Masuji Ibuse – Black Rain book review

January 20, 2009 at 3:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Masuji Ibuse – Black Rain (Original: 黒い雨; Kuroi ame)

300 pages

Translated by John Bester

Black Rain

Black Rain

Facts are what survive any calamity. It’s with facts and numbers that students of any age learn about the world. But Ibuse’s Black Rain dispenses with scientific fact in the interest of exploring Hiroshima’s bombing with characters that cry, laugh, limp and lament. While political and statistical information is missing, the human characters reveal a different “truth.” Ibuse collected the stories of many people from Hiroshima and related them in a work of fiction that is every bit as important in 2009 as it was decades ago.

Black Rain’s structure is phenomenal. In overviews of Japanese fiction you’ll read of “I-novels” (私小説, Watakushi shōsetsu) in which the author relates realistic stories about himself. This literary form was popular in Japan, and Black Rain’s translator John Bester situates the novel in this category during his introduction. The narration, however, is not from the author. The primary narrator is Shigematsu Shizuma whose post-war life is hampered by the radiation sickness that erupts after any difficult physical labor. In an ingenious literary move, Ibuse has Shigematsu “copy” his journal from August 6th through August 14th, allowing us to see life during the bombing in addition to life after. Other viewpoints are woven into the text as well, including the gruesome story of a draftee who survives the blast, Shigematsu’s niece, and other characters that he meets. A formative moment in a country’s history will be engrained forever in the mind of people both collectively and individually. They will remember the moment through the lens of their own experience, and Ibuse captures the need for humanity to hear and tell their own version of what happened through this narrative technique.

The novel’s “present” setting tells the story of Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko and their niece Yasuko. Yasuko was brought to Hiroshima by Shigematsu to keep her safe from the air raids. This error causes a great deal of guilt for Shigematsu. There are several instances that cause Shigematsu undue stress, and the reader will be awed at Ibuse’s portrayal of the delicate intra- and extra-societal forces that shape all human societies. Black Rain succeeds in examining Japanese society in tandem with human culture as a whole.

Shigematsu and some of his friends are hindered by the radiation sickness that flares from too much activity. Yet they are also told to be as physical as possible. This results in one of the most poignant vignettes in the story: Shigematsu and Shokichi are fishing from a communal lake in an effort to occupy themselves and remain healthy when they are belittled by a woman on the shore.

“Both fishing, eh? Some people are lucky, I must say, seeing how everyone else is so busy.”

Shokichi retaliates that “. . .I’d only be glad to do some work, I can tell you—any amount! But people like us only have to do a bit of hard work and their limbs start to rot on them. This damned disease starts to come out.” The argument escalates to obscenity and name-calling, but the most painful remark was surely the woman’s first. For Ibuse to write a scene in which survivors of the bomb are ridiculed for laziness so soon after the bomb shows a keen, painfully acute understanding of stigma and prejudice.

Black Rain portrays the difficulties of military and political bureaucracy. Any government and military large enough to invade other countries will have its own bureaucratic structure with which it is able to shuffle responsibility, guilt and aid around. Ibuse portrays this in Shigematsu’s partly comedic quest to obtain coal for the factory where he works. He presses multiple bureaucrats regarding the vanishing of the designated coal supply company. Their replies are polite, oblique and always unrealistic.

His persistent quests to find coal for his factory bring him through the desolated areas of Hiroshima. The text’s pace grinds to a halt as Ibuse relates the detailed routes that Shigematsu takes. This overbearing amount of detail may create a deeper realism to a Japanese reader, but to foreigners it is a mess of superfluous names. To maintain or eliminate the mess of train lines and locations would be a difficult choice for editors and translators, but I felt that it hurt the story’s pace.

The power of the prose is also hindered by sentence structure. Open to any page and you will see many commas that cause the text to lurch instead of flow. The translator walks a fine line between textual fidelity and smooth English, though I’m not sure how the original reads. I understand that Japanese is capable to skip punctuation all together. Here the paragraphs are broken by persistent and easily reworked comma breaks. One of the many reasons I lament my inability to read the original Japanese is that I hate to blame the wrong person (Ibuse, John Bester, editor, etc). So I will conclude my criticism of style by reiterating that the novel is incredibly moving and structurally well-written despite the hindrances of detail and hyper-punctuation.

I’ve written to this point without mentioning the carnage that Shigematsu witnesses. I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin describing the details of such horrific sights and commend the author for his style. Ibuse balanced perfectly the importance of detail for realism against using too much detail which would result in a pointlessly macabre novel. Shigematsu’s reaction to the littered corpses and corpse-removal teams differs often. Ibuse has subtlety detailed how one might react to such overwhelming horror: numbness, repulsion, and many in-between states. There are several images that will stick with you after the book, and while Ibuse was delicate in his descriptive imagery, there are several very upsetting passages.

The immediate wave of deaths and torturous radiation disease, woven with the bureaucratic and political stubbornness, produced a question that has haunted me since I finished the novel. Almost no human being would inflict these deaths and disease single-handedly on so many other human beings. In other words, I doubt the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay would be capable of inflicting such agony on Japanese families and soldiers if they were face-to-face. Therefore, the military and political structures are to blame for the incredible amount of suffering inflicted during the war. But without those same structures, modern life would be primitive, with less distribution of medicine and technology, education, civil protection, and so on. Where does that leave the citizens of countries run by immensely powerful governments wielding frightful technology? Citizens who are always subject to propaganda? Forgive me if I sound naïve or un-initiated in struggling with this. It is a testament to good fiction’s place in society for Black Rain to have raised such a lofty and essential, if rudimentary, question.

I only hope there are authors who are now creating works that will allow future students to learn from our actions, listen to the stories of others, and question the world that they live in. Masuji Ibuse has certainly done his part by creating the sad, yet dignified, story of the Shizuma family and the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.


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Children of Bodom – Blooddrunk

June 25, 2008 at 10:19 pm (Reviews) (, , )


It is nearly impossible to write a review of a recent Children of Bodom release without mentioning the band’s past. Beginning as a melodic death metal band on their impressively well-developed Inearthed demos, the Finns soon released what most feel are their best works. The group’s first two albums feature a fairly heavy-handed classical metal style. Think Malmsteen mixed orchestra hits and black metal screeches. Follow the Reaper showed the beginning of CoB’s progression towards more accessible, less classical, metal. Hatecrew Deathroll was received with mixed reviews. It was at this point the band, after losing guitarist Alexander Kuoppala, really began to grow in fame and change direction.

Trashed, Lost and Strungout sounded far more rhythmic. The production was very industrial and harsh. Gone were the organic production and dynamic guitar leads of Something Wild, replaced with condensed and chunky riffs with the occasional lead over top. Are You Dead Yet? was the band’s last chance at redemption. Most long time fans were disappointed, though hardly surprised. Alexi and co. had stuck with the money-in-the-pocket industrial aggressive metal, featuring more strained singing, more obscenity, and far more rhythmic chord and low-end riffs carrying the melodies, rather than the memorable leads of early CoB.

This brings us to Bloodrunk. While many are screaming “sell outs!” at this album, you have to admit the progression certainly has been slow and deliberate. It’s impossible to know if CoB are really trying to cash in, or if this is what their creative process honestly results in. But what we’re left with is the most unsatisfying CoB release yet. The production is almost impossible to distinguish from Trashed,… or AYDY?. There are even less leads carrying the melodies. “Hellhounds on my Trail” has a melody that contains a particularly unpleasant batch of notes which sound out of key and make the song nearly unlistenable to my ears. “Tie my Rope” was previously released in a compilation, but it’s the album’s strongest. It has some interesting leads and song structuring. “Done with Everything, Die for Nothing” has a great chorus with octave chords and a tense synth background.. The rest of the songs,however, are interchangeable. Screechy screams, sometimes hoarse singing, juvenile lyrics, and tons of filler riffs. The drumming is competent, but unimpressive. Alexi’s once fluid, lyrical, and overall memorable guitar solos have become inconsistent, predictable and boring.

Live Bodom is just about the only Bodom worth paying for at this point. Blooddrunk isn’t even really good compared to the other “sell-out” CoB releases. Use your money to support a band that needs it, as Children of Bodom will glean plenty of money from young poseurs without a clue.

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A Defense of Reviewing

June 25, 2008 at 10:03 pm (Essays) (, )

Wherever there is art, there are reviews. Positive or negative, reviews are a topic of constant contention. The Internet has paradoxically made reviewing more anonymous and personal at the same time: a harsh review can quickly contain, or result in, a personal attack. When faced with a differing opinion, many write the entire concept of reviewing off as a foolish exercise for “would-be” artists.

Most artists who have had their art harshly critiqued at some point have thought “Who are they to review my work?” or “Why should anyone care what they think?” It’s generally easier to write a harsh review than a beaming one, particularly if one of your goals is to maintain an audience. No one wants to read positive review after positive review. Too many “four stars” and “two thumbs up” cause the reader to question a reviewer’s judgment. Besides, admit it, chances are a scathing review is going to be more entertaining than a gushy, positive one.

So the reviewer walks a fine line. Too many positive reviews and the reader will lose faith in his judgment. Too many negatives and he’ll become a hack reviewer, arrogantly striking down art. The Internet is littered with biased reviews, joke reviewers, and inflammatory opinions. Still, the best kind of review is one written from an informed standpoint, yet without a bias.

Why should anyone in the world care about someone else’s opinion? Reviews are important. No one person can hear every album ever written, view every painting, or see every movie. A good review is both a good preview and a good summary. Hopefully a review will help you know what to expect, and afterwards, help you verbalize the art you’ve already digested.

Someone else’s viewpoint can drastically alter your own perception. Just as no one person can consume every work of art, no one person can consume every detail in just one piece of art. Music lends itself greatly to discussion and review. Music is created with layers, all of which are heard differently by each listener. Some people are incapable of hearing anything but the whole product, so the guitars, vocals, and drums form one large amalgam of sound. Others focus on just one instrument. Intricacies of production are lost in highly compressed mp3s and poor speakers. A good review brings all of these delicate aspects under a lens, magnifying both the good and the bad.

In response to a negative review, it’s common to see “that reviewer probably doesn’t have a band” or “at least this band is making music and not just writing about it!” This argument doesn’t hold much water, though, because followed to its logical conclusion, it would mean no one could criticize anything unless they themselves were a master. The truth is, non-musicians know what sounds good just as well as a non-chef knows flies don’t belong in soup. Almost all music, like almost all food, is meant for consumption by many different demographics.

In the end, one review is just one review. It won’t radically change your mind or change the value of art. But it can help you express what you like and don’t like about a piece. If you’re unfamiliar with an artist, a good review can give you reference points for you to make some speedy judgments. Reviews can be easily ignored, or used to filter through the ever-expanding sea of art.

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Portal – Seepia review

June 20, 2008 at 10:41 pm (Reviews) (, , , )

Portal band photograph

The Australian Portal have a small and devout fanbase, but remain mostly obscure even within the already obscure realm of death metal. Even though Australia has an active metal scene, it’s difficult for bands to leave and tour due to travel expenses. Therefore, Portal have a relatively low chance of ever being a household name. After a hiatus, Portal have resumed playing gigs in Australia, but even now they remain (willfully?) in the shadows.

I remember the first time I heard this cd, I had received it in a shirt trade with the band’s old bassist Werm. What he sent was actually the remastered version, though on my first listen in my car I was instantly put off. Even with the best sound systems, the guitars sound scratchy and flat. Their other releases, including a more recent full length, Outre, retain this signature guitar sound. The drum sound on Seepia is what pushes the production from unique to frustrating. The bass drums are all but non-existent, and it sometimes feels more like a noise cd than death metal. I believe the band captured their best production on the Lurker at the Threshold EP, which has more powerful drums and a slightly more controlled sound. The easiest way for me to describe the effect of this CD is to compare it to the video game series Silent Hill. If you remember, those games always had a faint layer of static obscuring the horror, some fuzz blocking out the monsters. Sometimes what you can’t see, or hear in this case, is scarier than what you can.

The production is so strange and creepy it really hides the actual music. The guitars are generally just a wall of scratching, as though they have the gain on 10 and are just sliding their hands up and down the fretboard. This will continue for minutes until finally, like in “Tempus Fugit”, they stop palm muting and hit some chords. Even scarier is when they accurately tremolo pick individual notes at the song’s end. After so many riffs of just scratch and hiss, the isolated notes are jarring and attention grabbing. I haven’t ever paid much attention to the vocalist, who calls himself The Curator. This band’s music has no place for a Frank Mullen, so his indistinct and monotone vocals fit perfectly.

If you go to the band’s website, myspace, or flip through the liner notes, you’ll see that there are no faces to this music. They hide who they are and their appearances. The band wears garb that looks like a mesh between Steampunk and the Silent Hill monsters. I’m not one for theatrics ala Behemoth or Immortal, but in this case distancing themselves from this music was a great artistic choice. This album is definitely better when digested as art more than music for listening purposes. There’s no standout single, no riffs you’ll remember, or anything like that. Listening to Seepia is more akin to running through a series of shadowy rooms, catching glimpses of ghastly things here and there, but in the end you’ll emerge without any distinct memories. All you retain after Seepia is the sense that you stumbled into something that is horrifying and unsettling.

Note: I’ve included some digital pictures of the digipack version of this CD. I think it’s pretty hard to come by, and the layout is really cool. I didn’t photograph every page of the booklet, but this will give you a feel for the vibe the band creates. Click these for super hi-res photos (they’re a bit blurry, sorry).

Seepia frontThe booklet opened up
Seepia CD Open digipack


Portal myspace

Portal Official Website

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Bloodbath – Unblessing the Purity

June 19, 2008 at 8:30 pm (Reviews) (, , )

Unblessing the Purity art

The arrival of Bloodbath’s latest four-track EP seemed to surprise everyone. In January of 2008 Bloodbath released a press release stating that Per Eriksson had joined on guitar, and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt had re-joined the band after departing in 2003. In February 2008 the band released the cover art and tracklisting for Unblessing the Purity. And by now, mid-March of 2008, the EP has been circulating for days.

Unblessing the Purity‘s production immediately grabs your attention. It retains an intense thickness, with clearly and brightly triggered kick drums, an absolutely massive guitar and bass distortion sound, while remaining very cohesive. Åkerfeld’ts voice sounds horrific. Deep, wet, thick and commanding, every time he vocalizes he steals the show. Mikael has written some fantastic vocal patterns for these songs.

No longer an early Swedish DM tribute band, Bloodbath have evolved into modern death metal in its most commendable form. The guitar riffs are catchy, harmonized, and intense, without the muddy bassy “sunlight studio” quality emulated on Bloodbath’s first two releases. Martin Axenrot provides some very interesting cymbal and double bass work. When “Axe” blasts, it sounds completely comfortable and perfectly timed, making the blast beats worthy of anticipation as opposed to sloppier players (ahem, Flo…) who you wish would just stop blasting.

Anders Nyström writes some excellent heavy low-end riffs, but the standout moment on this EP comes in the second song “Mouth of Empty Praise”. Anders releases a haunting and captivating lead at 56 seconds into the song that is guaranteed to grab your attention. It melds beautifully with the rhythm guitars, before melting back into an instantly likeable stop-go assault of a riff. Anders has written some great songs for Katatonia, but his melancholic and haunting leads at their most effective over the canvas of Bloodbath’s brutal death metal.

While all of the individual members made obvious contributions to the four songs on this EP, what’s most important is the overall effect. The songs feel completely cohesive, brilliantly structured, and are the perfect length. Much like Suffocation’s Despise the Sun, Bloodbath’s Unblessing the Purity is ideal at its length. While these four songs are stunning, it was a smart move to quit while they were ahead. The end result is a mouth-watering taste of modern Swedish brutality. If you think the EP is too short, just put it on repeat… you’ll be “Blasting the Virginborn” for hours!

Bloodbath Myspace
Bloodbath Official Website

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