Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Hair

Can I just say that one of my biggest unintentional "accomplishments" of 2020 has been "converting" my mom to the natural hair community? It started out as an experiment back in April (twisting her hair instead of straightening it), then she kept asking me to twist her hair, and then she completely skipped the YouTube tutorial phase and went straight to buying natural hair products (Carol's Daughter, the Slap, Afrocentric headbands, detangling combs, etc.).

She wore her hair in fresh two-strand twists when we went to Louisville in October, and she was nervous about what the family might say about her new hairstyle. But then people in the family complimented her on it, and now she's not even thinking about having me straighten her hair again anytime soon. She tried something new, she's embraced her hair in a new and unprecedented way, and I helped her do that. My, my, my.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 24 - pt. 2

Continuing on from part 1, I've got two more dramas to tell y'all about for the second part of this J-drama review. Both of these shows are about women being mistreated and overlooked by society, so they're downers for the most part, but at least one of them has a promising ending. Let's get to it!

絶叫 (Zekkyou/Scream/The Voice Calling Your Name) - WOWOW/2019

  • Tokyo police find the body of a woman who apparently died alone in her apartment some months prior. Her body has decayed and cats have eaten part of it, but police find identification belonging Suzuki Yoko (Ono Machiko, 'Hajimemashite, Aishiteimasu') at the scene and conclude that she's the woman who died. A female detective named Ayano takes the lead on the case. Around the same time, a gangster who used a phony non-profit organization to steal vulnerably people's government benefits is also found dead.
  • Scenes of the police investigation alternate with flashbacks to Yoko's past, showing a woman who was uncared for since she was a little girl. Her mom loved her little brother more than her, and that continued to be so even after the brother was killed, Yoko's dad abandoned the family, Yoko and her mom were forced to sell their Shizuoka home and go their separate ways, and Yoko's mom became financially dependent on her.Yoko stumbles through adulthood in Tokyo alone, barely scraping by on jobs that include insurance scams and sex work.
  • The police eventually discover that Yoko was widowed multiple times. She would marry a man, that man would die under suspicious circumstances, and Yoko would receive a life insurance payout before finding a new husband in a different city. As the police get to the bottom of what Yoko was really up to and who she was involved with, they uncover even more unexpected truths about her.

Much like 'Soshite, Ikiru', this is another tale of a woman enduring many "blows to the spirit". Unlike 'Soshite, Ikiru', however, this show is anything but warm and uplifting. We know from the beginning that Yoko doesn't make it out, that despite her attempts to find some sort of purpose or love or happiness in life, she still ends up dying alone in her apartment with her body rotting amongst cat carcasses... Or does she? Whether Yoko is truly dead or alive and missing somewhere, what remains is that her life is miserable from beginning to end, all while she's desperately hoping for someone to see her and genuinely care about her for once. The show's title 'Zekkyou' (絶叫) means a scream, shout, shriek, or exclamation, and in the context of the show the word takes on an additionally solemn meaning: a silent scream, a cry for help that continues to be unheard and ignored. That scream, or "the voice calling your name" as the English title phrases it, belongs to Yoko. She's a textbook example of someone who can't catch a break, and despite her efforts life simply refuses to improve or get easier and less lonely for her.

The mystery of a woman who supposedly dies a solitary death was a significant draw for me, but I mostly chose this drama for Ono Machiko. As I've said in the past, she's one of my favorite Japanese actresses and her skill makes me feel like I can trust her choices about the projects she appears in. I haven't seen all of her work, but based on what I have seen, she hasn't disappointed me yet. Her performance in 'Zekkyou' is no different. It's a very short show (only four 1-hour episodes) and it doesn't end on a positive note. Still, it's a worthwhile examination of what desperation can push people to do, and what happens to those who have been abandoned by society and know it.

坂の途中の家 (Saka no Tochuu no Ie/The House on the Slope) - WOWOW/2019

  • Risako (Shibasaki Kou, 'Galileo') is an everyday housewife in Kanagawa, married to a typical salaryman and spending her days taking care of their three-year-old daughter until she's selected to be a lay judge in court (similar to doing jury duty in the States). The trial she's participating in involves a woman named Mizuho who's being prosecuted for drowning her baby to death. Public opinion has already concluded that Mizuho is a monster and a failure as a woman for not fulfilling her duties as mom, but the trial is meant to determine if the drowning was premeditated and if Mizuho's living conditions and mental state might preclude her from being solely responsible for her child's death.
  • As the trial goes on, Risako notices parallels between Mizuho's story and her own. This is especially so as her husband and in-laws begin asserting the demands of the trial and the stress of caring for an emotionally-volatile toddler as "proof" that Risako is an unfit wife and mother. Risako has a mom who's wealthy and overbearing, she gave up her career to appease her husband who barely helps out at home, and she had a harder time adjusting to motherhood than the other new moms around her seemed to have. Just like Mizuho.
  • In addition to Mizuho, the show explores the other jurors' personal experiences with parenting as well. One juror (Ito Ayumi, 'Cecile no Mokuromi') has infertility issues but now wants a child more than ever after her husband has already cooled off on the idea. A male juror has a daughter but doesn't see her often, because his resentful wife (a former rich kid) wants him home as seldom as possible so she doesn't have to think about how rich they're not. And even one of the official judges (Sakurai Yuki, 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi') is struggling! Her husband has started bucking against being the primary caretaker for their son (as previously arranged), and wants her to step back from work into a more traditional housewife role.

Empathy and editing! Those are the biggest takeaways that I get from this show. What moms need, what women need in general, is more empathy and less judgement. Especially in a country like Japan where women are often expected to subsume their entire being under the designation of "wife" and "mom" once they get married and have children, and their value as women is questioned if they fail the expectations attached to those roles. As for the editing, I don't know all the technical terms but the show does lots of clever things to depict Mizuho's life and then re-imagine those exact same scenes with Risako in her place—seamlessly cutting back and forth between the two—which I think is a stellar way of emphasizing that these two women aren't so different and really any parent could find themselves in Mizuho's unfathomable situation. Would every parent go so far as to harm their child? Of course not. But the show cautions viewers against believing that behavior like Mizuho's comes out of nowhere, because it doesn't. A couple of times there's also a neat trick where a shot rotates in a full circle around the screen before returning to its original position, conveying how disorienting and overwhelming the situation is for the character who's in that shot, which was really cool to see. Cinematic, even.

Also, shout-out to the social worker who's called to assess Risako! At first we're led to believe that Risako's husband called the social worker to observe how out of her depth Risako is and, I don't know, remove Risako from the household? Take their daughter away? It's unclear what result the person who reported her was hoping for. Anyway, Risako is immediately on edge (as was I) because for her this is yet another person questioning her every move and seeking to punish her for not meeting their standards. But to Risako's surprise (and mine), the social worker gently helps her realize that her husband is trash! He's been emotionally abusing her by constantly making her believe she can't do anything right and putting her down instead of helping her achieve her goals (family-related tasks, making a valuable contribution as a lay judge, etc.). Not only that, but the social worker does her research, talking to anyone she can who's remotely connected to Risako in order to confirm her findings: Risako does need significantly more support so she doesn't crumble from the pressures of motherhood, but she herself is not the problem. I wasn't expecting anything positive or helpful from the social worker once that character was introduced, but the show turned it around and proved me wrong. Color me relieved!

This drama is a heavy one to get through, but it ends with a sense of hope after Risako finally speaks her mind during court deliberations and pushes back against the people who are controlling her the most (namely her husband and her mom). Watch this show if you like Shibasaki Kou and/or want to watch a show that's purposefully empathetic toward women.

Although I said that I was most impressed by 'The Naked Director', my actual favorite from this roster of J-dramas is 'Soshite, Ikiru'. It's consistently well-written, takes a compassionate look at humanity, and offers a solid conclusion to a story of young love that simply isn't meant to last. But of course, I would encourage anyone who's interested to give any of these five shows a try. (Except maybe for 'Dying Eye'. You can probably skip that one, haha.) Until next time!

Monday, December 21, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 24 - pt. 1

I didn't think I'd finish watching my selections in time to have another J-drama review written before the end of the year, but it seems I've proven myself wrong! This time I watched five shows, and coincidentally all but one of them were originally aired on a Japanese cable channel called WOWOW. I choose J-dramas based on their premise and/or lead actors, not on which company broadcasts what. But judging from what I've seen from WOWOW so far, shows from that channel are less afraid to go there, especially when it comes to depicting dark themes and mature subject matter. And since that's the kind of material I've been gravitating toward lately, I suppose it's fitting that my slate turned out the way it did. Plus, WOWOW shows tend to have shorter runs (only four to six episodes) than the average J-drama, which meant that I could finish everything in half the time it would usually take me. I watched all of the following shows with English subs.

ダイイング・アイ (Dying Eye/Daiingu Ai) - WOWOW/2019

  • A bartender named Shinsuke (Miura Haruma from 'Boku no Ita Jikan', R.I.P.) is involved in a car accident that kills a pregnant piano teacher named Minae (Takahashi Maryjun from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi'). "Dying eye" refers to the look she gives the driver as she's dying. A year and a half later Shinsuke's still on probation, but he loses all memory of the accident after Minae's husband tries to kill him by knocking him out.
  • After Shinsuke recovers, his girlfriend goes missing, and he's eventually seduced by a mysterious woman named Ruriko (Takashashi Maryjun) who has enchanting eyes. "Dying eye" is also a reference to Ruriko's eyes.
  • The more that Ruriko shows up and Shinsuke remembers details of the car accident, he realizes that he might not have been the only one at fault (hint: his bosses are shady), and he collaborates with a detective to discover what exactly happened to Minae/Ruriko.
The huge "reveal" at the halfway point of the show is that Ruriko is the ghost of Minae, which confused the heck out of me because it was so obvious from the beginning. Was it not supposed to be obvious? They used the same actress for both characters, just changed her makeup and put a wig on her, and she has very recognizable facial features. So I'm not sure if the audience wasn't supposed to not know it was the same person, or perhaps it was moreso about us watching Shinsuke realize who she was, since he was already having trouble remembering so many things relating to that incident? I don't know. But a huge reveal it was not. Granted, there is another twist later on in the show revealing that Ruriko isn't exactly a "ghost", so to speak, but by that point I'd stopped caring. The show is intriguingly mysterious at first, ending each episode on a cliff-hanger and making it seem like it's building up to something mind-blowing, but it really doesn't pay off in the end. The final episode is a dud that makes 'Dying Eye' underwhelming as a whole. It could've been a thougthful commentary on guilt, manipulation, curses, spiritual possession, and how creepy mannequins can be, and it tried but simply didn't stick the landing.

Now all I can think about are the aspects I didn't like or that didn't make sense. For instance, the scene of Minae getting hit by the car and bleeding out as she's pinned to a wall is quite graphic, and the show replays that scene multiple times (at least once every episode), which feels gratuitous. Overkill, if you will. The main detective on the case has a young partner who's killed by Ruriko for absolutely no reason, and we don't even find out how she did it; he just disappears in one episode and the cops discover his body elsewhere in the next. Shinsuke finds out that his girlfriend was killed by his former boss/supposed mentor, and instead of beating the mentor up or turning him in to the cops, Shinsuke accepts a bribe from the mentor in exchange for his silence. But dude, weren't you just worriedly and relentlessly searching for your girlfriend a couple episodes ago? Now her being dead is no big deal? Also, Shinsuke gets arrested at the end of the final episode and I can't recall what exactly he did to warrant arrest this time? It didn't seem like he'd committed any additional crimes. I could go on, but basically if you're looking for something with a satsifying or worthwhile ending, then don't bother with 'Dying Eye'. But if you're a fan of the late Miura Haruma and want to watch everything he's appeared in, which includes this show, then knock yourself out.

そして、生きる (Soshite, Ikiru/And, Live) - WOWOW/2019
  • Toko (Arimura Kasumi, 'Shitsuren Chocolatier') is from Morioka, and was raised there by her uncle after her parents died in a car crash. As a twenty-something, she's now a waitress and aspiring actress preparing for an important upcoming audition in Tokyo. However, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 prevent her from going, and in the aftermath she volunteers to help rebuild a heavily-impacted town called Kesennuma.
  • Kiyotaka is from Tokyo. He was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle after losing his parents, and at first he meets their expectations by getting hired at a prestigious firm. But then he swiftly quits so he can focus on doing volunteer work in Kesennuma, which is where he meets Toko.
  • Toko and Kiyotaka start dating while also following their respective dreams. Toko gets another chance at an audition in Tokyo, and Kiyotaka gets an international development job that will soon have him moving to the Philippines. Toko learns some news that causes her to ghost Kiyotaka, and that decision becomes a point of no return in their lives and relationship.
Some of the most awful life events happen to these two lead characters, and with the absolute worst timing. I saw an online commenter refer to such occurrences as "blows to the spirit", and I couldn't think of a more apt description. And those blows just keep on coming. It seems like good things are happening and our lead couple can breathe and relax a little, and then BAM. 'Soshite, Ikiru' is a fairly depressing story... but told in the warmest, most thoughtful, tender, straightforward, and mature yet easygoing way possible. The transition between events is so smooth, and since there are only six episodes, the show makes use of every minute it has to convey something heartfelt and meaningful about interpersonal relationships.
The production value on this show is so impressive! From Morioka to Kesennuma to Tokyo to San Juan to Pasig, every location looks gorgeous and also like a real place that actual people live in, ruins and slums included. One episode is focused on the Philippines and they have Kiyotaka speaking Tagalog and English, they have Filipino actors, even the local media and news reports that are shown are designed to look as true to life as possible. (I've never been to the Philippines so I can't speak to how accurate it is, but it looks convincing to me.) The episode even touches on the question of whether development workers like Kiyotaka and the organizations who fund them are truly serving local communities, or are moreso meddling and perpetuating a cycle of inequitable relations between countries. Kiyotaka goes to San Juan with genuinely pure intentions after having volunteered to rebuild Kesennuma and believing he'd found his life's purpose, but even he has to reckon with how his presence might do more harm then good. And honestly, when it comes to talking about the Philippines and Filipino people specifically, and international development in general, I've never seen a J-drama broach these subjects with such nuance. It even connects seemingly-benevolent foreign influence (including Japan's) with the kind of destabilization that leads to terrorism, and I've just never seen that done in a Japanese show before. Again it's only one episode, so the commentary is brief, but it is sharp.

Until I heard Toko and her best friend Han-chan talk about how hard Japanese grammar and certain turns of phrase can be, I didn't realize that Han-chan is played by a Korean actress. Her name is Kang Ji-young and apparently she's a former K-pop star! I rarely paid attention to KARA (a K-pop girl group that used to be huge in Japan), so I didn't recognize Ji-young as being from that group. She's a decent actress, though, and as a fellow non-native Japanese speaker, I think her language skills are legit! And it's cool that the show works her being Korean into the show without having her character face mistreatment for being Korean. Han-chan's just a friendly, chill girl from South Korea who likes to spend extended amounts of time in different countries before moving on to the next destination whenever she feels like it. The only thing I don't like about the show is a character named Kubo, who's a salesman. I don't know if it was the way the character was written or what, but I just didn't care about anything he had to say. Every scene he was in, I was waiting for that scene to end and the next scene to start. I hesitate to think it was the actor's fault.

I mentioned Toko's ghosting of Kiyotaka as a point of no return because that's exactly what it proves to be, and the show tells us that yes, Toko does some things that the audience might think are incredibly misguided. But the point is that those are the "mistakes" that Toko chooses. She might avoid necessary conversations, but she also takes decisive action, stands by those decisions, and accepts the consequences. In the show's logic, choosing something and making a mistake is more conducive to moving forward than waiting for a sign or getting stuck, and I can appreciate that. 'Soshite, Ikiru' has a bittersweet ending for sure, but one that's reflective of the title of the show. Time will pass, life will continue to happen to you, and you have to find a way to keep living. Even if "what could've been" gets interrupted or never ends up happening at all. What a beautifully down-to-earth show this is!

全裸監督 (Zenra Kantoku/The Naked Director) - Netflix/2019
  • In Sapporo, Muranishi Toru sells English encyclopedias for a living until he loses his job and his wife leaves him. A chance meeting inspires him to put his sales experience to work in selling porn cassettes and magazines. He becomes incredibly successful until a competitor named Ikezawa (who runs a massive porn company called Poseidon) bribes the police to arrest Muranishi and shut his business down. Muranishi and his business partner escape to Tokyo.
  • After being lured back to Sapporo and serving jail time, Muranishi and his partner return to Tokyo and pivot to video, starting their own porn movie studio called Sapphire. They have a meager staff and meager funds, and at some point Muranishi begins playing the lead actor in each movie he directs, becoming the titular "naked director". His biggest star is a college student named Megumi who leaves her strict household so she can explore her sexuality more freely through doing porn.
  • Ikezawa keeps trying to put Muranishi out of business, all while the yakuza takes their cut of the booming porn industry and the police try to shut it all down.
Of all the J-dramas I watched this time around, I have to admit that I was most impressed by this one. I heard about it when it was released last year and I was intrigued but didn't know what to think of it, so I put off giving it a try. Once I did give it a try, however, I couldn't stop watching! This show is definitely for mature audiences, so I'd only recommend it if you don't mind lots of nudity and sex scenes. But the thing is, even though it's about porn, it doesn't feel lewd. If anything, the show is wacky and brilliant. It's almost nonchalant about all the sex that's going on (on camera and with many witnesses), which underscores the fact that sex work is a job just like any other. 'The Naked Director' also does an amazing job of not only recreating the look and feel of the 1980s, but also linking developments in the porn industry with economic changes that were happening in Japan at the time. And apparently Muranishi Toru and Kuroki Kaoru are real people, meaning this show is semi-biographical, which gives me a lot to think about.

Although the show is sex-positive, there are three specific young actresses whose involvement with Sapphire is presented as empowering and liberating when it's really not. Or rather, it's more profitable for Muranishi than it is liberating for them. The first actress who Sapphire mangages to find seems to feel an unexpected sense of appreciation and camaraderie through shooting her porn video; the crew compliments her on her hard work and how well she did, and she takes that to heart because she's never been commended for anything before. But later on when she moves on to an office job, she's forced to quit when her co-workers harass her for doing porn after someone from Sapphire distributes an uncensored version of the video. Meanwhile, that video she did is still money in Muranishi's pocket. The second actress is headhunted from Poseidon, and Muranishi pressures her to have real intercourse with her scene partner because her acting (pretending to have sex) isn't good enough. Once they start doing it for real, she's shown to enjoy it the whole way through. But then Ikezawa gets the police to arrest her (because at that time it's illegal to distribute videos showing uncensored or unsimulated sex), leak her identity to the press, and inform her parents so that she has no choice but to flee Tokyo and head back to her parents' house in shame. Meanwhile, that video is still money in Muranishi's pocket.

The next actress, Megumi (or Kuroki Kaoru as she's known professionally), is the star who really gets Sapphire rolling in the dough. Her first video saves the company on two occasions, and she eventually becomes a spokesperson of sorts, appearing on talk shows to advocate for herself, represent Sapphire, and demystify porn as a whole. Her involvement in porn is framed as her embracing her truest self; she's always had sexual urges and been interested in sex, but couldn't express that under her conservative Catholic mom's strict control. In fact, Megumi showing up at the studio to apply as a porn actress for Sapphire quickly transitions to her having sex with Muranishi on camera, initiated by Megumi herself. It's Muranishi's first time being the scene partner to one of his actresses, and presumably Megumi's first time having sex ever. And she seems so into it and sure of what she wants, that the crew even remarks afterwards that she was really the one in control. But how can that be when she's having sex with a man significantly older than her, who's acting as a father figure by providing affection that she's never received from a man (the catalyst for their sexual encounter is a hug that he gives her during the audition), and she's doing it out of a sense of need, trying to save up money to study art in Italy and escape her mom? I think it's refreshing how self-assured and unashamed Megumi is about her sexuality, but that doesn't mean she's not also being exploited given the power dynamics at play between her and Muranishi.

There's an episode where most of the crew goes to Hawaii in a last ditch effort to create a best-selling movie that will keep the company afloat. I had a feeling that this episode would be corny (and I mean CORNY), as most Asian shows I've seen tend to be when they randomly throw white/American/English-speaking characters into the mix, and I was absolutely correct. The dialogue and the plot take a nosedive until Muranishi returns to Japan, and it's the only part of the show that I wish I hadn't had to see. But other than that, I'm so glad that I finally decided to give 'The Naked Director' a chance, plus its opening theme song is bomb! And shout-out to Kunimura Jun, who plays a yakuza boss involved with both Poseidon and Sapphire. I last saw him play the devil incarnate in a Korean movie called The Wailing, and he's so excellent at playing characters who seem harmless but are actually evil!

I'm not done yet! Check out part 2 of this J-drama review, where I discuss the final two shows on my roster and select my favorite of them all!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

BOOKS! (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom + The Hole)

I read today's selections faster than I've been able to read any other books this year. That's my only reasoning for writing about them together. First up is an August Wilson play (soon to be a movie released on Netflix tomorrow!) about blues musicians that I read entirely in one day. And then I've got a Korean novel about a paralyzed man and his suspicious mother-in-law, the majority of which I finished up yesterday.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson

After Chadwick Boseman passed away in August and I heard that his final role would be alongside Viola Davis in the film adaptation of this play, I made a mental note to read it beforehand. This would be my fifth August Wilson play (after Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone), and it'd been nearly four years since the last one I read, so I was genuinely looking forward to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Bought it from B&N in October, and then read it during one extended sitting earlier this month (the day before my birthday, in fact). Set in Chicago in 1927, it's the only play of Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" that doesn't take place in Pittsburgh. Each of the 10 plays in the cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and MRBB tackles the 1920s. Again, this is my fifth Wilson play, which means that I've read half of the "Pittsburgh Cycle" so far.

Over the course of a single day at a Chicago recording studio, a blues band rehearses, argues about style and artistic choices, and generally shoots the sh*t while waiting for their frontwoman Ma Rainey to arrive so they can record new songs for a record company. Cutler is the bandleader, guitarist, and trombonist. Slow Drag is the bassist (and "perhaps the one most bored by life" according to the play, which made me chuckle). Toledo is the pianist, the only literate member of the group, and in true August Wilson fashion he's the seemingly-odd character who frequently shares profound yet perplexing insights on the meaning of life and Black identity. And last but not least is Levee the trumpet player, the youngest of the group who has ambitions of having his own band so he can record his own music and become a star. The record company is represented by two white men: an exec named Sturdyvant who oversees the production and only cares about the bottom line, and Ma's manager Irvin who plays good cop but is also similarly money-focused, and doesn't truly care about or respect these Black musicians (including Ma) any more than Sturdyvant does.

Ma Rainey was a real person and one of the first professional blues singers, which I knew but had forgotten until after I started looking up the songs mentioned in this play. What I hadn't known was that "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was a real song, or that the "Black Bottom" was a style of dance. Detroit used to have a Black neighborhood called Black Bottom, so I thought maybe the play's title would refer to a geographical area, or would have a more poetic meaning like the depths ("bottom") of Ma Rainey's soul, or would simply be a euphemism for her actual behind. I guess that last one is accurate, since the lyrics of the song do use "Black Bottom" as a double entendre. I also find it delightfully fitting that I happened to read this book pretty soon after watching a TV show about strippers called 'P-Valley', and reading Wynton Marsalis' Moving to Higher Ground. The Southernness, the sensuality, the disastrous effects that white-led exploitation has on Black life and artistry, the primacy of the blues' ability to help Black people find the will to keep living, etc. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a solid amalgamation of the themes that I observed in those other two works.

The plot revolves around Ma Rainey, and her late arrival (with her stuttering nephew Sylvester and her girlfriend Dussie Mae in tow) is followed by more disagreements and delays as the recording session goes on. However, though she is given room to express her frustrations about having her voice commodified by white people and not being respected for her unique talent or how wealthy she's made the record company, the story as a whole doesn't focus on her as much as it does the bandmates and their conversations. And don't get me wrong, these men are hilarious! There's a joke in the play about New Orleans and a place called Fat Back, Arkansas that made me cackle out loud! I enjoyed reading their playful jabs and haunting stories about surviving white terrorism in the South, and I understand the value of highlighting the musicians who fill out the background instead of solely focusing on the star of the show. With that said, l don't know how I feel about a play that's named after a woman still being mostly about the men around her more than the woman herself. Especially since most of Wilson's plays that I've read so far are centered around Black men's perspectives. Which isn't to say that that's a bad thing, or that those perspectives are never interrogated, or that Black women's perspectives aren't also given weight in Wilson's work. Like I said, I'm just not sure how I feel about it.

Additionally, there are a few things that I'm left wondering about. For one thing, I noticed that Ma's band doesn't have a drummer. I don't know if Wilson made it this way intentionally, or if it's customary for blues bands not to have drummers, or if this was simply an oversight on Wilson's part. The last two explanations seem unlikely to me, so I really have no clue why there's no drummer. Also, what is the purpose of Dussie Mae's character? Merely to show that Ma is gay but not spend time discussing it? To be something of Ma's that Levee tries to take from her, since he is so resentful yet covetous of the success and authority that Ma has? Furthermore, it was unclear to me where Ma and her band are based. They're in Chicago to record, but they keep referencing an upcoming tour and trip to Memphis, Ma emphasizes how large and loyal a following she has in the South, and all the stories that the bandmates tell take place in the South (which is also where each of them originally come from). 

Obviously I'm still turning Ma Rainey's Black Bottom over in my mind, and I'm really excited to watch the movie when it comes out tomorrow. As humorous as the play is, one of the characters gets so distressed at one point that he tries to fight God (similar to how Troy tries to fight death in Fences), and another character doesn't make it out alive. As fortunate as Ma and her band are to be working as musicians, their pasts (hate crimes and manual labor in the South) and their present (racist cops and the bloodthirsty music industry) never fail to remind them how constrained the world can be for Black people during this time. This is an ebullient and bone-chilling play, and I think everyone should read it.

Favorite quotes:

"If I had my way
If I had my way
If I had my way
I would tear this old building down" (71).
"Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials... and then too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola... They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no mater how much it hurt them" (79).
"You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life... The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world. Something's been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something" (82-83).
"Gonna be a bit more things before I'm finished with it. Gonna be foolish again. But I ain't never been the same fool twice. I might be a different kind of fool, but I ain't gonna be the same fool twice. That's where we part ways" (90).

The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
(Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell)

Just like Moving to Higher Ground, The Hole is another selection from a bunch of discounted books that I found a year ago in Kentucky, and after this there's only one remaining that I haven't read yet. I can't remember why I decided to buy The Hole in particular; I'm guessing it probably had something to do with it being a Korean novel and having an eery, introspective, and suspenseful premise. It opens with a cartography professor named Oghi waking up from a coma and realizing that he's paralyzed. He and his wife were in a car accident that only he survived, and now he's in a hospital, only able to move his eyes and blink at first. The entire novel is written from Oghi's perspective as he comes to terms with his new reality, struggles to recover (uncertain as to which state he'll actually be able to recover to), reminisces on his life before the accident, misses his wife, and gets used to relying on his mother-in-law for survival. Oghi has already lost his parents, and his mother-in-law is a widow whose daughter has just died, so now they're each other's sole remaining family and his mother-in-law has stepped up to take care of him. It's worth noting that Oghi is the only character who has a name, besides certain famous people who are mentioned. A few characters are given initials, but everyone else is referred to by their roles in relation to Oghi ("the doctor", "his wife", "his mother-in-law", and so on). Also, for convenience's sake I'm going to refer to his wife's mom as MIL in the rest of this review.

From the outset it seems like this will be a straightforward story about Oghi's process of recovering from multiple tragedies at once, or maybe that's just what I wanted it to be and so that's what I set my hopes on. But then things start to get weird, and then downright sinister, when his MIL's behavior begins to change bizarrely. After moving Oghi from the hospital to the house that he and his wife shared, the MIL goes from carefully doting on Oghi, to mocking and neglecting him while obsessively digging a giant pit (the titular "hole" of the novel) in what used to be his wife's garden, to isolating him from all contact with the outside world and removing his access to medical care. Oghi, still paralyzed, is confined to his bed the entire time. So then I shifted my focus to hoping Oghi would receive help and escape the situation somehow, but... well. More on that later. The financial, physical, and emotional strain of caring for Oghi seems to explain why his MIL's acting differently at first, and of course there's the possibility that she's always been petty and cruel but is just now letting that side of herself show. But then it's revealed that she's likely taking revenge against him for something he did to his wife. There's a room in the house that's full of his wife's writings about him, which Oghi knows about but hasn't read entirely. Whatever information it is that his MIL obtains through her late daughter's writing, it's clear that Oghi, our sympathetic main character, is not who he appears to be.

I read the dust jacket when I first bought The Hole last year, but had since forgotten what it was supposed to be about. Which I preferred, honestly, once I finally started reading it two weeks ago. I remembered that it would be suspenseful somehow, and I was glad to not be anticipating anything specific beyond that. It's the kind of novel that steadily builds up an intense sense of unease, confusion, and lack of control, the kind of novel where all the pieces don't come together until the very end (and even then readers are purposefully left with many questions). And that felt oddly familiar to me, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Then I finished the book, finally read the dust jacket again, and saw the synopsis reference Herman Koch's The Dinner, and then it clicked. Yes! Exactly! Of course! THAT's the deceptively simply yet menacingly dark atmosphere that The Hole replicates. That and the Kathy Bates movie Misery, which I've never seen in full but know plenty about by virtue of cultural osmosis.

Speaking of mounting intensity, this has got to be the most cleverly-designed book that I've read in a long time. It's genius, really. On the first page of each chapter, there's a big black dot in the upper-right corner. That's something I took note of right away. What I didn't notice until halfway through the novel, however, was that as the chapters progress, the big black dot ("the hole") in the upper-right corner grows bigger. And bigger. And bigger. The higher the stakes get, the more chaotic and dire Oghi's circumstances become, the more imposing that dot becomes on the page. It goes from the size of a quarter in chapter 1 to the size of a grapefruit in chapter 15, and the visual contrast between where the story starts and ends still gives me chills. 

Now. I'm about to slightly spoil the ending, so be warned. The final chapter shows Oghi escaping the house, only to end up in the hole that his MIL dug. However, I'm inclined to wonder whether he actually escapes, or if it only happens in Oghi's mind? Because how does he go from only being able to move his hands and wiggle his fingers in the previoius chapter, to having enough upper body strength to raise his arms above his head, open doors, and drag himself across various surfaces? And wouldn't he have had to take his catheter out before pushing himself off of the bed in the first place? Perhaps he never actually leaves the bed and is only imagining what would happen if he were to escape and fall into the hole outside. And perhaps the act of imagining, along with the acknowledgement of his being trappedin the house, in his body, in the custody of his unhinged MIL, in this isolated life that's so unlike the life he had beforeis what allows him to finally grieve his circumstances, as the novel closes with him crying for the first time since he woke up from his coma almost a year prior. At least that's my theory on The Hole for now. If you liked Herman Koch's The Dinner, enjoy suspense and secrets, can appreciate open endings and not having every question answered, or are interested in learning how incredibly political map-making is, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:

"Oghi struggled to accept that this was his body now... He did not know how to handle the disconnect between the old him and the new him. All he could do was foresee that nothing would be as it was, and he could not even begin to guess at how many things would be different in the future and how those things would change him" (32).

"No matter how hard you tried to draw the world, you could never be exact... It was impossible to capture the trajectory of life in a map... A world that could not be understood perfectly, could not be explained unambiguously, and was interpreted differently based on the political purposes and conveniences was no different from the world he was already living in. And yet, the one way in which maps were clearly better than life was that they improved with failure" (69). 

 "It was a time when their friendship had flourished for lack of hope" (74).

"His wife's tears had stopped not because she was no longer sad, but because the time had come to stop crying. And at last, Oghi cried. Not because of his wife. But because his time for crying had come" (198).