What’s it all about?:
Before Manga captured the imagination of the world, Japanese artists sculpted a miniature society of human and not-quite human characters. These are ‘netsuke’ tiny figures, threaded by cords, which were used to hold in place the ‘purse’ that hung from a kimono. Carved from wood, ivory or bone, they formed an exotic society, reflecting the history, culture and fantasy life of Japan. Now, for the first time, their individual stories come to life, and the unfamiliar and often startling nature of their society. Meet Momo, the beautiful but conflicted geisha cat; discover the dreams of the mermaids who worship Esther Williams; witness the rise and fall of a ruthless politician who plays the ‘alien’ card; encounter the creatures of legend and the demons who star in horror movies; learn the peculiar practices and customs of netsuke sexuality; try to solve the mystery of why netsuke suddenly disappear; admire the heroic quest to create a national orchestra; enjoy the embarrassment of a martial arts struggle gone peculiarly awry; share the hopes of an autumn and spring love story; face the threat to netsuke society of the plastic invasion.
What did I think?:
Netsuke, pronounced “nets’kay,” have become a bit of a cult phenomenon. They could be human, animal or mythical in appearance, and the author informs us that once we encounter them we will “at once become enchanted. Each chapter in this book is devoted to a certain netsuke character whilst the author explores their world and tells their stories. I found each section compelling in its own right, but was drawn more to some than others. One of my favourites is Chapter 5 – exploring sexuality in the Netsuke Nation, where I was very amused by the sexual imagery i.e. number and type of phalluses present in this mythical world. The author’s sense of humour really shines in this chapter:
“On stage scantily dressed or naked, partnered figures would strike a number of poses representing the beginning of any number of exotic sexual positions or acts, but they were careful to maintain their frozen position as long as they were visible to the audience. But having established the “tableau,” a short blackout would follow, during which the performers would make the next logical move in their particular act, to be revealed, again motionless, once the lights were turned back on. By repeating the technique the audience could enjoy pretty much the entire spectacle, while the performers staying strictly within the letter of the law.”
Beware…never read this chapter on public transport, you will not be able to help sniggering. Oh, and Chapter 7. The author’s ponderings of the best partner for a mermaid (human, crustacean or their personal preference, the humble octopus) are absolutely hilarious and there are too many passages of comic genius to quote. And who knew that the beautiful act of calligraphy can perhaps be traced back to an unfortunate “accident?.”
Some of the other chapters were a little less compelling, and I didn’t really get on with the sections detailing netsuke politics or the authors attempt at detective fiction. However, it is clear that the author has a talent for writing (especially the humorous kind), and I will look out for his further works. Many thanks to Net Galley and Troubador Publishing Ltd for this title.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):