I. Opus [1995/96] by Satoshi Kon – ★★★★
I am a huge admirer of Japanese director Satoshi Kon (1963-2010). In his animations Perfect Blue , Millennium Actress  and Paprika , he created worlds that fuse reality and fantasy, playing with such concepts as memory, identity and perception. Opus is his manga work that was released before his first animated debut, and it also mixes up reality and make-believe to a curious effect. In this story, Chikara Nagai is a manga artist who is creating a manga series titled Resonance. One of his characters is special agent Satoko who has telepathic powers and who is set to bring down the leader of a mysterious cult known only as the Masque, who, in turn, has a goal to “brainwash” the Earth’s population. Nagai draws the ending to his manga instalment, but then realises that one of his characters does not want to submit to his sad fate, as Nagai’s real-life and fantasy worlds collide. This is a tale of a creator who “lives and breathes” his work, and, in consequence, is becoming lost in his own creation (similar to A-ha’s music video Take on Me), but the focus is also the characters, who all start to experience an existential crisis.
Continue reading “Japanese Graphic Novels: Opus, The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, & The Solitary Gourmet” →
The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).
“Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).
Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.
Continue reading “Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō” →
How Do You Live? [1937/82/2021] – ★★★★★
This classic Japanese YA book is now being adapted into an animation by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away (2001)) since it was his favourite childhood book. This story focuses on naturally inquisitive high-school student Junichi Honda (nicknamed “Copper”) and his three friends: quiet Mizutani, outspoken Kitami and kind Uragawa. With his uncle acting as a guide, Copper learns important life lessons and discovers things that would enable him to become a better human being in future. We are shown little episodes in Copper’s life as the boy starts to understand the importance of friendship, kindness, thankfulness and acceptance, and the wrongs of bullying, cowardice and discrimination. Often compared to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince , How Do You Live? is an unforgettable book with a heart and a soul.
Continue reading “Review: How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino” →
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.
Continue reading “Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki” →
Fires on the Plain  – ★★★★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.
Continue reading “Review: Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka” →
A is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie  by Kathryn Harkup – ★★★★★
When it comes to morbidly-curious books, it does not get better that this book. The author takes a deep look into all the poisons that Agatha Christie used in her books to “kill off” her “victims”, and the result is a read that both fascinates and informs – Full Review.
Doctor Glas [1905/1963] by Hjalmar Söderberg – ★★★★1/2
“Truth is like the sun, its value depends wholly upon our being at a correct distance away from it” [Söderberg/Austen, 1905/1963: 138].
This little novel is a Swedish classic written in a diary form from the perspective of one dutiful doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas. He is a rather lonely and introverted individual who is used to handle expertly the delicate matters of city inhabitants. That is, until he meets the charming wife of one “repulsive” priest Rev. Gregorius. As he gets entangled in the affairs of this couple, the doctor also starts rethinking his stance on life and his thoughts turn darker. Soon, torn between his medical ethics and objective morality on the one hand, and his rising sense of injustice and romantic emotions on the other, Doctor Glas is quite ready to commit the unthinkable. Deemed highly controversial upon its release in 1905, this tale of obsession, suppressed emotions, sexual frustration and jealousy is now rightly considered to be a national classic. Existential angst and hidden psychological torments mingle ominously within the pages, with the author making a sober, but surprisingly potent statement on the power of the unconscious in human actions and condition.
Continue reading “September 2020 Wrap-Up: From A is For Arsenic to 1Q84” →
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  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  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.
Continue reading “Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign” →
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.
Continue reading “Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami” →
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  – ★★★★1/2
Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies  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.
Continue reading “Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe” →
The Silent Cry [1967/88] – ★★★★★
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.
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. Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe” →
I have not posted a book tag this year, so I thought I would participate in one. The Wanderlust Book Tag was created by Alexandra from Reading by Starlight, and everyone is free to participate.
I. Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town
Still Life by Louise Penny is a detective story and a debut set in a small town called Three Pines in Canada. Another detective thriller-debut which is set in sleepy small town is The Dry by Jane Harper. That one is set in a small fictional town called Kiewarra, Australia.
II. Salt and sand: a book with a beach-side community
Jaws  by Peter Benchley is a book that popped into my head first, but I think I will settle for a coastal community in Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. This is a story about a poor fishing village in Japan that desperately wants and tries to attract shipwrecks to its coast so that villagers can survive. Continue reading “The Wanderlust Book Tag” →
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” →
I decided to create this tag because I read a lot of books translated from a foreign language, and sometimes I read books in Spanish and Russian. In my blog, I often try to bring attention to books translated from another language and there are many gems to discover in this category. I am not tagging anyone and everyone is free to participate.
I. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone:
Silence by Shūsaku Endō (translated from the Japanese)
It is easy to choose some Russian classic here, but I thought I would bring attention to this novel by Shūsaku Endō. This 1966 historical fiction novel tells of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan in the 17th century at the time when Christians were persecuted. This powerful novel explores many themes, including the strength and limits of faith and belief, betrayal, and religion vs. particular culture and history. There is also a movie of the same name directed by Martin Scorsese, who is probably the world’s biggest fan of this book. Continue reading “The Translated Literature Tag” →
The Woman in the Dunes  – ★★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe” →
Shipwrecks [1982/96] – ★★★★★
Yoshimura’s observational novel is fascinating and subtly powerful, uncovering a different way of looking at life.
Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells the 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 numerous rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon O–Fune-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 curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one strange, but understandable desire. Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura” →