Issue 053
April, 2, 2021

Pizza Toast Doc, Translating Murakami

A short documentary project on pizza toast and coffee, writing the Huh newsletter, and on translating Murakami Haruki

Roden Readers —

I’m Craig Mod, and this is your monthly Roden (I love how the welcome essay to Roden is from 2012; dear readers, it’s been a long road).

Cherry blossoms are bloomin’ like crazy here in the general Kanto area. Now, I know folks adore their river-lined cotton candy canopies — and don’t get me wrong, those are great if you love crowds and casual viral transmission and a thousand smartphones in your face — but I’ve always been a lone-wolf cherry tree lover. My favorite thing to do right about now is hunt down the solo trees, those isolates hiding down back alleys. So if you’re in a city with sakura trees, consider walking around and finding the overlooked dinks, the ones far away from those photographed-to-death processions. Find a little goofball and marvel at its transient angelic popcorn amidst concrete and brick and asphalt and the every day banal.

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Kissa Doc

I just released a short doc called Pizza Toast & Coffee: Kissa Būgen. Viewable here.

Because Kissa by Kissa sold so well, so quickly, we hit my “joke goal” of selling more than 750 books during the pre-sale period. Connected with that goal was the promise to “do some pizza toast youtubing.” This doc is my fulfillment of that promise (I hope!).

In February, I convinced Yamane-san — the owner of Būgen — to let me shoot him making his very stylish and refined pizza toast. He was suspicious. I think he was worried I was making fun of him. The notion that his construction of pizza toast was worthy of time or attention — let alone capturing on video for posterity — was as foreign an idea as he could imagine. But convince him I did, and on a rainy Monday morning I showed up with 20kg of gear in a backpack and got to work.

We shot for about two and a half hours.

To minimize the general complexity of the project, I had some rules:

  • No talking shots
  • Mostly b-roll
  • Five minutes max
  • Only one kissa

Removing “talking” — heads / interviews — instantly simplifies production. You don’t have to worry about ambient sound issues or if talent is “on” or if what they’re saying is coherent or makes for a good story. I did record audio with a decent microphone (Rode VideoMic NTG), so I had some high-quality pickup of flopping bread and coffee being poured and rain falling outside.

“Mostly b-roll” meant I could treat the project like a photography project (to a degree). The intention was to produce some “moving stills” in a brotherly spirit to how I’d shoot the place if I were just taking photos.

“Five minutes max” dovetails with “only one kissa” as a means to cap the “spiraling chaos” quotient of the project. I can imagine an alternate universe where right now I’m on my tenth kissa, 200TB of footage in hand, working on a feature length version of this. I did not want that to happen.

I’m pretty happy with the finished short. Considering I had done precisely zero other video work before this, I think the scope was just about right to maximize learning and minimize failure. The resulting vignette is a serviceable “companion” to Kissa by Kissa. It “demystifies” pizza toast, and allows those readers who have never visited a Showa-era kissaten to spend a few minutes inside one.

Now, were I starting again today, I’d make a few changes. First of all, I’d be more aware of light sources. And most certainly would have slammed shut that lovely wooden door to the kitchen in the background. I’d estimate 50% of post production pain came from that fluorescent glare billowing out the back.

I also now have much more empathy for filmmakers and the attendant complexities of even the simplest of productions. I shot this on a Sony A7sIII, and while it’s a (super) capable camera, the menu system is not unlike using Linux. Actually that’s unfair to Linux. Linux is far more sensible than Sony’s menus. Meaning, there is an infinitude of opportunity to screw up a camera setting while also prepping a shot, moving your lights around, checking shutter speed for interference from LED flicker, all the while gabbing with the nervous owner you’re doing to do well by. I see why films require small armys.

Overall: A lot of fun. A sensibly bounded sub-project to the book. And now I have a new tool in my toolkit: The five-minute doc.

I ran a SPECIAL PROJECTS members-only premiere of PT&C last Saturday night. A little director’s commentary, some Q&A. The archive is available to all members.

Because, really, this film epitomizes the spirit of SP; a weird blip of culture enabled by the permission of the membership program. Thanks for your support.

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Photo Poems

There are now five “issues” of Huh: A Cafe With a View of the Waterfall, my sorta new text-first photo-second newsletter. This project is proving to be my favorite thing I write, edit, and select each week. Sign up. A super low-stress inbox item: Just a sentence that’s a link to an image.

Fifteen issues left in season one.

Who we're reading when we're reading murakami by David Karashima

Translating Murakami

David Karashima’s Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami is the most rivetting book I’ve read in the last year. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true. David has compiled and given cogent form to a kind of “oral history” of the core English translators and editors of Haruki Murakami’s work in the 80s and 90s.

Let me provide some background as to why this is so compelling for me.

Perhaps the most influential period of literature-injected-into-my-life began around the age of 19. I had just moved to Tokyo for university and a fellow student handed me some Murakami. You might dig this. (Back then it felt like a secret, a kind of literary drug, a weird amorphous vibe that bled beyond the books themselves.)

The Murakami in question was Alfred Birnbaum’s translation of A Wild Sheep Chase.

As someone who had just moved from an essentially zero-culture small town to arguably the most culture-laden city in the world, the sense of isolation and being far outside of my element was crushing. Murakami’s voice in those early novels lifted that weight, provided what can only be described as a profound sense of permission to lean into the isolation, the outsiderness, and embrace the sprawling landscape of Tokyo as a place to exist on one’s own terms. In other words: Just become who you want to become, ya dingdong.

I spent that first year in Tokyo reading as much Murkami as I could find: Dance Dance Dance, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood, and, of course, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Most of my nights involved drinking, and most of my drinking happened in Shinjuku, at a couple bars that appeared in Norwegian Wood, a few floors underground, in a haze of tobacco smoke and jazz records and whiskey and chocolate.

During spring break of that first year a friend and I hitchhiked across the country. In my pack I had: a used Nikon, some slide film, a 50mm f1.8 lens, and a Murakami novel. It’s impossible to look back on that trip and not see it as a mirror of the world that Murakami himself had constructed in his books. My friend and I planned nothing. Every day was a set of new, bizarre, unpredictable encounters, all wrapped in the relative safety of Japan. No matter how blackout drunk I got, I wasn’t murdered or maimed in a fight; we slept in diners and parks and trains and hostels. Folks would pick us up and off we’d go — singing and playing music and drinking in a concrete bunker in the middle of a rice field in Gifu, or at the top of some hotel on Shikoku which that particular driver on that particular day just happened to own.

Needless to say, who I was that first year in Japan wasn’t the person I wanted to be, but by the end of it all, I had an inkling of a direction that might be worth following. Murakami’s novels set that bearing. Not didactically, but rather in a slyly latitudinarian way.

So you can imagine why a book like David Karashima’s would be so riveting to a dork like me — it peels back the mystery of how some of the most important lit I encountered as a young adult came to be. A cadre of a few translators and editors (and one Binky), essentially willed into existence the Murakami I encountered at 19.

And make no bones about it — that very process by which Murakami is made into an English phenomenon is — in and of itself — fascinating. The early days were delightfully ad-hoc:

“… they would translate and edit by hand onto a paper copy, but more often than not they would work straight onto the screen of the computer Birnbaum had carried to Luke’s home in Kamakura. At one point, they were working together five to six hours a day, five days a week, sitting side by side, reading passages out loud. Birnbaum suggests half-jokingly that it is possible that the two of them spent more time translating and editing A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland than Murakami had spent writing them.”"

Passionate people toiling to get art into the world — both the literary art they see in Japanese, and the art that is the work of translation.

But Murakami’s destiny as mega-seller is not fait accompli. As Murkami’s longtime agent, Amanda Urban (“Binky”) says:

The question is really how you keep authors alive until they break through and garner a large readership. That’s what I stay awake at night and worry about.

This is the nucleal propellant of David’s book — the tension of watching Murakami float just above that line of being cut. His books didn’t sell gangbusters early on (heck, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle “only” sold 20,000 in hardcover.) It took a solid decade of conviction and a gifted team to move him into position to achieve international escape velocity.

The book is filled with insights about the rigors and stresses and compromises of the writing process — balancing conviction and art with market awareness. On allowing the The New Yorker to heavily edit some of his pieces, Murakami says: “There are people who criticize me for this, saying, ‘I bet you let them do what they want because it’s The New Yorker.’ Yes, that’s exactly right! But like I said, I reverse the changes when the story is published in book form.”

I love that looseness — sure, I’ll take some cuts for The New Yorker, but then I’ll revert later. Compromise a little now to bank a savings of permissions to be used in the future.

And on filling his “non-writing” time: “I’m the type that only begins to write when I get the urge to write, so I’m always waiting for that feeling to well up inside me. And when it doesn’t, I spend my time translating.”

This is something folks in the English speaking world miss about Murakami — the breadth of his oeuvre is striking; from novels to non-fiction to translations, only a fraction of his library exists outside of Japanese. He simply never stops writing.

And so this book, too, becomes an archetype of what begets artistic success — a lot of luck, a solid team, and, most importantly, a relentless need to do the work. (And talent, natch.)

Anyway, I’m rambling. I wholeheartedly recommend Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami if you have any interest in how Murakami came to be in English, or if you’re fascinated by the complex (and often thankless) process of literary translation, or if you simply want a dramatic tale of a non-western artist from a tiny island nation making it on the global stage.

I’m grateful to Karashima for putting this book together. It’s a gem, and my only complaint is that it ends. Thank you!

Month to Walk

April. My goals for this month are: stay heads down, write like crazy, work out religiously, get a draft of the next book done, and then, come May, step out on a five week walk.

Hope you’re all well. And remember: Every time you smash that like button, an angel gets some pizza toast.

Until next month,

A perfectly boring little tree