Yoko Tawada – Memoirs of a Polar Bear [Book Review]

Having just finished Toko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (just released by Portobello Books) and having mixed feelings about its narrative style, I felt compelled to also check out Tawada’s other novel in English translation – Memoirs of a Polar Bear. The difference? This one, she wrote in German, as opposed to Japanese.

Fittingly then, the events very much centre around Germany in terms of setting, as we follow three generations of ‘captive’ polar bears. The first a writer, forced to flee from Soviet Russia as she pursues a writing career. The second a member in a circus show. The third – and for my money, the most interesting of the three tales – part of a zoo.

In each tale, the lines between bear and human deliberately blur – is it really a bear telling these stories, or a human in bear form? Or is it all some great big metaphor? Those that don’t appreciate areas of ambiguity will find this narrative conceit immensely perplexing, especially in the first two parts where the prose is almost always dense with meaning, politically charged and very much in service of making depth-laden observations on the human condition.

I have to confess, the third tale – with its cute, child’s-eye (and bear’s eye) view of the world that really charmed me the most. The most ‘bear-like’ of the three tales, its narrator’s slowly dawning consciousness of the environment of the zoo around him (and the keepers that tend to him) is so beautifully, elegantly drawn that I found myself powering through this section in a single sitting; such was the charm with which it is written. It even transitions from the third to first person halfway through – one of many games of ‘viewing’ the novel places with. It takes being placed in the mind of an animal to view ourselves for what we truly are – simply another kind of animal. Are we the ones looking through the cage and into the zoo? Or is the bear looking out at us and our equally perplexing behaviour?

Part of me wonders whether the book isn’t perhaps a case of slightly illusive marketing – dressing the novel up as accessible, cutesy ‘animal-story’ fiction, ready to slide in next to all those Japanese cat books. Or maybe there’s something to be said about its inherent human/animal narrative hybrid, a new twist on the kind of sheep-related stuff Murakami has been peddling as oh so quirky for years. The book was pushed heavily by the likes of Foyles around Christmas, and it’s easy to see why with its big flash of snowy white on the cover and the cutesy, rounded font they used. But maybe the message didn’t connect in the way they wanted, as so far it seems commercial success here in the UK has been so-so: the book has only seven reviews on UK Amazon at time of writing.

The more literary end of contemporary Japanese fiction is a fascinating beast. Everyone dreams of the next Murakami – a mega-seller to sweep all others aside and cross over into true bestseller status. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is far too subtle for that, too complex in its tones and shades. But given time, it reveals its delights all the same – Tawada’s skill as a writer is undoubtable, and at its best, this is a tale not easily forgotten. The outer casing might be all bear, but inside, the beating heart is 100% human, and that’s why it resonates so very deeply.

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Nagisa Tatsumi – The Art of Discarding [Book Review]

Noticing the kindle version of The Art of Discarding was available for only 99p last weekend, I hastily grabbed a copy – having loved Marie Kondo’s decluttering books as well as Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve become a wholescale decluttering addict in recent years, and think the advice these books offers not only translates to a cleaner, clearer living space, but also a cleaner, clearer mind state.

So I was disappointed to find that The Art of Discarding feels – in-comparison to these other, better works – largely outdated and weak-willed. It’s easy to see why Marie Kondo’s books have become international bestsellers, while The Art of Discarding has only experienced limited success abroad (only 34 reviews on UK Amazon). Originally released in Japan in the early 00s, much of the advice and examples provided within now feel almost hilariously outdated – rooted in a paper-based society where documents and entertainment could not be so easily backed up online.

Many of the examples the author gives feel especially relevant to Japan and its concept of mottainai, and will feel alien to international readers. Likewise, the author is often quite wishy-washy in the approach given to adopting the principles outlined in the book; in short, it’s all very ‘Just try the things you like, if you don’t agree with it, it’s all OK’. One of the things the Marie Kondo book is keen to stress in contrast, is that decluttering needs to be a complete, wholesale transformation as ‘lifestyle’, not simply something that can be tried out for a few months and then abandoned. No surprises then that the author of The Art of Discarding admits readily that no matter how much she seems to discard, she keeps buying new products and has to repeat the process again.

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has become a phenomenon because a) it speaks with a universality that can be adopted by anyone, no matter what country they live in, and b) because it is firm and methodical in its approach. Genuine, practical rules that can be followed to the letter, with results that are immediately evident in their beneficially. The Art of Discarding – in contrast – feels prey to the symptom of so many sub-standard ‘lifestyle’ / self-help books in simply expressing lists of ‘what worked for the author’.

To those that have already exhausted all the other decluttering books on the market, The Art of Discarding might offer some entertainment value and reinforcement for those lapsing in their efforts – but it is far from the best book of the subject. Pick it up only if it’s going cheap.

Yoko Tawada – The Last Children of Tokyo [Book Review]

When I saw this gorgeously illustrated volume occupying a special display stand in Foyles last week, I knew I had to grab a copy. I was already familiar with Tawada’s name following Foyles’ similar push for Portobello’s earlier release ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’, and it seems they’re capitalising on her rising star in the UK with this swift follow-up.

The Last Children of Tokyo is a slim work – only around 130 pages – but its a dense one, demanding to be read slowly to give ample room to soak into its complex, meaningfully loaded use of language. Indeed, if one to attribute a core theme to the work, language is right up there with ageing and societal issues.

Telling the story of a near-future Japan populated by the super elderly – it paints a harrowing picture where ironically, it is the elderly that are in better health than the stunted, deformed weak young. People work well into their hundreds, and the old have come to be sub-divided into ‘young elderly’, ‘old elderly’ and so on. Japan has reverted to its isolationism of Edo period, and what remains is an increasingly unnerving portrait of officialdom run riot in a ‘what if’ scenario that is faintly ludicrous and implausible, yet somehow just believable enough to remain chilling.

This leads me to two of the books attributes that act as both strengths and inherent weaknesses – chiefly that the novel really requires a fairly significant knowledge of contemporary Japanese culture to ‘get’ many of the references and in-jokes it makes. Without a working knowledge of Japanese society, these will just sail right over the reader’s head – leaving them perplexed. Likewise, there are a number of overt examples of wordplay which – while well translated – were clearly designed to function primarily in the original language (Japanese). Stuff like this always feels a little clunky in translation, and serves to break the immersion a little.

There’s arguably little distinct clean-cut narrative to the novel. Rather, it seems to function more as a kind of compendium of sketch-like scenarios. Little comedic skits that centre around a core, memorable concept designed to play itself out as a kind of almost academic-like thought experiment. Literature has been doing this kind of thing since Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Kafka’s Metamorphosis – and The Last Children of Tokyo definitely feels like it deserves its spot in this long tradition – but it means that as a novel, it remains frustratingly inaccessible at times, with characters that are hard to relate to, and a backdrop that remains like a swirling ocean of paragraphs.

Unlike other Japanese authors recently translated into English – Hiromi Kawakami springs to mind – its clear Tawada isn’t so overtly aimed at the kind of ‘thinky chic-lit’ demographic – this is far more an art piece than vaguely hipster populist reading. But regardless, Portobello books are to be celebrated for playing their part in flying the flag for high quality translations of contemporary Japanese literature.

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West [Book Review]

The basic premise of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is so disarmingly simple, it doesn’t take much to imagine the book swiftly making the transition to film or TV series. The idea of mysterious doors opening up around the world, allowing the free flow of migrants from country to country, is one hell of a hook – and more importantly, one that feels inextricably tied into a whole host of socio-political hot topics of the moment. This is a book clearly designed from the outset to pose the ‘big questions’ – chief among them being, does the central ‘what if’ scenario add to or detract from the novel’s quality in its own right.

Having polished off Exit West in two extended reading sessions, there’s a lot to be said for Hamid’s particular style here – it’s a kind of never-ending, almost poetic run of words that tugs us ceaselessly through various global locales alongside the book’s two central characters – the couple Nadia and Saeed. It’s a narrative in abstract in many ways, as is this central couple, who we are at once both intimate with (with book is full of some surprisingly frank sexual descriptions) and also at a remove from. Dialogue is almost non-existent, and what we learn about the couple is largely from the omniscient narrator.

There’s a certain charm to this – it lends the book a fable-like, timeless quality, and also clearly poses the couple as a ‘it could be anyone’ silhouette – something emphasised by Hamid’s vague description of their home city / origins. This is merely one story of many, Nadia and Saeed merely proxies – a veritable Man A + Woman B – through which to orientate our viewpoint amidst a bigger picture.

This arguably weakens the beginning and end of the book, where – while we get used to the novel’s particular style – we feel lost, grasping for something to hold onto. The couple feels cold – almost abrasive at times, Hamid playing a striking move of overt female dominance and male submissiveness in the power relations of this particular couple, and as events unfold, we very much begin to understand their tale as a kind of anti-love story. A slow, bittersweet falling out of love. Hamid’s portrayal of the world is certainly not without hope, but as the novel progresses, it never shies away from the more raw, uncomfortable truths of the human condition.

And really, the human condition is what this book is all about – while the big themes such as migration, ideas of nativism, country states, global movement and generational divides drive the gears of the writing forward, what lingers in the mind – like the sharp aftertaste of a strong wine – is thrusting drive to simply ‘exist’. At every turn, Nadia and Saeed move onward in search of something better – journeying ever west-ward, and ironically, into a kind of regressive post-modern return to the Earth. A kind of new Stone Age mentality of communal, camp living – albeit one watched over by drones and serviced by wi-fi and cell phones. As Hamid himself puts it – it is a kind of post-apocalyptic world, without the apocalypse.

In statements like this, the novel feels remarkably prescient – and my general feeling coming away from the book was that, as an extended thought experiment, it utterly excels. But as a novel, there is a hollowness at its core that rubs the wrong way a little too often for my liking. Exit West might present the bitter reality of human life and the world we live in, but in doing so, it exposes a kind of grey, lingering horror of existentialism. What are we doing here? In a world without borders, do we begin to lose what coheres us together as societies?

Upcoming books from / about Japan #TheHighlights

There’s a lot of great writing from and about Japan being published in the UK right now. Recent successes like Portobello Books’ excellent Hiromi Kawakami translations have proven that there’s life in popular Japanese fiction beyond the annual tradition of the big Murakami release (Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo has over 100 reviews on Amazon at time of writing).

The past few months have also seen a number of highlights such as Penguin shining a light on the works of Yuko Tsushima via Territory of Light (with Child of Fortune – released as part of their Modern Classics range – still to come later this year) as well as bringing older translations of Mishima and Endo under their wing in glossy new editions.

Below is a list of some of the most promising releases of the next few months, that you might just consider adding to your wish lists…

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories (Penguin Classics Hardcover)

(Edited by Murakami translator Jay Rubin, plus an introduction by Murakami himself, the kindle edition of this hefty 500+ page tome is currently on Amazon for only £3.49)

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Convenience Store Woman

(Winner of the Akutagawa Prize in Japan, and published by Portobello Books, the bright, colourful cover art is clearly aiming this one firmly at the quirky Kawakami crowd)

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Another Kyoto

(Not a novel, nor is it written by a Japanese author – but Kerr’s Lost Japan is one of my all time favourite books about the country, so the prospect of a new volume from him is always to be hotly anticipated)

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Killing Commendatore

(The big Daddy himself. Hitting the UK in October, the latest Murakami novel has received mixed reviews in Japan, but at over 600 pages long, this brick of a novel is sure to make for an interesting counterpoint to his last UK release – the brief, sprightly Men Without Women)

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If Cats Disappeared from the World

(The latest ‘Japanese cat book’ looking to cash in on the ever increasing list of previous successes. This one is from Picador, who in many ways started the trend with their translation of The Guest Cat)

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Go: A Coming of Age Novel

(previously released in Hardback in March, the Paperback finally hits shelves in August)

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The Emissary

(Portobello scored a decent hit with Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear during the 2017 Christmas season, so it’s nice to see another Tawada volume following so quickly, this time from WW Norton & Company)

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Child of Fortune (Penguin Modern Classics)

(Another sumptuous release from Penguin Modern Classics, who have really been putting in the effort on their Japanese releases recently. This follows swiftly on from their release of Tsushima’s similarly slight-but-powerful 120-pager Territory of Light as well as their taster volume Of Dogs And Walls)

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Salad Anniversary (Pushkin Blues)

(Originally published in 1987 in Japan, this volume of Tanka poetry has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Suffice to say, this classy Pushkin Press edition looks like a worthy addition to bookshelves)

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Shadow Child

(From GoodreadsA haunting and suspenseful literary tale set in 1970s New York City and World War II-era Japan, about three strong women, the dangerous ties of family and identity, and the long shadow our histories can cast.)

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Cult X

(From Goodreads: The magnum opus by Akutagawa Prize-winner Fuminori Nakamura, Cult X is a story that dives into the psychology of fringe religion, obsession, and social disaffection.)

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The Japanese ‘lifestyle’ books just keep coming…

If you thought the world was already full to bursting book on cute Hygge-style little hardback ‘lifestyle’ books, think again. I’ve taken a recent interest in the profusion of Japanese-centric volumes hitting the shelves recently and boy are there a lot of them. Boasting attractive cover art and lovely bindings, I spotted a number of these volumes collected together on the shelves of Foyles recently and felt an irresistible itch to partake.

Questions of content aside (do we really need *another* book on Ikigai…?) there’s something to be said about these books as a kind of ‘purchasable lifestyle add-on’ that I find rather interesting from a sociological and marketing standpoint. The idea of trends (and accompanying cover designs) in relation to the sale of books is something that’s always appealed to me, going right back to the host of red & black draped YA clones that flooded the shelves in the wake of the Twilight phenomenon.

The name of the game is finding happiness and health, ‘the Japanese way’. It’s not just a lifestyle, wisdom, or an art, but a ‘science’. All in search of a perfectly imperfect, essential, purposeful life. Now, it’s not just about Ikigai, Forest Bathing or Wabi Sabi, but a book offering all three in one! I kind of like how the last book on the list just drops the complexities and goes the distance with ‘How to live Japanese’.

The books highlighted below are just the tip of the iceberg – I’m sure we’ll see plenty more just like this jostling for position very soon… (let’s be honest, I’ve got an Amazon pre-order on all of these already… maybe…)

Kintsugi: Embrace your imperfections and find happiness – the Japanese way

 

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Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing

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Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life

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Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation

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The Little Book of Ikigai: The secret Japanese way to live a happy and long life

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Japonisme: Ikigai, Forest Bathing, Wabi-sabi and more

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Kakeibo: The Japanese Art of Saving Money

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A Little Book of Japanese Contentments: Ikigai, Forest Bathing, Wabi-Sabi, and More

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How to Live Japanese

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Ichiro Kishimi & Fumitake Koga – The Courage to be Disliked [Book Review]

The Courage To Be Disliked (Kirawa reru yūki) is in many ways a misleading title – oddly negative sounding – in relation to a book that, for the most part, is focused on encouraging a lifestyle of extreme positivity. When I saw this particular Japanese self-help tome was becoming popular in its recent English translation, I was intrigued – especially given the similar recent successes of books on Ikigai and the decluttering phenomenon.

But this is in many ways a very different kind of book. I generally divide self-help books into two broad camps. ‘Soft’ ones focusing on a kind of gentle, bolt-on attitude of helpful suggestions, backed up by anecdotal evidence of named real-life success figures. And secondly, ‘hard’ ones that advocate a kind of wholesale lifestyle change, and are backed up by deeper philosophical or psychological theories, to the extent that they almost become academic in tone.

The Courage to be Disliked is definitely in the second camp. In many ways, I remain a little skeptical about this kind of approach – while the need to offer ‘hard’ truths to shatter existing preconceptions and achieve real world change is understandable, I’ve always felt uneasy at how close the tone of such approaches comes to ‘red pill’-esque language about ‘the real way the world works’.

That said, it’s hard to argue with many of the core concepts laid down in the book:

Be self reliant
“I have the ability”
Self acceptance

Live in harmony with society
“People are my comrades”
Confidence in others
Contributions to others
Community feeling is object of life

In a way, one could argue that the distinctly ‘Japanese’ quality of the writing on offer here is a refreshing tonic to the pie-in-the-sky affirmations offered in many Western self-help books. There’s an exhaustive, almost clinical approach to the arguments here, which aptly take the form of a Plato-esque dialogue between a philosopher and a youth (a technique also put to good use in Nigel Mellor’s Buddhism#now).

At the heart of the book lie the theories of Freud-contemporary Alfed Adler – they were certainly new to me, although, as the book itself states, Adler’s ideas are almost so ‘obvious’ in their nature that they have been reproduced countless times over the past 50 years without attribution.

There are certainly frustrations with the book too – while it eschews the ‘celebrity’ angle so many Western self-help books, in awe to actors or silicon valley heroes that ‘won in life’, it’s certainly not without anecdote itself – and many feel incomplete or one-sided. Ultimately though – by the conclusion, I felt reasonably satisfied with its core premise and explanation, refreshingly salved by its more philosophical approach to the nature of a book of this kind.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 [Book Review]

I first encountered Fahrenheit 451 in audio format – the eternally popular dystopian tale of book-burning lovingly recreated as an audio drama on BBC Radio 4extra. At the time, I was a BA student, eagerly writing my final dissertation on Philip K Dick and Ursula Le Guin – as such, stumbling across another paragon of the very best the golden age of science fiction had to offer was like striking gold. I lapped it up, lulled in by Bradbury’s immensely beautiful turn of phrase and penchant for startling prescient observations.

And now, years later, reading it in book form for the first time, it’s the poetry of Bradbury’s words that strikes me most. The ideas in the book are so ahead of their time, and so enduring relevant to this day – in many ways they lose some of their effect; precisely because they have been copied and recycled in countless other media a million times and more.

But all these imitations and followers hold only a shadow of the particular tone of Bradbury’s original. His phrasing is pure classic sci-fi, descriptions stumbling and flowing into one-another in a breathless, never-ending jumble of adjectives and metaphor. Fahrenheit 451 is a river of a novel – nominally divided into three parts, but absolutely consumable in a single sitting. Not just science-fiction, but movie-esque full-octane thriller from beginning to end.

Indeed, its the novel’s ideas about wall-to-wall media saturation replacing the need for books that sticks with me most strongly now – how in many ways, the burning of the books becomes supplementary to the own ‘death of reading’ committed by the grey, normalised masses who are content with the ‘easy life’. This is the true horror of Bradbury’s novel – beneath the more overt, cinematic thrills of flame-throwers, bombs and mechanical hounds.

And so, we are presented a novel that is both pure action, and pure thought-experiment. Characters like Beatty – the malevolent fire-chief feel more like authorial devil’s advocate counterpoints than real characters, as Bradbury follows philosophical debates through to their logical conclusion. His novel veritably *explodes* in the mind, and you get the sense of the author letting his words spring from his fingers almost before he’s even had time to process them. The pure, exhilarating speed is part of the thrill here, and the clarity of this ‘think big’ science-fiction reminded me for the first time in a long time just why the material from this era of writing maintains such a distinct flavour.

Much like earlier ‘pulp’ writers like Lovecraft, Bradbury understands the fundamental truth that the true power of science-fiction is that the reader’s own mind is always able to conjure material more terrifying than the author himself – and so, Bradbury’s novel is the spark, the beginnings of our own descent into a future that is scary precisely because we align it with the fears of our own times. Just like Orwell’s 1984. Just like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. These tales remain timeless because as much as we might seek to run from it, the future remains – ceaselessly and unrelentingly – just around the corner.

Amor Towles – A Gentleman In Moscow [Book Review]

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel lovingly crafted to push the buttons of all fans of historical novels. An unforgettable central character, a busy cast of supporting characters, obsessive attention to period detail – and most importantly – a narrative that charts the course of a country’s evolution over several decades of the 20th century’s most iconic events.

The titular gentleman is an almost-Sherlock-esque caricature of idiosyncracities – all routines and over-the-top ‘performance’. A man that goes through life as if every public appearance is on the stage and every word from his mouth is Shakespearean in its depth of meaning. Confined to a Moscow hotel amidst the tumultuous events of early 20th century Russia, the gentleman does his best to entertain himself amidst the expansive building, eventually becoming head waiter – whilst outside, we see the decades roll by, finally ending in the 1950s and the construction of Russia’s first nuclear power plant.

A forthcoming TV adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh has been announced – which, to be honest, is pretty much perfect casting – exactly the kind of actor needed to portray the stateliness and gravity of a role like the count. And in many ways, having finished the book, I almost feel that A Gentleman in Moscow is the kind of story that would work better *as* a film. It almost feels as if the writer constructed the narrative more in a visual sense than a literary one – with its excessive description, it at times more feels like an attempt to capture every ounce of visual stimuli in a mind’s eye capture than the brisk clip of an entertaining thriller.

All the flamboyance and flair of the count – while entertaining on the page – feels like it could be conveyed with far more economy and effect with an on-screen treatment. My greatest fault with the book is its slavish addiction to the literary sin of ‘he did this, then this, and then that’. A Gentleman in Moscow is not an overly long book, but it sure feels like it, only emphasised by its static setting. Stick with it and it pays its dividends – particularly in a couple of incredible set-pieces that round off the ‘books’ the novel is comprised of; but these are precisely because they abandon – albeit briefly – the staid quality of the rest of the novel for a brief burst of intense action.

A Gentleman in Moscow feels like it was designed for a very particular kind of reading experience – one is which it is slowly consumed over a lengthy reading period; perhaps a few pages a time every evening. The Count is so central to proceedings – and while it is certainly not hard to warm to him as a character, it’s also questionable whether he is *quite* the figure the novel seems to believe he is. Dignified dandy and emblematic figure of fading ideals of gentry sure, but sometimes it really feels like the book is labouring in its efforts at casting him as a figure of great sympathy.

If the Gentleman in Moscow was a debut work, I’d put its faults down to inexperience, but it is in fact Amor Towles third effort. As such, it seems more a victim of over-ambition – reaching so greatly for the hefty classics of Russian literature it is so ready to evoke; trying to tell a tale for all ages – of a man stuck outside of time and place, watching the world change around him. And while there are echoes of this grandeur, like the Count and the hotel itself, it is a grandeur slowly tarnishing as the world evolves beyond it – leaving A Gentleman in Moscow at times feeling like imitation as opposed to the genuine article.

Coolness, suave sophistication. These are things in which all value evaporates if the effort made in achieving them becomes too overt – and for me, A Gentleman in Moscow so nearly succumbs to this.

Mizuki Koyama – Kareniwa Kanawanai

Originally released: 1985

What it sounds like: A raucous, playful anthem that reminds me at times of the OP for Yuyu Hakusho. With sprightly, festival-esque brass pumps and a youthful, irresistibly lively vocal from Mizuki herself – this is a real call-to-arms get up and let’s play number that’s pretty much the definition of good-time genki feels. Wonderfully energetic – and what’s more, the track features on the recent Tokyo Nights compilation too.

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