Traveling Across Time and Culture
Volume 20, Issue 3 (Book review 4 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 December 2020.
Review of Booth, Alan (2018) This Great Stage of Fools (Timothy Harris, Ed.), Yokohama: Bright Wave Media, ISBN 978-0-9899163-1-8, softcover, 304 pages.
Keywords: Alan Booth, travel writing, ordinary lives.
On the short list of English-language travel books on Japan from the second half of the twentieth century that are still read today, Alan Booth is the only author whose name appears twice. Why The Roads to Sata (1985) and Looking for the Lost (1995) have managed to endure while so many others have not is an intriguing question. This Great Stage of Fools, the first ‘new’ book by Booth in more than 20 years, may point the way to an answer. In this collection of newspaper and magazine pieces published between 1979 and 1993 (the year of Booth’s death from colon cancer at the age of 46), Booth’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer stand out in sharp relief, to the extent that it becomes easier to articulate what it is about his two classic accounts that has kept them in print.
The book is technically divided into five parts, but there are substantively only two: one of film/theatre criticism, and the other of travel writing. The film/theatre section will be of value to anyone with an academic interest in the state of Japanese cinema in the 1980s, especially. During this period Booth worked as a critic for the Asahi Evening News, and he took in everything from Kagemusha (1980) and Sasame Yuki (1983) to Gundam III: Meguriai Sora (1982) and Hai Tiin Buugi (1982). All the reviews included in this collection are readable and informed, and there are occasional nuggets of real insight. Concerning Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Uwasa no Torajiro (1979), for example, the twenty-second film in the long-running ‘Tora-san’ series, Booth quickly gets to the heart of what makes these films different from other Japanese comedies of the time: their focus on the humour found in ordinary situations, most of them involving failure. Tora-san’s actions, well-intentioned though they may be, typically make things worse, and his own hopes and dreams are rarely (if ever) realised. As Booth succinctly puts it, ‘this sense that life, for all its jests, can be a pitifully unfulfilling business… helps set the series above the norm and satisfy one of the basic tenets that distinguish true comedy from farce. It offers, via the purgative of laughter, a clearer view of the world we live in’ (p. 16).
However, most of the reviews and other pieces in this section rarely rise above a certain basic competency; they are the work of a reliable professional but little more. Booth often struggles to illustrate what it is about many of the films he sees that impresses (or does not impress) him. Concerning Sasame Yuki (1983), for example, Booth praises director Ichikawa Kon’s craftsmanship twice without delving much at all into what it is about Ichikawa’s work that sets it apart; the camerawork is simply called 'beautiful', or the staging 'excellent' (p. 34). A profile of Kinugasa Teinosuke is book-ended with well-drawn personal anecdotes but you walk away from it without any real understanding of Kinugasa’s importance to Japanese cinema, other than such qualities as ‘he was able to combine stylistic formality with an innovative spirit’ (p. 5). One of the most disappointing reviews is of Itami Jūzō’s Marusa no Onna 2 (1988), which Booth states at the outset is ‘thoroughly subversive… the scalpel of satire has been replaced by the critical equivalent of a wrecker’s ball’ (p. 41-42), but he then never comes close to capturing the wildness of Itami’s vision. To contrast Booth’s review with that of, say, Vincent Canby of the New York Times, is to see the difference between a journeyman critic and a gifted one. In Booth’s review, for example, the central villain of the film, Onizawa, is blandly described (in part) as 'posing as the chief officer of a tax-exempt religious cult' (p. 42); in Canby’s, much more in line with Itami’s style, Onizawa is 'the self-styled Chief Elder of a bogus religious sect called Heaven's Path'. In Booth’s review, a moment from the film when Onizawa justifies his actions to the authorities investigating him comes across as sober and almost reasonable; Canby, on the other hand, vividly describes how Onizawa’s speech concludes with him screaming and smashing his own head into a wall, making a bloody mess. After reading Booth’s review, you have an inkling of what Marusa no Onna 2 is, as a movie-going experience. After reading Canby’s, you know.
Here and there in several of these pieces, there is also a sardonic, almost condescending tone that is meant to be funny but can quickly become tiresome. A column on Japan’s Academy Awards begins with ‘For a startling half hour it looked as though the Twelfth Japan Academy Awards Ceremony was actually going to celebrate quality and talent, but by the time the major awards fell due it had reverted to established form’ (p. 12), and continues in more or less in the same vein for a thousand words. On another occasion when a film that does meet Booth’s standards (Itami’s Marusa no Onna) wins several major awards in 1988, he opines: ‘To say that it was uncharacteristic is like saying that the bombing of Hiroshima was an irritation. It was as abrupt a turn-about of standards as was Japan’s overnight espousal of democracy in 1945, and I can’t help feeling that a similar number of backroom agreements and under-the-table dealings will prove to have accompanied it’ (p. 9). Even one of these similes would have been too much; reading both side by side makes you want to put the book down entirely.
Nevertheless, once This Great Stage of Fools shifts to travel writing, the reader is rewarded with a transformation. The first part of this section is an expanded version of Devils, Gods & Cameramen, a short book on Japanese festivals put out to little fanfare by the textbook publisher Kinseido in 1982. From the outset, the writing pops. ‘In the mid-winter air the breath of the dancers comes out of their mouths like tobacco smoke’ (p. 116), Booth begins a chapter on the Hachinohe Enburi in Aomori. The land is ‘hard as iron’ (p. 116); the sun rises ‘like a pale, frosty peach’ (p. 117). The sense of place is immediate; a vivid portrait of the festival quickly follows, from the songs to the costumes to the spectators. Again describing the dancers, Booth writes that in the movement of their heads, ‘you see in your mind a wild horse smelling the air’ (p. 118). There are overheard snippets of conversations from American tourists, closely observed moments, explanations of dialect, historical asides, and insights from locals on how the area is changing, all presented with astonishing deftness and efficiency over a mere four pages—a length not much longer than one of his reviews. Why, you wonder straight away, did he not use similar techniques to write about film? Perhaps he needed to be there—to smell the smells, so to speak, to be surrounded by the experience, to be more of an active participant. Perhaps he needed time; more, anyway, than that afforded a newspaper critic with a regular column. Perhaps he simply found travel writing more engaging: what he loved rather than what paid the bills.
Perhaps. However, what becomes most strongly apparent by the time you reach ‘Roads Out of Time,’ an account of a walk across Shikoku in the early 1980s that was originally published in WINDS, the now-defunct inflight magazine of Japan Airlines, is that Booth needed to interact with people to make his writing truly come alive. The night before he begins, for example, the grandmother who runs the inn where he is staying has a beer with him and tells him the story of her long-dead husband, who was born in the village next to hers and was sent to China to fight for the Imperial army when he was nineteen and she a year older. They were already married, and with two little boys, but the orders came all the same, the grandmother explains, on a pink paper ‘“no bigger than the little dish you’re eating pickles from. So small it was, and it came in a special envelope, so we knew what it was before we opened it”’ (p. 232). Lying on the tatami in front of Booth, she muses on what she did when she learned of his death, how she still mourns him forty years later, and then just as the story becomes almost unbearably sad, she hears her son begin to open the sliding door to the room. Her eyes widen, and she quickly hides the beer bottle and her glass under her quilt. Once inside, Booth writes, the son ‘glanced at her and at the bottle-shaped erection in the middle of her bedclothes. “You’ll rot your liver,” he said to her and vanished into the yard’ (p. 233).
This ability to draw out the stories of ordinary people and share them with gentle affection was Booth’s greatest gift. Never is this clearer than in This Great Stage of Fools, for as competent a film critic as Booth could be, in his criticism he could rarely utilise this talent. It also becomes plain over the course of the book that his fondness for so many of the people he encountered in his travels tempered the sardonicism that sometimes overwhelms his other work. Booth may have had a background in drama and a strong interest in popular culture, as Timothy Harris, the editor of this collection, explains in the foreword, but it was a love of the ordinary (also emphasised by Harris) that paradoxically made him special, and is perhaps what has kept drawing readers to The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost for so many years.
A final note: Among the pieces in this collection are writings on trips that Booth references, uncredited, in Looking for the Lost, including the aforementioned ‘Roads Out of Time’; ‘Giants of the Night,’ an account of the Neputa Matsuri in Aomori; ‘Snow Devils’, a look at the Oga Namahage festival in Akita; ‘Wild Pictures,’ a portrait of the Aomori fishing town of Ajigasawa and the folk song inspired by it; and ‘Chizukan’s Song,’ a profile of the blind shamisen master Takahashi Chizukan and (to a lesser degree) Tsugaru, the Aomori peninsula where he was born and raised. There is also an account of a visit to Osorezan in Aomori, which Booth also describes in some detail in both Looking for the Lost and The Roads to Sata.
Booth, A, 1985, The roads to Sata, John Weatherhill, New York.
Booth, A, 1995, Looking for the lost. Kodansha America, New York.
Canby, V, 1989, ‘“Taxing Woman’s Return” in a venal Tokyo’, The New York Times, 28 June, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/28/movies/review-film-taxing-woman-s-return-in-a-venal-tokyo.html
Article copyright Patrick Foss.