In the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business, author Denis Johnson wrote a short piece about growing up in Tokyo. when his father worked for the State Department. Johnson rarely writes about his personal life, so readers will appreciate this insight into the way his childhood shaped his writing:
I’m sure there were many aspects of those early years in Japan that still work themselves out in my writing, but what comes to mind most immediately is the impact I felt from studying the images on Menko cards and on the posters for Japanese films and for Kabuki–the wild, grotesque images of monsters and dramatic figures.
I truly believe that behind the human characters in my work, or within them, is a soul that looks like the Japanese ghosts and monsters that frightened me when I was a child. On days when I stayed late at school on the Washington Heights United States military base, I went home on the local bus that stopped about five blocks from the compound where we lived in Roppongi. I dreaded the experience, because I’d step down from the bus a little after dark, and I’d be forced to walk past a couple phone poles on my way, to which movie posters were affixed. As I approached the posters I’d avert my eyes, but I could never resist–I would turn my gaze on the monsters and let them scare me to the point of trembling.
The funny thing is that when my parents took me to see Kabuki a couple of times, the show wasn’t nearly as scary as the posters were. I felt that, too, when I finally got up the courage to go see one of the movies. I went by myself, and I didn’t expect to survive the experience, I believed I’d be friend to the point of heart failure. But in fact, the images on the screen didn’t flow with gore, and there weren’t a lot of people wandering around headless–nothing so scary as the advertisements….