To provide a gross precis of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of story, the hero fights to achieve their quest, wins and returns home changed from the attempt.[1] This ‘quest’ framework looks forward, but there are those of us who are unable to set forth because the ropes of regret hold us back. Raymond Chandler understood this, because his detectives were conflicted by the daily reminders of human degradation.[2] The betrayals, the moral compromises, the innocence lost; so overcome by the complications of life, his people were unable to continue the quest. This darker reading of humanity has always been attractive. Perhaps Raymond Chandler was following a more Aristotelian tracing, in which a person may try to avoid their fate, but ultimately, is beaten by what, deep down, they knew would come to pass. This pessimism may seem a twentieth century thing, but in truth, is a kind of human curse. Is it the origin of the Christian birthmark of sin absolved by the grace of god?

Book cover with film release, 1946.

Though at times I’ve tried not to, I write stories with a moral compass. Stories with obsessive characters, with desires and wicked or random complications, but above all, my stories start with a germ…in the sense that stories unwind from a single idea. So, walking the Napier Street Fitzroy of the 2010’s, past the Edwardian-arched kindergarten I went past the spot where my father leaned over the terrace balcony, actor’s voice silencing a child’s frantic cries of I don’t want to go, the spot where he ordered me to Stop that nonsense Matthew~~~ and get to school; searching suddenly familiar gutters for discarded notes, flicking through the scrapbook of my reminiscences, I recalled a newspaper article about a veteran of the Pacific War who was returning a Japanese soldier's sword fifty years after he took it. I remembered the picture of an ordinary man, someone that had come home from the unspeakable horrors of the jungles to a hero’s welcome, and someone who had been instructed not to share the experience because no one would understand such degradation. And in the picture capturing the moment the artefact is passed between ex-soldier and son of ex-soldier, after half a century a possession was returned that had been an instrument of misery and was thereby, somehow, transformed into an object of redemption.

Art sometimes describes a wrong made right, and by extension, the wish that the wrong were never done. A curse story is based on this germ of morality–do not do this or else… the ‘or else’ bit is the curse. It’s a warning of dire misfortune that in these desperate times of war, greed, corruption, self-serving bastardy, pandemic and environmental disaster attention to the lessons of the past must be paid. Up to then, mainly I’d written plays which concerned betrayals long hidden. It's strong with me, I have a thing with fidelity. And wandering Fitzroy lanes, I think I was trying to bust out, trying to step away from the fractured tales of past wrongs causing present ill–maybe I was looking for Campbell’s square-jawed youngster, naïve to the terrible ills the world was yet to show. Poor fool… I walked through the author's forest of plots in a circle back to whence I had come. Because the germ had already attached to an object, an artefact, weighed down with wrongdoing, returned unhealed; what else could this story concern but the pain of hideous memories wrinkled in the fake smile of the old man in the newspaper photograph.​​​​​​​

Young Man and Woman Caught in the Rain while Enjoying Cherry Blossoms: Suzuki Harunobu ca. 1768–70

I worked in Japanese theatre from the early nineties and from the naughts spoke Japanese in surrealist vaudeville style tent shows. Which is why news of the return of a wartime sword was a little more appealing… but a sword? It recalled too much of cartoons, of American dubbing, far-away stares and poorly disguised rope tricks like the afterschool adventure series Shintaro the Samurai.[3] It was around the time of my Fitzroy wanderings that the National Gallery of Victoria showed some of their archive of ukiyoe—or Japanese woodblock prints
​​​​​​​Step back a little; at the Royal Easter Show in 1974, though cautioned by the attendant not to splatter the paint, I won the art prize because I produced a Jackson Pollock-like render of the Easter fireworks. Pollock’s very abstract Blue Poles was bought in 1973 by art dealer Max Hutchison and approved by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and despite that the population was still furious with the one-point-three million spent on paint drips, the adjudicators must surely have seen me as the next incarnation.[4] At that time, my hobby was horse riding. So when we went to the Sydney Morning Herald office to have our pictures taken, I saw the second-prize girl's horses water coloured at a gallop across her bright butcher's paper and understood the feeling of imposter syndrome. It might not have been my first intersubjective moment of art-viewing, but it will do to describe the spark that ignited a life-long appreciation of the render of real-world in two-dimensional space mediated by the artist. After seeing the NGV ukiyoe exhibit, I decided to swap out the Australian veteran’s stolen Japanese sword for a Japanese wood cut.[5] It was a kind of germ engineering. I recall writing into the early hours… of cherrywood and ghosts-past, carvers and artists; of the spirit of the wood, of sakura (cherry trees) of Japanese animism, of kimono, of love found, abused and lost.​​​​​​​

Jackson Pollock: Blue Poles, 1952. Photo: Nataional Gallery of Australia

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, before 1927. Photo: unknown.

By that stage I had met Kim Sujin, the Korean Japanese theatre director of Shinjuku Ryozanpaku, who welcomed me into the company rehearsal room under the railway arches with a run-through of The Legend of the Flying Dragon in progress, bookshelves shaking in the cramped space as the trains passed overhead. [6] It was a story arising from childhood memories carried within the power of a river stone suspended in a cord cradle from the vibrating roof. Over the time of writing The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood I worked on theatre projects in Tokyo, Korea and Australia with the company, lived at their base a few stops from Shinjuku for a time, it was a cultural apprenticeship unlike the more usual foreign English tutor’s. Underground bunkers, knee to chin watching wild stories dripping with symbol, innuendo and thick puns. So the cultural theatre history received from my father's post-war experience at the excellent but very British Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was channelled into a Japanese theatre tradition at least equally as long. My writing gained influence from various writers. First of all my favourite, Akutagawa Ryunosuke and his mentor Soseki Natsume who wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. They are both considered as the first contemporary Japanese novelists. In more recent times, Murakami Haruki and Ishiguro Kazuo have both introduced me to the possibility that fantastic realities are real-life concerns viewed from unusual standpoints. ​​​​​​
My first experience performing speaking Japanese in Tokyo was in Kara Juro's play, ai no kojiki (Beggar's Love) at Shinjuku Ryozanpaku. That residency was supported by Australia's Asialink. Impersonating Japanese characters in the circumstances of post-war through to the 1970's provided me with invaluable experience and a concerted approach to research. My novel travelled Melbourne to Tokyo with a foot in a tent theatre and another in the gritty world of yakuza (Japanese organised crime). As is my way, the pen scribbled over the page without pause for days and I think within a week I had written an eighty-page manuscript; the sword was a part, but a hanga (wood block), was the object that carried ancient betrayal. That was ten years and three books ago. The time has been spent travelling from the present tense of that first manuscript, in which an Australian cop and a Japanese yakuza were entangled, forwards toward unavoidable fates. At the same time, my attention receded across generations in search of origins, as far back as the tenth century when the last Empress of Japan reigned. I became my story's detective, finding the roots of the trouble one generation, another generation before, tracing back along unstable tablets of consequence until I found the original crime.
I still think of that long afternoon spent wandering the laneways of Fitzroy. When I set out that day I had no idea that I went to kindergarten on Napier street–I literally chanced upon the front arch and recognised a part of my past buried there–this must have been the place I thought; and continued up the street to where I would therefore find the place my father’s booming voice commanded me to set off. After all, maybe I’m Campbell’s hero, and my quest is the story itself.

[1] Craig Batty, ‘Are You Monomythic? Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey’, The Conversation, 26 June 2014,
[2] Raymond Chandler, ‘The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler’, 1946,
[3] The Samurai Shintaro 隠密剣士・・カラオ.Kills the Eagle of the Koga Ninjas, 2013,
[4] Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952, 1952,
[5] For a nice ukiyo-e discussion: Mae Anna Pang, ‘Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Mass Medium | NGV’, Art Gallery, NGV, 16i 2014,
[6] ‘Shinjuku Ryozanpaku Web Site. 新宿梁山泊 公式サイト’, accessed 14 February 2024,
Batty, Craig. ‘Are You Monomythic? Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey’. The Conversation, 26 June 2014.
Chandler, Raymond. ‘The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler’, 1946.
Pang, Mae Anna. ‘Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Mass Medium | NGV’. Art Gallery. NGV, 16i 2014.
Pollock, Jackson. Blue Poles. 1952.
‘Shinjuku Ryozanpaku Web Site. 新宿梁山泊 公式サイト’. Accessed 14 February 2024.
The Samurai Shintaro 隠密剣士・・カラオ.Kills the Eagle of the Koga Ninjas, 2013.​​​​​​​

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