The Meditations is a curated series of reflections on writing and storytelling from contributors to Going Down Swinging No. 35. This reflection comes from Jonathon Lawrence on his short story ‘Kujiragatari (Whale Story)’.
Once we have captured the animals, we drag them up the slipway and place them on the blood-letting drain, which periodically lowers into the nocturnal workers’ quarters. A team will move them off before raising it again. We spend the day harvesting the quarry. In this way we reap the waves. In this way we capture kujira.
— excerpt from ‘Kujiragatari’
Allow me to begin with a complete deviation: a couple of years ago there was an interesting fad doing the rounds on the internet. Using a program called PaulStretch, somebody took Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ (from his critically acclaimed album My World 2.0) and slowed it down by 800%, rendering it a relaxing, ambient masterpiece reminiscent of Sigur Rós. The internet went wild. Everyone clamoured to slow down more songs to render them unrecognisable. People unashamedly listened to Nicky Minaj and The Biebs for hours as background noise. It was this phenomenon which gave me the idea to play around with sound in ‘Kujiragatari’: to create a languid soundtrack of sensory details that built to some sort of climax.
Every time I sat down to write, I would put on headphones and blast Mozart’s Requiem (as much as you can blast classical music) and write along to that. Slowly it became the soundtrack of the piece. I began PaulStretching the opera, and then inserted references to it into the piece. Explaining to my friends exactly what I was writing during the process was as difficult as explaining the analogy I discovered between extremely slowed down classical music and the keening of whales. To try and put that analogy into writing was a significant challenge, but the real satisfaction came when I read the published words and thought: “did I really write that?”
There is a soundscape to ‘Kujiragatari’ (at least, to me) that only allows for silence in specific sentences: the conductor raising his baton; the calm Ichiro feels before he discovers the whale’s fate. The rest is white noise: feet slapping on metal; the screen that shines on the sailors as they sleep; the constant keening; the scraping of harpoon on bone. I’ve been told that this piece is suffocating, and I’m still not sure if that was my true intention. If I wanted to make some grand sweeping statement about that, it would be “perhaps that’s what life is – a suffocating blend of distractions from everywhere with brief, poignant silences sprinkled throughout”. If I wanted to make a less grand statement about the piece it would be “I really like anime and wanted to write something that captured that medium’s techniques”.
I always told myself while writing ‘Kujiragatari’ that I was not writing an opinion piece. Journalism was my least favourite subject at uni, and I had a sneaking suspicion that any audience who read ‘Kujiragatari’ may already have the ingrained thought that ‘whaling is bad’. And it is, don’t get me wrong! But that’s what this story started off as – a way to explore that line of thinking in a country consumed by acceptance of the practice. Yet, as the piece progressed, it also became about how we perceive and sense things in life and dreams.