemporary popular culture, its images, and its apocalyptic visual narratives.
I was speaking on the 66th anniversary of the US fire-bombings of Tokyo, March 10, 1945. My Japanese mother's father hustled her and the rest of their family north out of Tokyo to his family's ancestral home in Esashi, Iwate prefecture, the following day. If he hadn't, I might not be here.
Discussing destruction seemed apt. Japanese popular culture has long depicted disasters, I’d said, from Katsuhika Hokusai’s world-renowned “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” an ukiyo-e print depicting a tsunami, to Godzilla films in the 1950s and now-classic anime features like Akira, Evangelion and Grave of the Fireflies. Even Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, Ponyo, animated the destructive powers of a tsunami in a small seaside village.
The audience nodded, took notes, smiled appreciatively. As usual when I’m speaking to Americans in the US, the Japan I know and inhabit felt both curiously intimate and terribly far away.

Oregon coast, 2011
For over a decade, I have been traveling between two cities in two countries, both of which have come to feel like ‘homes’ to me, certainly more than any other towns or nations in the world. Family and friends are at both ends of that journey, and they are all dear to me. I have had some kind of residence in New York since 1991; since 2000, the same has been true of Tokyo. What started as a nervy, sometimes jarring or exhilarating experience—exchanging one country and culture for another, adapting on the fly to different cultural expectations and behaviors, refraining from bowing in NYC, restraining my wayward American gait in Tokyo—hasn’t exactly become commonplace, but neither does it feel quite as glamorous or disruptive as it once did.
But when I’m arriving in a city in which I don’t live, the disjunctions of jet lag are sharpened, and a sense of detachment is an almost willful gesture, a way of retreating into the shell of the self to observe the new world, its contours and shapes and signage.
I was in that state, that frame of suspended mental pauses between scenes, when I got the news about Japan. I immediately went online, clicking from site to site, sending emails pinging across the Pacific and around the US. The great tsunami wave sweeping and then oozing across farmland, sucking down houses and trees, ships and automobiles, was probably the apotheosis of apocalyptic imagery, at least as divined by the natural world.
After it became clear that my family and friends were okay—or not okay, not even well, but unharmed physically—I tried to get on with work and life in Oregon, and during subsequent trips to Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore and DC. Living and working in two countries with disparate time zones means that two clocks tick in your brain. At midnight in one, the color of the sky in the other at midday spools like film through your mind. You start to feel like you’re here and there simultaneously, working to meet a deadline as the afternoon sky dims in your here here, because you know that morning in your there there is fast approaching. And if you don’t finish on time, no matter where you are, you’ll be late.
But it’s a delusion, of course—silly wabbit, tricks are for kids, as the old American cereal commercial said. You’re never there when you’re here. The desire to bridge distances and differences via art and language, stories, music and cuisine, embodies the pathos of impossibility. And the technologies we have devised, the supersonic jets, the emails and web cams and Skype calls, are belittled in an instant by the stone physicality of the world. When something happens over there, something transformative and overwhelming, it didn’t happen to you here.
I am back on the road again, presenting on Japan’s popular culture in New York and soon in Seattle. This week, I’m in London. During my talks, Hokusai’s “Great Wave” flashes upon the projection screens above and behind me. It looks more menacing now, of course, and suddenly pertinent.
But at night in my hotel rooms, I sit in front of smaller screens, clicking through updates and real-time TV streams, absorbed in tracking time through information, feeling stuck and very local: thrust roughly by disaster back into my only home—organs, skin, blood and bones—rendered bereft by distance, and yearning so hard in times of heartache to bridge it.


piroko said...

It's been surreal here and there....

ym said...

I could say very flippantly, “absence sucks.” But then again absence also engenders desire, that yearning you mention, which in turn compels you to write so eloquently and passionately. And so as an admirer of your work, I think a little absence now and then is not a bad thing . . . (^v^)

Thank you for sharing your musings on the nature of absence and presence. Of course you get to decide where home is for you, but I imagine that many people in many locations console themselves by thinking that though you may be absent now, you are, however circuitous your route may be, homeward bound. Happy traveling.

Jeannine Hall Gailey said...

This is beautifully written, Roland. I will continue thinking good thoughts for you and your friends and family back in Japan.

Greg Dvorak said...

Roland, very poetic and resonant with what I felt even in 1995 after the Hanshin quake, having just returned from a week in Kobe and learning of the disaster on the morning after my return. I remember the vexing sense of futility in my desire to somehow be participant in the new, though dismal, reality that had taken over the place I had just been. Almost like a foolish sense of feeling left out on one hand combined with a devastating sense of heartache and compassion on the other. Wanting to be able to do something but feeling powerless. Haunted by nightmares of mass suffering.

This time I was in Tokyo, again hundreds of kilometers from Tohoku, but close enough to be slammed by the relatively benign level five echo quake that rattled the capital. Stuck in a subway, having to escape from the back. It wasn't quite the same vicariousness. I remember feeling awed by the calm and solidarity entailed by over thirty million people experiencing the same shock to their own physical being. By the realization that I was feeling the same pulse that was simultaneously killing and displacing tens of thousands. And as I marched for four hours across the city as millions walked home in the streets that night, while mega-sized televisions blared tsunami emergency information down to the masses below, it really did look uncannily like Godzilla or a Ridley Scott flick.

But that's where the reality and the representation diverge. While the rest of Japan and the world kept watching the apocalypse on tv, everyone else tended to life-- especially those whose lives had been so shaken or washed out to sea. And we in Tokyo did not revert to oblivion either. Most people here seemed to be awakened, reconnected with each other. Lucid. Lest we begin to take anything for granted, the walls begin to lurch and buckle again at least once a day, rekindling intense fear. Three nights ago when a major aftershock interrupted dinner with my partner and nearly spilled wine on the floor, the first thought that ran through our heads was to wonder again if everyone in Tohoku was okay. It wasn't: three more people died and most of Iwate blacked out again for several days. There's a new awareness of how connected we are, and we greet this reality with both horror and empathy.

Meanwhile, the media sustains the drama for the rest of the nation. Honestly I felt more palpable fear in places unaffected by these seismic shifts, like Kyushu, than I ever did here-- and my friends who have returned from up north report even less panic there. Likewise, friends and family abroad would have me believe that Japan was swallowed up into the earth, never to be seen again.

As you say we cannot be in two places at once, but we can and must mourn loss and change regardless of where we are. So how, amidst these contradictory Great Waves of apocalyptic vision that continue to wash across the air waves even now, can we mourn, accept, and celebrate what connects here and there and everywhere?

Roland Kelts said...
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