Sea of Crises
November 5, 2014 11:39 PM   Subscribe

 
That gave me chills. Gorgeous writing, and the personal narrative hinted at through the meditations on the blend of past and present were haunting. Not being one for a abrupt endings I would be eager to read any follow-up.

Also, now missing Japan. Brian really does capture something of what I always felt visiting Tokyo from my end of the country.
posted by harujion at 1:47 AM on November 6, 2014


They used to show the NHK news on the local PBS station during the '90s and I became fascinated with sumo. I would eagerly follow the tournaments, especially Takanohana vs. Akebono. I also admired Takanonami, Musashimaru, and Takanohana's brother Wakanohana. I lost track of sumo around the time Takanohana got hurt in 2001, and so missed the rise of the dominance of Mongolian rikishi. It's a shame, because Hakuho sounds like my kind of wrestler.

Then, there's the story of Mishima and Koga. A tale I was only vaguely aware of. Such a sad story. I hope that Koga has found peace.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:49 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wow, we don't need any narrative coherence because, like, Japan is like, so deep and shit
posted by dubitable at 5:00 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's plenty of narrative coherence in the story. What Brian Phillips is saying is that we've been conditioned to expect a certain kind of payoff from narratives that many other possible kinds of endings are avoided, even if they are sometimes a much more fitting way to conclude a story.

Personally I thought that the ending couldn't possibly have been stronger, especially the way that the last word, "moon," links back to the title: Sea of Crises (Mare Crisium).
posted by Kattullus at 5:08 AM on November 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


There's plenty of narrative coherence in the story. What Brian Phillips is saying is that we've been conditioned to expect a certain kind of payoff from narratives that many other possible kinds of endings are avoided, even if they are sometimes a much more fitting way to conclude a story.

No, you're wrong, and you're offering excuses for a lazy, offensive piece of work.

It started off promising, with a very interesting description of sumo and some recent history of foreigners in the sport. Then it takes a 90 degree turn into a tiresome, typical melange of Japan-flavored orientalism. The author wanders around in a "Lost in Translation"-style haze, observing the inscrutable Japanese people doing inscrutable Japanese things, like the maid who "crawled on her knees" to refill the dude's teacup, the "tiny old ladies in surgical masks" who "sat with bento boxes resting on their knees, looking pleased," etc. etc. And he launches into a side story about the crazy reactionary author who killed himself, and his associate who helped, and he then tries to track down the associate, for reasons he doesn't understand himself.

If he had something interesting to say about Mishima or Koga, especially in the context of sumo and tradition vs. foreign influence on Japan, then maybe I could see it--but no, apparently it's just that he picked up one of Mishima's novels before he got on the plane, and wow, what a crazy story Mishima has, and how crazy is it that this other dude is still alive, and maybe he'll meet him at the MaxValu or something? But who knows how he'll have a conversation with him, because it's just about the vibe dude, feeling the inscrutableness of Japanese people and Japanese culture as a foreigner is way more meaningful than actually getting a translator and communicating with people, 'cause then you'd have to actually treat them as something other than caricatures of themselves, and do real journalism.

This is just the same old "weird Japan," pretentious version. It's the same shit again and again and I'm tired of it.

I mean, to be fair, he said himself that he was half-assing it at the very beginning:

I drifted through the city like a sleepwalker, with no sense of what I was doing or why. Professionally, I managed to keep up a façade of minimum competence, meeting with photographers, arriving on time for the first bell at the Kokugikan, taking notes. (I have: “arena French fry cartons made of yellow cardboard with picture of sumo wrestler printed on it.” I have: “bottle openers attached to railings with string, so fans can open beer.” I have: “seat cushions resting on elevated platforms, so fans can slide their shoes underneath.”)

Yeah, I should have stopped reading there, but I always hope for better...
posted by dubitable at 5:51 AM on November 6, 2014 [10 favorites]


I saw this just a bit ago, and yeah, I really enjoyed the bits about sumo, then cringed through the rest of it. Sumo can be an absolutely fascinating, if utterly corrupt, sport. This level of depth, just on sumo, I would have loved it. Was there an actual connection to Mishima and sumo, or was it just the book he read on the plane? Should I be glad he hadn't read Coin Locker Babies instead?

Instead, same old weird Japan. This screams of a piece that needed a better editor and a focus more than "go to Japan and write stuff." That, and any piece about modern sumo that doesn't talk about Takamisakari, or his wildly innapropriate popularity in regards to his record, or how strongly he came out against the yaocho scandal, only to suffer a near constant series of injuries that drove him out of the sport is just missing a ton of goodness.

Also, Asashoryu > Hakuho.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:28 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is great writing.

If anyone is interested in watching Hakuho toss around 400 lb men like rag dolls, or sumo in general, check out Jason's Sumo Channel. He's an expat from San Diego and he records and uploads in HD, with really great commentary. He's been my only sumo outlet for years. Kyushu Basho starts this Sunday!
posted by HumanComplex at 6:49 AM on November 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


I took a sumo class with a bunch of friends once. It was pretty interesting to learn it all. The highlight was, of course, they had a champion in from somewhere that was clearly bored dealing with a class full of enthusiastic amateurs (if you remember the show Pros vs. Joes, it was a lot like that, where he was clearly screwing around and working about 10% of capacity, then if you pissed him off, he'd go up a gear) but he was funny and I can always say I've gone up against a sumo champion. I am not a small man by any means, about 300 pounds at that time, and he could toss me around like a rag doll.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:35 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


dubitable: No, you're wrong, and you're offering excuses for a lazy, offensive piece of work.

Sea of Crises is an article that's principally about memory loss. It's not really about sumo, or Mishima, or Japan. The key paragraph is here:
All that winter I had been forgetful. No one who knew me would have guessed that anything was wrong, because in fact nothing was wrong. It was only that things kept slipping my mind. Appointments, commitments, errands. My parents' phone number. Sometimes, and for minutes at a time, what city I was in. There is a feeling that comes when you open a browser window on a computer and then realize you have lost all sense of what you meant to do with it; I felt that way looking out of real windows. Some slight but definitive shift in my brain had separated me from my own thoughts. The pattern had changed and I could no longer read it; the map had altered and I could no longer find my way.
Phillips is using the trope of tourists losing their bearings in Japan to talk about losing his bearings in his own life. As he says in the next paragraph: "Of course I would go to Tokyo, I said when I was asked to write about sumo wrestling. Inwardly, I was already there." Yes, he doesn't understand Tokyo, but he doesn't understand his environment wherever he is.

The key thing with sumo in this article is that for its core audience, the sport is changing markedly, namely that this part of Japanese national identity is now dominated by non-Japanese wrestlers. Memory loss changes identity. Phillips is not trying to offer the history of sumo, or talk about the state of sumo today, but tell a story about his own memory loss. As he writes about Hakuho: "How do you experience that without losing all sense of identity? How do you remember who you are?" The article is about Phillips fear of forgetting who he is, losing his sense of identity.

Same goes for Koga, but in reverse. As presented in the article, he's lived his life erasing outward signs to the memory of what happened, even changing his name (to a name which evokes "The Waste Land," which is a poem about, among other things, loss of identity). Phillips portrays himself as an interloper, trying to insert himself into Koga's life when everything indicates that after Mishima's coup attempt he tried to let go of his identity as a member of Tatenokai.

And that's why I mentioned the final word, "moon". Actually, it is worth unpacking that whole last sentence: "It is a cloudy day, so I do not see the moon." This, to me, is a heartbreaking end. The clouds have already been referenced once, in a footnote, explicitly connected to death: "When the protagonist dies late in the book, his death is never mentioned directly; instead, it's marked by a blank chapter called 'Vanished Into the Clouds.'" Same goes for the moon. It's mentioned once before: "Others never end at all, but only cut away, at the moment of extreme crisis, to a butterfly, or the wind, or the moon."

In the article we follow Brian Phillips from being passively aware of his memory problems until he has a moment of crisis at the end. To me it's a coherent narrative throughline and I found it very affecting.
posted by Kattullus at 7:42 AM on November 6, 2014 [16 favorites]


Also, Asashoryu > Hakuho.


Clarification: better, or simply larger?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:43 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


In the article we follow Brian Phillips from being passively aware of his memory problems until he has a moment of crisis at the end. To me it's a coherent narrative throughline and I found it very affecting.

If you find hackneyed caricature of an entire culture and uncritical orientalism acceptable in the service of the story of a Westerner's slip into mental disability--which is a highly dubious reading of this piece--good for you. In the meantime I've reset my "we've had 0 days since the last poorly written 'weird Japan' story on Metafilter" clock.
posted by dubitable at 7:54 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I agree with dubitable's take above. The writer should have stuck to sumo wrestling. The rest of the piece was derivative dreck. When I think of Tokyo I don't think of Blade runner, I think of a clean, livable city. It's crowded, yes, and massive and visually interesting, but it's not exotic.

I also didn't get the references to Kawabata and Mishima. Their inclusion was really weird and anachronistic, like using pre-War Hemingway and Washington Irving to describe the sport of baseball's connection to New York. It's as though the writer was unfamiliar with any contemporary Japanese writers.

The writing on sumo was really good though.
posted by Nevin at 8:07 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Should I be glad he hadn't read Coin Locker Babies instead?

He should have read In the Miso Soup because that one is all about Japan meeting the inscrutable West.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:27 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Orientalism, especially of the travel-narrative type, can be pretty annoying and tiresome. The Far East is an exotic locale where the people do inexplicably strange things for the Westerner's own pleasure and enrichment. On the other hand, in a stroke of genius, the Japanese often market themselves this way. They understand what outsiders want to see and experience and they cater to those expectations. They're also taught to view themselves and their culture as something totally unique and this is reflected in their dealings with the outside world. This is what gives them their edge. It's the fulcrum upon which their economy pivots. It's what fuels the propagation of their culture. Without this you'd be taking away a large part of what it is to be Japanese. It's all very intentional. However, what this writer has done, outside of the sumo writing, is create a mish-mash of Japanese tropes that is coherent to him, in his experience with Japan, but is without any binding logic. Still a win, though, for Japanese soft power. I think they'll gratefully accept it, however flawed it is, and chuckle at its naivete.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:49 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


I suppose we can be glad that the author didn't read "Windup Girl", because then the narrative would have taken a right turn into the Japanese robotics industry.
posted by happyroach at 8:52 AM on November 6, 2014


TheWhiteSkull, Hakuho is (in my mind, at least) larger, physically, than Asashoryu. He is, by all measure, a stronger, better, more accomplished rikishi. He was also, especially when he began dominating, as exciting as tofu ice cream. In recent years, he's popped up on various Japanese TV shows, and when he allows his personality to shine through, he's got a pretty wicked/mischievous sense of humor. Very, very occasionally, you can see him actually react to something another wrestler does, something he disapproves of, and he'll finish them off quickly, and the stoic demeanor will crack just a bit.

Asashoryu was a bully. Horrible, horrible guy, from all reports. Just an all around awful person, as if you meshed the worst parts of (rookie to Dream Team) Charles Barkley with Michael Jordan (and his indomitable will to crush anything, even teammates). On the other hand, what more do you need in a sport where, pretty much above all else, it's one person against another, using strength and finesse to determine who is better? Sure, the extra push off the dohyo might have been excessive, but it gave something to the sport that it needed, at a time when most of the big names were well into the end of their careers (or, as in the case of Chiyotakai, even more of a bully than Asashoryu could ever dream of being). Asashoryu was a living, breathing wrestler, full of faults, but really, really good at the thing he was being paid to do. On the other hand, you have a robot like man who excels because it's what he's been programmed to do. Kobe, if you will, vs. Lebron.

Seriously, though, Takamisakari. From his absurd self-psyching up before the match, to his inability to control his reactions (if he lost, he looked like his dog had just died in his arms, if he won, it was like those videos of children eating ice cream for the first time) at the end of the match, he was one of the few things that made sumo worth watching in the post Waka/Takanohana/Musashimaru era.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:56 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


he was one of the few things that made sumo worth watching in the post Waka/Takanohana/Musashimaru era.

And Akebono. I think around 2002 or 2003 I saw post-sumo Akebono compete in ultimate fighting or something on tv. He got dropped in about 10 seconds. I was so sad. I loved that guy when he was yokozuna.
posted by Nevin at 9:05 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


As for the yaocho thing, after Takamisakari condemned anyone who took part in it, there was a report about a wrestler (anonymous, I think) saying that in all of sumo, you could point to four rikishi and say, with no doubt, that they had never thrown a match, or worked to have one thrown in their favor. One was Takamisakari, one was Kisenosato, and the other two, I'm pretty sure, were Hakuho and Asashoryu. I might honestly be wrong about it being Asashoryu on that list, but I can't be sure.

For me, when the yaocho scandal came out, it killed sumo for me. I went from making sure to watch as much of each basho as I could to not watching it for years. Every once in a while, I'll catch a bit of it on TV as a 'oh, there's a basho' kind of thing. It's one thing to watch a blatantly fake (WWE) show, another to realize what you thought was real was all bullshit.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:07 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Nevin, I almost added in Akebono, but man, his post-sumo has been so awfully sad. One of the nice bits about watching the NHK English feed is that, every so often, Musashimaru would be on commentary. He was always a treat to listen to, not only for the depth of knowledge he brought to bear, but also because of how honestly he would speak to what was happening. I heard him say, more than a couple times, 'that's bad sumo' or something like it, then explain why.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:10 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


I drifted through the city like a sleepwalker, with no sense of what I was doing or why. Professionally, I managed to keep up a façade of minimum competence, meeting with photographers, arriving on time for the first bell at the Kokugikan, taking notes. (I have: “arena French fry cartons made of yellow cardboard with picture of sumo wrestler printed on it.” I have: “bottle openers attached to railings with string, so fans can open beer.” I have: “seat cushions resting on elevated platforms, so fans can slide their shoes underneath.”)

Has there been something like this written about, say, New York City? I'd love to read a "Lost in Translation" in NYC. There are plenty of "person from small town comes to NYC, is overwhelmed by the size and speed" and "the big city is a cold concrete jungle that swallows people in its neon lights" and even "foreigner moves to NYC, is amazed/amused at the differences", but I don't think I've seen something like this about the city.

It would be fun to read an "Occidental" account of a foreign traveler in NYC, wandering in a haze and pondering the inscrutable nature of its people.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:15 AM on November 6, 2014


I get why some are irked by the exoticism on display, and I'm not sure I get the connections between the sumo sections and the rest of the article. I also thought it was a bit mannered here and there - "What happened was...," etc. And then this:

"His building is there. Koga’s, I mean. In Kumamoto. Just down the hill from the castle."

It's like that bit. That bit of Wonder Boys, I mean. By Michael Chabon. The one where he describes James' writing style.

For all that, however, my overwhelming reaction was still "gosh, what a pretty piece of writing." Really vivid.
posted by ColdOfTheIsleOfMan at 9:37 AM on November 6, 2014


For me, when the yaocho scandal came out, it killed sumo for me.

Yeah, no kidding. I used to watch sumo almost every day, whenever there was a basho on. They used to play it on the tv at the gym I went to after work, so I would watch the basho while doing the stairmaster or whatever.

But after Akebono and Musashimaru retired (I never liked that prick Takanohana), I kind of lost interest.

One of my strongest memories of my early days in Japan twenty years ago was waiting at a little train station in Tsubata, north of Kanazawa for a connector train to go up to visit my then-girlfriend who was living in Nanao on the Noto Peninsula.

It was snowing out, and pretty cold. I was waiting in a little waiting room, and the snow swirled outside, and occasionally express trains sped past the platform. The deep snow muffled the sound of the passing trains and the snow pelted on the window. I was watching sumo on the little waiting room television - It must have been the hatsu-basho in January.

And I can recall Musashimaru just devastating whoever his opponent was.

Initially when I arrived in Japan I thought sumo was pretty stupid, just a bunch of fat slobs. Another teacher set me straight, explaining the sheer physical size of these guys - most of them are quite tall - and the sheer muscle it takes to lift another 350 pound man out of the ring.

If nothing else this post makes me want to get back into it. Hopefully there is no match-fixing anymore.
posted by Nevin at 9:43 AM on November 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


The article was just fine for me, but it did rekindle a dormant love of Sumo. I was into it maybe 10 or 15 years ago when I had more time to troll the deeper recesses of my cable package, but I haven't really thought about it in quite awhile.

However, thanks to this thread, I now have a couple of sources of great sumo coverage!

Thanks metafilter!
posted by Phreesh at 12:56 PM on November 6, 2014


that prick Takanohana

I didn't read the article so perhaps I shouldn't be commenting at all, but I can't let this slip by.

I worked briefly with sumo wrestlers eons ago when Takanohana was still the ozeki Takahanada, for a kogyo tournament that was held in Hawaii. For the record, having actually met and interacted with him, Takanohana is most definitely not a prick, no matter what you might think of him from his unfortunate public image. I'm older than he is by several years and he was still a very young man then, maybe in his late teens even, but the way he treated everyone around him, including nameless female staff members like me, was nothing short of gentlemanly. Like I said, he was already ozeki then, which is second from the top rank for those who aren't familiar with sumo. In a world where strength and ranking means everything, he was in a position where he could have gotten away with treating everyone except the ranking yokozuna like shit if he wanted to. And many wrestlers do, esp. to women because sumo is still basically a man-only world. But he chose not to, even though he was raised in the spotlight, rose to the top ranks like lightning, and could have turned out to be an awful human being. I still have a lot of respect for him. I don't know if he was ever involved in yaocho. But I'd like to think that he's doing what he can to change things now that he's older and in a position to do so.

Now his brother, OTOH, is most definitely a prick. So was Mainoumi, believe it or not.

FWIW, Akebono, Konishiki and Musashimaru were were all decent people, too.

I used to like sumo but don't follow it much anymore, either. But my current fave wrestler is Endo! Hope he has a long, injury-free career.
posted by misozaki at 3:57 PM on November 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


Okay, I take it back!
posted by Nevin at 5:09 PM on November 6, 2014


That was rather beautiful.

The story sent me online to look for the Saint Sebastian photographs. There are photographs of the suicide and its aftermath. I am left thinking Mishima was a theatrical fascisistic *******e. Also wondering whether his immediate family was a little relieved to be free.

Left with admiration for Koga. Always admire those who clear up the mess their charismatic idols hadn't even though about. I'm grateful to the writer that I don't have to find out if Koga lives up to my hopes or not.
posted by glasseyes at 5:47 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lazy work?! Each to their own, I suppose.
posted by glasseyes at 5:48 PM on November 6, 2014


Lol Nevin, thanks, though I meant that "you" in my comment as the general you, sorry I didn't make it clear.
posted by misozaki at 9:48 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


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