10 Books to Read to Understand Japan

I. In Praise of Shadows [1933] by Junichiro Tanizaki

This persuasive essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki illuminates the darkest corners of cultural and aesthetic Japan, explaining the country’s traditional preference for imperfection. Tanizaki says that there is an eerie beauty to be distilled from things that at first seem “dark”, “small” or “imperfect” (such as special charm emanating from lacquerware illuminated by candles). Those who are open to experience the imperfect and not afraid to crouch in the dark, will find that special delight. It now appears to me that Tanizaki might have also been influenced by the writings of Yoshida Kenkō, a Buddhist monk.

II. Another Kyoto [2016] by Alex Kerr & Kathy Arlyn Sokol 

In this book, Alex Kerr and Kathy Sokol capture and explain the nuances of the Japanese culture by focusing on seemingly mundane objects of the Japanese society, such as walls, gates, tatami mats and screens, opening to us a whole new way of perceiving these attributes of the Japanese culture. In Kerr and Sokol’s book, Kyoto never felt as intimate nor its most distinguishing features better explained.

III. The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives [2020] by Christopher Harding

I thought this was an exciting read, presenting Japanese history through the lives of twenty distinguished citizens, from mythical Princess Himiko (“Shaman Queen”), who lived in the year 200, to Empress Owada Masako (1963-), an intelligent, well-educated woman, but once a very unlikely contender to the title. It is possible that Harding based his book on Gen Itasaka’s 100 Japanese (People) You Should Know, and those who want to read a more linear history of Japan, can pick up Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present [2019].

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Kenkō: Medieval Japanese Buddhist Wisdom

Yoshida Kenkō (1283 – 1350) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and poet, best known for his posthumously published collection of short statements and essays known as Essays in Idleness or The Harvest of Leisure that demonstrate the essence of the Way in Buddhism, including the realisation of the Impermanence of All Things and the Transience of Life. Drawing from folklore and classics, Kenkō also provides short morality tales, pointing out the dangers of pride and greed, and advocating temperance in life and moderation in all things that are not necessities to life. He shares his thoughts on the beauty of nature, aesthetics, nostalgia, life at court, and on Japanese poetry, festivals and architecture. Most of his self-professed “ramblings” are either delightful or deeply profound and I am sharing some of them here:

It is most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met”.

In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging. Does the love of man and woman suggest only their embraces? No, the sorrow of lovers parted before they met, laments over promises betrayed, long lonely nights spent sleepless until dawn, pinning thoughts for one in some far place, a woman left sighing over past love in her tumbledown abode – it is these, surely, that embody the romance of love“.

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Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered World [1906/65] – ★★★★1/2

Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.

In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.

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A Purely Japanese Outing in London

I have recently visited a number of Japan-related sights and places in London, UK, and I thought I would share on this blog my itinerary and highlights. I apologise in advance for my sparse and inadequate photos, but I hope the post is still informative and interesting. 🎌

My first stop was the Japan Centre at 35 Panton Street, close to Leicester Square. I just love this place for all things Japanese. The shop offers not only a variety of Japanese food for sale, but also some gifts and souvenirs, including Japanese books, magazines and postcards. There is also a café inside where one can indulge in all kinds of Japanese food, from rice and ramen to matcha ice-cream. Another much bigger Japan Centre is located at the Westfield shopping centre in London and that shop is called Ichiba (市場), meaning “market” in Japanese. It also has a restaurant-café inside and plenty of Japanese merchandise. 🥢

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Puccini’s Opera: Madama Butterfly

Madama (Madame) Butterfly [1904

This is an opera by Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long, which, in turn, was inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème [1887]. In this story, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy stationed in Nagasaki marries a fifteen-year old Japanese girl from a once rich, but now impoverished family. Pinkerton is restless, fickle and is simply looking forward to romancing a pretty girl, while Cio-Cio-San (his new wife (Madame Butterfly)) seems to have taken her vows with the same zeal and devotion one takes holy orders. Pinkerton disappears shortly after the wedding, promising to return. But, will he? When the Lieutenant finally decides to return, the situation is far more complicating that either he or Madame Butterfly could imagine. First premiered in Milan in 1905, Madama Butterfly is an opera of great emotional depth and psychological insight. The beautiful music with lots of drama and touches of light charm often accentuates hope born, dashed and then re-born as Madame Butterfly tries to come to terms with her situation throughout the story, clinging desperately to her unreachable western ideal.

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Review: Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka

Fires on the Plain [1951] –  ★★★★1/2

This book review is my second contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. Winner of the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, Fires on the Plain details the experience of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines during the last months of the World War II (the Leyte island landing). This sometimes gruesome and traumatic, but vividly introspective and unputdowanable novel full of conviction is filled with psychological and philosophical insights. Drawing from his own experience of the WWII, Shōhei Ōoka wrote about the degradation, futility and meaninglessness of war through the experience of one injured and stranded soldier who gets suspended between complete despair, increasing apathy and little choice, but to commit war crimes, on the one hand, and glimpses of hope and religious visions, on the other. Plagued by contradictions and irrational thoughts, Private Tamura finds himself psychologically distancing from war horrors around him, as Ōoka makes a powerful statement on one situation where such concepts as morality or rationality no longer seem to have any meaning. Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most important anti-war novels ever written.

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Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews here and here).

I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ★★★★

This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen [1918]) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread [1918] relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov [1879], here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774] by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas [1905] by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].

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Joe Hisaishi: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) & Spirited Away (2001)

Joe Hisaishi (6 December 1950) is Japanese composer, probably best known for his music collaborations with director Hayao Miyazaki on various Studio Ghibli films. Yesterday he turned 70 years old and I think it is a perfect time to share a couple of his best-known compositions for animations: Merry-Go-Round of Life from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Name of Life from Spirited Away (2001).

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Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign

I got my idea for this post from youtuber A Little Bit of Monika who made a post recommending different Studio Ghibli films to her followers based on their zodiac (star) signs. Given the twelve star signs that exist (and their characteristics), I will also try to recommend 12 Japanese fiction books to each of the twelve star signs.

ARIES (March 21 – April 19)

Aries will always be up for an adventure and an exciting action. Therefore, Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi [1939] may be a perfect read for them because the book is all about an adventure revolving around an unlikely warrior Musashi. Being confident, courageous, energetic, as well as a natural leader, Aries could identify with the book and its characters.

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)

Taurus is stable, reliable and devoted. They can be very family-oriented, as well as appreciative of beauty and tradition. Therefore, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters [1936] could be a good read for them since they will enjoy all the practical, day-to-day intricacies and familial values/duties than the book tries to present. The Makioka Sisters takes place in Japan from the years 1936 to 1941 and focuses on one’s family’s attempts to marry off Yukiko, already a thirty year old woman who remains woefully unmarried. Given Taurus’s patience and determination, I trust them to finish the 576-page book, finding it significant.

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Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 [2009/2010] – ★★

This is going to be a very honest review of Haruki Murakami’s twelfth novel. 1Q84 is presented as a whimsical romance epic with elements of magical realism, and, in its proportion, has been linked to such extremely ambitious works as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In 1Q84, the year is 1984 and the location is Tokyo, Japan. Aomame, a thirty year old woman, becomes entangled in one strange affair involving a manuscript titled Air Chrysalis, a charity that seeks to help battered women seek revenge, and a menacing and unrelenting religious cult called Sakigake. In parallel to her story, we read the story of Tengo, a thirty year old man and Aomame’s alleged lost “love” whom she has not seen in twenty years. Tengo inexplicably gets implicated in the same affair of “another world” when he agrees to re-write Air Chrysalis. His fateful encounter with beautiful Fuka-Eri, original author of Air Chrysalis, soon makes him question his reality, as well as makes him reconsider his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, we read about the world where the so-called Little People have the upper hand and where there are two moons in the sky. Pursued by dangerous forces, will Tengo and Aomame ever meet again? The only problem with all that is that my summary sounds like it could be something far more exciting than what this book eventually delivers. In reality, the 1318-page mammoth that is 1Q84 delivers neither on its “wondrous, parallel-world” concept nor on its “star-crossed lovers” front. In all frankness, it is a tedious book which drags its feet for chapters and chapters and chapters, wasting its reader’s time. It is filled with complete meaninglessness from almost the very first chapter until the last, and from its dialogues to its character’s (almost completely sexual) activities. More than that, unfortunately, 1Q84 is also quite gaudy, ill-judged, melodramatic and pretentious. I will set out my issues with this book under the” story”, “characters”, and “author’s writing” headings, before talking about the good aspects.

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Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [1958] – ★★★★1/2

Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies [1954] by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.

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Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

the honjin murders The Honjin Murders [1973/2019] – ★★★★1/2

I am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser. Continue reading “Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo”

3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition

Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.

kitsune statuteI. Inari Shrines

Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese).  Continue reading “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition”

Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe

the silent cry The Silent Cry [1967/1988] – ★★★★★

Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through. Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe”

Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

The Memory Police Book Cover The Memory Police [1994/2019] – ★★★★★

They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings. Continue reading “Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa”

Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe

The Face of Another Book Cover The Face of Another [1964] – ★★★★★

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut). 

After enjoying The Woman in the Dunes [1962] over the summer, I have now read The Face of Another by the same author (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders). In this story, which is narrated through three notebooks (diaries), we are told of a scientist who gets facially disfigured while conducting an experiment in a laboratory, and struggles from then on to fit into the society with his disfigured face. He manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real face, but soon finds out that his problems have only just began as his personality also starts to change. There is something from Frankenstein [1823] in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [1886], something from The Invisible Man [1897], something from Steppenwolf [1927], and something from Franz Kafka and Ernesto Sabato as well, resulting in this novel being a psychologically and philosophically delicious journey into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind.  Continue reading “Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) was a Japanese painter in the late Edo period specialising in Ukiyo-e woodblock painting (he was a contemporary of Hokusai). Kuniyoshi was known for his very detailed, “full-of-action” woodblock paintings (triptychs), showing the scenes from the Japanese life, mythology (the supernatural, including monsters), as well as the actions of the samurai. Some of his paintings are very graphic and rather violent. Below are three paintings of Kuniyoshi that depict ghosts.

Kuniyoshi Painting

I. Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

The background story to this macabre print has is that there was once the war-lord Taira no Masakado (living in the 10th century) who was killed after he started a rebellion against the court at Kyoto. The daughter of Taira, Princess Takiyasha (who was also a witch), was devastated that her father was killed and the rebellion proved unsuccessful. Thus, she (positioned to the left in this print) magically summoned the ghosts of the dead rebellious soldiers of her father by reading through the magical scroll. The ghosts she summoned then took the form of one giant skeleton (Gashadokuro). On the foreground of the print, one can see the remaining plotter, as well as the leading warrior Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, trying to subdue the ghostly rebellion once again.  Continue reading “Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter during the Edo period best known for the work he created after the age of sixty. His most famous woodblock prints completed in the prevalent style of Ukiyo-e (“Picture[s] of the Floating World”) are a series of paintings Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (among which is The Great Wave). In 1831, Hokusai began a series of prints titled A Hundred Horror Stories (Hyaku-monogatari). Traditionally, Hyaku-monogatari denotes a game whereby people gather to listen to and tell ghost stories. Below, are three of the five surviving paintings in that series, presenting some of the well-known ghosts from the Japanese folklore. 

Okiku Ghost HokusaiI. A Woman Ghost Appeared From a Well (The Mansion of the Plates)

This is the depiction of the aftermath of the death of Okiku, a story that first appeared as a play Bancho Sarayashiki [1741]. There are a number of versions to this story, and in one of them, there was a beautiful servant girl Okiku who worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. The samurai wanted Okiku as his lover and tricked her into believing that one of the ten invaluable Delft plates have been lost in the household. Normally, this would result in the servant’s death, but Aoyama stated that he would not hurt Okiku if she agrees to become his lover. When Okiku refused, he killed her by throwing her down the well. The Okiku ghost depicted by Hokusai comes from the well with the purpose of tormenting her murderer, sometimes screaming after counting to nine, or trying to find the final tenth plate. Hokusai painted Okiku as was customary at that time in painting ghosts: pale faces without lower limbs.  Continue reading “Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

Kobo Abe The Woman in the Dunes The Woman in the Dunes [1962] – ★★★★★

In this deceptively simple tale, Kobo Abe paints a quietly disturbing picture of one man who finds himself in an unusual situation when he ventures to look for insects in sand dunes. The man, Niki Jumpei, misses his last bus home upon finishing his one day trip to the dunes, and some local villagers do him a favour and put him up for one night at one woman’s eccentric dwelling at the bottom of a sand pit (the only exit is by a long rope to reach the surface). Jumpei is an entomologist and a school-teacher, a man of science and reason, but nothing could prepare for him for what he is about to experience in his new strange dwelling (which has more complex arrangements that he has ever imagined). But, he will only be there for one night; right? or will he be? The man soon discovers that his innocent trip to the outskirts of one village is about to take a very absurd and horrific turn. The plot may be straightforward, but the merit of this novel still lies in the subtleties and (horrific) realisations – in the consequences which are revealed slowly to the reader (as well as to the character), enhancing the suspense and the final impact. The reader will suspend disbelief when the main character meets a woman and a community he never imagined existed, which prompts him to meditate on the meaning of life, relationships and the human nature. The Woman in the Dunes is Kobo Abe’s existentialist masterpiece.

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HYPER JAPAN Festival 2019

Hyper Japan Festival 2019 Poster

HYPER JAPAN is a festival held in London, UK twice a year to celebrate Japanese culture and all things related to Japan: from manga and Japanese video-games to traditional arts and crafts, and Japanese food. I attended this festival for the first time on Sunday 14th July, and below is the summary of my experience (apart from the official poster for HYPEP JAPAN, all pictures in this post are mine). Continue reading “HYPER JAPAN Festival 2019”

Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Shipwrecks Book Cover Shipwrecks [1982/1996] – ★★★★★

Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells a story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has a number of rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon OFune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or a curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative in nature as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one eerie desire. However, despite based almost entirely on observations, the novel is no less fascinating and is subtly powerful. It is a great read for anyone who likes unusual stories which uncover different ways of looking at life.  Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura”

Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet-Bean-Paste-cover Sweet Bean Paste [2013/2017] – ★★★★★

The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth” [Sukegawa/Watts, 2013: 33]. 

This book, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts (see also the movie trailer here), tells a story of Sentaro, a middle aged man who spends his time unenthusiastically selling dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste, to customers at the Doraharu shop, while consuming alcoholic drinks in his spare time. When an elderly woman Tokue approaches his shop and asks to work there, Sentaro first thinks it is a joke. However, Sentaro also tastes the bean paste cooked by Tokue and he is amazed by the flavours she can produce. What follows is a touching human story filled with the passion for food and the importance of appreciating small pleasures in life. Sweet Bean Paste is also so much more than a book about Japanese culinary delights and culture. It is a quietly beautiful book with the message of coming to terms with history, accepting people and recognising their talents no matter how small they may appear. Each person can contribute something to this world if others are willing to listen, learn and accept. 

Continue reading “Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa”

Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

The Decagon House Murders Cover The Decagon House Murders [1987/2015]★★1/2

This book, translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong, “was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement” [1987/2015: 228]. That movement was a revival of the traditional “logical reasoning” detective fiction in Japan that was prevalent in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s. The new movement was characterised by robot-like personages; game-like setting; and lacking literary context or significance, being purely about solving a whodunit mystery using logical reasoning. Heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939], The Decagon House Murders is about seven Japanese students who decide to stay on an isolated island not far from the main land in a mysterious Decagon House. Some months previously there occurred on the island the mysterious deaths of the owner of the property, his wife and their two servants. The students on the island are then start to be killed off in a fashion reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s famous novel. The book premise is exciting, but the book also reads like a videogame script with little character insight, context or emotion (which is intentional, but may not be for everyone), and the final solution is, arguably, too unbelievable and underwhelming. 

Continue reading “Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji”

Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

The Last Children of Tokyo CoverThe Last Children of Tokyo [2014] – ★★★★

Yoko Tawada sets her book in near-future Japan where the elderly regain their powers and live beyond one hundred years old, while the young become weak and sickly. Everyone is concerned in the story because, due to some catastrophe, “the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined” [Tawada, 2014: 14]. The central characters are an old man called Yoshiro and an orphaned boy named Mumei. While Yoshiro is the very definition of health and vigour at his age of one hundred plus, his great-grandson Mumei is feverish, vitamin-deficient, and in the course to face a slow death. This short dystopian novella, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is both beautiful and unsettling, and is a fascinating read, even though most of the time it reads like an essay on some highly imaginative dystopian future, rather than like a story with a linear plot.  Continue reading “Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada”