Books about Japan : new Angry White Pyjamas ; Dave Barry Does Japan ; the Electric Geisha ; Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan ; Japan - an Attempt at Interpretation ; Japanese Street Slang ; new Japan Edge ; the Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto ; Learning To Bow ; Looking For The Lost ; new Lost Japan , Pictures From the Water Trade ; Roads To Sata ; new Thank You And OK ; new Tokyo Underworld , new We Are Nippon.
Japanese fiction (by non-Japanese) : Audrey Hepburn's Neck ; Kwaitan ; new My Year of Meat , new Obasan , new Snow Falling On Cedars , new Tokyo Sucker Punch , Turning Japanese .
Japanese fiction : the African Bomb , After School Keynotes , Almost Transparent Blue , Arsene Lupin , Bedtime Tales , Botchan , Castaways , A Cat a Man and Two Women , Coin Locker Babies , Confessions of a Mask , Dance Dance Dance , the Decay of the Angel ; Dear Monkey , Deep River , First Snow On Fuji , Gaku Stories , new the Genius Bakabon , The Green, Green Grapes of Home , Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World , Hear the Wind Sing , the House of the Sleeping Beauties , new I Am A Cat , Jack and Betty Forever , Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination , new the Journey , Kitchen , Kokoro , the Makioka Sisters , Monkey Brain Sushi , Musashi , new Naomi , Napoleon Crazy , No Longer Human , Norwegian Wood , A Personal Matter , Pinball 1973 , Points and Lines , Quicksand , River of Fireflies , Runaway Horses , the Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea , Salamander , the Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan , new Sayonara , the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy , Silence , 69 , Snow Country , South of the Border West of the Sun , the Spider's Thread , Spring Snow , the Temple of Dawn , the Temple of the Golden Pavilion , Thirst For Love , new Tokyo Sucker-Punch , Totto-chan - the Little Girl at the Window , Trash , Vita Sexualis , Wildcat and the Acorns , A Wild Sheep Chase , the Woman of the Dunes .
Authors : Abe Kobo , Isaac
Adamson , Akutagawa Ryonosuke , Atoda
Takashi , Dave Barry , Alan Booth (2 books), Alan Brown , David
Chadwick , Peter Constantine , Dazai Osamu , Edogawa Ranpo , Endo Shusaku
(2 books), Bruce S. Feiler , David Galef
, Karl Taro Greenfeld , David
Guterson , Hayashi Mariko ,
Lafcadio Hearn/Koizumi Yakumo ( fiction
1 book/ non-fiction 2 books), Ibuse
Masuji (2 books), Pico Iyer , Kawabata Yasunari (3 books), Alex Kerr , Joy Kogawa , Kuroyanagi Tetsuko , Maurice
LeBlanc , Matsumoto Seicho , James A. Mitchner , Mishima
Yukio (9 books), Miyamoto Teru , Miyazawa Kenji , Mori Ogai
, Osaragi Jiro , Ruth Ozeki
, Simon Moran, Mori Yoko , John David Morley , Murakami Haruki (7 books), Murakami Ryu (3 books), Natsume
Soseki (2 books), Oe Kenzaburo , Shiina Makoto , Shimizu
Yoshinori , Tanizaki Junichiro (4
books), Tsutsui Yasutaka , Robert Twigger , Arthur Whaley
, Robert Whiting , Yamada Amy
(2 books), Yoshikawa
Eiji , Yoshimoto
Banana , various authors ( fiction / non-fiction ).
note: Japanese family names are written first here, as is the Japanese style, and alphabetized accordingly.
There are tons of books about Japan in
English, possibly more than any other Asian country besides India.
Japanese books are also fairly widely translated. Recently non-Japanese
writers have been even writing books set in Japan. There seems to have
been a boom in pulp fiction novels set in Japan right after the climactic
success of James Clavell's Shogun (a book I have not read yet) but since
that is over it is the resilient and dedicated few that have remained. A
wide range of Japanese subjects have been looked at: Japanese martial arts,
crafts, film, etc. I will focus on general fiction and non-fiction
writing, leaving out coffee-table books altogether - just go to the book store
and flip through a few of those, I don't think a review here will benefit
anyone. The largest section here is the one on Japanese fiction
. Japanese novelists are somewhat under-appreciated outside of
Japan. This is ironic, considering the fact that Japanese readers are
very aware of major writers from any other countries in the world due to the
fact that so many of them have been translated into Japanese. There
are several worthwhile Japanese writers whose books will reward the efforts of
curious readers: Mishima Yukio , Murakami Ryu , Murakami
Haruki , Kawabata Yasunari , Endo Shusaku
, Edogawa Ranpo , Tanizaki Junichiro , Akotagawa Ryonosuke , Abe Kobo , and many others. Unfortunately,
many of these writers books still remain untranslated or are out of
print. Among the modern writers, Murakami Haruki is fairly well
represented, since nearly a dozen of his books have found their way into
English-language print. Fans of Murakami Ryu, on the other hand, are not
so lucky - only three of his 40-plus novels have been translated.
Note: I have usually retained Japanese nomenclature throughout (family name first, given name second). Thus "Yukio Mishima" is written Mishima Yukio.
Books about Japan are either very good or just awful. The best have been written by Lafcadio Hearn and Bruce S. Feiler and they're great. Alan Booth is also highly recommended by others but not necessarily by me. Alex Kerr, although a bit grumpy and esoteric, has also written a great book. The worst books about Japan have been by Dave Barry, John David Morley, and Pico Iyer... and they're pretty bad!
Dave Barry Does Japan - by Dave Barry. I had no reason to read this book other than idle curiousity, just as anyone else should. I didn't really find it very funny at all, although other people who reviewed it on the internet claimed to have suffered stomach pains from laughing so hard. Some of those people thought he hit the nail on the head in his descriptions of Japan and the Japanese time after time, I thought he only made 2 or 3 astute observations in the whole book. Wisely, he lays his cards on the table right away - the publishing company gave me a lot of money to write about something I know nothing about, ha ha. If you want to really learn something about Japan, you shouldn't read this book. So why would anyone think Dave has anything more to say? He makes fun of all of the obvious things, like raw fish, sumo, karaoke, and other things. Neither sumo nor karaoke is awful, but if you know nothing about either except what you read in this pamphlet then you'll have an opinion of sorts. Stupidity.
Looking For The Lost - by Alan Booth. Booth's last book, published posthumously in 1995 two years after his death, follows three of Booth's walking tours around Japan. These shorter books are different in some ways from the longer study Booth wrote in 1977 called Roads To Sata (see below) when he walked the entire length of Japan. While Roads To Sata tends to be both a travelogue and a (somewhat distasteful) commentary on the nature of the Japanese people, in Looking For The Lost Booth finds a theme to each of his journeys and writes his travelogue around it. In "Tsugaru," Booth wanders around Aomori prefecture in the north of Honshu following the route that dissipated Japanese author Dazai Osamu chronicled in his own travelogue of 1943. Along the way he makes interesting observations on Dazai's place in Japanese literature, and through anecdotes on his low worth as a human being as well. The threads of the adventure, with the context that it is placed well, are woven skillfully by Booth, and it is easy to see how he has matured as a writer since his 1977 work, which I honestly didn't enjoy. "Saigo's Last March" works similarly with the march of Meiji era patriot Saigo Takamori in his final rebellious stand in Kyushu. Full of historical context and anecdotes, as well as current perspective on modern Japan, Booth illustrates his hike through Kyushu engagingly. "Looking For The Lost," the final book, recounts a wander through Aichi prefecture near Nagano on a loose quest for the lost tribes of Heike, who were scattered after losing a civil war in the 12th century. All around an enjoyable and educational read, Looking For The Lost is one of the better books I have read about Japan.
Roads To Sata - by Alan Booth. From the 1977 pan-Japan wander of Alan Booth, considered by some the premier Japan observer of recent years, when the author spent five summer and autumn months wandering down the spine of Japan from its northernmost point at Cape Soya in Hokkaido, to its southernmost tip at Cape Sata - much to the great disbelief of anyone he talked to during the course of this epic journey. Booth describes the conditions of his trip, particularly rainy days, the mood of many of the towns he passes through, turns his nose up at the industrial and fero-concrete wastelands he skirts around, and portrays a lot of local color. He also caps each of his hundred-odd days on the road with copious amounts of beer. Toward the end of the book it becomes obvious that he is getting fed up of walking up to forty kilometers a day, fed up with answering the same childish questions, encountering the same "only Japan has four seasons" naivete repeatedly, as well as the constant "sorry, no vacancy (for foreigners)" and "as a foreigner you surely can't eat Japanese food/use chopsticks/sleep on a futon" ignorance. Although he manages to edit out some of his grouchiness at the beginning of his book, it saturates the pages toward the end of the book and actually becomes quite tiresome. Living in a foreign culture is never easy, but reading endless joyless gripes isn't much fun either. A bit more humor would instead of endless pithy irony might have helped me enjoy the book more. A nice travelogue, but no real insights.
Thank You And OK - by David Chadwick. David Chadwick was a 40-something divorced ex-hippy Zen practitioner who one day found himself in Kyoto in a Zen monastery on a strict Zen study meditation regimen, observing Japanese life, temple politics, inner Zen contemplation, and all the while working as an English teacher, getting married to his younger American girlfriend, and having a baby. When I first picked up this book and read the opener and a chapter or two I found it rather flaky and difficult to enjoy. Next time I picked it up I fell right into it and enjoyed it thoroughly, no longer able to remember (or find) what it was that had turned me off initially. Very well written, yet light book that avoids the trap of making silly conjecture about “the nature of the Japanese” or “such a deep society, they are so different from us,” more often making the assertion that “for better or for worse, people are people and just pretty much the same wherever you go.” Excellent. See if you can find it and read it!
Japanese Street Slang - by Peter Constantine. This book is less of a language guide... and more of a sociological breakdown of scum and lechery. There is some attempt to explain grammar and syntax, but try to imagine a kid in Beirut jumping into the English language with a copy of the Catcher in the Rye . As other reviewers have said, it is the precision of the translations that carries the most fascination - they are creative and lewd. I can only speculate how the writer got a hold of the source material of gamblers, junkies, hitmen and pimps. I hope it was from watching too many yakuza movies. Unfortunately, given the nature of slang, most of these terms are already out of fashion. Somebody should update this guide every couple of months.
Learning To Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan , by Bruce S. Feiler. Bruce S. Feiler came to Japan to study Japanese and then went off to the countryside to spend some time teaching in Japanese schools and using the school system as an eyepiece to view Japanese society through. This was a very shrewd movie, since ideally every person in Japan has passed through a school similar to his. The book is divided into 24 chapters, all of which have something or other to do with the Japanese school system, but which sometimes telescope out to cover society as a whole. Feiler often structures a chapter in the same way - beginning with a personal anecdote, then going into an explanatory passage that offers some sociological or historical context, before winding up the chapter ironically with a lesson taught by the subject in question. After a while it becomes obvious that the personal anecdotes will invariably be more like parables than true accounts of something that happened to him, but even so they rarely ring false - he obviously kept a through diary while he was here and drew from it while writing. Throughout the book, several characters are introduced and we learn a lot about them - enough to care about them as individuals. For a person who has lived in Japan for over three years, also teaching in schools, I found Feiler had a very succinct and accurate way of explaining how Japanese society runs functionally like a well-oiled machine and he even explained a few things that I was unaware of! Feiler's writing is interesting and tactful, to-the-point and on-the-ball, it was always easy to read and infinitely better than Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk and John David Morley's insipidly vacuous Pictures From the Water Trade , the latter of which Feiler ironically seems to be recommending in his "Further Reading" glossary at the back of the book. Read this book before you read any other books about Japan, especially if you plan to teach here. This book makes a good companion piece to Speed Tribes , which makes similar-minded observations of Japan through its counter-cultures. Both are highly recommended over other books in this section.
Speed Tribes , by Karl Taro Greenfeld. A chapter-by-chapter snapshot collection of various Japanese subcultures. Portrayed in semi-fictionalized third-person views are yakuza-connected money-lenders, bosozoku motorcycle gangsters, motorcycle thieves, porn stars, single women, star students, a Japanese-born Korean drug dealer, right wing organizers, a foreign hostess, a Shibuya cool kid, and a computer nerd. The book is classified "current events/Japan" and not "fiction", but reading the portraits one is always left wondering how much of it is real. Similarly, the "some events have been fictionalized for the benefit of the narrative" caveat at the beginning of books like "the Killing Fields" always makes the reader wonder just which events were fictionalized. Nevertheless, the portrayals are all very well written, interesting and at times ironic, with appropriate background information and perspective. Having been written just at the end of the collapse of the bubble economy, which the Japanese economy has yet to recover from, makes its information still relevant and not-yet dated. Greenfield is an interesting and compelling writer. This book makes a good companion piece to Learning To Bow , which makes similar-minded observations from the point-of-view of a teacher working in the Japanese school system. Both are highly recommended over other books in this section.
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan , by Lafcadio Hearn/Koizumi Yakumo. One of the earliest introductions to Japan still in print today. Lafcadio Hearn came to Japan over a hundred years ago to teach English, and this book is his collection of his "just off the boat" first impressions of the land that would enchant him so much he would practically become as Japanese as he could, by marrying a Japanese woman and taking a Japanese name ( Koizumi Yakumo, the name Japanese people who have heard of know him by) and going underground for anthropological research. The essays found here discuss Buddhism, shrines and temples, Japanese toys, disappearing Japanese traditions (even then), Jizo Buddhist saints, and others. Some of the writing is quite heavy stylistically, but it truly represents an unfamiliar Japan, particularly when he talks about how cheap everything is - I don't think Japan has been considered a cheap Asian country for the past 30 years. Most satisfying point must be its distance from World War II baggage - this book was written in a much more innocent age.
Japan - an Attempt at Interpretation , by Lafcadio Hearn/Koizumi Yakumo. Essays introducing Japan by one of the best and earliest chroniclers of Japan, this book is a fascinating read despite the awkward title and the fact that it was written about a century ago. Covering subjects such as the Japanese family, an introduction to Buddhism, higher Buddhism, feudal integration, including also a foreword and afterword, it is interesting to see where some of his assessments of Japan and the Japanese character still hold up today, despite the fact that he was writing of a Japan that had not suffered defeat in the Second World War. At the the time of his writing, Japan was in the middle of a war with Russia - a war it would win - and Hearn writes of the stupidity of war. At the same time, he clearly supports the Japanese unconditionally and vents his spleen on Christian missionaries whose stubbornly unflinching role it is to destroy Japanese culture in the name of God. Some of his writing may at times be murky and dated and bizarrely romantic. He writes about Japanese women: "...the Japanese woman does not seem to belong to the same race as the Japanese man! Perhaps no such type of woman will appear again in this world for a hundred thousand years: the conditions of industrial civilization will not admit of her existence. The type could not have been created in any society shaped on modern lines, nor in any society where the competitive struggle takes those unmoral forms with which we have become too familiar. Only a society under extraordinary regulation and ergimentation, - a society in which all self-assertion was repressed, and self-sacrifice made a universal obligation, - a society in which personality was clipped like a hedge, permitted to bud and bloom from within, never from without, - in short, only a society founded upon ancestor-worship, could have produced it. It has no more in common with the humanity of this twentieth century of ours - perhaps very much less - than has the life depicted upon old Greek vases. Its charm is the charm of a vanished world - a charm strange, alluring, indescribable as the perfume of some flower of which the species became extinct in our Occident before the modern languages were born. Transplanted successfully it cannot be: under foreign suns its forms revert to something altogether different, its colors fade, its perfume passes away." Regarding Japan's curious mix of rigid tradition with the eager embrace of futuristic enterprise: "[Japan] affords us the amazing spectacle of an Eastern society maintaining all the outward forms of Western civilization; using, with unquestionable efficiency, the applied science of the Occident; accomplising, by prodigious effort, the work of centuries within the time of three decades, - yet sociologically remaining at a stage corresponding to that which, in ancient Europe, preceded the Christian era by hundreds of years." Regarding the future he is gloomy: "Nations that, while refusing to endure religious intolerance at home, steadily maintain religious intolerance abroad, must eventually lose those rights of intellectual freedom which cost so many centuries of atrocious struggle to win. Perhaps the period of the penalty is not very far away. With the return of all Europe to militant conditions, there has set in a vast ecclesiastical revival of which the menace to human liberty is unmistakable; the spirit of the Middle Ages threatens to prevail again; and anti-semitism has actually become a factor in the politics of three Continental powers..." Interesting, Mr. Hearn, even a century later.
the Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto , by Pico Iyer. A beautifully written book, very well thought out. Nevertheless I have to admit finally that I hated it. Pico Iyer has written a book about a lady, a monk, and Kyoto. This should not be mistaken for a book about Japan and the Japanese, it is just a book about what went on in Pico Iyer's pointy little head while he was in Kyoto and his quizzical way of looking at things. Almost everything he writes is fruity and twee, if it is not nutty and wry. He meets a wacky housewife and she introduces him to her town, her country, her insecurities and hopes and dreams... she also seems like a bit of a stalker. He furrows his brow and scratches his head making empty observations that in the end are... much sound and fury that signifies nothing (and he's always paraphrasing the classics of literature like I just did as an example, which drives me nuts!). For example, one of the deep observations that he includes in his book is that in Japanese the words for "love" and "grief" sound the same, which may explain why Japanese enjoy sorrow, or are sorrowful in their enjoyment of things (which doesn't just sound ridiculous - it is just totally ridiculous!). Besides being only partly true, this is also something no Japanese person would ever stop to think about; it also has nothing to do with the price of sushi. To use an example in the English language, we can say that books are read, but we don't associate reading with the color red, even though it is undeniable that "read" and "red" are homonyms. Another thing that irritated me was his long recreations with his Japanese muse, Satchiko the deep housewife, the woman who on one hand is interested in tea ceremony and on the other hand is a devoted fan of the "mysterious" Norwegian pop gorup A-ha (A-ha?!?!). So she's contradictory, contrary, and complicated. Is she interesting to read about constantly? I say no. I wonder how Iyer could recall their conversations well enough to reproduce them faithfully and endlessly. Satchiko's tortured grammar is almost as uninteresting to follow as her sad, idealistic and enigmatic pronouncements. Is she the same mental age as her teenage children? One of the many things he fixates on is the idealistic stillness of Zen Buddhism, which is in fact interesting to me, because although I have met a bunch of different foreigners who have come to Japan for various reasons I have yet to meet any who have come here specifically to study Zen. I'd like to meet some of these people that Iyer writes about. But although Iyer himself seems to be very interested in Zen, his book is not really about Zen either. Apparently, near the end of his stay in Japan the house he was living in burned down to the ground, and the only thing that he could save was the manuscript to this book. Gee, kinda makes you think, doesn't it? I think it would have been pretty Zen if he had let it burn with the rest of the house, and he'd just saved his Bruce Springsteen tapes instead. Read this book if you must, but there are scores of better books than this, starting with the next book, Learning To Bow ...
Lost Japan – by Alex Kerr. Shucks – I wrote a review of this book just after I read it, but now I can’t find it and will start again before the trail gets too cold, as I’ve already given this excellent book away to a friend who has lived in Japan for nearly ten years who I am sure will enjoy it immensely. Alex Kerr is an extremely talented writer who has led an incredibly interesting life (or many lives!) in Japan as a scholar, art collector, sentimentalist, businessman, and just all-around cultured guy. Besides being interesting himself, he seems to have interesting friends, among them great kabuki actors, legendary art collectors, and master craftsmen! His dozen-or-so essays on the country make for compelling reading, and rarely get too heavy. Some essays are burdened down by a sentimental tone where he mourns the Japan that has been lost forever (architecture, medieval farming practices, etc.) in the way of progress, but who can fault the Japanese for wanting to live in the present era? Many can fault them for hemming the rivers in concrete at their mouthes, but in a land of refined landscaping who can really say what a foothold man really has on nature, or how lasting it can really be. Nature will reclaim it all once we are gone, that’s the only sure thing. Read this book before the others!
Pictures From the Water Trade - by John David Morley. (note: the water trade is the Japanese term for the entertainment world) Morley, who was once the tutor to the children of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is now authorized to explain Japan to us. He introduces his main character Boon, an Englishman in Japan, and allows him to learn about Japan, not to mention ponder it utterly. He ponders and ponders and ponders. This book had no narrative and no character study. Even the name Boon is some sort of clumsy metaphysical pun in connection with the Japanese language. Morley merely uses the character of "Boon" to bounce ideas off of, he sets him up in a scene (i.e. Boon goes to a hot spring, Boon meets his girlfriend for afternoon sex, Boon walks into a bar, Boon practices calligraphy, etc.) then proceeds to lecture for twenty or thirty pages on the state of the Japanese mind. He goes on and on about calligraphy, about uchi and soto. People who don't know what "uchi" and "soto" are won't come off any wiser for having read this book, Morley's ideas on it do nothing to clear up the matter. I have lived in Japan for a few years, and I could make hide nor hair of what he was talking about, and frankly I don't care either. Published in the Eighties, it appears to have been written in the Seventies and is becoming very dated. On the dust cover, a certain Jan Morris has this to say about Morley's book: "The moment I started to read this book I felt a sort of shock of excitement - and the excitement stayed with me until the end. The book gives one a totally new and fresh idea of Japanese life - to most of us just about as baffling as life on earth can be. The style of the book is utterly original and unexpected. Its form is entirely innovative, its prose is not like any other and the personality behind it is at once powerful and picaresque. A most engaging combination!" What a laugh. This 250 book had about five good thoughts, but not an ounce of humor. The prose is as demented as the types of insights Morley tries to make. Check out a few samples: "With its casual working hours and liberal morals, chronic deficits and overnight closures, its survival sometimes inexplicable, its operations inscrutable, the abrupt appearance and disappearances of its personnel unexplained, but always, so long as it was there, extending to its patrons an unqualified welcome, the water trade showed that there could be constancy despite change, permanence despite the vicissitudes of individual fate." Regarding a night of titillation: "As Boon saw it, however, the blunt truth of the matter was that when those husbands at last returned home their wives became the dubious beneficiaries of appetites which had been whetted on other women. This view was cruel, but he believed it was the truth." Dubious? "For here, amid the pragmatic, no-nonsense values of glass and steel and international corporations, existed an ancient model of a matriarchal state, perfectly intact." An ancient model? "In this watery mythological landscape there was no Laius, and hence no Oedipus. Sage madames prevented sons from putting out their eyes by keeping fathers eternally out of sight." Does anybody have any idea what this guy is talking about?
Angry White Pajamas - by Robert Twigger. Robert Twigger, a misfit misguided university scholar and poet finds himself in Japan, teaching English, and living with an odd pair of misfits in a horrible gaijin ghetto. With no direction in his life, he takes the path of most resistance (the road less taken? The hard way out?) and, albeit a wimp and intellectual by nature, immerses himself in that most unlikely of things –martial arts. And instead of doing it half-assed, he enrolls in one of the most challenging courses – the riot police aikido intensive training course. Barely able to qualify for the course, with just the most rudimentary martial arts training behind him, he finds himself surrounded by psychos and egomaniacs, sadists and thugs, all of whom teach the course and can use their bare hands to kill. His classmates are often no better. “Angry White Pajamas” is the tale of a year of pain and gruelling physical and psychological torture. It is also funny, observant, and very well written. Certainly among the best and most satisfying books I’ve read about Japan. Following are some notes I took while reading the book. Although they don’t adequately represent the book as a whole, I found them amusing enough to reproduce here for you to snack on. Enjoy:
"Japanese people express pleasure when you admit a polite dislike of their junk food. It confirms yet again their difference from other cultures. But my guess is that deep down they know their food is mostly disgusting and tasteless; promoting it as something exotic and different is just putting a brave face on things. People with really excellent cooking don’t go on and on about their marvelous cuisine - they just get on with it and eat. The Japanese obsession with their food is a cover for a deep embarrassment about its adequacy."
"My method of teaching English, if it could be called a method, had always relied on the students liking me and this, together with their natural desire to get good grades, had resulted in a form of discipline. Sometimes they got a little rowdy, but nothing I couldn't handle. I always tried to make the lessons as interesting as possible - quirky and amusing, I liked to think - the kind of lesson I'd like to take. I wanted to stretch their imaginations, get them thinking, give them the freedom they were denied by more traditional teachers. Suddenly this had all unraveled. No one was interested in my 'interesting' lessons. I wasn't popular. Even the girls that had liked me in the beginning had somehow turned against me as I lost my temper in the desperate fight to control the class."
"(Grandma) was surprised I could use chopsticks, and was suspicious and disbelieving when I said I liked traditional bean soup. Then Sara's father said gently something I'd never before heard from a Japanese: ‘Why are you surprised that he likes our food - we are all human beings ,after all.’"
Tokyo Underworld - by Robert Whiting. A great account of the post-Occupation years in Japan covering the seamy and prosperous life of Nick Zappetti, an Italian-American who was billed by some as "the mafia boss of Tokyo." How Mafia-connected he was is not explained, but the book tells his rollicking tale as well as those of many of the colorful tales of dozens of other post-war gangsters, racketeers and scoundrels who moved from being black market hustlers to boom-town billionaires in a generation. Zappetti is still the central figure and Whiting describes in fine detail all the things that made him the most audacious gaijin to have ever hit the shores - one of the first occupation soldiers, one of the first to marry a Japanese woman, most-often divorced, richest gaijin, and the list goes on and on and on. Dozens of get-rich business schemes are investigated, as are various financial disasters and scandals and insights into the byzantine business practices that are de rigeur in Japan that fuelled Zappetti's love-hate relationship with the country, and finally a probing into the recent collapse of the bubble economy and the yakuza recession. A great read from start to finish and every audacious tale is backed up with notes and accounts of the research Whiting has done to back it up that make a very readable appendix to an extraordinary and almost enviable tale of a Japan that barely any non-Japanese will ever get to see.
We Are Nippon – by Simon Moran. In June and July of 2002, the world’s biggest sporting event came to Japan and Korea. For 6 weeks or so Japan lived, breathed, and ate football (“soccer” will be called football in this review in deference to the book itself as well as the preference of most of its passionate fans). Weeks after the event, the sport seemed nearly forgotten in Japan as life moved on. Now we have Simon Moran’s excellent recollection of the event to remind us of those incredible passions. A quick, lively read, Moran gives background to the setting, the event, paints local portraits, then describes the feelings of the events, the interactions of the fans, and explanation to phenomena such as the non-event of hooliganism and the fears thereof, the David Beckham experience, and Japanese football fan culture as the footballing world gets a look at a whole new world in the first ever Asian World Cup. Unfortunately, Moran was not able to be in two places at the same time and could not write about the Korean events, but hopefully some like-minded individual in Korea is working on a similar volume – Korean publishers take note! Besides Moran’s amazing passion for the sport, the strengths of his book lie in his excellent writing style as well as his extensive knowledge of Japan, having lived and worked here for many years. My only quibbles with the book are with the syntax (translating Japanese into idiomatic English, phrases like “it was taken as a given,” “pot plants” instead of “potted plants”… snicker). I can’t believe a guy I work with, at the Kansai Time Out magazine where he is a section editor and I am a contributing writer, has published a book before I have. But it was surely only a matter of time before a talented and serious writer like Simon put out a book, and the World Cup in Japan was his chance – right place right time, in a big way. By the way, does anybody wonder why I am suddenly green all over? I am not seasick, I am just suffocating with bad bad ENVY! To read a sample from the book go to www.japanfile.com/we_are_nippon.
the Electric Geisha – Various authors. Essays on Japanese culture by a variety of Japanese scholars. A lot of it reads like in-flight entertainment magazines, but there are interesting stories on things like "the manga city", "the mass city," and other subjects. What exactly is "the electric geisha"? Karaoke, of course. Of course? Well, according to the reasoning of the essayist, geisha used to perform the role that karaoke now plays, that is bringing people out of their shells and getting them to cheer up and have a good time while they get drunk and sing a few silly songs. I guess they thought the concept snazzy enough to name the book after. While I would not say that this is a fun read, I must admit that it goes a way in demystifying certain aspects of Japanese culture, and reinforces my theory that the Japanese are not really all that different from the rest of us inherently, they are just a product of their environment. For example, the thing about people giving each other money when they set out on a trip, whether they really need it or not, goes back to the days when only one person from a village would go on a pilgrimage, representing the whole village, and everybody in the village would chip in to help the traveler on the journey. And people still do it that way, even though it's no longer really necessary. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Japan Edge - the Insider's Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture (that being music, noise music, film, manga, and anime). Four writers write long sections on their passions (anime, film, noise, and music), with a collection of their short essays on manga, as well as a round table talk on what these elements of Japanese subculture means to them. By far the most interesting and appealing thing about the book is its incredible layout, with tons of graphics and cool designs, a strange 4-panel comic as well as a "Tokyo Diary" panel running between chapters, and an index and map. The best sections were by the authors who wrote about noise and music - thoroughly enjoyable reads and very well written by people who are serious and observant. The sections on anime and film were a disappointment, particularly the long passages that related personal coming-of-age stories and sassy going-nowhere hypothesizing and postulating, with actual raw information being pretty scarce for some long stretches at a time - frustrating. Another annoying point was when the authors seemed to be chumily addressing American readers, or specifically those familiar with San Francisco. Not everyone interested in the subjects is American, nor are all non-Japanese fans of these arts only living in San Francisco - writing that is appropriate for a college newspaper perhaps? The final round-table discussion was interesting in part, but generally somewhat meatless. Nevertheless, the project as a whole was a great read and very interesting.
Sucker-Punch - Isaac Adamson. A detective
novel, written in an energetic and intentionally over-the-top schlocky style, set
in Japan by a writer whom, one suspects, has never lived in Japan. Great
comic swoops are intended as the character Billy Chaka (clearly intended to be
the main character for a whole series of set-in-Japan adventures as the "a
Billy Chaka adventure" declaration on the cover leaves no room for doubt)
impresses, nay humbles, almost ever local he meets with his mastery of the
Japanese language. A detailed analysis would bring out a long list of
flaws, starting on page two with with a description of a certain highly valued
40-year-old sake (which would be as delicious as an aged lager), but you have
to marvel at the audacity with which Adamson writes about a subject he knows
nothing about except what he's read from other sources. Of course, having
said that, there are also patches of the book that are quite well-written, so
it may be too early to just laugh the Billy Chaka books out of the room.
There may be some hope yet. The plot inolves some murder and a
Shinto deity, and some other figures that might have stepped out of some
Murakami Haruki post-modern detective fiction (which may be flaky but is the
real ticket, folks), but who cares - let's just see if the follow-up to this
book Sapporro Popsicle shows Adamson improving or grinding himself into
the dirt. See www.billychaka.com
for more info.
Audrey Hepburn's Neck. Alan Brown. A nutty book written by a Westerner from the point of view of a Japanese guy from rural Hokkaido (i.e. as far away from Tokyo as you can get) who comes to Tokyo, learns about foreigners, and begins work for a comic illustrator. At the same time mid-80's events were happening like the death of Emperor Hirohito and the marriage of the crown prince. Certain liberties have been taken for the sake of absurd comedy (like announcing a marriage lottery for the prince that even Brooke Shields tries to take part in). Naturally the most accurate depiction of things is found in the authors depiction of nutty foreign English teachers, although some credit should be given for his depiction of growing up in rural Hokkaido (something I should mention that I know absolutely nothing about). One of my friends who read this thought it was one of the worst novels about Japan by a westerner he has ever read, but I wouldn't be that harsh. It is certainly not as good as Turning Japanese , though.
Turning Japanese - David Galef. A "just-about-as-accurate-as-it-gets" account of a young man who comes to Asia to fight off the post-graduation blues, discover himself, and get away from the baggage of home. Main character Cricket Collins comes over on a teaching internship, loses his job, finds a new one, gets over his culture shock and actually learns something about Japan. He picks up a nice girl, somehow remains faithful to her, then tries to sort out his life as he acclimatizes to his new world. I found this book quite accurate in its depictions of the "foreign ghetto" of English teachers in Japan, namely the nutty types that end up here as well as the types of situations that they get into. Some of Cricket's experience mirrored mine in an eerie way, none less than the fact that he ended up living in the same town that I do! The author's style is satisfying and reads well, and he renders the language of Japanese characters in the book quite comfortably for the most part - something that would be quite tricky for someone who hasn't lived for a long time in Japan to do. Trips to Korea, China, and New York highlight the book and keep it interesting. With the last chapter of the book, the author veers wildly in his intent and changes the course of the novel drastically by dealing with the Cricket's ideosyncracies quite directly - I am pretty sure I understand what he was trying to do and find it quite amazing, a rare effort in the field of literature and I admire his dedication to his vision although it may give other readers whiplash. A new second-to-last chapter set in America could have softened the blow, but I'm not really complaining. This book has probably only been read by five or six people, a real shame.
Kwaitan - Japanese ghost stories collected by Lafcadio Hearn/Koizumi Yakumo. Everybody should read this book. In the tradition of the Brothers Grimm, Lafcadio Hearn went around the Japanese countryside, listening to local ghost stories, and recording them for posterity. I don't know if anyone else did this in Japan, but he has done Japanese culture and world culture in general a great service by recording for posterity these strange tales, that would have died off otherwise (he did this generously with his other writings as well). The ghost stories of other cultures should be studied, and some collections exist - besides the Brothers Grimm, there is a book of Chinese ghost stories called Strange Tales From A Chamber I believe. I'm certain that Central American ghost stories must be pretty interesting too. Kwaitan contains several classic tales, some of which have been filmed such as in the film "Kwaitan" - a lush, artistic treat which won the best foreign film Oscar in 1967. One of the tales "Earless Hoichi" is a classic about a blind story-teller who doesn't know that he is reciting a tale to ghosts, and there are tons others just as good. Did you ever hear the story of the woman with no eyes, nose, and mouth? It is a scary one. I heard it when I was a kid and it gave me nightmares... and it shows up here too.
Obasan by Joy Kogawa, and Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson. While these books are not set in Japan or, in the case of the latter, even written by a Japanese author, they both concern Japan and the Japanese people indirectly as they both deal with the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War 2, in Canada and in the U.S.A respectively. Obasan is the more complex book, as it is narrated by Naomi Nakane, a 3rd generation Japanese-Canadian who we first meet as an emotionally stunted, spinster schoolteacher living in rural Alberta and caring for her aging guardians, an aunt and an uncle. The death of the uncle sends her on a phantasmagorical inspection of her life as she flits poetic through her Vancouver childhood, the gradual internment and exile of Japanese-Canadians (either naturalized or native-born), the prejudice and hatred of white Canadians. The tragedy in her life is endless, but this dreary and difficult book is ultimately fulfilling as greater mysteries the book introduces are eventually explained and some hope for official redemption is finally offered. The Japanese-Canadians suffered the loss (or official theft) of their worldly possessions, vilification and ostracism from society, but unlike their American counterparts they were not allowed to return to their hometowns until many years after the war, the internal exile continuing on into the fifties. Official redress had to wait nearly another fifty years. Snow Falling On Cedars presents a mystery – when a fisherman is found dead was it murder or was it accidental death? The sheriff thinks he can make a murder case out of it, and the prime suspect is a Japanese-American man last seen with the victim. As the tale of prejudice and festering war wounds unwinds, we get into the mind of a one-armed reporter – both through straight narrative and flashback – who may be the only one to have figured out the whole story. Thing is, the wife of the accused man was his childhood sweetheart and he’s not sure he wants to let anyone else know what he’s figured out. The book is very well written and the story is compelling. The plot is exciting and seamless and makes a great read. The story, near-perfectly faithful to the book, is also excellent.
Sayonara - by James A. Mitchner. This is a novel, published around 1957, is about the life of American G.I.s in Occupation-era Japan, and more specifically about courting among American men and Japanese women. An air force flying ace, son of a successful general, gets time off from fighting the Korean War (nerves) and spends it in Kobe. He takes his place among the military big shots there, where they sneer at the enlisted men and their Japanese girlfriends, getting the lowdown on how the snobby brass does all they can to prevent dating and marrying – call it the Anti-Miscegenation Committee of the Victors Over Japan. Our hero starts off on the side of the brass, but then falls in love with the star of the all-female Takarazuka revue! As unlikely as it seems, it is still written about convincingly – hey, it was the early fifties! The hokey racist lines at the beginning of the story would be unbelievable today (yellow Japanese women all round faced and ugly), and the dippy tough guy talk and drippy lovey lovey sweety weety talk at the end are just as bizarre, but the characters are involving and the simple boy-meets-girl plot still has some mileage on it. Later filmed with Marlon Brando and Ricardo Montalban, with Oscar-winning performance by Red Buttons.
My Year Of Meat – by Ruth Ozeki. My Year of Meat is a fascinating book, a hip voyage with a confused Eurasian (Japanese mother, American father) documentarian as she produces a series of shows about American wives cooking meet for Japanese audiences. Following her shows is a shell-shocked-by-life housewife of the venal and poor-excuse-for-a-human-being Japanese salaryman who is producing the series. Plenty of hip humor and commentary, interest generated by the compelling characters that populate the book as they follow the jetting pace of TV production, and when the book finally picks up on the direction it’s going to take a full fun 200 pages into the book we know we’re in for a really wild ride. All of the various situations the characters find in the book are interesting and creative, and the instructive parts that probe the dark and demented world of meat (over-)production in the USA don’t really feel all that forced when they’re camouflaged among such intriguing surroundings; and when things get sewn up at the end just a-little-too-neatly nobody really seems to mind. A fun, exciting book. Complaints? The bizarre attempt at camp satire by describing vending machines for meat in Japan (yeah – right!) that throws credibility out the window, and the caricature bad-guy wife-beating megalomaniac potential rapist executive moron salaryman husband. But I shouldn’t say that – there probably really are plenty of people like that out there!!
The Genius Bakabon - The Genius Bakabon is called “Tensai Bakabon” in Japanese, “tensai” being the word for genius. In a sense it conveys the idea of an idiot savant, but a better translation might be the “brilliant idiot-head” or something. Bakabon is a moron, so is his father. His mother is normal, and his baby brother Hajime-chan is the brilliant and perceptive savior, similar perhaps to Gromit in the Wallace and Gromit films, or Brain the dog and Penny from the Inspector Gadget cartoon series I used to like when I was a kid. Bakabon’s parents don’t seem to have names and are just called “Bakabon’s mother” and “Bakabon’s father” by most people. The comics shown in this translation are pretty old and show Bakabon and his dad singing stupid songs, insulting each other’s lack of intelligence, fighting, bickering, getting swindled and saved by Hajime and mom, and other nutty Flintstones-like situations. One episode involves an escaped criminal getting a plastic surgeon to make him over as Bakabon so he can live in Bakabon’s house incognito. Only Hajime notices. Funny James Bond reference. Another section shows Bakabon’s dad running a water vending scam, another shows them going into space to the planet of the Boola Boola cannibals, another where Bakabon becomes an artist, another where they put a snob in her place by supporting things “made in Japan,” another where they go camping and save a bear family from a blind hunter, another where they talk about the university for idiots and their ex-idiot teacher, another where they confront the sassy house mice, another where they are nearly roped in by a phony missionary, another where they work in a chili pepper factory, and a last one where Bakabon’s father hates dogs.
Pretty funny stuff, and incredibly stupid. Caption on the cover says “I may be an arse, but soon I’ll be an artist!!” Great!
the Woman of the Dunes - by Abe Kobo. A very strange story of a man who goes to rural Japan for a vacation, but becomes trapped in the world of agrarian village life. The main image is that of the woman the the man is given to live with, as well as the dunes and the pointless excavation that traps them in an ever-widening pit of desolation. Clearly a metaphor for something, although it is not entirely clear what. I have my own idea what it is, what's yours? A filmed version of this book is also a classic of Japanese film noir.
the Spider's Thread - by Akutagawa Ryonosuke. Eight parables and sentimental tales by Akutagawa, one of the great names of modern Japanese literature. So great, the Japanese version of the Nobel prize for literature has been named after him - the Akutagawa award for literature (a prize once won by Murakami Ryu, among others). These eight stories can be read in a single afternoon or on a long train ride (or a long commute), and each one will cause the legs to tremble slightly. The title story, "the Spider's Thread," is as well known by all Japanese as the tale of the Tortoise and the hare is in the west; it concerns Buddha mercy for sinners in Hell and what happens when the Buddha takes pity on a sinner he spies roasting in a boiling sea of blood in Hell and lets down a single spider thread from Heaven for him to crawl up. "The Art of the Occult" is about what happens when a man suddenly receives all magic powers to do anything he can with, and "Tu Tze-chun" is a similar story of a beggar dealing with a magic man who makes him a loaded challenge. "Whitie" is a morality tale involving a dog, and "the Nose" is a pleasant little piece of surreality about the official whose nose is practically as big as his whole head and how he deals with his disposition. "The Wagon," "the Tangerines", and "the Dolls" are all sweet sentimental stories, "the Wagon being perhaps the best - about a young boy and the fun wagon ride that takes him just a little too far away from home.
Napoleon Crazy - Atoda Takashi. Black humor as wicked as any of Roald Dahl's most savage tales. Try to read "the Wager of the Century" and not shift in your chair, or at least laugh out loud in pained disgust. The title story must have been from the pen of Roald Dahl himself, since it concerns a harmless eccentric who turn out to be not all that harmless after all... The husband and wife who both want to kill their spouse. The snob who has reason to wonder who her baby really is. The foolish husband who turns his young wife into a black widow. The invalid who can't die. And what would you make of a story called "the Man Who Was a Meal"? I should write copy for dust covers...
No Longer Human - Dazai Osamu. A book that cannot avoid being compared to Notes From The Underground. About a strange young man and his curiosity with compulsive self-destruction. With an almost morbid curiousity, this insecure young man watches in fascination as he sabotages his own future, becoming a class clown, a womanizer, an alcoholic, a drug user, and general all-around weirdo. An investigation of the deep neuroses of the narrator, who we can only hope is telling the tale sanely and acurately.
Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination - by Edogawa Rampo. Wicked fiction in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe (whose name inspired Rampo's pen-name). Wild confessionals from criminal geniuses undone. Tortured victims discovering the truth of their ruined lives. Strange, disfigured ghosts from the past on revenge missions. Rampo's tales aren't usually as good as Poes, but he certainly tries hard. In more than one story, he pulls the punches after setting up a brilliant and disturbing premise, just as if Ahab had told his men at the last moment "just kidding boys, I don't want the whale, let's go home." Nevertheless, most of the tales are the product of a master, and all of them are short, so there's really nothing to complain about. More people should read Edogawa Rampo.
Deep River - by Endo Shusaku. The tale of a rag-tag group of emotional derelicts on a group tour/pilgrimage to India, the birthplace of Buddhism (and the religion half-embraced by Japanese in general), that investigates what brought them there and what they find there. One man survived fear and cannibalism as a member of the retreating imperial army in Burma, another man believes that he might be able to find the reincarnated soul of his wife in mystic rural India. Another woman, a divorcee, juggles superficiality with deeper meaning as she flirts with the ascetic monk she once rejected sexually in university but maintains a spiritual partnership with. This book has also beent turned into a fine film, which also features one of the last film appearances of the great Mifune Toshiro .
Silence - by Endo Shusaku. Endo Shusaku is a novelist everybody should read more of. If Deep River wasn't proof enough, here is Silence , a tale of the devotion of two Portuguese monks who came to Japan in the time of the greatest persecution of Christians, possibly seeking martyrdom. They are surprised at what they find in several ways. Easiest comparisons can be made with the books of Graham Greene and the film the Mission , but as the tale takes its most serious divergences from the Power and the Glory, it becomes more like Dostoyevsky than anything else. A profoundly moving masterpiece of philosophical religiosity and sentiment.
The Green, Green Grapes of Home - Hayashi Mariko. A subtle tale of a paunchy, plain, insecure girl growing up in grape country and getting through high school. Tales of young loves, student council presidents, unwanted prenancies, rughby and baseball championships, the people who eventually get married young and the people who get away to the big city. The kind of book where the last chapter suddenly jumps 10 years into the future. I've read a dozen books that do the same thing, although at the moment I can't think of any...
Castaways - Ibuse Masuji. Two short novels based on historical events intended as companion pieces to "Waves," but later presented on their own. "A Geisha Remembers" portrays society life at the end of the Edo shogunate era, before the Meiji Restoration, through a vicious scandal that planned by jealous police officials against an artillery expert, as reported by a geisha who had been infatuated with him. The tale is anecdotal and cute, ultimately neither involving or very interesting, but offering an excellent snapshot of the era itself. "John Manjiro: A Castaway's Chronicle" is the true story of a young Japanese boy who is ship-wrecked on a deserted island with four others, is rescued by an American ship, taken to America and educated there, who spends his youth studying in America and crossing the seven seas in whaling and merchant boats, eventually returning to Japan and becoming the first English-speaking Japanese. He was Japan's first English teacher, a translator, a member of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the U.S.A., and the government minister who organized Japanese whaling based on techniques he learned from American whalers. This last point is educational and of interest to people who accuse the Japanese of being the butchers of the high seas, while the first point is of interest to me, who makes a living teaching English in Japan. Both tales come with excellent introductions and notes, while the latter tale has excellent maps charting the many voyages of a truly amazing person.
Salamander - Ibuse Masuji. Awesomely well-written, poignant tales by a master. Most of the tales in this collection are standard tales in Japanese textbooks for Japanese school kids, much like the Secret Sharer or something like that would be in an English textbook back home. Salamander is about misery loving company, "Plum Blossoms" is about drunkenness and shaken identities - mesmerizing to watch unfold. Most of his other tales are pastoral, involving cow breeders or carp or former military officers who are no longer right in the head. Read them like you would read any other masterpieces of 20th century writing.
First Snow On Fuji - by Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata novels I have read in the past have numbed me with their beauty until I was far past the point of actually understanding what was happening to the characters in the book. Admittedly this could be because I read them in high school and haven’t given them a look since, but I found that I had no such problems with his short stories in this collection. “This Country, That Country” is a stunningly bizarre tale of wife-swapping, and “A Row of Trees” is about a row of trees – it is also about perceptions of change and… indifference, perhaps? “Nature” is about a remarkable actor who hid from the army recruiters in WWII by disguising himself as a woman, then lost his male identity. “Raindrops” is about affairs as well. “Chrysanthemum In The Rock” is a strange, moribund essay of a chrysanthemum growing out of a rock. The title tale tells the story of old lovers meeting and is somewhat sentimental and melodramatic, but is followed by one of the best stories in the book, “Silence,” which combines a ghost story with a tale of an aging writer who has lost his command of words, written and spoken. The account of the meeting with the writer is interesting, as is background provided about the writer himself, not to mention the ghost story element. What an odd combination. Following this is “Her Husband Didn’t,” a story about an older woman having an affair with an art student, and “Yumiura” tells of a middle-aged writer who meets a woman from his past. She shakes his sense of self by remembering in fine detail everything about one weekend he attended a writers conference in a small town, while he cannot even remember visiting the town in question. A memory lost forever or a hoax? Rounding off the collection is “the Boat Woman,” a play which I could not follow in the least. At least something of this collection represents the great writer the way I remember him. Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel laureate for literature, has an incredible way of framing his stories, as well as touching his descriptions of settings and characters. I suppose this all points to an excellent translation as well, especially since there is so much in Japanese that just doesn’t translate well. All of these tales of affairs and middle-class lives must make you think of John Updike, who provides a blurb on the cover, but in fact these tales are way beyond anything Updike is capable of. A fantastic collection and highly recommended.
The House Of The Sleeping Beauties - by Kawabata Yasunari. Another book by the first Nobel prize awarded writer in Japan, this book is about the simple perversion of old men who can only find calm by being near beautiful sleeping forms. As beautiful as it is unlikely. But luckily writers still allow room for themselves in the realm of the possible, without thinking of the probable.
Snow Country - by Kawabata Yasunari. A short novel but as dense as anything by Dostoyevsky. About strange love in the winter and full of an impossible quantity of beautiful images. The most delicate and haiku-like of translated novelists, he was also the first Japanese writer to be awarded the Nobel prize, followed recently by Kenzabura Oe.
Totto-chan - the Little Girl at the Window - Kuroyanagi Tetsuko. The heart-warming tale of a little girl who was expelled from her school in the second week of first grade... just for being a little girl, i.e. not conforming to what teachers commanded her to be. After a few chapters, we learn that Totto-chan is another name for Koroyanagi Tetsuko, the author of the book and a household name in Japan due to her long-running, extremely popular afternoon talk show. The story of the remakable experimental school and the loving times spent learning there are only made more remarkable when we realize that this school existed in Japan in the years just before and during World War 2! It is hard to imagine a school like this in Japan, or anywhere else, even in the present day, let alone then. Tetsuko tells her tale with just the right ammount of sentimentality, just the right ammount of care. While some of the episodes seem a little short and forced, most of them hit it right on the head. Later versions contain epilogues and other closing words to follow up the tale. An inspiration for anyone interested in education.
In the realm of non-Japanese stories that have influenced the imagination of the Japanese, I should not forget the adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar, by Maurice LeBlanc. Arsene Lupin is the French antithesis to the very British Sherlock Holmes - while Holmes can solve any crime, Lupin can perpetrate any crime. But since he is a gentleman, this means being an art thief of impeccable taste who robs from those who deserve to be robbed from, etc. There is a whole series of stories that should be at least partially investigated. Among the stories I have read, there is the one of the capture of Lupin, his daring escape, and his run-in with Herlock Sholmes (a smart-ass object of scorn in this tale). Lupin's legend is alive in Japan in the form of Lupin Sansei, or Lupin the Third, namely the half-Japanese grandson of the original Lupin, a modern-day art thief whose outrageous adventures with his team of merry men (Goemon, the samurai, and Jiggen the cowboy) are the popular favorite of comic books and animation.
Points and Lines - by Matsumoto Seicho. A detective novel about a foregone conclusion. A couple lie dead on a beach, an apparent love suicide. Naturally they have been murdered. Tokyo police have their suspect at the beginning of the tale - he draws suspicion to himself by having an alibi that is just a little too perfect - and the rest of the book is all about proving that the suspect could have been at the scene of the crime. This means unravelling the perfect alibi that the clever villain has painstakingly (but all too transparently, it seems) built up for himself. To do this, a close inspection of train schedules and train routes is needed. In this sense the book is very meticulous. Several breakthroughs in the case could be seen coming a mile away. By working inductively, instead of deductively, the book is also a little uninteresting - we know who the murderer is, now lets figure out how he did it. With high conviction rates, it seems that this is the method of choice for the police in breaking crimes in Japan. This book is considered a masterpiece of the time it was written, in the early 1970s, and started a Matsumoto crime-fiction boom, but 30 years later is it a little hard to understand what the fuss was about.
Confessions of a Mask - by Mishima Yukio. Confessions of a Mask is the semi-autobiougraphical book that cemented the reputation of Mishima as one of the strongest new writers of post-war Japan. In a dream-like style, it documents his dysfunctional youth as he yearns for the hairless, naked chest of St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows. A title to be taken literally.
the Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea - by Mishima Yukio. Another literal title. This is the short tale of an intellectual sailor who might finally find his roots with a young widow and her precocious son. But what is the fate of a sailor who has fallen from grace with the sea? Written mostly from the point of view of the son, it would seem to some to be an evil version of Stand By Me. Made into a film version starring Kris Kristofferson!
the Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan - by Mishima Yukio. A fascinating ethical work, the book is a modern translation and comments on the "Hagakure," by Yamamoto Jocho (1659 - 1719) as a code of living for proper samurai. Reflections of a work like this can be found particularly in samurai films like the works of Kurosawa Akira, or more recently Oshima's "Gohatto." This is also the book that provides the life inspiration for the title character of Jim Jarmush's film "Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai." Yamamoto's advice tells of a black and white world where a samurai knows his priorities and can act honorably. He will not chase women and joke about money. He will face death every day. He will be able to make important decisions quickly since he is always ready to make them. He will resign himself to the fact that samurai must die sooner than later and it is better this way. Just as interesting as the "Hagakure" itself are Mishima's comments on the work, which develop the thirst for death theme outlined in the melancholic over-serious characters that populate his books, and the intolerable nature of existence. Written just a few years before his suicide after attempting to make a right-wing political statement, it might offer some insights into the mind of this intriguing character, as well as more evidence that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
The Sea of Tranquility series: Spring Snow, Runaway Horses , the Temple of Dawn and the Decay of the Angel - by Mishima Yukio. "The Sea of Fertility" is the name of an area of craters on the moon; it is also the name of the series of four novels that Mishima Yukio wrote at the end of his life. The story behind the books is indeed almost as interesting as the books themselves: they were finished and submitted for publication on the day that Mishima, a very eccentric and dynamic personality by and definition, carried out his plan to kidnap a general of Japan's Self Defence Force and carry out a violent press conference of sorts and then commit ritual suicide just as if he were a samurai of tradition. The events of that day, as well as scenes from four of his works (including some from Runaway Horses, part of the series) are included in this incredible, sadly neglected film. The Sea of Fertility series conisists of four relatively independant tales, held together by a thread involving one continuous character and a ghost. Individually they represent some of Mishima's best writing, but considered as a whole they produce a stunning effect, similar perhaps to the Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell (1957-1960), which uses four books and four characters to look at a series of events from different angles. In his series, Mishima follows the long life of one character and four stages in his life. In the first book, Spring Snow, he is a young student and involved with and easy aristocratic life and playful intrigues that grow ever more dangerous until one of the main characters dies. In the second book, Runaway Horses, he is surprised to find his dead friend seemingly reincarnated as a young student who becomes involved in an idealistic coup attempt. In the Temple of Dawn , the concept is continued as the same man, now middle-aged, finds his muse reincarnated again, this time as a young Thai princess! Finally, with the last book in the series the same character, now an old corrupt man, believes that he has found yet another reincarnation of the same person, this time as a young lighthouse keeper. Somehow, Mishima manages to satisfactorily resolve this mature and difficult series on a unique theme with this book while raising a series of challenging existential questions in the mind of the reader. The main metaphor of the story of youth and aging, a them central to Mishima's writing and his idealistic thinking in general, are demonstrated by the continuous character as he ages and is contrasted with the other character who always remains young and beautiful. The titles are also indicative of the progression of this theme: the freshness of spring and early life, the strength of the horses and wild youth, the maturity of the temple and mid-life, and final decay as corruption sets in and death approaches. The final book in the series also reflects the tradition of Japanese writers to write of old men reflecting on their lives through the filter of beautiful youth, namely Kanabata Yasunari and the House of the Sleeping Beauties , Tanizaki Junichiro and Diary of a Mad Old Man, and Natsumei Soseki and Kokoro. Dostoyevskian in scope - nay, it out-reaches Dostoyevsky - and a must-read!
the Temple of the Golden Pavilion - by Mishima Yukio. Yet another literal title. This is the true story of the deranged monk who grows frustrated and somewhat demented and is finally led to burn down the temple of the golden pavilion, also known as "Kinkaku-ji," in Kyoto. More interesting than his tortured character even is his companion monk, the sadistic cripple who exploits his handicap to deceive young women. Even more interesting is his encounter with a drunken American G.I. and a prostitute. This may be the novel that solidified Mishima's reputation as a modern-day Dostoyevsky.
Thirst For Love - by Mishima Yukio. Another study in psychological sado-masochism, the demented young widow Etsuko lives with her father-in-law, a dirty old romantic, and manipulates a strange extended love triangle in order to achieve some sort of satisfaction out of an imposed state of jealousy. Ethereal and with moments of strange beauty, the hopeless situation becomes more and more ridiculous as the novel progresses before it reaches a pointless, voilent conclusion. An interesting, brief read, but I hope I never meet one of these strange introverted Dostoyevskean monsters.
River of Fireflies - Miyamoto Teru. This 180 page book contains 2 simple stories from the post-war years. The first one, "Muddy River," tells the tale of young Nobuo, growing up in a soba shop at the edge of the river, and his observations of river life during one hot summer. He befriends the children of a woman who moors her house boat near their restaurant, but learns of the sadness of life as he discovers that the boat is a prostitute's boat and they are a pariah family. "River of Fireflies" is an entirely different tale of young Tatsuo, growing up in snowy Niigata to the north, the son of a much older father, a sick failed businessman, and his dissolving family life. It is also about his first infatuation and the trip to see a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of millions of fireflies, a veritable night-time "cloud of fireflies." This ordinary and relatively uneventful tale surprises by being capped with a horrifying and strangely beautiful ending, albeit somewhat too fantastic. This ending is linked with a theme introduced in the beginning of the tale, leading me to conclude that Miyamoto had intended to tell this tale the whole time, with the middle interplay merely filler.
Wildcat and the Acorns - Miyazawa Kenji. Bizarre allegories, most of which involve talking animals and hunters. It doesn't get stranger than the tale of "the Spider, the Slug, and the Racoon," three friends you wouldn't want to have, but it is a pleasure to read the frightening tale "Too Many Orders": the tale of hunters who happen upon an empty restaurant in the woods, who prepare slowly for a meal by following written requests printed on plaques. Everything is going swimmingly... until they realize that it is they who are to be the dinner! "Gorsh the Cellist" was made into an early film by Totoro director Miyazaki Hayao. Great, strange, silly stuff.
Vita Sexualis - Mori Ogai. Banned in 1909 when it was published by the then-Surgeon General of Japan (!) in his own literary magazine Subaru (which means Pleiades in Japanese - interesting), "Vita Sexualis" is not steamy material and hardly seems worth banning then or ever! Written in the first person and divided into chapters according to his age ("when I was six," "when I was seven", "when I was ten," "later that year," etc.) it approaches the themes of criticizing the vividly sexual surroundings of a prudish young country boy in the big city, spanning his naive awareness of sexuality in the early days of his youth to the homosexuality of his classmates to sabotaging undesirable arranged marriages and finally to his conflict with aging leches in corrupt Tokyo. It is a short and interesting read for its historical sociological portraits of castle towns and entertainment quarters, but not actually compelling or philosophically profound in any way.
Bedtime Tales - Mori Yoko. Twelve tales of twelve different women in sexually tense situations. Each woman is different from the other by the author's design, but they all have the same humane, toothy quality that rises from the author's consummate writing skill. Mori Yoko is described as "one of Japan's most liberated and exciting women writers" and in this collection she lives up to that reputation. Each tale is about sex - a woman's control over her sexual world, how she sizes up men, how she decides to marry one. Sex with strangers, first loves, or married men. The women are virgins, sly newlyweds, sophisticated society women, housewives, office girls, or party girls. Most of the tales are incredibly ironic, all of them are breathtakingly well-written. To her credit, she doesn't deal with much actual sex, preferring to describe setting, lead-up, and the gripping moment when a woman decides to sleep with a man... or not. The appeal of most of these stories must certainly be a sense of voyeuristic titillation, although in the case of the best story in the collection is is about the countless possibilities that come out of two people who don't have sex at all. It is also true that the author is an excellent writer, to be easily compared to Raymond Carver or J.D. Salinger. Another writer that comes to mind is Yamada Amy, whose After School Keynotes uses a simlar framework to tell tales of various sophisticated high school and their loves although the author binds the tale with a seperate narrator whose tale is also told at the end. Quick, worthy tales that will stay with you a long time and impress you with their skill.
Dance, Dance, Dance - by Murakami Haruki. A sequel to Hear the Wind Sing and A Wild Sheep Chase , the nonplussed wry narrator continues his investigation of odd phenomena that really have little to do with anything, all the while offering his chilly analysis of the vanities of modern living. Major events in the book include an investigation of the Hokkaido hotel featured in A Wild Sheep Chase, various female sidekicks, some titillation with prostitutes, a childhood friend who is now a major celebrity, friendship and loneliness and murder. Ultimately, I actually had no idea what Murakami was talking about, but it's hard not to enjoy the way the guy tells a story. Another book to add to the literary sub-genre of Murakami Haruki/Paul Auster books about guys who quit their jobs and live off their savings for a while.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - by Murakami Haruki. Perhaps Murakami's best experimental novel yet. Slowly into the novel you begin to realize that the book has been divided into two halves - even-numbered chapters are "hard-boiled wonderland," odd-numbered chapters are "the end of the world" (the Japanese title, by the way, is more like "the end of the world and hard-boiled wonderland). 40 chapters, 400 pages. Right brain and left. Day and night. Winter and summer. Being and nothingness. At the end the two are expected to converge. That is what the organization of the novel as well as its events seem to point to: a man discovers that his mind has been hotwired as he becomes involved in a scientific conspiracy; at the same time, the metaphycical/allegorical world of his subconscious becomes aware of itself and decides to affect change. Veddy intwesting. Murakami's prose is razor-sharp, and he seems to outdo himself with it especially toward the end of the tale, which gives a satisfying effect no matter what you might think of the ending. As with any Murakami book, lots of whiskey is consumed, books and film and jazz titles are referred to, and towards the end the once-divorced narrator even begins to smoke. Props up its absurdities fairly well, much better than the similar-intentioned Wild Sheep's Tale which is all style and no substance, at least next to this tale.
Hear The Wind Sing - by Murakami Haruki. A book of scenes by Murakami Haruki, the first novel by this author; scenes described by a nameless narrator, presumably Haruki himself. The background of the character, some of it anyway, is established, as is that of his friend the Rat. It's not his real name, but in the world of Murakami Haruki very few people have names anyway. Our hero reveals a bit about himself, piece by piece, describes the scenery, has a cigarette, then a beer. In his other life as a translator, Murakami Haruki translates Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Irving, and his interest shows: his characters smoke a lot, drink a lot, talk a little, think a lot, then they light up another cigarette and pop another beer. Scenes overlap, they clash, yet still fit together. I just finished reading this book, but I don't remember it well. As far as I can remember all he does is talk to a girl he finds drunk on the floor of his favorite bar, he interacts with her over a certain period of time, then moves on to other things. Like Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase , two of the sequels to this book.
Norwegian Wood - by Murakami Haruki. One of the most chilling novels I have ever read. I don't know if it is due to the excellent translation, but I was deeply immersed in this novel from beginning to end. Oddly, I have heard of a new translation that makes up for the deficits in the first translation - am I an idiot for having been so taken by the first translation? A tale of the lonely existence of a thoughtful university student and the suicides that change his life. Four suicides in the university days of the '70s in Japan are apparently not so odd - suicide was mantra in those days apparently. Great character studies, a fixation with the Great Gatsby, and an existentialist environment are all that was needed to sell me. That and all the great writing. So despite the pathetic fates of its characters, for some reaon I still love this book.
Pinball, 1973 - by Murakami Haruki. This book is the sequel to Hear the Wind Sing and Murakami Hauki's second novel. It continues where its predecessor left off, namely investigating the seedy corners of reality. In this case, our nameless narrator finds himself maintaining a friendship with the Rat, while he gets out of school and starts a small business with a partner. He finds himself one day rooming with two airy/sexy twins (nameless - even he admits to not knowing their names) and exploring the nature of pinball. The search begins for a legendary pinball machine he once had a meaningful relationship with. He finds her, looks her over one last time, then continues on with his life.
South of the Border, West of the Sun - by Murakami Haruki. I have always thought that Murakami Haruki reminded me of Paul Auster, except much better. Now here is a Murakami Haruki book that comes off as half boiled Paul Auster, almost as if he had set out to marry his style with Auster's substance. I guess it was bound to happen. This is the tale of Hajime (which means "beginning"in Japanese. He was born in the first week of the first month of the second half of the twentieth century... as if this means anything at all!) who has the most normal of all upbringings... except for one thing!!! This one thing is his friendship of a certain young girl. He eventually finds himself happily married and the owner of a successful jazz bar. And, like several heroes/anti-heroes of film and literature, he can't stand his happiness and has to sabotage it. "Smart" guy. Similar in superficial ways to the Louis Malle film Damage, but not as good. If this book says anything, it is that we can never forget our first loves. A novel written around a single novel idea, similar in this aspect to River of Fireflies by Miyamoto Teru. This is definitely the weakest Murakami Haruki novel I have read so far.
A Wild Sheep Chase - by Murakami Haruki. Veering sharply in direction from the previous installments of this story, Murakami Haruki's third book with the same characters takes a life of its own and becomes a postmodern detective tale. Two or three times as long as either of the previous tales, it has great pacing and builds itsself up into a dizzying mystery involving sheep and an unusual photograph that looks like a very ordinary photograph. The nameless narrator is now divorced, a woman is dead, he meets a new girl whose ears have a special magic power of their own. People's fates are toyed with, the Rat is in there somewhere, and our humble narrator becomes involved with an ultra-powerful secret organization - these people apparently control advdertising!! The trail leads to Hokkaido and then becomes completely rediculous when the Sheep Man cometh. Don't forget - this is a Murakami Haruki book, so there are plenty of cigarettes smoked, lots of beer and whiskey consumed.
Almost Transparent Blue - by Murakami Ryu. This is my favorite modern book - ever! No other book has gripped me the way this slim volume has, the first work of a dynamic modern writer. Murakami Ryu won Japan's most coveted literary prize with this story, and has written about 40 books since, only 3 of which have been translated. This is the tale of unemployed hippies, crazies, junkies, prostitutes, and music lovers who have occasional orgies with American G.I.s. Besides this, there isn't much of a plot. Some of the events are quite disgusting, and it is a tale of bottom-dwellers not too different from Barfly. What I particularly like is the writing style, which is so visceral the pages themselves seem to gleam with midnight dew and a sticky, scummy film that seems to have a life of its own. Read this one by candle-light for full effect.
69 - by Murakami Ryu. If his first book was heavy and atmospheric, Murakami Ryu's later book 69 is lite and fluffy. Both seem to be autobiographical, but this one is a high school tale of a kid growing up is a small town with an odd social atmosphere - there is an army base in town, there are communist cells in the high schools, and the kids are just learning a bit about what rock and roll is. Probably one of the best books to describe what it is like to be a high school kid in Japan. Not too surprisingly, I can still relate - it is same same but different.
Coin Locker Babies - by Murakami Ryu. This is supposed to be Murakami Ryu's powerhouse novel, but somehow it just got on my nerves. Neither of the main characters are sympathetic, they are just selfish messed up individuals that are uninteresting. Two young boys are abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers, so they are raised as orphans and grow up to be angry young men. I found interesting plot similarities in Jacob's Ladder and Fight Club, though. I'm looking forward to the day that some publisher with foresight thinks to translate better novels by Murakami Ryu.
Botchan - by Natsume Soseki. This is a thoroughly hilarious tale of the title character Botchan, a sophisticated Tokyoite who ends up being roped into a teaching position in rural Shikoku. Perhaps it is the translation, but most of this reads like a Meiji-era version of Catcher In The Rye with an adult Japanese Holden Caufield! In truth, the Japanese language is archaic, so English readers get the best of both worlds... or something. This an early novel by the writer who is so important to the identity of modern Japan that he is on the 1000 yen bill - i.e. the smallest one that is usually the one used most often in the course of a day.
I Am A Cat - by Natsume Soseki. “I am a cat,” is the first line of this novel about a cat, adopted into the household of a teacher (surely modeled after the author himself) and consists of first person narration by the cat and his wry observations of the life around him. Sometimes this involves the concieted observations of stupid humans by a member of the superior cat species, but also largely involves verbatim descriptions of long conversations that his master has with his leisurely scholarly friends and associates. It is often very very funny. Although not apparent in the simple English translation to “I am a cat,” the Japanese title “wagahai wa neko de aru” indicates grammatically that the speaker (the cat) thinks he is some sort of nobleman or samurai. Funny episodes describe a trickster fooling a waiter in a pretentious western restaurant by trying to order “moatballs,” not “meatballs.” The master and his friends hold long, pretentious conversations and mention dozens of European literary figures with nary a Japanese name mentioned at all. Bizarre first novel by Japanese literary giant Natsume, the tale continues in ten parts which fill three slim volumes.
Kokoro - by Natsume Soseki. A very mature novel, the tale of a young university student talking to an older man. The older man tells the younger one the story of his youth as he goes into his idealistic student days. Although it is a straight-forward story, there is some surrealistic overlap as the old man's tale becomes the young man's tale and vice versa, but also how the old man follows the path of the character in his own story, etc. An important novel that anyone with a serious interest in Japan should definitely read.
A Personal Matter - by Oe Kenzaburo. The book most closely associated with the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, this is the tale of a snivelling loser - a guy who can't get his life together but still dreams of travel in Africa - during his weekend from hell as his wife gives birth to a deformed baby. A stark, depressing study in alienation, rage, and guilt.
The Journey – by Osaragi Jiro. The Journey is a tale of postwar Japan. The participants include a wealthy landowner who has lost a son in the war, a professor and a poor student, a struggling bourgeois housewife, her half-sister a struggling career girl, a young hustler/gambler/profiteer, and his slutty ex-noblewoman business coach who straddles the world of American business interests while trying to manage her fallen aristocrat of a husband. Essentially the interweaving of the lives of several small groups of people through a series of events (an attempted suicide, a chance meeting in a graveyard, a flirtation on a train journey), the slow-paced novel is subtle in telling just what it needs to about the characters, while all the time maintaining their absolute believability as real human beings. Osaragi has crafted his tale, which bears some resemblance to the human dramas of Mishima and F. Scott Fitzgerald, while the characters he creates certainly achieve more credibility than the demented characters found in the former, while having more sympathetic humanity than those of the latter. A slow, but rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable read.
Gaku Stories - Shiina Makoto. Indulgent stories by Shiina about his son. They proved to be popular in Japan apparently, so he put them out as a book. Several accounts of a fishing-obssessed son and his guilty absent father. Gaku's deadpan humor is well-represented by his sheepish father, but on a whole this book is not the least interesting book I have read by a Japanese author.
Jack and Betty Forever - Shimizu Yoshinori. Absurd fiction. People who talk as if they were in a living English text book (it is fiction, isn't it?), people who grow younger, or metafiction about Tokyo people criticizing Nagoya people. Teh best story by far in the collection is "Ode to the Monkey and the Crab," an analysis, deconstruction and retelling of the classic fable "the Monkey and the Crab." The original story is a revenge tale where a tricky monkey kills a crab mother, and her orphaned children enlist help in getting revenge on the monkey. Imagine a long essay on the psychological background and motivation of Rumplestiltskin, including investigations on source material, alternate legends, and conspiracy theories, and you come close to the thought that went into coming up with this piece. A must-read for any fan of this already-absurd-enough-as-it-is tale.
A Cat, A Man, and Two Women - by Tanizaki Junichiro. Three short stories by the master, the first concerns three shallow, emotionally stunted people and a cat. The cat is the main character. A man divorces one woman for another, a cat comes in between them. The mind games are subtle, the doom is large and looming, and the 100 page tale ends at a poignant moment. The portrait of pre-war suburbs of Osaka (an area similar to that of Thirst for Love and Tanizaki's own the Makioka Sisters ) is interesting to me since I am living there at the moment.
the Makioka Sisters - by Tanizaki Junichiro. (Known as Sasame-yuki in Japanese) A long tale about two married sisters who manage the futures of their two younger unmarried sisters. By Japanese tradition sisters have to be married in order of birth, hence the fact that the fussiness of prim and proper third sister Yuriko and her inability to agree to a suitor ends up holding the (proper) future of fun-loving/bon vivant youngest sister Taeko hostage. This doesn't stop Taeko from breaking away from the proper Makioka tradition and moving about on her own. The Makioka Sisters is a fastiduous novel that describes very carefully the regular daily business of Makioka family, making way occasionally for dramatic episodes like floods, sicknesses, or pregnancies. The novel's pace may seem languid at times, as emotions, sensibilities, processes, rituals, and daily comings and goings are described in (seemingly) unnecessary detail, although upon even closer inspection one begins to notice when whole days, weeks, months, years are skipped over for the sake of brevity. It is a long, exhausting book (still no War and Peace), but one that anyone who has ever read it will insist is worthwhile. Set in the years 1937 to 1941, the changes Japan is going through are important enough, but that which is unsaid about what is to come may carry even more weight. Final sentence is so poignantly moving and mysterious (not to mention absurd and perhaps even unintentionally funny) that I can't stop thinking about it.
Naomi – by Tanizaki Junichiro. This novel, published in 1924, describes the six-year romance of a man and a woman when he is 27 and she is 14. A kind of “Lolita” tale mixed a bit with “Venus In Furs,” the books is as comic as it is tragic and somehow more commonplace. Instead of exploring the theme of forbidden love, as Nabokov and Masoch did, Tanizaki seems to be exploring Japan’s flirtation with western culture. Naomi, who seems to be the daughter of a prostitute and a western lover, is a mixed blood “Eurasian.” Although children of mixed marriages are quite common in Japan now, with many Eurasians actors highly visible on national television, they must have been scandalous in 20’s Japan as, unnoticed by the jazz age beautiful people dancing the nights away, military Japan’s mission of Asian imperialism was well-established and beginning to grow. Torturous for anybody who has never been obsessed, but the writing is perceptive and sharp, if a little slow-moving at times, and to watch Naomi blossom from a mousy little diamond in the rough at 14 to a stunning world-beater at 22 is really quite fascinating. Racy hints at the sexual nature of Naomi and Joji’s relationship is also surprising considering the time it was published. Serialization of the novel was actually stopped by censors in the middle of Chapter 16, which is a particularly interesting point in the book. Readers of the series were left hanging for months before Tanizaki finally found another publisher.
Quicksand - Tanizaki Junichiro. A book about a love trigangle, the Japanese title of this book is "Manji." A manji is a Buddhist swastika, commonly used in Asia as a Buddhist mark, but in Japanese also having the connotation of two bodies lying on top of each other. This brief novella tells the tale of a demented idle rich couple and the brilliant and beautiful vixen who manipulates both of them with her intoxicating love until they are sapped of their will to live. As a frank, early portrait of a lesbian affair in postwar Japanese society it is scandelous enough, it is thankfully rather brief and also quite to the point. No drawn out love scenes here. "Quicksand" has been filmed twice that I know of - once in a glorious '60s version in Japan, also later as "the Berlin Affair" (this time a Nazi couple meet a Japanese ambassadors daughter, for a punning twist on the swastika of the original book...) by director Liliana Cavani of "the Night Porter" fame.
the African Bomb - Tsutsui Yasutaka. Good black humor, especially in the title tale of postage-stamp African nations who buy nuclear bombs. Absurdity from end to end, including tales of purchasing the bomb, carrying it over a busy highway to get it home, etc. A middle tale of science fiction of a totalitarian state that turns forces its undesirables to take root and turns them slowly into plants. Then the tale of the person who gets media attention for his every move, and newspapers screaming the headlines like Morimoto takes typist to a coffee shop on a date and that night he masturbated - twice! Remind you of the Woody Allen "New York Story"?
Dear Monkey - translated by Arthur Whaley, abridged by Alison Whaley. Officially a Chinese comedic/devotional epic, Dear Monkey is also known as Journey To The West in English. It concerns the birth, education, and expoits of the mischevous Monkey King Songoku (this is the Japanese name for this character, called "Sun Wu-Kong" in Chinese, or simply "Monkey" in Whaley's translation) as he helps the monk Tripitaka journey on a pilgrimage to the holy land and birthplace of the Buddha in India (to the west of China) to collect holy scriptures to save the souls of Chinese Buddhists. He is born, he spiritually advances to the stage of Immortal, he is punished by Guan-yin for his mischief, he joins the pilgrimage of Tripitaka to fetch the Buddhist scriptures in the West, they pick up two other misfits to help them on the way (Pigsy and Sandy), and they have several Sindbad-like adventures on the way. This book was written partly as a satire, and there is great fun poked at corrupt Taoist priests and even sissy Buddhist monks. The description of events is often so outrageous, it is difficult to find anything to compare it to outside of Gulliver's Travels perhaps (the full travels, that is, not simply his adventures in Lilliput). Monkey's entrapment by the Buddha, who challenges him to escape even the palm of his hand, is a classic scene to rival a hundred such scenes. Read the abridged version if you can, the full version contains several endless uninteresting and unnecessary episodes of defeating uninteresting monsters and freeing forgetable princesses. Monkey's story has been filmed and animated hundreds of times in China and Japan, including a few definitive TV versions. Japanese comic master Tezuka Osamu has also created a version of the story with "My Son-goku." I wanna read it. Or at least look at the pictures.
Trash - by Yamada Amy. This book is boring. It is the tale of a Japanese woman who goes to New York and becomes involved with 3 black men: her first boyfriend, who has had a son with a trashy Japanese woman; the son himself; and the new guy she meets when she gets fed up with the first guy's drunkeness and self-destruction. Uninteresting tale of a shallow, unsympathetic character and the empty people she surrounds herself with.
After School Keynotes - by Yamada Amy. A guide to the Japanees maneater, and also a girl's coming-of-age tale to rival Murakami Ryu's 69 . The tale of a wise yet somewhat virginal high school girl and her encounters with seven mature girls, each of whom gets their own chapter. Each of the tales comes off as a poignant tale of the sensible popular girl (think Winona Ryder in the film "Heathers") who is real enough for the loose cannons in the pack to latch onto and ground themselves for a moment, or catch their breaths as they prepare to soar the wild winds just one more time. A girl gets pregnant, another girl has an affair with a deaf mute beach boy, a wild bad girl man-stealer who is too mature for her age goes out on the town, an overseas returnee busts free and goes wild in an international school, and a girl who has been dropped needs comforting. Our nameless heroine is not completely altruistig - she does blossom eventually, although not quite in the way that I was betting. The book is smart, sassy, and a good quick read. Not all of the episodes work as well as others - the one about the deaf mute beach boy was particulalry flat - but most are fine. The semi-disgusted maturity and too grown-up analysis is interesting to read from the worldly Yamada Amy, a woman who was once a professional dominatrix and presumably knows a thing or two about men, but the book does manage to fill a gap.
Musashi - Yoshikawa Eiji. This is the text version of a Kurosawa samurai epic, with the invincible swordsman facing hardship and selfish, bitter enemies. The Kodansha version is more properly called "the Best Scenes from Musashi." It does not include the whole long epic, just tell-tale chapters from teh full version. The best chapter shows how Musashi stays his hand against a man who would have killed him had he the chance. The last chapter shows how Musashi, in single-handed battle against twenty men, suddenly develops the two-sword technique. Cool stuff, mainly for guys I suppose. Virtually all of the salarymen who read comic books on the 2-hour commute home late at night have fond memories of reading Musashi books on study breaks while they were preparing for their exams when they were pimply teenagers. This has been made into a TV series starring Mifune Toshiro, reprising the well-known samurai roles he made famous in Kurosawa films like "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro." A 1000 page translation of the full Musashi series also exists, reviewed here is the "samples of" vesion.
Kitchen - by Yoshimoto Banana. Kitchen is the simple tale of a young woman getting over the grief of finding herself alone in the world after her last surviving relative, a grandmother, passes on. She is invited to enter the family of a young man who knew her grandmother, finally developping a platonic relationship with the young man, his "mother," and their wonderful kitchen. The book is very tender, a speedy read, and full of raw emotions. In the book is a novella, "Moonlight Shadow," about a young woman overcoming her grief after the death of her boyfriend. She hopes to see him one last time, and a mysterious woman shows her the key of doing just that. Both stories are very short, naive, emotional tales.
Monkey Brain Sushi - various authors. Probably the first book anyone who wants to know more about modern Japanese fiction should read. A great manga is included, "Japan's Junglest Day", as well as the best writing of Amy Yamada available in English (her translated book Trash is a very inferior work) and a dozen other writers you might never read elsewhere. I can't review all of the writers, but almost half of the stories are fantastic. Please read this book, and don't believe for a second that the title is a teaser - it is all of that and much, much more!!!
email: Peter Höflich
all writing copyright Peter Hoflich, 2000
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