Mention Japanese film and responses will likely range from the 1950s Golden Age to today’s panoply of genre movies. The variance has less to do with conflicts between artistry and populism—even Kurosawa famously trafficked in samurai—than with context and perspective. International acclaim, whether past or present, offers only a limited vista on a country’s internal cinematic life; to make full sense of Japan’s giant dinosaurs, yakuza gangsters and animated princesses, you need someone well-placed on the ground. Someone like Mark Schilling.

In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.

The mid-20th century comic strip Terry and the Pirates, as cringeworthy as its artless racism is, tells us as much about the Americans of the era as it does about the Chinese. In a similar way, the Longstreets’ Geishas and the Floating World is a delightful artifact for seeing Japan through the 1960s American, more especially male, gaze—so ineluctably male, in fact, it can be hard to identify what Ethel’s contributions might have been. Stephen Longstreet is the perfect American to reflect on the Yoshiwara pleasure district. A painter, jazzman, Hollywood screenplay writer, at home in both Saint Germain des Prés’s Tabu and Harlem’s Cotton Club, he instinctively identifies Yoshiwara as the Chrysanthemum Vie de Bohème as he effortlessly conjures the kaleidoscope of senses which Yoshiwara offered its male visitors. Geishas is one of a hundred books Longstreet wrote, so one does not read it for either the literary insight of Donald Keane’s translations or the erudition of Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince.

Geishas and the Floating World: Inside Tokyo's Yoshiwara Pleasure District, Stephen Longstreet, Ethel Longstreet, Stephen Mansfield (intro)
Geishas and the Floating World: Inside Tokyo’s Yoshiwara Pleasure District, Stephen Longstreet, Ethel Longstreet, Stephen Mansfield (intro) (Tuttle, March 2020)

Stephen and Ethel Longstreet bring the reader on an in-depth tour of the original and most infamous red-light district in Japan—the Yoshiwara district of old Tokyo.

Dressed like Rajput princesses in bangles, rhinestones and brocade tightly fitted over their svelte bodies, the young women created a stir when they entered the elevator of our nondescript apartment block in Singapore. Only later did I learn that these were bar dancers, dispatched by their needy families in rural Bihar to earn 200 hundred dollars a week in the clubs on Circular Road. 100 years earlier these women might have aspired to become elite entertainers, tawaifs, for the aristocrats of Benares or Lucknow. Saba Dewan’s magistral work explains the decline and fall of this storied tradition.

John Oliver has been blamed, among other things, for helping Donald Trump win the 2016 US Presidential race. Rather than dealing with the rise of right-wing populism, liberals like Oliver chose to deride, ridicule and dismiss. Worldwide, liberals are seen as elitists and out of sync with the problems of the common man. In her book Reading India Now: Contemporary Formations in Literature and Popular Culture, Ulka Anjaria approaches the issue through the examples of literature and popular culture produced in India since 2000.

Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916–1958, Yurou Zhong (Columbia University Press, November 2019)
Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916–1958, Yurou Zhong (Columbia University Press, November 2019)

Chinese Grammatology traces the origins, transmutations, and containment of this script revolution to provide a groundbreaking account of its formative effects on Chinese literature and culture, and lasting implications for the encounter between the alphabetic and nonalphabet worlds.