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September 3, 2009

Book Notes - Marie Mutsuki Mockett ("Picking Bones from Ash")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett's novel Picking Bones from Ash tells the tale of three generations of Japanese woman in a voice so authentic and eloquent it is hard to believe this is Mockett's first novel.

The Feminist Review wrote of the book:

"If you’ve read Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, it’s easy to compare the two novels. Both feature complex and often painful relationships between mothers and daughters, cultural and language differences among immigrant families (for Tan, China; for Mockett, Japan), and the “ghosts” of ancestors. (In fact, Amy Tan has praised this novel, calling it “a book of intelligence and heart.”)"

In her own words, here is Marie Mutsuki Mockett's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Picking Bones from Ash:

In my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, youthful characters take advantage of the 1960s jet age to explore the world; travel isn’t just for the super rich anymore. Hippies on “vision quests”—mostly men—indulge in Eastern mysticism. Young Satomi, a classically trained pianist from rural Japan, listens with fascination to jazz in Tokyo, before she departs for Paris. As travel gets easier, so too does the global criss-crossing of art and popular culture.

Of course, the Internet has sped up the spreading of both “low” and “high” cultures. If you’ve stepped into a chain bookstore today, then you know the international market Japanese anime and manga now command. Japanese pop stars have to master hip hop moves to remain relevant and contemporary; dance studios in New York are filled with kids from Asia perfecting urban moves along their western counterparts, and filming clips which are then uploaded to Youtube for people back home to watch and mimic. I wanted to capture some of this change in my book, and the play list below reflects what my characters listen to, what I listen to, and a few things I hope you might listen to if you have not already.

1. “Claire de Lune,” Debussy

In Picking Bones from Ash, the character of Satomi wins piano competitions in part to keep the townspeople from picking on her and her mother, Atsuko. Her repertoire includes standard western classic—lots of Mozart and Beethoven—though later Satomi will rebel and start to embrace other kinds of music. As a child, she has an affinity for any song that is about the moon, because her mother has convinced her that her fate is similar to that of the Moon Princess, who was discovered stuffed inside a fat bamboo stalk by a bamboo cutter. The Moon Princess lived out her life among ordinary people till the moon people came to claim her. Satomi grows up believing she is similarly “special”—to an almost unhealthy and obsessive degree.

2. Traditional Shinto music (you don’t have to listen to too much to get the idea)

In my novel, the very American Rumi, finds herself in a snowy mountain town, surrounded by Japanese men dressed as demons and dancing around a bonfire. She’s scared; the locals think her fear is funny. Matsuri, or festivals, like these have a rich history in Japan, stemming from Shinto, the animistic, mischievous and indigenous religion of Japan. I always tell people to catch at least one matsuri to see “the real Japan.” Like Carnival, matsuri allow people to relax, cast off the everyday, drink, dress up, dance and have fun. Spirited Away, the Miyazaki movie, reflects the playful yet frightening aspect of the matsuri and the wild world of the gods.

I went to the real demon festival in the north of Japan; Youtube is full of videos of adults scaring kids, and laughing about it.

3. “Take It to the Floor,” B2K

The first time I heard this class I was in hip hop class, and a Japanese dancer with whom I was friendly turned to me and said: “This sounds like Japanese matsuri music.” I’ve never managed to find any information about the genesis of this song, but if you listen to it after the Shinto piece above, you’ll probably hear how the rhythmic qualities and the shrieking flute sound a lot like Japanese traditional music. In this video, Korean hip hop dancers move to the music; hip hop belongs to the world now.

4. “Tsuki no Sabaku,” Japanese folk tune

A beautiful, moody Japanese folk tune about the moon. Proof that it wasn’t just romantic western composers who got drunk on moonlight.

5. “Shima Uta,” Gackt

Gackt claims to be over four hundred years old, but was probably born in 1973 on the island of Okinawa. A showman, he was first associated with “Visual Kei,” an elaborate style of Japanese rock involving lots of makeup for boys, velvet, leather, outrageous hair and androgyny. But Gackt is more than a poser—he’s a prodigiously talented musician who writes and performs his own music, and appears frequently on Japanese talk shows, where he manages to outsmart most everyone against whom he is pitted. He also is very ambitious and will appear in the English language film Bunraku with Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore later this year. But it’s often hard for Japanese born performers to reach the west. Here he tones down his flamboyant style to sing “Shima Uta,” or “Island Song,” written by “The Boom,” with musicians from Okinawa. The Japanese have really come to appreciate regionalism—Okinawa is a southern island with a distinct culture—just as Americans admire Hawaii for its “island hospitality.” I love this nostalgic and haunting song; it captures the Japanese sensibility of longing for the past, which people respond to even today, and even in a city like Tokyo which bristles with modernity. I thought a lot about this kind of moodiness while writing the first chapter of my novel.

6. “Monday, Monday,” The Mamas and the Papas

My parents met in Vienna, where both were music students. Their days were pretty much spent imbibing as much opera and classical music as possible, but popular culture still reached them via the radio. My father remembered waking up one morning to the sound of “Monday, Monday” by the Beatles before heading out for another day of voice lessons. My heroine, Satomi, goes to Paris after her stay in Tokyo. There she is befriended by various artists working in mediums other than classical music. I like to imagine that her unofficial education would have included songs by the Beatles.

7. “Darn That Dream,” Dexter Gordon

Dexter is probably my very favorite saxophone player ever (after my husband). He has this wonderful tone that reaches back to the past, and is aware of the full sounds of someone like Johnny Hodges. But Dexter also manages to sound utterly contemporary. I can’t think of anyone else who has such a complex tone. He lived in Europe during the 60s and 70s, under a self-imposed exile; he felt freer in France than the US. I like to think that my fictional character of Satomi would have heard Dexter during her Paris years. The film Round Midnight stars Dexter, and captures so much of the wistfulness and soulfulness of jazz from the 50s; it is set in Paris. I thought about this film when imagining Satomi’s growing awareness of other kinds of music as she traveled through Europe.

8. “Watermelon Man,” Herbie Hancock

Jazz artists did travel to Japan during the 60s and prior to going to France, my character Satomi manages to hear some good jazz in Tokyo with her boyfriend, Masayoshi. I wonder what it was like to hear jazz like this for the first time? My mother says that the first time she heard the saxophone in Tokyo she blurted out: “That’s sexy!” Her boyfriend at the time was appalled and took her back to her college dorm. But, yes, it would have been quite sexy compared to “Clair de Lune.” “Watermelon Man” is so funky and catchy, but if you really listen to the harmonies, they are challenging to the ear. We’re used to them now, which is why a band like the Seatbelts, below, can successfully play a pop version of bebop for a hit television show.

9. “Cowboy Bebop,” Seatbelts

The Japanese love jazz. My husband loves jazz. When I take him to Japan, I make sure we have plenty of time in the Tokyo Tower records or used CD stores so he can look for records that exist in Japan and nowhere else. Seatbelts are a Japanese blues/jazz band, so called because “the performers wear seatbelts to be safe while they play hardcore jam sessions.” Devotees of Japanese anime (animated movies and television) consider Cowboy Bebop a classic. It concerns a group of bounty hunters crossing the galaxy in their ship, “Bebop,” in a kind of Wild West meets Star Wars universe with a 50s era Beat sensibility. The show began in Japan in 1998, and had its initial run in the US on the Cartoon Network in 2001. Periodically, rumors surface that a live action version of the anime will go into production, and this usually sends hardcore fans into a panic (particularly if the casting involves Keanu Reeves), who remember what happened when Charlize Theron starred in the live action version of Aeon Flux. Still, anime continues to make inroads in western culture, if the success of the Transformer’s franchise is anything to go by. Personally, I find the cross fertilization of pop culture fascinating and hope to see more.

10. “Sukiyaki,” Kyu Sakamoto

You’ve heard this song, even if you think you haven’t. Originally recorded in Japan under the title “Ue o muite arukō” by pop star Kyu Sakamoto, the song was re-recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen under the title “Sukiyaki,” which producers figured would be easier for people to remember. It became a hit in the UK and in the US, where it topped the charts in 1963. I don’t think a Japanese pop song has ever been successful since. Sukiyaki itself is a classic, hearty Japanese dish, which has nothing to do with the lyrics of the song.

A Taste of Gold performed the song in English on Solid Gold, seen here from the 1980-1981 season. Janice Marie Johnson dons a kimono and waves a fan, while a koto player strums in the background.

More recently, Mary J Blige, Snoop Dog and Salt-n-Pepa have covered all or part of the song. In an unintentionally bizarre and somewhat morbid reference, Sukiyaki was featured during Season 2 of Mad Men in an episode centered around an airplane crash; singer Kyu Sakamoto perished in the crash of Japan Airline’s flight 123 in 1985, the single worst airline disaster in history.

11. “Hollaback Girl,” Gwen Stefani

Thanks to Gwen Stefani, people other than Jpop and manga/anime fans now know what “kawaii” means and that Harajuku is one of the hippest places to hang. Paris Hilton, not exactly a trendsetter, has named one of her poor pooches “Harajuku bitch.” Cultural sensitivity watchdogs worried that Stefani’s use of four Japanese back-up dancers amounted to “black face.” I thought it meant that cultural influences were perhaps flowing in two directions, instead of Japan being on the receiving end, rushing to incorporate western influences. Whatever the case, Stefani shows no sign of slowing down; she’s released her line of Harajuku perfumes, each of which comes in a small, cute, dancer shaped “bottle.” At a party last year I met an executive helping to sell the perfumes in Japan. She agreed with me that fragrances in general don’t do so well in Japan; the Japanese aren’t really into smelling like anything other than cleanliness. The few times I’ve taken perfume/cologne as gifts, I’ve watched as the bottles have sat in display cases or on tables, like little works of art. But, the executive said, the bottles were kawaii or “cute,” which she knew would make them collectible.

12. “The Flavor of Life,” Utada Hikaru

Like Gackt, Utada is something of a prodigy. Born to Japanese parents, but raised in New York and Tokyo, she writes and produces her own material and became a pop star in Japan at 16. Her life is tabloid fodder: she’s recovered from cancer, attended Columbia University in New York, been married divorced, all before age 26. She is also fully bilingual, and it’s fun to watch her guest on Japanese talk shows, where she can flirt with David Beckham, outwitting the on-set translator. Utada has often been considered Japan’s best chance for a pop-star crossover and she did release an English language album in 2004; it was not successful in part because her producers had no idea what to do with someone who wasn’t Britney Spears. Still, when Utada does put in an appearance in New York or LA, she is mobbed. Westerners often know Utada because she recorded the theme song in English and Japanese for the second Evangelion movie, a film based on an anime of the same name. Here she sings a song off the soundtrack from Hana Yori Dango 2, probably my all time favorite Japanese soap opera (and ripe for a western remake. Hint hint.)

13. “Feel Your Breeze,” V6

I couldn’t compile a list of JPop tunes without including at least one bona fide boy band singing a song with a meaningless English chorus. What does it mean to feel your breeze? I don’t know. But then, I still don’t know what is meant by ain’t being a Hollaback Girl. On the other hand, I sort of like the idea of feeling my own “breeze.” Would that life were exciting enough that I had my own breeze wherever I went. This is the fun thing about Japanglish, or Engrish, or whatever you want to call it; it kind of makes sense in a “reinventing English” kind of way.

V6 is one of the many popular Japanese boy bands which are churned out via the Pretty Boy Factory, a boys-only talent conglomerate run by one Japanese-American impresario named “Johnny Kitagawa.” As such, the boys are referred to as “Johnnys.” Unlike Gackt and Utada, the Johnnys do not write their own music or lyrics; they merely perform. Legend has it that Johnny hung around in Japan after the war, and started a boy’s baseball league. This somehow morphed into a training academy and talent agency, which has such a grip over Japan’s entertainment world, that networks are cowed into casting Johnnys, or risk losing advertising support for their dramas. Johnnys who try to escape Johnny himself, do not go on to have successful solo careers; they are blacklisted, and completely disappear from the public eye. Understandably, there is a certain backlash against the Johnnys machine—which has in the past been plagued by not a few scandals and molestation accusations against Johnny himself—but so far the empire of bubblegum pop and derivative hip hop moves shows no sign of slowing down. The wheels of justice are nothing compared to the juggernaut of popular culture. (Note: “Feel Your Breeze” was the theme song for the popular drama Gokusen which, until recently, you could still watch on Youtube.)

Marie Mutsuki Mockett and Picking Bones from Ash links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the book's website

Feminist Review review
Gender Across Borders review
Publishers Weekly review

Maud Newton guest post by the author
Tayari Jones guest post by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks