The Philosophy of Fugu




BARRY LANCET is an expat Californian who has lived in Tokyo for over 20 years. For the bulk of that time, he worked for one of Japan’s premier publishing houses, developing books on a myriad of subjects but focusing on Japanese society, including arts and crafts, Zen gardens, martial arts, cuisine, philosophy, history, and many more. Lancet brings this eclectic knowledge to his thriller series featuring Jim Brodie, an antiques and art dealer raised largely in Japan who inherits a Tokyo-based detective agency from his long-estranged father. The first book in the series, Japantown, won the Barry Award for Best First Mystery Novel; the second, Tokyo Kill, was a finalist for a Shamus Award for Best P. I. Novel of the Year. The third book in the series, Pacific Burn, offers a potent mix of action, atmosphere, and fascinating cultural details — the perfect reading choice for your next flight to Tokyo

I had the opportunity to chat with Barry about his work and a wide range of subjects, from the aesthetics of tea bowls to the art of eating poisonous blowfish. Because who among us would not like to chat about eating poisonous blowfish?

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LISA BRACKMANN: I know that you are not an art dealer, but your knowledge really shines when you show this aspect of Brodie’s life. Do you do any collecting yourself?

BARRY LANCET: Thank you! I’ve spent a lot of time with Japanese artists and I do collect on a modest scale. Ceramics, some painting, some lacquer ware. Quality ceramics in Japan are on the level of a fine art, and the best pieces find homes in the various traditions — the tea ceremony, fine restaurants, and so on. There are millionaire potters in Japan, which becomes a plot point in Pacific Burn. The cultural specifics relating to greed are, at times, more exotic.

I was particularly interested in the tea bowls and the aesthetic behind them. I’m wondering if you could talk about that a little — there’s something about the simplicity and the deliberate imperfections that I find fascinating

Great Japanese tea bowls are a marvel, and making a great one is the Holy Grail for some artist-potters. And that’s the grail Jim Brodie seeks in Pacific Burn for his client. At their best, tea bowls carry a spiritual depth and a palpable presence. The bowls are supremely simple and yet complex in their simplicity. Call it the Zen influence of the tea ceremony. The “deliberate imperfections” are part of that simple beauty and take a great and subtly restrained artistry to pull off.

Fugu! You have a great sequence at a fugu restaurant, an establishment specializing in the extremely poisonous blowfish that only master chefs know how to prepare without killing their customers. I’ve actually had a fugu dinner. I especially loved the hot sake with the fin soaking in it.

Yes, there’s a whole mythos around the cuisine and it’s fascinating. I weave a lot of it into the narrative of Pacific Burn. Parts of the fish are poisonous, and those have to be removed carefully, without puncturing or accidentally slicing them and releasing the poison. One fugu carries enough poison to kill 30 people. It’s rare that someone dies, particularly these days, but every once in a while there is a casualty. This is not an urban legend. Nor is the story about the famous Kabuki actor who wanted to try the liver. Very fresh liver is a delicacy in Japan, but with fugu it is also where most of the poison is. He mistakenly believed he’d built up an immunity to the poison.

The sake drink is great. They take a dried fugu fin and toast it, then let it steep in the hot sake like tea leaves in hot water. It infuses the drink with an appealing smoky flavor. In Japan, I’ve done it myself at home. There is a sweet spot, and once you find it, the drink is irresistible. Fortunately, the fin is not poisonous.

I did a little research before the dinner I attended and found some great proverbs and poems about the experience: “Those who eat fugu soup are stupid. But those who don’t eat fugu soup are also stupid.

Also: “I cannot see her tonight / I have to give her up / So I will eat fugu.

I like these poems. The soup, or fugu-nabe, is delicious. So, the question is, are we foolish to have it, or foolish not to? In olden times, when eating the fish was far more dangerous, this would have verged on the philosophical. Living dangerously. Taking your life into your hands. The couplet carries this a step further, with romantic overtones. Fun stuff.

My meal was a fascinating (and delicious) experience all around. What do you think the fugu tradition says about Japanese culture, and what is your favorite fugu dish?

Fugu is one of some 30 distinct cuisines in Japan. The fact that the Japanese figured out how to safely prepare the fish is a testimony to their tradition, ingenuity, and culinary tendencies. They love to explore the intricacies of food and so many other things. Two years of study and a license are required before a chef is allowed to serve the fish to the public.

My favorite dish is the fugu tataki, if you can get it, which is flash-grilled fugu sashimi, and much better than the overrated “chrysanthemum” sashimi. Order what Brodie orders and you can’t go wrong.

In Pacific Burn, a major plot strand is Japan’s “nuclear mafia” and its role in the Fukushima disaster. Can you talk a bit about this? I am guessing that unless you are well-versed in contemporary Japanese politics or followed that story very closely, you would tend to assume that what happened in Fukushima was the unavoidable result of a natural disaster, combined, perhaps, with some bad luck.

I was in Tokyo when the disaster struck, then watched in growing alarm as the earthquake-tsunami led to the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant, which was a manmade disaster. Bungling and mismanagement caused the meltdown. After the disaster, Japan’s “nuclear mafia” stepped in and muddied the waters by choking off information to the Japanese public and the world press. The nuclear mafia is the utility, collusive government agencies, politicians, and other influential voices in key positions. Palms are greased by the utility with gifts, favors, or cash. Pacific Burn is set against the backdrop of this tragedy. Sometimes real life provides more conspiracies, cover-ups, and crimes than even a crime writer like me could think up.

Cosplay, dressing up as a favorite character in a manga, anime, or story, is a major preoccupation of Brodie’s young female sidekick. Have you cosplayed? Would you?

Have I cosplayed? I’ve done everything but. I’ve been to several comic cons in my capacity as editor, and I’ve talked to a handful of hard-core cosplayers at shops in two specialized malls in Tokyo. And I’ve seen an event or two. I understand the enthusiasm they have for it and why they enjoy it. And why many of them find it liberating. I’m more of a spectator than participant, though.

Brodie does a lot of travel between California and Tokyo. How does he deal with jetlag? And airports — any insider tips?

Go with the flow. Don’t fight it. Arrive early and bring plenty of enjoyable things to do. Books, music, magazines. Light but fun. If you’re like Brodie, a couple of art catalogs; if you’re a writer, a manuscript to work on. On the plane, enjoy yourself. If the airline has an extensive film library on demand, like some now do, check it out. Watch something you’d never normally watch. There will be rarities of interest. Have a few cocktails, but drink plenty of water. And, if you’re Brodie, try not to get into any fights.

What’s your favorite way to pass the time while waiting for a flight?

I read, write, people-watch. The opening scene of Pacific Burn came to me at Kennedy Airport out of the blue, probably because I was relaxed and thinking of other things.

I was really intrigued by the descriptions of the volcanic region of Kanbara and the idea of a “Kanbara-type personality.” Can you talk a little about this personality and the role that the distinctive landscape had in creating it?

The town of Kanbara is not well known even among the Japanese, but it’s real. The residents live under the shadow of this old volcano, and in the late 1700s an enormous eruption buried the place, just like Pompeii.

Today, on another flank of the volcano, there’s this stretch of buckled volcanic rock and towers that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. It stretches for miles. It’s alien and impenetrable. Because of this, the looming volcano, and past events, the atmosphere on the Kanbara side of the mountain is different. People are more tentative there. Quieter. Harmful gases still escape from the mountain. The children carry gas masks to school just in case.

On the other side of the mountain, and much farther away, is Karuizawa, this elegant resort town. It’s a summer playground for the rich and others looking for a holiday getaway. People there are light, breezy, outgoing. On the Kanbara side, it is much gloomier and the landscape is ragged and more unpredictable. That’s the mood I try to capture in the book.

Thank you for the great questions. And best of luck on your next fugu meal.

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Lisa Brackmann is The New York Times best-selling author of the Ellie McEnroe novels set in China.


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