2nd September, 2021
Story, influence, germs and how I started.
To provide a gross precis of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of story, the hero fights to achieve their quest, wins and returns home changed by the attempt. This ‘quest’ framework looks forward, but there are those of us who are unable to set forth because the ropes of regret hold us back.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893.
Raymond Carver, Elroy and many since understood this, because their detectives and those they chased were conflicted by the daily reminders of human degradation. The betrayals, the moral compromises, the innocence lost; so overcome by the complications of life, characters were unable to continue the quest. This darker reading of humanity has always been attractive. Perhaps Carver was following a Greek tracing, in which a person may try to avoid their fate, but ultimately, is beaten by what, deep down, they knew would come to pass. This pessimism may seem a twentieth century thing, but in truth, is a kind of human curse. Is it the origin of the Christian birthmark of sin absolved by the grace of god? Shame and guilt printed on the unborn always seemed a little harsh to me, but it’s a powerful place to start a character.
Though at times I’ve tried not to, I write stories with a moral compass. Stories with obsessive characters, with desires and wicked or random complications, but above all, my stories start with a germ…in the sense that all threads unwind from a single idea.
Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie by Utamaro Kitagawa
So, walking Napier Street Fitzroy in Melbourne in the 2010’s, past the Edwardian-arched kindergarten I attended, past the spot where my father leaned over the terrace balcony, actor’s voice silencing a child’s frantic cries of ‘I don’t want to go’, the spot where he ordered me to ‘Stop that nonsense Matthew~~~ off to school’; searching suddenly familiar gutters for discarded notes, flicking through the scrapbook of my reminiscences, I recalled a newspaper article about a veteran of the Pacific War whose wish was to return a Japanese soldier’s sword. I remembered the picture of an ordinary man, home from the jungle horrors to a ticker tape parade, and someone advised not to mention the experience because how could you convey such degradation, because who would want to hear? And in the newspaper picture capturing the moment the sword passed between ex-soldier and son of ex-soldier, after half a century, a souvenir was returned, an instrument of misery thereby, somehow, transformed into a symbol of redemption.
Japanese Edo period wood block print (ca 1735) of a samurai with a tachi
Art sometimes describes a wrong made right, and by extension, the wish that the wrong were never done. A curse story is based on this germ of morality–do not do this or else… the ‘or else’ bit is the curse. It’s a warning of dire misfortune that in these desperate times of war, greed, corruption, self-serving bastardy, pandemic and environmental disaster attention to the lessons of the past must be paid.
Up to then, mainly I’d written plays which concerned betrayals long hidden. It’s strong with me; I have a thing with loyalty. And wandering Fitzroy lanes, I think I was trying to bust out, trying to step away from the fractured tales of past wrongs causing present ill–maybe I was looking for Campbell’s square-jawed youngster, naïve to the terrible ills the world was yet to show. Poor fool… I walked through the author’s forest of plots in a circle back to where I began. Because the germ had already attached to an object, an artefact, weighed down with wrongdoing, returned unhealed; what else could this story concern but the pain of hideous memories wrinkled in the fake smile of the old man in the newspaper photograph.
Hokusai Katsushika, Head of an old man, 1840
I worked in Japanese theatre from the early nineties and from the naughts spoke Japanese in surrealist vaudeville style tent shows. Which is why the news story on a Japanese sword appealed I guess… but a sword? It recalled too much of cartoons, of American dubbing, far-away stares and poorly disguised rope tricks like the afterschool adventure series Shintaro the Samurai.
It was around the time of my Fitzroy wanderings that the National Gallery of Victoria showed some of their archive of ukiyoe, Japanese woodblock prints.
Hokusai Katsushika, Shimotsuke Kurokami-Yama Kurifuri no Taki, 1833
Step back a little; at the Royal Easter Show in 1974, though cautioned by the attendant not to splatter the paint, I won the art prize because I produced a Jackson Pollock-like render of the Easter fireworks. Pollock’s very abstract Blue Poles was bought in 1973 by art dealer Max Hutchison and approved by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and despite that the population was still furious with the one-point-three million spent on paint drips, the adjudicators must surely have seen me as the next incarnation.
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952.
I was a horse-rider, so when we went to the Sydney Morning Herald office for prize-winner pictures, I saw the second-prize girl’s water colour horses gambolling across her bright butcher’s paper and understood the feeling of imposter syndrome. It might not have been my first intersubjective moment of art-viewing, but it will do to describe the spark that ignited an appreciation of the render of real-world in two-dimensional space mediated by the artist.
After seeing the NGV ukiyoe exhibit, I decided to swap out the Australian veteran’s stolen Japanese sword for a Japanese wood cut.
Hanga (print block) for Kunisada Utagawa print, 1830; Brooklyn Art Museum
It was a germ, I recall writing into the early hours… of cherrywood and ghosts-past, carvers and artists; of the spirit of the wood, of sakura (cherry trees) of Japanese animism, of kimono, of love found, abused and lost.
By that time I had met Kim Sujin, the Korean Japanese theatre director of Shinjuku Ryozanpaku, who welcomed me into the company rehearsal room under the railway arches with a run-through of The Legend of the Flying Dragon in progress, bookshelves shaking in the cramped space as the trains passed overhead. It was a story arising from childhood memories carried within the power of a river stone suspended in a cradle of string from the vibrating roof. Over the time of writing “The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood” I worked on Shinjuku Ryozanpaku theatre projects speaking Japanese, touring Japan, Korea and Australia:
…and I lived at their base a few stops from Shinjuku for a time, it was a cultural apprenticeship unlike the more usual foreign English tutor’s. Underground bunkers, knee to chin watching or performing in wild stories dripping with symbol, innuendo and thin puns.
Crosby with Yun in Beggar of Love, Kara Juro, Dir. Kim Sujin, 2000, 2002: Excerpt (no subtitles!)
So the cultural history received from my father’s post-war experience at the excellent but very Queen’s English Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was channelled into a Japanese theatre tradition equally as long. My writing gained influence from writers such as Kara Juro, Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Soseki Natsume, or in more recent times, Murakami Haruki and Ishiguro Kazuo. My novel travelled Melbourne to Tokyo with a foot in a tent theatre and another in the yakuza (Japanese organised crime).
As is my way, the pen scribbled over the page without pause for days and I think within a week I had written an eighty-page manuscript; the sword was a part, but a hanga (wood block), was the object that carried ancient betrayal. That was ten years and three books ago. The time has been spent travelling from the present tense of that first manuscript, in which an Australian cop and a Japanese yakuza were entangled, forwards toward unavoidable fates, while at the same time receding through generations, as far back as the tenth century when the last Empress of Japan reigned. I became my detective, unearthing roots of trouble era by era, dancing across unstable pavers of consequence to the seat of the crime.
Sherlock Holmes, Sidney Paget, 1904.
I still think of that long afternoon spent wandering the laneways of Fitzroy. When I set out that day, I had no idea that I went to kindergarten on Napier street–I literally chanced upon the front arch and recognised a part of my past buried there–this must have been the place I thought; and continued up the street to where I would therefore find the place my father’s booming voice commanded me to set off. After all, maybe I’m Campbell’s hero, and my quest is the story itself.