Books

Twenty-five years on, Alan Booth’s voice is brought back to life

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

It has been 25 years since the much-loved British writer Alan Booth (1946-93) — famous for his Japan travelogues “The Roads to Sata,” a description of a 2,000-mile end-to-end, four-month walk across Japan, and “Looking for the Lost,” a collection of some more discrete historical explorations of Japanese regions — shuffled off this mortal coil at the tragically young age of 47.

This Great Stage of Fools: An Anthology of Uncollected Writings, by Alan Booth, Edited by Timothy Harris.
324 pages
BRIGHT WAVE MEDIA, Nonfiction.

Anyone who has encountered Booth’s trademark style — masking supreme erudition behind modesty, open-heartedness and pretension-puncturing wit — can only lament that there were only two major, book-length publications from that precious, unique voice. Though he released a number of more minor publications, ardent fans have been left wanting to hear more from that most amiable of literary companions and piercingly insightful wanderer of Japan.

Well now, almost miraculously, we can. Painstakingly compiled by close friend Timothy Harris, “This Great Stage of Fools” contains much of Booth’s uncollected journalism during the 13 years (1979-92) he wrote a column for the Asahi Evening News (now the Asahi Shimbun) and contributed to other, diverse publications.

It’s something of a revelation to read Booth’s adept and entertaining film criticisms, commenting on now-iconic movies when they were freshly minted such as Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” (1980) and “Ran” (1985), Kon Ichikawa’s “The Makioka Sisters” (1983) and Juzo Itami’s “The Funeral” (1984), as well as his amusingly acerbic assessments of the slew of pulp action films and 1980s teen idol vehicles that filled cinemas of the day. Even at this remove, it’s intriguing to read Booth’s contention on why Itami’s “Marusa no Onna 2” (“A Taxing Woman’s Return”) is a greater film than the original or how Kurosawa’s interpretation of “King Lear” in “Ran” differs markedly in ambition to Shakespeare’s.

In the second third of the book we shift from the silver screen to an exploration of Japanese festivals the length and breadth of the nation — some loved, others reviled for accommodating to tourism and television.

Booth was the master of acute observation wherever he went in Japan — unfailingly noting the strangeness of tannoy announcements or the individuality of local song lyrics — but in his relationship with the Tohoku region, and Aomori Prefecture in particular, there is a sense of synergy between his own personality and the character of those rugged and extraordinarily distinct regions.

Harris relates how Booth was once informed by an itako medium at Mount Osore on the Shimokita Peninsula — the true home of Booth’s spirit — that he had once been a son of Aomori but had been reborn as a “gaijin” for his sins in that previous life.

It might appear a throwaway line of humor, but in fact that unearthly sense of another person being buried beneath the exterior appearance of Alan Booth, another self with whom he was permanently trying to make contact with, is central to the mystique and fascination of Booth as a writer. He was adopted as a child by a family living in straitened circumstances in the East End of London, but we learn his birth mother may have been Irish and his father an American doctor.

When Booth writes about his fascination with things such as the kokeshi dolls that are found in rural areas and may owe their origin to the practice of infanticide (in one reading, the character for “ko” can be translated to “child” and “keshi” to “erase”), or when he writes of the namahage goblins, terrorizers of small children, celebrated at a festival in Akita Prefecture, you feel that something buried, disturbed and taboo is being touched upon in Booth’s own psyche.

Like all great writers of other cultures, the external analysis of the disorientating world around him draws us inevitably into an addictive, bewitching journey into the complexities of Booth’s own psychology.

When we read that Booth preferred to translate the title of Basho’s famous travelogue “Oku no Hosomichi” as “The Narrow Road to the End of the World,” rather than the typical “The Narrow Road to the Interior,” you gain a sense that Japan was not just any foreign country to Booth, but the edge of the world itself, the only place he could fathom the depths of his true self, where locals would still ask him if there were wild bears in London.

Booth believed so passionately in walking (referred to here as his “protestant walk ethic”) that when he once heard someone suggest the idea of driving from Tokyo to London, he proposed walking there instead, and the third part of this book discovers him back on the road, taking 18 days to walk the width of Shikoku as a kind of coda to his epic “Roads to Sata” walk of some years before.

Booth was for my money the greatest writer about Japan of his generation — casting a long shadow over endless dullard academics and Kyoto-centric aesthetes — but he was also more than that, a brilliant talent who, like Ian Buruma, could have gone on to write about many other cultures.

It’s heartbreaking to read in the final pages of this book of the three-week trip to Kolkata in the early 1990s that presaged his descent into persistent bad health, clinical mishaps and a belated diagnosis of terminal colon cancer. Yet you will never read a more laugh-out-loud funny account of a miserably unfair and prematurely ended life than that which is contained in these superbly crafted pages.