So You’re Picking up Kenzaburo Oe From the Airport
By Alison Balaskovits
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is Japanese novelist, social commentator, and Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe. In a career spanning more than 50 years Oe has returned again and again to topics such as the atomic bomb attacks on Japan in WWII, the modernization/democratization of Japanese society in the 20th century, human dignity, and his relationship with his oldest son (the composer Hikari Oe). A major force in the revitalization of Japanese literature after the war Oe continues to be vital & prolific well into the 21st century.
1. Bonobo (Ft. Andreya Triana) – The Keeper [Banks Remix] If Vincent D’Onofrio had just kept driving into the terrifying unknown he discovered in the desert during The Thirteenth Floor, I imagine this is the song we would’ve heard on the soundtrack. Somewhat random reference? Sure, but I think it’s plenty apt and I’m sticking with it. From Black Sands Remixed, the collaborative rework of Bonobo’s 2010 album that rivals, if not tops, the original. There’s a lot to choose from, but this has to be my favorite track on it. Some seriously soulful vocals, otherworldly electronic flourishes, and that beat…
2. Simple Minds – Theme From Great Cities EXT. – DAY Judd Nelson puts a cheerleader’s diamond stud in his ear, walks across a football field, and has his fingerless-leather-gloved fist freeze framed defiantly in the air. Thus ends The Breakfast Club…but not before Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me) swells on the soundtrack, capping one of the most important films of the 80s with an iconic musical moment that’s still putting smiles on people’s faces to this day. Unfortunately, that’s the only tune by Simple Minds that very many people not from Scotland are aware of, which is a shame…because they did some great work. Among that is is this energetic/futuristic instrumental track, included here as a nod to the resilience and vitality of Hiroshima.
3. Serge Gainsbourg – Requiem Pour Un C… I’m not 100% clear on what Gainsbourg is talking about in this song, but a cursory Google Translate of the lyrics (combined with the fact that one of the words in the title is redacted on the official release) gives the general idea that it’s nothing too nice. That said, if you were allowed to pick a backing track to be played by a live band every time you set foot in a casino, I’d be hard pressed not to choose this one. As a noted lover of French literature I think Oe would appreciate this one. Especially given that (apocryphal?) story about him and an exchange with Yukio Mishima’s wife at a party back in the 60s (Google it).
4. New Flesh For Old – 186000 Miles There are many noteworthy moments in the 2001 turntablism documentary Scratch, but maybe the most beautiful is a short sequence cutting between DJ Krush laying traditional flute music over this track and the mesmerized reactions of the crowd listening to him do it. Here’s the stuff late-night driving classics are made of. Fun fact, Oe’s oldest son’s name, Hikari, is Japanese for “light” the approximate speed of which in miles per second is referenced in the track title.
5. The Game – Like Father, Like Son Among the most prominent of the core themes that Oe’s returned to throughout his career has been the relationship between father and son, specifically a son born with developmental disabilities, as his first child was. From the young father who struggled to decide between allowing his newborn to perish or agreeing to a procedure that would save the child (but leave him severely impaired) in A Personal Matter, to the meditations about the non-verbal young man who possesses incredible musical talent in The Silent Cry, Oe continually circles back to the singular relationship between boys and their fathers. The Game made something beautiful you can ride to while thinking about it.
6. William Walton – Two Pieces For Strings: Passacaglia: The Death Of Falstaff OK OK, true, he beat that “pan & zoom on a still photo” trick to death so savagely that Apple named it after him in iMovie, but damn if Ken Burns can’t make a compelling documentary about various pillars of American identity. For The War, his monumental work on America’s involvement in WWII, he chose this piece from William Walton’s score for the 1944 film adaptation of Henry V as the main musical cue…and if you’ve seen the series you won’t forget it. Oe was a young boy during the conflict, lost his father to it, and has spent much of his career reflecting on the catastrophic bombings that brought it to an an end. He writes from what’s, in a sense, the opposite experience of that examined in Burns’ series, but read his Hiroshima Notes and the deeply sorrowful strains of this piece might come to mind.
7. King Midas Sound – Meltdown Isolation and emotional desperation never sounded so chill. This song isn’t particularly conducive to conversation, so maybe it’s best saved for if you’re picking someone up from a red-eye flight, but it’ll work anytime. Laid back in the extreme.
8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (Performed by Sumi Jo & The Wiener Philharmoniker) And taking the award for the most mellifluous song bearing the most ominous title we have what’s probably Mozart’s most famous aria (The Vengeance of Hell Boils in my Heart). This on the list not only because it’s stupidly gorgeous, but also because Mozart was one of the most important composers in the musical development of Oe’s son Hikari (often played by Oe and his wife to help soothe the baby to sleep). To this day Oe tends to write in his living room while Hikari composes and listens to music nearby.
9. War – Galaxy “Hey guys, you know how that new movie Star Wars is smashing box office records and infiltrating pretty much every aspect of pop culture right now?…We should totally make an 8 minute horn-heavy track that capitalizes on that and includes lyrics about Superman, Batman, and being raised in ‘solar cane’”. At some point in 1977 one of the members of War dropped that suggestion in the studio and this funktastic glory was unleashed into the universe, praise be unto The Force. An eternal windows down, cruise control, stereo blasting, summer highway song.
10. Shoji Yamashiro – Kaneda Careful, it’s real easy to get carried away and start driving erratically when the chanting crescendos late in this song. My favorite cut from the classic soundtrack for the most influential anime film ever. As an author who’s spent so much of his career grappling with the A-bomb and its effects on Japanese bodies, minds & culture I think Oe will dig this one, a musical high point from one of the finest pieces of cinema to deal with those same themes, if only indirectly. Recorded by the Geinō Yamashirogumi collective. Play it LOUD.
11. Black Chow – Purple Smoke Playing this track on college radio never failed to get an enthusiastic call-in requesting info about the song. That was nice, but I never had more to offer than title & artist because hell if I know what’s going on here other than recognizing solid cruising music when I hear it. From the brilliant 5-year-anniversary Hyperdub retrospective (highly recommended…P.S. Black Chow = 2/3 of the members from King Midas Sound, included above).
12. Liam Clancy – The Valley of Knockanure War sucks. This is a universal truth, no matter how frighteningly often we seem to forget it. Oe, deeply affected by the war he experienced as a child and what it meant for his country in the decades after, certainly recognizes this. Here one of the best ballad singers in the history of the game tackle the sad legacy of unarmed young men gunned down during the Irish War of Independence. It’s a short track that doesn’t need to be a second longer; it accomplishes everything it needs to.