Let’s Meet in a Dream

cellatrocI’ve known Shigesato Itoi’s name since about 1995, but didn’t start connecting him to other things I like until just a few years ago.

 

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Over the course of my life, there have been a few occasions where I’ve learned at a late stage that two artists I’ve long loved once worked together in some capacity. For example, had you asked me 10 years ago to name some of my favorite living authors, I’d’ve told you that David Foster Wallace was probably my favorite male author, and Mary Karr my favorite female author. They don’t seem to have anything in common, given that Wallace was a fiction writer and essayist and Karr a poet and memoirist, and I didn’t learn that the two of them had any personal connection until after Wallace’s suicide in 2008, when a piece in The New Yorker alerted me to the fact that the two of them had dated, and at one point Wallace even proposed to Karr (she declined). Similarly, as an undergrad, I did a ton of studies and wrote a bunch of papers on John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman, generally separately, as they’re both directors I’ve long admired and who I feel are more influential than even a lot of their fans want to give them credit for. But it wasn’t until years later when I saw Steve Yeager’s 2000 IFC documentary In Bad Taste that I learned Waters considered making his sequel to Pink Flamingos, entitled Flamingos Forever (the screenplay to which is collected in Trash Trio), at Kaufman’s studio Troma, as Troma was the only studio willing to produce the picture; that’s a collaboration made in Petey-head Heaven. (Waters wound up backing up because he was horrified by their editing suite, and the film never got made.)

This type of serendipitous link between people pops up infrequently at best, but there’s one figure who I’ve found in this kind of situation more than once: Shigesato Itoi. Itoi is a famous figure in Japan, known primarily these days for his Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun (which translates as “Almost Daily Itoi News”), or Hobonichi for short, and who first made his name in the early ’80s as a copywriter (at a time when doing such a thing was in vogue in Japan), coming up with catchy advertising slogans and the like. But between his more straightforward copywriting days and Hobonichi, Itoi’s done a bunch of stuff you have probably encountered, even if you don’t know his name, and in that time he managed to work with a handful of my very favorite Japanese artists—all the while being one of my favorite Japanese artists himself.

The too-small number of Americans who do automatically recognize Itoi’s name almost always know it as the creator of the classic, cultishly adored Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound, which I am pleased to say I bought (or, rather, had my mom buy for me) the week it was released in America in June 1995, and have owned ever since. Despite Earthbound’s rightfully rabid following, it is the only one of Itoi’s games to so far get a North American release; it is actually the second in a series called Mother in Japan, and was preceded by a Nintendo RPG and succeeded by a Game Boy Advance RPG. Itoi also made a couple of fishing games for the SNES and Nintendo 64, but that’s about the extent of his video game output. Well, setting aside the fact that he’s responsible for naming the Nintendo 64 in the first place (!).

Point is, I’ve known Itoi’s name since about 1995, but didn’t start connecting him to other things I like until just a few years ago. The first time this happened, I was poking around in the credits for what is probably my single favorite animated feature film of all time—Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro—and noticed that a man by the name of Shigesato Itoi provided the voice for the father character, Tatsuo, in that film. That couldn’t have been the same Itoi of Earthbound fame, could it? Indeed it is. So, he’s made one of my favorite video games of all time and provided the voice for a major role in my favorite animated movie of all time. Those are two pretty random and unrelated things for one person to have done. Not to mention the fact that he’s written the Japanese tagline for basically every Studio Ghibli film upon their release (Totoro’s was “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Probably.”), which makes more sense given his background in copywriting.

But the Miyazaki connection wasn’t the last time I found Itoi’s name turn up under unexpected circumstances. Again, in the scenario above where you ask me 10 years ago who my favorite authors are, a name toward the very top of the list would have been Japan’s Haruki Murakami, whom I’ve adored since I first read his novel Norwegian Wood back around 2003 or so. Around the time a few years back when I discovered Itoi’s involvement in My Neighbor Totoro, I started more actively researching other things he’d done, and learned quickly that he’d released dozens of books in Japan, exactly zero of which have been translated into English. (A lot of these books are collections of Hobonichi articles, but plenty more are purely original content.) One of these books is called Yume de Aimashou (translation: “Let’s Meet in a Dream”), which is a collection of short stories from 1981, half of which are written by Itoi, and the other half of which are written by none other than Haruki Murakami. Not to mention the fact that another of Itoi’s few film roles is as the professor in Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 adaptation of Norwegian Wood. Itoi’s web-like linkage to things I like borders on uncanny.

And the sad thing about this is, as stated above, it seems like virtually no Americans know who Itoi is. We can thank the internet for making it easier to find people who do, and while none of Itoi’s books have been released in the American market, fan translations of interviews with him, translations of some of the stories from Yume de Aimashou (though mostly Murakami’s stories; less frequently Itoi’s), and other like translations of his work are floating around—the best source of them is the above-linked Yomuka! WordPress blog. Maybe, with the steadily growing Earthbound fan base (especially after its Wii U Virtual Console re-release last summer), we’ll finally see some sort of official stateside release of Mother 1 and Mother 3—and wishfully thinking, other stuff could fall in line from there, not least of which would be translations of some of Itoi’s books. Until then, I’ll have to placate myself by finding all the other weird links between Itoi and Japanese cultural things I love. | Pete Timmermann

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