I started a podcast with my friends Deb Aoki, David Brothers, and Chip Zdarsky, called Mangasplaining. In many ways it feels like an extension of what I used to do here, and what I started out doing at the very dawn of this website–which is talk about good books and recommend them to people who might not know much about them. In this case, Chip had never read manga before, and Deb, David, and myself are experts on Japanese manga in translation to English, so we’re recommending books and reading them together. Answering questions, providing insight, behind the scenes, etc. If you’re someone who likes comics and is curious about manga but hasn’t read much, or just wants to hear us talk about books you already like, this is the podcast for you.
A thing I didn’t realize I was doing is blogging every episode as well. Not blogging exactly, but with input from the team I’m writing up very extensive show notes for every episode. Explaining things we only briefly touch on, including images for reference, etc. After spending the better part of the last 9 months healing and resting it’s nice to be doing a little small something now, and talking and writing extensively about manga scratches an itch. Hanging out with friends is the best part though, not gonna lie.
Anyway, if you want to read things I write, which if you see this at all is a pretty safe bet, you can head over to mangasplaining.com and read 2000 or so words a week. There’s also a podcast to listen to where we’re all having a lot of fun, which you can get on that page or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I spent the night at the elaborately named Shin-Hakdoate Hokuto Station last night. Actually, and luckily, I spent the night at the station hotel, which has a different name on Google Maps than it does on the front of the building, usually denoting a relatively recent change of ownership, management, and in this case it looked like a pretty recent refurbishment as well. It was a nice night’s sleep after having been on trains and walking all day, and I slept pretty soundly.
When I woke up this morning I got my first good look at the surroundings of Shin Hakodate Hokuto Station. From my room’s window I could see: the parking lot, the car-rental agency next door, more-or-less empty fields until a small mountain in the distance. It was a gleaming new station building and hotel dropped into the middle of a farmer’s field.
I had gotten to the hotel at around midnight the previous evening, the train car emptying out over a hundred passengers into the quiet, largely closed, immaculate new terminal station. It was cooler there than it had been in Sendai, and darker too. Dark with no stars. It had been overcast all day, taking the edge off of the hot and humid Japan summer, but was now robbing us of the brilliant starfields that we might otherwise receive hundreds of miles north of Tokyo’s light pollution. Still, a cool breeze, the first I’d felt since arriving in Japan this August, was a welcome reminder that I’d arrived in northern Hokkaido.
I wisely booked my room at the station hotel ahead of time, knowing I’d probably end up stuck in Shin-Hakodate Hokuto for the evening, instead of being able to make it to my eventual destination in the large city of Sapporo. I checked in without a fuss, my room was ready for me even at midnight. Thanks, Japan. Thanks, Expedia. The folks next to me in line seemingly did not book ahead, and ended up squeezing 4 people + luggage into the same sort of twin beds room I had. They didn’t seem thrilled at the prospect. That’s what you get for traveling during the holidays.
Obon is basically the summer holidays, where the whole
country is more-or-less expected to take their vacation during the first two
weeks of August, to visit their hometowns, the places that they’re from, to pay
respect to their ancestors and still-living relatives who never left for the
big city. I hesitate to generalize about Japan, I’ve had an incredible
diversity of experience here and met so many truly unique people, but I will
say that about the only thing that would be an effective excuse to the boss for
the average worker to actually take the holidays from work that they’re
supposed to IS to leave town and pay respects to your ancestors. On this trip
it’s clear that more and more folks, especially young-ish families, are
escaping work under the cover of Obon to actually travel WITH their families,
to see sights, to enjoy themselves. Unless everyone’s ancestors are interred at
Japan’s famous historical sights and-oh-by-the-way-there-are-beaches-nearby.
I received a phone call from the front desk exactly 15 minutes after 11am, politely informing me that checkout was at 11. “Sumimasen. Wakarimasu. Chotto matte. Go-bu. Domo arigatto.” I guess I really did need the rest. Pro-tip: If you’re like me and hate mornings, shower before getting into bed. I threw on some clothes, repacked my suitcase, and 5 minutes later entered the hallway confronted by a squad of cleaning ladies. The doors of every other room open, all of them huddled patiently near my door waiting for me to emerge so that they could also open my door. An asynchronous chorus of Ohayo Gozaimasu! greeted me. Don’t be late checking out in Japan.
My first impression of the station building was correct. It was brand new, it was gleaming, and it was a massive creation standing tall amongst not much else. The Shin-Hakodate Hokuto station isn’t really in Hakodate, or Hokuto, or anywhere. Maybe on a map with generous borders.
The entire station building is glass-fronted, as is the style now, despite Sapporo’s cold winters and the propensity for glass-fronted 4 story open-air buildings to be nearly impossible to cool once the weather gets warm. Beautiful wood timbers hang from the ceiling, maybe acting as sound baffling, but certainly adding warmth to the otherwise outsized and boxy interior. Despite being closed last night at midnight, it still SEEMED closed at 11:30am on a Monday. Looking at the train schedule you could see the building only got about a train every 15 minutes, most of those local trains too. The Shinkansen back to Tokyo only ran every two hours. Same for the train onward to Sapporo. Even getting a ride into Hakodate could mean a 20 minute wait. I guess by North American standards this doesn’t seem so bad, but standing in this giant, state-of-the-art facility designed to accommodate thousands, especially having come north from Tokyo, the lack of passengers waiting for trains, and the lack of trains running on a Monday morning was unsettling.
I was hungry, and the “Kiosk” branded mini-combini in the station wasn’t cutting it. This enormous building and all it had to offer were 10 kinds of train bentos and a drink fridge smaller than the one in my store back in Toronto? I pulled up YELP to see if I was missing a breakfast option, since hotel breakfast ended well before checkout (as did access to the on-site onsen—they REALLY don’t want you hanging around). YELP told me that there was a highly-rated Starbucks 9 miles away in Hakodate that I might enjoy, and literally nothing else nearby, except for another Starbucks that was 10 miles away, also in Hakodate, but with a lower review score.
One neat trick of being a foreigner travelling in Japan is that you can get a JR pass, good for all local trains and most of the high speed Shinkansen routes. It will also let you into the shinkansen-area of the station, which usually requires a separate (expensive) ticket. So, while I only needed to catch a local ‘express’ train to Sapporo, I still walked right through those Shinkansen gates unmolested like some sort of transit god where, lo and behold, there was a much larger “Kiosk” branded convenience store. It had sandwiches, and delicious local chu-hai options, and so breakfast became brunch as I had a Japanese spin on Bacon & Eggs with with Egg Salad and Pork Cutlet sandwiches. My delicious Cantaloupe Chu-Hai making a top-notch mimosa replacement.
As predicted the station building was stuffy. It was only 72 degrees outside, but definitely warmer (and humid) in the waiting area where I enjoyed my feast. Glass-fronted buildings. I exited the Shinkansen area again and headed down to my train platform 30 minutes early in the hopes of getting to experience the cool breeze I’d felt last night. On arriving at the train platform to Sapporo, I discovered that it’s outdoors and unenclosed, only a roof to keep offer a little shade or protection from the rain. It was clearly a remnant from an earlier version of the station. It was nice, there, in the breeze, and offered me a new view of the surrounding area. I could see houses about a mile away, a little town nestled at the base of another mountain. According to the map this town is Nanae, maybe even where I was standing them was technically Nanae, or at least, it was.
The Shinkaksen only recently started running up to Shin-Hakodate Hokuto station. In fact the station is only about 18 months old, existing on the site of the former Oshima-Ono Station (we hardly knew ye), and before the war was called Hongo Station (we never knew ye). Before the Shinkansen came here, for years, you could only take it as far north as Shin-Aomori on the main island of Honshu. All the way at the northern tip. At Shin-Aomori you’d have to switch to a special train that went under the water in a tunnel to Hokuto, then once in Hokuto switch again to the Hokuto Express to Sapporo. The new extension of the Shinkansen to Shin Hakodate Hokuto shaves something like 2 hours off of the trip North, it’s incredible, and particularly welcome for foreigners like me, intent on seeing as much of the country as possible without getting on an airplane. But it means that you’re not really in Hokuto anymore, and Hakodate, a city suffering its own issues around recession and depopulation, is now a specific side-trip out of the way, and Sapporo is much better-known to foreigners visiting the country, and much more exciting a destination for Japanese tourists exploring the region.
The trip north from Tokyo by train is a little treacherous (though not at all dangerous) for folks visiting Japan for the first time, folks without a great command of the language. Once the trains stop running, they stop running, and wherever you happen to be is where you’re spending the night. It wasn’t by accident that I knew to book my station hotel ahead of time, let me tell ya. The first time Andrew and I were traveling to Sapporo a decade ago we got stuck in Shin-Aomori, the last train north having been missed, the overnight sleeper-car train being completely full. Wearily and with no language we trudged up from the station to the first hotel (terrible!), booked a room having no Japanese language ability, raided the combini for a beer and a snack, and got to sleep so we could get all of our transport sorted the next morning. That’s the only time I’ve been to Aomori really, just for a night, just for one hotel booking and a thousand yen at the combini. But now, I don’t know that I’ll ever actually go to Aomori, let alone Shin-Aomori. I certainly haven’t been back since, though I’ve passed few it a few times, and that’s all it will be for most people—a place to pass through.
Hokuto and Hakodate though, now that the train has been rerouted up to the gleaming new station? Well now no one has to pass through there at all.
If you’ve known me for any length of time, or read the blog for any length of time (hello!) you’ll know I’ve talked about Christmas music before. Heck, I was even immortalized in a comic, sort of, as being really into Christmas music. And you know, a disclaimer, I shit on something pretty hard in this blog post (spoiler: it’s in the title) and I realize it’s a difficult time of year, people take comfort and solace where they can, and going knives-out on something people love isn’t like, delightful of me, but I was literally moved to rush to the computer and write this down, so consider it, at the very least, from the heart, and not just random meanness.
So yeah, Christmas music.
As the world has gotten darker over the past few years (was going to comment on this but I think it’s just a given at this point) it’s taken me longer to get into the Christmas spirit, it’s been harder to enjoy the Christmas music that I used to enjoy playing at the stroke of November 1st every year.
(I mean, Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October–there’s no bullwark between the onslaught of Adult-Christmas, aka Halloween, and Actual Christmas, in Canada. Though that’s all but disappeared in America too, despite some staunch opposition.)
I happened to be out in a mall yesterday and I heard my first Christmas music in the wild–a cover of the Paul McCartney Wonderful Christmastime–and I realized I rather enjoyed it. So tonight as we were cooking dinner, cleaning our apartment, and just generally living, Andrew and I put on the Spotify Christmas mix “Christmas is Coming.” Not quite digging-out and setting up the more than 5000 Christmas mp3s I have stashed away, but, a nice way to ease into the season.
Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas is a bad song. It is every single thing wrong with Christmas music, that people who hate Christmas music complain about when they complain about it. The melody is awful, short, repetitive. There’s nothing in the music that places it at Christmas specifically, it doesn’t really fit. It’s not even sing-songy. There’s this wash of strings but then a light supermarket jazz piano is laid over top. They don’t meld, but then, there’s a bunch of things that don’t meld, including his voice which is trying to be an American-accented working-class country, or pop, or rock sort of thing, every kind of popular music appeal amounting to nothing. There’s a way to do this that’s classy, that would elevate the material–imagine Tom Jones on those lyrics, or at least those sentiments, and he’d be so much better. Speaking of those lyrics, they’re saccharine. And not just Christmas Pop Music Saccharine. They take something relateable about the season–driving home from whatever city you’ve moved to, to your hometown to see your family at Christmastime–and turn it into adult contemporary mush, and no, his delivery doesn’t help that part either. He’s wistful for the events that are occurring as they occur in the song, trying to sell you on just how wistful the song is without earning it. It’s less honest about it’s emotional manipulation than Christmas Shoes, and therefore actually worse. It sounds like Muzak. It is the Muzak-version of it’s own song. And the percussion is trite, too.
So I sing for you
Though you can’t hear me
When I get trough
And feel you near me
Driving in my car
I’m driving home for Christmas
Driving home for Christmas
With a thousand memories – Driving Home for Christmas
Released officially in 1998, the single peaked at #54 in the singles charts around Christmastime. It’s been periodically re-released since then, and last year’s 2017 re-release saw it hit #14 on the single’s chart–of all music, not just Christmas music. It’s considered one of the UK’s top-ten Christmas tunes. People love Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas… in the United Kingdom. In Canada and the U.S.A., it’s almost entirely unknown, as is Chris Rea.
There are any number of bits of Christmas music that I deeply love from my childhood, that I listen to to this day, and that set the teeth of my friends entirely on edge. The Boney M Christmas albums are so good, but German R&B and Disco covers of classic religious songs are not for everyone. Likewise my favourite version of Baby It’s Cold Outside is actually the big-band version by Steve and Eydie (Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme) from 1964, the over-the-top acting and huge orchestral sound really selling the innocence of a song that has a lot of otherwise problematic elements. I get liking music, particularly in this genre, that other people hate. A big component of why I like it, and why a lot folks like Christmas music in general, is nostalgia, and the nostalgic colouring of our feelings. The Christmas music of our youth, or a certain time in our life, is going to always help us smooth out any of the problems with a song (or genre!). “Yeah I know it’s cheesy,” we say. “But I can’t help it, I grew up with The Count from Sesame Street singing All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,’ and that’s my version!”
It’s also why there’s so much argument over the best version of Christmas songs–it’s a limited repertoire after all and adding to the Christmas song cannon is difficult as hell. So with very few exceptions, the ‘best’ version of a Christmas song to most folks is the one for which they have the strongest personal connection, either nostalgia, their existing love of the singer, or a version of the song that meant a lot to them. Michael Buble has basically recorded the entire cannon of Christmas songs at this point, and his isn’t the best version of any of them, but even my Mom, who provided all of the music that imprinted on me, who should know better, would still rather listen to him than Dean Martin, or Elvis, or whomever. Even after the atrocity that is Santa, Buddy. Inconceivable. But, here we are.
So it’d be easy to say that it’s just a lack of nostalgia, a lack of early introduction to Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas 30 years ago, that’s preventing me (and, TBH, North America) from appreciating this song that is inescapable in British Christmas celebrations. Except. Except. There is…
Slade recorded Merry X’Mas Everybody in 1973 and it hit the top of the charts at Christmas. A UK-only release, from a glam rock band, the song has every single component of Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas, done right, and done better, even including being almost entirely unknown outside the UK. I actually didn’t discover it until my mid-20s, on the Warren Ellis forum, where the assorted Brits would talk about deeply loving this song I’d never heard of. Of course, I loved it right away upon finally listening to it, with no nostalgia, no rose-coloured glasses, the exact opposite reaction to Driving.
Merry X’Mas Everybody is about Christmas, yeah, but it also evokes Christmas, and you can’t quite tell is it’s pro-Christmas or anti-Christmas, it presents Christmas as omnipresent, inevitable, inescapable. It ends with a literal scream, IT’S CHRISTMASSSS!, the sort of childish exuberance at 5am Christmas morning that simultaneously lights-up and makes-weary every parent. It’s neither working-class nor upper class, it’s certainly not posh, and it isn’t wallowing in the difficulties of the year, but it also isn’t ignoring them either. The entire song, actually, is surprisingly ambivalent about Christmas, simply stating things that are happening and asking questions. It is drenched in the nostalgia of the season, like Driving, but it’s also self-aware in a way that Rea deliberately avoids. Hell, Rea, manages the line “Driving to Holy Land” to refer to like, his parent’s house, with a straight face, while Slade points out the hypocrisy of your Grandmother, who is up and dancing to contemporary music, including, of course, the song to which you are listening, Slade’s song.
Musically, it’s a solid track. It’s right in the middle of Slade’s oeuvre, with some lovely concessions to the holiday season instrumentally. The singer’s giving it 110%, and the bass line in particularly is great. It’s very of its time of course, but so solid that it’s also a top-10 Christmas hit in the UK still, and gets a ton of radio play. It’s just on the edge of being a cheesy novelty song (or at least, more of one than all Christmas music), but it legitimately rocks. To my mind its more successful than the other great glam rock Christmas track, Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, which is also similarly exhuberant and joyous but too relentlessly positive, it doesn’t leave room for anything other than agreement. Slade invites you into the madness, Wizzard forces you to comply.
Which brings us back to Driving Home For Christmas. Without the nostalgic attachment, the repetition over decades, it’s failed to make an impression in North America, despite re-releases and its appearance on that Spotify list. As someone who seeks out Christmas music every year it’s made an incredibly negative impression on me though. It’s a bad song, badly performed. People don’t get excited about it (although I imagine the comments section will be perhaps full of angry Brits), but when people do speak of it positively to me, they usually describe it as a respite, a slower and more reflective Christmas standard that you can hum along to, that fades into the background without drawing attention to itself, without making itself obnoxious (or in any way notable) and that negative space in between other more ‘demanding’ Christmas music earns it a lot of points in a season that can feel overwhelming.
I can get behind that. Like I said at the very top, by way of disclaimer, people should find the things that they need, and enjoy them, and for a whole Kingdom that’s the sleepy sweet embrace of Chris Rea’s snowy, traffic-light-filled Christmas tune. But to me, the very best Christmas music, going back to the translated-from-German secular music and even the religious carols, are about observing a time and a place and an event, about the recognition of good (Birth of The Saviour! Trees!) and the bad (freezing to death because of being poor but being saved through the magnanimity of Kings, a somewhat rare occurrence), and about celebration. Stevie Wonder’s One Little Christmas Tree is basically perfect, for example. I could never connect with Rea’s song because, despite literally driving home for Christmas every year, it never felt real to me. Neither as fake and bouncy as a manufactured Christmas Love Song, nor with the biting realism of the difficulty of the season like Rilo Kiley’s Xmas Cake, it just seemed so middle-of-the road, so self-serious about its mundanity, so lacking in profundity despite its earnestness. Also it fucking sets my teeth on edge. I almost wish I had that same nostalgic lens as many friends to view the song through, so I could save my poor tooth enamel.
Ah well, there’s always The Count to soothe my soul.
As all of my blogging has fallen prrrrretty far by the wayside, I have tried to come up with some additional artistic pursuits to fill the void, ones that don’t take quite as much time, or don’t necessitate sitting in front of a computer (as I do that a LOT for my day jobs).
My husband and I have spent the past 18 months curating an instagram account featuring our Japan travel photos! Just like what I used to post here, except on Instagram!
Given that I spend way too much time on twitter, I sort of prioritize announcing things like this in-the-moment there, and have neglected to update this blog with a few podcast appearances and interviews over the last little while. I actually just recorded an episode for a new podcast by Jeremy Melloul that’ll go up in early September, I believe, and it reminded me to update y’all here too!
Speech Bubble Podcast, with Aaron Broverman: I joined my friend and ex-employer Peter Birkemoe to do an exit-interview, of sorts, on leaving The Beguiling, and its recent move and upgrade. Apparently Peter and I play off of each other pretty well. 🙂
True North Country Comics Podcast, with John Swimmer: A short interview about the lead-up to TCAF 2018. I also did another short interview about TCAF’s many trips to Japan, and what we hope to accomplish there. [Link 2]
Interview at TCJ, with Kim Jooha: This one was a great, long, slightly rambling conversation with writer Kim Jooha. It was also a little bit weird because I’d already accepted the job offer from VIZ, but had to keep quiet about it… I think it turned out great though. It’s long! Settle in before reading. 😉
Hopefully in lieu of any fresh writing here, you will delight in and enjoy these other instances of me sharing my opinions about comics. For now, anyway. 🙂
Top photo by me, from Osaka, just cuz I thought it was a nice photo
Hey folks! I’m headed off to San Diego for Comic-Con again next week, and I’m pretty stoked at being on a bunch of panels, I think a record of six panels? That’s pretty good. 🙂 I’ll be very busy, especially on Thursday! I’m not otherwise hanging out at like, a booth, or whatever, so if you wanna get a hold of me hit one of these panels up and we can hang out…as I run to the next panel. Or just drop me an email I guess? 🙂
Panels and descriptions!
Thurs July 19 @ 12pm: Comics, Start Here! Room 11. It’s hard to believe, but comics used to be the black sheep of reading and were once synonymous with juvenile delinquency. Today, they’re at the center of pop culture! But just because graphic novels are popular, that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to use them in their library. Never fear, CBLDF is here! Panelists will help you make the most of this incredible creative medium for all of your patrons. Learn about CBLDF’s new research on cataloging comics and get helpful tips about collection development and defense that will help everyone in your library love comics. Featuring CBLDF board member Katherine Keller, librarian and advocate Amie Wright, researchers Staci Crouch, Hallie Clawson, and Allison Bailund, and ME!
Thurs July 19 @ 2pm: Queer Comics for Queer Kids. @ San Diego Central Library: Libraries are often safe spaces for teens who find it hard to fit in elsewhere, and this includes queer teens. It is important to keep collections that reflect these teens, both so that they can find themselves in fiction, just as we all should, and so that their peers can see them normalized. It’s also important to know how to market these items, they help no one if they simply gather dust on the shelf! Presenters will talk about queer comics and manga, how they’ve affected them personally, why they’re important to library collections, and some recommendations to start you off right. Speakers are Vincent Zalkind (North Hollywood Branch, Los Angeles Public Library), Kelly Quinn Chiu (Santa Clara City Library), Angela Ocana (Eugene Public Library), Steenz (Lion Forge Comics), and ME! Moderated by Kathryn Kania (Pelham Public Library, New Hampshire).
Thurs July 19 @ 5pm: Manga Publishing Industry Roundtable. Room 29AB. Manga in North America is enjoying a new Golden Age. More books are hitting the shelves in bookstores and comic shops, and more titles than ever are available in digital formats the same day/date as Japan. There’s more anime streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and Crunchyroll, and that’s driving interest in more manga and a more diverse range of titles than ever before. Get a taste of what’s hot, what’s not, and what’s next for manga from top publishing pros, including Ben Applegate (associate director, publisher services at Penguin Random House), David Brothers (editor, VIZ Media), Rachel Thorn (manga translator and associate professor in the faculty of manga, Kyoto Seika University), Erik Ko (chief of operations, Udon Entertainment), and Christopher Butcher (Toronto Comic Arts Festival, VIZ Media). Moderated by Deb Aoki (Publishers Weekly, Anime News Network).
Fri July 20 @ 4pm-5pm: LGBTQ Graphic Novels. @ San Diego Central Library: Today’s most dynamic creators are in kids’ comics and they’re portraying queer characters in fresh ways! Featuring Aminder Dhaliwal (Woman World), Molly Knox Ostertag (The Witch Boy), Ivy Noelle Weir (Archival Quality), ME!, and moderator Kate Monnin.
Fri July 20 @ 6pm-7pm: Best and Worst Manga of 2018. Room 4. There’s a lot of manga available in English now, but what’s really worth reading? A panel of opinionated manga bloggers and comics curmudgeons spotlight the best new manga that hit the shelves in the past year. In rapid-fire rounds, see them rave about their favorite continuing series! Watch them rant about the excruciatingly mediocre manga that they were forced to read (so you won’t have to)! Find out what Brigid Alverson (SmashPages,School Library Journal), Zac Bertschy (Anime News Network), Christopher Butcher (Toronto Comic Arts Festival), and Deb Aoki (Publishers Weekly) loved and loathed to read in the past year. Hear about their picks for the most anticipated upcoming releases for fall 2018 and beyond, and discover their favorite underappreciated manga gems that are worth picking up.
Sat July 21 @ 5pm-6pm: Manga: An intro for Comics Fans. Room 28DE. Are you a longtime comics fan who also has interest in anime and manga but don’t really know how to dive in? These panelists are here to help! ComiXologists Matt Kolowski and Kiersten Wing a ask a panel of comics luminaries and tastemakers (who are also secretly otaku) to recommend the best of manga past and present. Panelists include Chris Butcher (co-founder, TCAF; consulting editor, VIZ Media), Deb Aoki (Anime News Networks), Stephanie Borria (Media Do International), Kristian Donaldson (The Massive,DMZ), and Ivan Salazar (comiXology). Tell them your favorite comic, movie, or TV show, and they’ll give you a manga to match.