Punk author Kou Machida on his offbeat samurai story

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

You wouldn’t expect a punk musician to write decent novels, any more than you’d expect a boxer to be good at darning. The talents prized by the former vocation — restlessness, insouciance, hard-wired disregard for authority — don’t lend themselves to the rigors of the author’s life: all those long, solitary work hours, editorial deadlines and incessant rewrites.

Punk Samurai Slash Down, by Kou Machida Translated by Wayne P. Lammers.
THAMES RIVER PRESS, Fiction.

But maybe there are a few things one could learn from the other. “When you’re writing a book, there are ways in which you’re supposed to write it, or theories you’re supposed to adhere to,” says Kou Machida, 52-year-old punk survivor and iconoclastic author. “(Punk is about) ignoring those from the very start, and doing things based on your own individuality and sensibilities.”

It’s an approach that has served him well during his career. The Osaka native was still in his teens when he and his band Inu cut one of the defining albums of Japan’s punk era, 1981′s “Meshi Kuna!” (“Don’t Eat Food!”) — and then promptly broke up.

“It was hard to make a living then — the music industry operated on a much smaller scale,” Machida says, speaking on the phone from his home in the coastal resort of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, which he shares with three dogs and seven cats. “Even if we’d tried to continue, we didn’t really have any prospects for the future, so we probably would’ve ended up splitting up regardless.”

Machida’s subsequent bands — and there have been quite a few — would prove equally short-lived; as far as the music industry is concerned, the most notable thing he’s done in the past decade was get roughed up by guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei in 2007. But if his musical resume might seem to suggest a lack of staying power, think again: This one-time punk is now also an award-winning novelist.

How did that happen?

“With books, you write them by yourself, so you can work on them whenever you like, without having to adjust to other people’s pace,” he muses. “With music, it’s not just the other band members you have to think about: There’s also the staff at the record label and the management office… Being in a rock band feels like being in a company.”

To be fair, Machida’s move into literature wasn’t entirely unexpected. He confesses to having been a teenage bookworm, and his lyrics for Inu displayed a talent for wordplay and absurd juxtapositions. He released his first collection of poetry in 1992, followed four years later by his debut novel, “Kussun Daikoku” (“Weeping Daikoku”). In 2000, his novella “Kiregire” (“Shreds”) was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious accolade for up-and-coming writers.

And this year, he has finally made it into English translation. “Punk Samurai Slash Down,” originally released in Japanese in 2004, is an irreverent, willfully anachronistic take on the jidai shōsetsu (period novel) genre. Machida’s protagonist is an opportunistic ronin (masterless samurai) who ends up caught in a battle between a dysfunctional samurai clan and a doomsday cult whose members believe they’re actually living in the bowels of a “gigantic, cosmic-scale tapeworm.”

If that’s not confusing enough, the novel also features a talking monkey, a telekinetic savant, and characters who name-check Frank Zappa and Jimmy Cliff and discuss the aesthetic conventions of samurai movies. Machida’s dialogue is equally offbeat, with conversations that flit between the stiff, mannered language of period dramas and contemporary slang.

“With samurai books and period novels, the way the samurai speak and the style of writing are really nothing more than conventions,” he says. “Nobody alive today knows what it was actually like then, and it’s not like it’s based in historical fact: It’s a sort of fiction. I thought that if you were going to go to the effort of creating fiction, it’d be more interesting to create a whole variety of fictions.”

Though he read the samurai stories of well-known historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba as a child, Machida was more heavily influenced by the Buraiha, a group of dissolute, nihilistic writers who gained widespread notoriety in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He delighted in the vernacular language of Sakunosuke Oda, a fellow Osaka native, and developed an off-kilter appreciation for Osamu Dazai, author of such bleak masterpieces as “Shayo (The Setting Sun)” and “Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human).”

“A lot of my contemporaries focused on the way that he depicted suffering and private torment,” says Machida. “But if you read Osamu Dazai properly, half of it is actually pretty funny. I liked the aspects of Dazai that people weren’t talking about: the comic elements, the humor.”

Machida has brought a similar sensibility to bear in his own work, most notably 2005′s “Kokuhaku” (“Confession”), a dense, compassionate and sometimes humorous novel based on a real-life killing spree that happened in Osaka in the 1890s. The book picked up the Tanizaki Prize, and Machida says that he’d like to see it translated — though, as with most of his work, he sets a high hurdle. He recalls the time one of his books was supposed to be released in Korean, only for the translator eventually to admit defeat.

“It’d probably be better if I set out to write something that was easy to translate from the start,” he says. “But these unusual expressions and archaic terms always start creeping in, and it ends up being hard to translate into anything other than Japanese.”

Idiosyncratic and unfathomable to outsiders: how very punk.