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Book Review: This Great Stage of Fools – An anthology of uncollected writings

Written by Alan Booth. Edited by Timothy Harris with an afterword by Karel van Wolferen.

Cover photo of nebuta in Aomori by Brian KowalczykIt is a testament to Alan Booth’s skill as a writer that he is regarded by Japanophiles as one of the pre-eminent commentators on Japan and Japanese culture (though a culture far removed from Japan’s city environs). This even though only two of his books about Japan became mainstream publications, ‘The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan’ (1985) and, posthumously (Booth passed away in 1993), ‘Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan’ (1995). *

‘This Great Stage of Fools’ is a comprehensive collection of his journalistic articles. Initial impressions were good and as this review progressed it became increasingly apparent that the same sardonically insightful and playfully humorous analytical frame of mind that Booth applied to his two published books, which engage with and draw the reader in and makes Booth such a popular author, is evident in this collection of articles making them a delight to read.

The collection is broken down into five parts; the first covering Booth’s critiques of the Japanese film industry and films between 1979 and 1990, the second on Japanese festivals, the third on Japanese folk songs, the fourth on wandering, and finally the fifth which covers his experience of life after his cancer diagnosis.

In Part I, the largest in the book by far, his initial negativity towards the Japanese cinema industry, quite apparent in the first section, is replaced in the next, on the best of Japanese cinema, with a sort of bemused wonder – especially at the seemingly limited faculty of the Japanese film industry, in his opinion, to appreciate the best of its own film directors and their films whilst espousing, in no uncertain terms, the genius of his favourite films in spite of their apparent niche separation from mainstream Japanese cinema. In the brief section on the worst of Japanese cinema Booth comes into his own, ending the first part on general cinema releases between 1979 and 1990 with his personal brand of hilarious laugh out loud ‘say it as he sees it’ cutting edge sarcasm. The section on Anime exhibits an almost childlike yet erudite fascination and wonder at the worlds of Japanese animation, reaching almost an apotheosis of prose in his descriptions of the magically childlike and the childishly cartoonish, across all; the excellent, the violently banal, the profoundly brutal, and the pleasantly misplaced. In the penultimate section on war films Booth’s analysis is as unflinchingly honest, at least from his point of view, as it is critical of the stance of the Japanese on the Second World War before, during and after. This is not without hope however, invested in the youth of Japan at the time though he also goes on to highlight with depressing honesty the vicissitudes of the contentious themes in the war films he reviews, on atrocity and culpability, the appeal of and responsibility for revisionism and distortion, honour and respect, and sheer lunacy. The final section of Part I is a relatively brief foray into the world of the Japanese theatre covering three plays, and whilst this reviewer, unable to comment on the critique for the first two plays never having seen productions by those Directors, is in almost total disagreement with his analysis and critique of Ninagawa’s ‘Macbeth’ – but then perceptions differ and Booth, as interesting as ever with his views, does have a particularly singular outlook. It would be interesting to know what, if anything, was the response of the Japanese, and the Japanese film industry in particular, to these reviews.

 

Alan Booth

Alan Booth (1946 – 1993)

Part II, on Japanese festivals, is in much more familiar Booth territory, one which it is obvious he relishes and with each festival description, from horse festival to a celebration of the Heian age, from a festival of giant neputa lanterns to the festival of the dead, it’s like dipping a scoop into and sampling strange sweets from one in a long line of large sweet jars in an old fashioned sweet shop, the end result being a hugely enjoyable and wonderful mix of the superstitious and the ordinary transformed and transubstantiated into the extraordinary, all sprinkled with a dusting of verse and the most wonderfully reverent and irreverent ‘off piste’ MacGuffins… …and finding oneself at the end of this part still wanting so much more.

And in Part III the wish for more is granted. His ‘specialism’, if there was one, was folk songs and in particular enka (ballads) and for a non-Japanese his knowledge of them was exceptional. Here though the oeuvre is niche, probably even for the Japanese. Yet again he doesn’t disappoint covering a broad mix of travelogue, local traditions, and folk songs. Yet apart from the definitive change in subject heading there is only a slight yet subtle shift in structure from the articles of Part II, a transition, for this reviewer, from enchantment to delight.

Part IV, the briefest in terms of articles yet perhaps one of the highlights of the collection, consists of two articles devoted to wandering. The first an evocative and fascinating journey into the life of the incomparable Chikuzan Takahashi, the blind shamisen player from Tsugaru who in later life became one of Japan’s most successful players of Tsugaru shamisen music, an article in which Booth combines two of the elements which seem to fascinate him most, Tsugaru in Aomori in the far north of Honshu (an area he expanded on in his later travelogue following in the footsteps of the writer Osamu Daizai in ‘Looking for the Lost’), and folk music. In some strange way Chikuzan Takahashi seems to mirror the no-nonsense character of Booth which emerges from these pages. The second article was originally written to complete his journey across Japan, a journey begun in ‘Roads to Sata’, and this by walking across Japan’s smallest and probably least known island outside of Japan, Shikoku, completed at the behest of and for ‘Winds’, the inflight magazine of Japanese Airlines. Here it was like picking up the ‘Roads to Sata’ again, somewhat like bumping into an old, well known, friend and catching up on what had been going on since last those pages had been turned.

The final Part V about his post diagnosis life is by turns heart-rendingly sad and yet injected with some very funny but uncomfortable humour. Booth, never one to hold back, at first seems to wander into a stream of consciousness narrative, leaping from one aspect to another, though he does in fact quite quickly settle down into a chronicle of sorts. And yet still irrepressible, with the accounts of his treatments, as harrowing though they are, he is unable to resist interspersing his narrative with his usual glib yet very funny acerbic comments.

A story teller to the end perhaps he is still sitting comfortably, just this side of the arched red bridge over the Sanzu river, the intersection between this world and the next, on his fifth and final trip to Osorezan, regaling Jizo, the Buddhist patron bodhisattva of travellers, with tales of his adventures his cache of stories not yet exhausted. Yet being the ultimate wise Zen fool he was, he would no doubt question with delightfully humorous sarcasm the very existence of both Jizo, even as he bade him farewell, and the intersecting bridge, even as he passed over it.

This book is an absolute must for Booth fans. In turns fascinating and laugh out loud humorous it didn’t fail to live up to very high expectations. His absence has left a huge gap in the publishing world of writing about Japan, and in the expectation of what might have been there is, as selfish as it may seem, an intensity of disappointment that is difficult to put into words… …but also a delight in his legacy, in what has survived as in the articles in this book through which his memory lives on.

* For other English language books by Alan Booth please see https://fexluz.com/completeworks-alanbooth/

‘This Great Stage of Fools’ available from http://brightwavemedia.com/booth.html 

Details:

This Great Stage of Fools – An anthology of uncollected writings by Alan Booth

Edited by Timothy Harris with an afterword by Karel van Wolferen

324 pages

ISBN 978-0-9899163-1-8

Pub. Bright Wave Media

Japan residents ¥2,500 + ¥500 PP

Residents outside Japan ¥2,500 + ¥1,000 PP

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

  1. Tim Harris
    August 24, 2018 at 2:41 am

    Thank you very much, Trevor — I have just come across this.

    Like

  2. Tim Harris
    August 25, 2018 at 4:36 am

    Thank you very much for this, Trevor. Tim Harris (the editor) (I tried to post this yesterday but the comment wasn’t here when I looked today — I hope this one stays.)

    Like

  3. Tim Harris
    August 25, 2018 at 4:37 am

    Thank you very much for this, Trevor. Tim Harris (editor)

    Like

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