What has changed?


Book review, from Tokyo – The end of April in Japan normally heralds a long vacation. But things are different this year. Healthcare systems and workers face extreme stress as Covid-19 numbers continue to grow. For the public, Golden Week in Japan has become Stay Home week.

On TV, bullet trains are reportedly running at 0% passenger capacity. There are scarcely any cars on major highways and shopping areas are deserted. Nearer home, it has translated into fewer trips out – taking out the trash, brief walks, shopping for essentials. Public facilities like libraries and community centers are shut, but elsewhere it’s mostly business-as-usual with masks and at distance. Many eateries now do takeouts as well. Supermarkets remain busy. Some bulk-buy the advised 3-days worth of supplies. Staff headed for restocking saunter through socially-distanced shoppers in the aisles. Plastic boundaries hang between cashiers and shoppers.

Take a step away from human society, and I realized that it is already mid spring – the season when the natural world bursts to life. Fresh vibrant shades of green. Flowers. Yellow, white, pink, magenta, purple. Sometimes tinier than an asphalt pebble. Gusty winds. Fast moving clouds. Signs of the fluid tussle above. You can even hear the bugs chirping for summer.

All around the world, we’re seeing more of nature. And it’s not just the season. Clear skies over once-smoggy cities. Canals cleansed by the dearth in gondola traffic. Dolphins return to tourist-barren inlets. Neighbouring wildlife rest in lawns. Penguins roam empty aquariums. Lion herds lie on warm asphalt. For sure, the pandemic has hit humans and our society hard. But the silver lining is that our planet seems to be recovering. In just about six months at that!

Zoë Tucker’s Greta and the Giants (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2019) can never be a more timely read. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s story and translated into Japanese by Yumiko Sakuma as 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants; Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020), the gist of this colourful, nature-loving piece is laid bare in the Japanese title – greed.

For too long, human society has been driven by the pursuit of economic development and progress, distanced ourselves from our natural environment, while others suffer under the weight of poverty or lose their habitats. Suggestive? Perhaps.

Zoe Persico’s illustrations from cover to cover paint Greta as a friend of the forest. Some greedy giants arrive to scamper around tirelessly, cutting down trees to build homes. But they then start building bigger and bigger cities, destroying forests and driving animals out of their natural environment. Greta starts her placard protest alone, but she soon finds friends. Confronted by Greta and her friends, the greedy giants frown, fidget nervously, and stomp their feet in agitation. Familiar? Maybe.

Well, the next page shows the greedy giants appreciating the simple things, slowing things down – actually enjoying life. And finally, they return to live with their natural environment. A happy ending for all.

Other than the ending, the similarities to real life are uncanny, except that our current stay-home situation is being enforced upon us by an invisible threat to our lives. Greta Thunberg’s movement remains an urgent undertaking. One that requires global coordination. One that the virus must not derail. Because our story continues. The effects in nature are there for us to see and learn precious lessons from. And we must surely realize our footprint already. Otherwise, this book will serve a kind reminder of our acts and its effects on nature.

 

This review is based on the Japanese translation of the original English title.

Title: 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants) by Zoë Tucker, illustrated by Zoe Persico, translated by Yumiko Sakuma
Publisher: Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020

Struggling with neglect


Film review, from Tokyo – Last things first: After watching Kore-eda’s critically acclaimed 『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku, lit. Shoplifters), I remember deep anger, sympathy and then finally hope from its abrupt ending. Shoplifters came through as a story of the many forms of neglect, which allows underlying problems to fester, to take on a life of their own. In this film, it colours the decisions made in the struggle for survival, largely out of convenience with huge dose of humanity and a tinge of exploitation. (Core plot follows.)

Right from the outset, the audience is presented with shoplifting as the appetizer leading up to the main course. It is winter in Tokyo, and a middle-aged man (Osamu Shibata, played by Lily Franky) and a slightly wobbly lady (Nobuyo, Sakura Ando) are making their way home together after a few drinks. A boy (Shota, Jyo Kairi) is slumped over the man’s shoulders half-asleep after a long day. Taking a familiar path home, they spot a little girl (Yuri, Miyu Sasaki) left alone out in the corridor of an apartment, cold and hungry, quivering perhaps also from the screams and shouts within.  They decide to take the trembling child home.

Home is a single storey structure shrouded in foliage, a cramped, messy abode, where two women, one grandiosely old (Hatsue, Kirin Kiki), the other whose future lay just ahead (Aki, Mayu Matsuoka), did not seem especially perturbed by the new arrival.

The story revolves around the familial relationships among these six people: Osamu, an odd-job construction worker; Nobuyo, a laundry shop part-timer; Hatsue, the old lady living on handouts and pension payouts; Aki, who chose her grand mother over a college education overseas; Shota, Osamu’s pilfering sidekick and curious reader; and Yuri, the newcomer, who threw a spanner into the old equilibrium.

The Shibatas live in poverty, pilfering to make ends meet, but they bring Yuri home, take her on a shopp(lift)ing run to get new clothes, swimming costumes, and then to the beach for that picture perfect family outing.

Things go downhill quickly though. Their wafer thin finances are hit first by Osamu’s injury, so when Hatsue leaves Aki in mourning, the next turn proves a carbon copy of gruesome reality – they decide to hide her body to continue receiving her pension payouts. Nobuyo then gets laid off, a deal struck with some compensation.

But when Shota gets caught on a routine run, the Shibata’s house of cards finally unravels, illuminated under the spotlight, crumpling under the long arm of law.

All through the movie, I saw the Shibata’s struggles with money, their humanity inciting sympathy and solidarity. I smiled at their familial joys, but winced occasionally at their choices for survival. And so I comprehended my blase at the superficial media coverage of the unplanned abduction and the initial anger against the officials who effused pity along with disdain. Bringing Osamu and Nobuyo under the law proved their errors, but it felt cruel to label those struggles as simply a result of being grossly misled.

A story rooted in an elder getting by alone, her misguided granddaughter, two wayward part-timing adults struggling for a livelihood, and two neglected children who found temporary shelter. Perhaps it all hinged on the boy who read, for him to find the courage to trust the world and its myriad systems. If others had reached out to them, if they knew what was out there for them, perhaps the story would have been very different.

It all began with the Shibatas bringing little Yuri into their home, and it all ended with her finding something offscreen. Although that felt rather abrupt, it is a fitting ending, because that’s probably the start of another story altogether.

 

Shoplifters (2018)
Original title in Japanese:『万引き家族』(Manbiki kazoku)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
More on the film at IMDb

Economic indicators for happiness?


Book review, Tokyo – What does it mean to be economical? Does it mean living within one’s means? Prudence probably sums that up better. What about only using what we need? That’s being frugal. Maybe being economical is about getting our money’s worth, and economics about efficient distribution of limited resources. Time is money, goes the old adage. So who’s measuring how we use our time for something worthwhile?

Modern life is about being tied, to loans, debt and feeding the ravenous monster that is the world economy. Countries chase numbers to pull in money for growth and indicators, to make sure the huge monster stays happy. Have we taken the time to stop and think about how happy we are as a cog in this unstoppable machinery?

Is it surprising that a picture book with a profound message that is more than 5 years old strikes more than a simple chord with someone in finance? The speaker, a former guerilla fighter, also happened to be the simple, frugal former head of state of a nation once known as the Switzerland of the Southern hemisphere, who featured in a series of Japanese books. Before these two picture books by Chobunsha, how the two languages sounded was the most obvious link between the two countries. The books created a new one, the ideas of former Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica.

The first picture book released in 2014 vividly illustrated the then president’s simple, frank Rio+20 speech of his view on the state of human civilization. Lives misled by the demons of desire that end unfulfilled, saddled and ultimately crippled by debt. He proposes a rethink of our goals, our lifestyles at the fundamentals of modern society. He was content with his, tending to his vegetables, chickens, and refusing his official ride but indulging in a simple daily dose of tea. Acknowledging the importance of work to society, he leaves hints to being content and happy. His message that day still rings strong in Japan and recently Taiwan, and on Youtube, in the world’s search for sustainability.

The second book, a follow-up nearly 18 months later, is a longer, deeper look at the story behind the man who made that speech. Compiled from years of speeches and an interview after he was relieved of his stately duties, the book brings readers on a journey through his past as a guerilla fighter, the things, books and people, that changed him, and his thoughts on the future that we can fight to create.

The second book specifically mentioned Asia, hinting at the value of Asian teachings. By doing so, he seems to suggest that, when the time comes, Asia and its values would promise a chance to move the world in a new direction, toward a new type of life.

The illustrations and stories in these books are targeted at children, but the ideas are ones that adults relate more easily to. These books invite reflection and interaction, to discuss and find a way forward. It found success in Japan with a thoughtful population seeking escape in a time of a pro-growth national policy. So why not in other societies or markets that chase the same lofty highs? The language is the first barrier, the unconventional ideas are the next. Hopefully, we will get to see these books in English, preferably sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we’ll all have to depend on the Japanese and Chinese to work on finding happiness together.

 

“Sekai ichiban mazushii daitouryou no supiichi (A speech by the world’s poorest president)” was later translated into traditional Chinese as “Quan shijie zuiqiong de yeye lai yanjiang” by RuHe publishing. “Sekai ichiban mazushii daitouryou kara kimi he (A message from the world’s poorest president)” was released in October 2015 in Japan.

Publisher Jp:

  1. http://www.choubunsha.com/sp/book/9784811320670.php
  2. http://www.choubunsha.com/sp/book/9784811322483.php

e-commerce Tw: http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010689941

J-Lit Center En: http://www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/3197-a-speech-by-the-poorest-president-in-the-world