Book: Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr

A depressingly persuasive book about the problems facing Japan's economy and society

Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan
Alex Kerr
Hill and Wang, a division of Fararr, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-8090-3943-5
US$ 15

I read Alex Kerr's previous book, Lost Japan, with pleasure. Mr Kerr's writing was delightful, his observation keen, and his subjects generally of considerable interest to me. I was delighted to find that he had another book published and was eager to read it. Alas, it turns out that the subtitle "Tales from the Dark Side of Japan" doesn't refer to exciting stories of yakuza mobsters and bosozoku hot-rod and motorcycle gangs. Mobsters, gangs, and corrupt politicians are here, but the book is about the dismal state of Japan's politics, society, and economy. And at 385 pages for the main text it's a pretty long and almost unremittingly depressing read. It's a testimony to Mr Kerr's writing that it's readable at all. It's also quite persuasive.

The book's title comes from something a Chinese painter once said. When asked what was hard to paint and what was easy, he said that demons were easy and dogs were hard. That matches Mr Kerr's view of the Japanese government; they do fantastic and elaborate things well but fall down on ordinary day-to-day things.

I know a good deal less about Japan than Mr Kerr does but I'm not wholly ignorant either. (I've been there twice, not that that's particularly relevant.) What I do know about the place jibes depressingly well with what Mr Kerr says. Even so, as I read I found myself thinking that Mr Kerr must have leaft out at least some good things about the subjects that he writes about. Near the end of the book is a section on Japan's film industry. Mr Kerr writes (p. 320):

    There is no better mirror of a nation's life than its movies, and Japan's
    cinema perfectly reflects the nation's modern cultural malaise, for it is
    a tale of nearly unbroken decline over three decades. Once boasting
    masters such as Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujiro, Japan has
    recently produced only a few films of moderate world success. The
    number of good films is so low that at the 1994 Kyoto International
    film Festival the usual Japan Film Today program was replaced by a
    retrospective of older films -- the most recent from 1964.

(Mr Kerr puts Japanese names in Japanese order, surname first; I'll follow that practice here.)

Here I thought I might be able to catch Mr Kerr out because these days there are some very fine animated movies from Japan. I'm not an uncritical anime fanboy. I like some of it and think that much of it is pretty forgettable. But you'd have to be ignorant of the subject not to know that Miyazaki Hayao is a great artist. As I read on in the book I was lying in wait for Mr Kerr to come to the end of the section without mentioning this counter-example to his general rule. But I didn't catch him out. He says (p. 327):

    There is one bright spot in this otherwise gloomy picture: anime.

    Those by the renowned producer Miyazaki Hayao... rise to a very
    sophisticated artistic level, yet... they are loved by the public -- not only
    the Japanese public but young people worldwide.

The other topics that Mr Kerr writes about that I have some knowledge of also suggest that he is just as precise and well-informed as he is here and as he appears to be throughout the book.

So what is wrong with Japan according to Mr Kerr? Nature is being destroyed by unnecessary government-financed construction, government finances are in terrible shape, politicians are in thrall to special-interests, elegant historic buildings are torn down to be replaced by bad modern ones, education emphasizes conformity at a time when independent thinking is increasingly valuable, movies are mostly bad, traditional arts are being corrupted, and a few other things besides. Even all that wouldn't be so bad if there were signs of change coming, or even signs that voters would demand significant change soon, but there aren't.

Mr Kerr isn't engaging in Japan-bashing. His fondness for Japan comes through very clearly. Indeed, if he didn't like the place he wouldn't have lived there for the last 25 years or written the book. I can't recommend Dogs and Demons as a fun read but it is very informative.

Posted: Tue - December 16, 2003 at 09:08   Main   Category: