Sunday, 25 January 2015

'The Tale of the Heike', translated by Royall Tyler (Review)

Having only recently explored the mythical origins of the Japanese people, you would have thought I'd spend the rest of January in Japan looking at more modern books.  However, today's post sees me going back in time once more, with a 14th-Century text recounting a series of 12th-Century conflicts.  You've all heard about the face that launched a thousand ships, but how about a mirror that did the same?  Let me tell you a story...

*****
The Tale of the Heike (translated by Royall Tyler, review copy courtesy of Penguin Classics) is a monumental work, a collection of stories from a period of history which together form something akin to a Japanese Iliad.  We begin in the middle of the twelfth century, where under the leadership of the great Tadamori, the Taira (or 'Heike') clan has become the most powerful family in the land, eclipsing the fortunes of the other major clan, the Minamoto (or 'Genji').  The first books of the work chart the rise in the strength of the Taira, who eventually come to possess most of the important imperial positions, in addition to providing a wife for the reigning emperor.

Under the leadership of Tadamori's son, Kiyomori, the Heike reach the zenith of their influence, banishing and executing most of their serious rivals, and when the Empress gives birth to a male heir (later to be made Emperor himself), it appears that their power is unmatchable:
"This, our island land of Japan,
 has only sixty-six provinces,
 and the Heike ruled over thirty.
 Half the realm and more was theirs,
 quite apart from all their estates, 
 their countless fields, paddy and dry."
Book One, p.15 (Penguin Classics, 2014)
Pride, however, is known to come before a fall, and the way in which the Taira clan seize power doesn't please everyone.  In the provinces, the exiled Genji are waiting, and in the space of a few short years, the dynasty Kiyomori has built up will be swept away forever...

The Tale of the Heike is a monumental work, seven-hundred pages of poetry, myths, intrigue, battles and noble deaths.  It's the foundation of many later Japanese works, not only in literature, but also in Kabuki, Noh and art, and it's a story any self-respecting Japanophile has to read at some point.  In many ways, it can be compared to Shakespearean tragedies, with its handling of major historical events enhanced by the psychological insights into the minds of the major protagonists.

The flawed character of the piece, a strong man with none of the doubts of a Hamlet or a Macbeth, is Lord Kiyomori, a nobleman who has rendered great service to the Imperial family over the years, putting down insurrections and removing all threats from the capital.  However, in his desire to strengthen his family's position, he is blind to the resentment he is sowing.  His son, Shigemori, has a cooler, wiser head than his father and attempts to warn him of the dangers of his actions:
"The deeds of the fathers, good or bad,
 clearly touch their descendants' lives.
 The house with a rich store of good
 will thrive far into times to come;
 the one long given to evil ways
 faces only calamity -
 so I have heard..."
Book Two, p.84
Despite the respect the father has for the son, the overbearing behaviour continues, and when Shigemori passes away, it's inevitable that Kiyomori will continue down his all-or-nothing path.

Eventually, the tide begins to turn, and the enemies of the Heike begin to think seriously about how they can remove the hated family from power.  With the tacit acceptance of the cloistered (retired) Emperor Go Shirakawa, exiled members of the Genji, under the leadership of Minamoto no Yoritomo, begin to gather their forces in preparation for the battles to come.  The spark comes when a tentative uprising led by an Imperial prince is crushed, leading to the burning of temples in Nara and the removal of the capital to Fukuhara (now Kobe):
One might say that the Heike had now committed their greatest outrage yet.
"Ever since back in the Angen years," people kept saying,
"that man has banished or killed senior nobles and privy gentlemen,
exiled a regent, appointed his own son-in-law regent,
shifted the cloistered emperor to a Seinan Palace,
and murdered his second son, Prince Mochihito.
In short, moving the capital is probably just the last affront he could think of."
Book Five, p.252
With the support of the neutrals wavering, and armies of Genji warriors massed to the East, life in Kyoto is about to get very interesting indeed...

While the writing of The Tale of the Heike is attributed to 14th-Century Buddhist monks, the English-language version is very much Tyler's work (and a wonderful work it is too).  From the forbidding picture of Kiyomori on the cover to the detailed maps at the back, the whole book shows how much work has gone into its creation.  In addition to the above, the reader is also treated to an introduction setting the scene, family trees, glossaries and copious footnotes for those who want them.

The handling of the actual text is also rather interesting.  Tyler has chosen to put the book into three differing styles: one is a descriptive prose, one a declarative recitation style and the other reserved for songs or Japanese poetry.  This mix of styles lends the text a Homerian air at times, and in addition to the imagery of words, there is also the real thing.  The book includes many ink drawings from a 19th-Century Japanese edition of the book (drawn by Tesai Hokuba, a pupil of the famous Hokusai), each detailing a pivotal, and well-known, scene from the story.

None of that would be important, though, if the story was no good, so it's lucky that The Tale of the Heike is a cracking read.  Like the Iliad, it's full of stories of heroic warriors and their deeds, with soldiers challenging their enemies and performing miraculous feats of strength and courage.  There are sea battles (in which the Genji attempt to recover the boy Emperor and the three treasures of the imperial line - including Amaterasu's mirror...), political intrigue, infighting for positions and even a cast of thousands of warrior monks - what's not to like? ;)

In fairness, I'd have to say that there are a few dull areas.  The writers had a tendency to give warriors lengthy back stories after their death, and the repeated descriptions of prayers and lists of warriors on the march can pall after a while.  There's also a lot more repetition than is accepted in English (I lost track of how many times a character turned away with 'their sleeves soaked by tears'...), and it would take a very determined reader indeed to absorb every word of the book.

These are minor quibbles, though, and the truth is that I loved it.  The Tale of the Heike is a truly epic, spectacular book, a classic of world literature, and Tyler deserves immense praise for making it into a novel that many an Anglophone reader will enjoy.  It's a work which underpins Japanese cultural history, and any J-Lit fan who gives it a try will come out of the experience with their knowledge of the area greatly enriched.

So, where to from here?  Well, it just so happens that Tyler is also the man who put out a highly-acclaimed version of the all-time Japanese classic, Lady Murasaki's magnum opus, and after reading this, I'm keener than ever to continue my adventures in classic J-Lit.  I said it last year, and I'll say it again this year (hopefully, with more accuracy!) - 2015 will be the year of The Tale of Genji ;)

Thursday, 22 January 2015

'Grass on the Wayside' by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

It wouldn't be January in Japan without looking at a book by the great Natsume Sōseki, and today's choice is one I've had on the shelves for far too long.  One of his last completed novels, appearing not long before the incomplete Light and Dark, it's an intensely personal work (as much for me as for the writer), and what's more, it's a landmark review in one other way - this is the tenth of his I've written about :)

*****
Grass on the Wayside (translated by Edwin McClellan) is the story of Kenzō, a university lecturer in his mid-thirties.  Living and working in Tokyo, having recently returned from a few years abroad, he's a rather nervous, slightly pompous intellectual who struggles to relate to others:
"That he might leave his desk once in a while and indulge in some sort of recreation never occurred to him.  A well-meaning friend once suggested that he might take up Nō recitation as a hobby.  He had grace enough to refuse politely, but secretly he was quite shocked at the man's frivolity.  How can the fellow, he asked himself incredulously, find the time for such nonsense?  He could not see that his own attitude toward time had become mean and miserly."
p.6 (Tuttle Publishing, 1971)
Kenzō would love nothing more than to be left alone with his work, but it's unlikely to happen - this is not a culture where an individual can remain cut off from those around them.

As a relatively successful man, Kenzō is responsible for helping his relatives out when necessary, including his asthmatic sister and her no-good husband, his elder brother and his wife's parents (while his father-in-law was once a successful public official, he has come down in the world and now needs assistance himself).  To top it all off, while out walking one day, our friend sees a familiar face from the past.  The old man standing on the corner is Shimada, an important figure from Kenzō's childhood.  What ensues is less a happy reunion than another claim on Kenzō's time and finances...

Grass on the Wayside was written shortly before Sōseki's death.  Suffering from stomach illness at the time, he was not in the most optimistic of moods, and this is reflected in the book.  It's actually an extremely personal novel, and McClellan's short introduction explains both the prevailing trend of 'I' novels of the time and the parallels between Kenzō's story and the writer's own circumstances. 

The main plot concerns the connection between Kenzō and Shimada.  Between the ages of two and eight (as was the case with Sōseki himself), Kenzō was adopted out by his family to Shimada, a situation which was not too uncommon in the Japan of the time.  While all legal and financial issues were settled when the boy was returned to his real parents, Shimada is nevertheless hoping to take advantage and squeeze money out of his former 'son':
"Kenzō did not quite know what to say.  He looked at the tobacco tray he had placed in front of the visitor, and thought of the old man with the shoddy umbrella staring at him through the rain.  Kenzō could not help hating him.  He remained silent, torn between his sense of indebtedness and his hatred." (p.21)
A modern (Western) reader might wonder why he is unable to simply brush the claim off - unfortunately, both Japanese culture and Kenzō's personality render that more difficult than it might first appear.

Like many of the characters in the novel, Shimada is able to take advantage of Kenzō's weakness.  The lecturer may be intellectually able, but he's certainly not a man of the world, and this causes most of his problems:
"The trouble with him, however, was that behind the obstinacy there was a rather indecisive streak in his character.  He simply did not have the courage to refuse outright to lend his signature; he was afraid of seeming too heartless." (p.119)
However, his reticence to act is due not only to any perceived weakness, but also to a genuine moral dilemma.  Unlike his wife and brother, who are concerned about any possible legal claim, Kenzō is actually more worried about whether Shimada truly has a moral claim on his assistance...

The other main theme explored in Grass on the Wayside is that of marriage, and the novel provides great psychological insight into a standard (unhappy) relationship.  Both Kenzō and his wife are at fault (although by modern, Western standards, Kenzō is certainly the main offender); they are two people separated by minds and attitudes, observing basic formalities and little else:
"Her expression was blank.  I could have shown pleasure, she thought, if only he had said something kind.  Kenzō, on the other hand, resented her seeming indifference, and blamed her for his own silence." (p.34)
This miscommuncation is typical of the way they go about their daily life.  The two do attempt to get along in their bumbling way, but they are simply never able to open up to each other.

As mentioned, this is a late Sōseki, and the style and subject matter are typically dark and heavy, very different to the light touch shown in earlier work (e.g. Botchan, Kusamakura).  As a character, Kenzō has echoes of Daisuke in Sorekara/And Then (again, a much lighter book).  Both men are vacillating and western-influenced, unable to cope with the more practical, mercenary people around them.  In terms of style, however, Grass on the Wayside is more similar to the writer's final (unfinished) work, Light and Dark.  The closing piece in Sōseki's oeuvre takes the marriage themes introduced in previous works and examines them in exhaustive detail; the handling of Kenzō's marital woes can be seen as a warm-up for the longer novel to come.

Grass on the Wayside is not a book for everyone, but Sōseki fans will love this.  It's an absorbing, psychological tale - and a warning to the unwary...  I finished this on New Year's Eve, around the time the story comes to an end, and Sōseki's tale of a busy man, surrounded by family, stress and fatigue is, unfortunately, all too familiar.  Grass on the Wayside can be read not just as a novel, but as a warning to those who set matters intellectual above domestic affairs.  Consider it a warning heeded...

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

'Masks' by Fumiko Enchi (Review)

Today's post looks at another of my January in Japan finds at the university library (as can be seen from the unfortunate placing of the bar code...).  As always, I'm a little light on female writers, and this is a book, and an author, I've been meaning to get to for some time.  Be careful, though - in this one, the writer's main theme seems to be that women are not always to be trusted.  Consider yourselves forewarned...

*****
Fumiko Enchi's Masks (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) begins in Kyoto, where Tsuneo Ibuki and Toyoki Mikame, two university lecturers from Tokyo, meet by chance in a café.  The two friends are in town for conferences, but as luck would have it, they are about to see something very special.  Meeting up with Ibuki's student, Yasuko, and her mother-in-law, Mieko Toganō, the men are privileged to visit the home of a master of the Nō play, a Japanese art form which uses masks to display characters and emotions.

The masks the group are allowed to view then act as leitmotifs for the story: the 'Ryō no Onna', or spirit woman; the 'Masugami', or frenzied young woman; and the 'Fukai', or deep, middle-aged woman.  Each comes to be associated with one of the female characters, and while the masks may seem rather fixed and one-dimensional, in fact they are incredible works of art, allowing the knowledgeable onlooker to discern shades of emotion.  What's more, they display while concealing - and the men in the story are to find out that the women in their lives are quite adept at using their masks in affairs of the heart...

Masks is a short novel, but it's a superb examination of the way people manipulate and are manipulated in turn.  The action is mainly seen through the eyes of the two men, but it's clear from the start that it's the women who hold all the cards in this game.  With Yasuko's husband having died in an avalanche, the young woman is a tempting prize for Ibuki and Mikame; the problem is that this prize will come at a cost (and has some hidden conditions...).

One of the issues is that there is a tight connection between Yasuko and Mieko.  The two professors are aware of the link, but have differing views as to who holds the power in the relationship.  Ibuki, while attracted to Yasuko, senses something amiss:
"She made the appeal prettily, her head tilted to one side, but to Ibuki her soft smile was repugnant, seeming to reveal within her an unconscious hint of the harlot."
pp.15/6 (Tuttle Press, 1984)
However, Mikame, less inclined to analyse, has a different view:
"...but to him Mieko resembled less an outsize drawing of a beautiful woman than a slightly vulgar background of some sort - a heavy, ornate tapestry or a large blossoming tree - against which Yasuko's youth and charm showed off to heightened advantage." (p.17)
Of course, both of these images are mere masks, and finding out what lies beneath is set to be a difficult and costly experience.

As much as we experience events through the men, the key figure in the novel is Mieko.  She's an attractive middle-aged widow, a poet living with her daughter-in-law and a daughter who has only recently returned to the family.  Like the other main characters, she has an interest in the depiction of spirit possession in literature and folklore, and the chance discovery of an essay she wrote decades ago provides an insight into her character.

In her piece, she focuses on the Rokujō Lady, one of the many lovers the main character has in The Tale of Genji, and while this woman is considered a minor character, for Mieko she is much more important.  The Rokujō Lady attacks other characters unconsciously through her spirit, and while many despise her for this, Mieko sees something very different, a powerful woman, too strong for the men around her.  Mmm - I wonder if that has a relevance in Enchi's novel...

Another interesting focus in the novel is on relationships in Japanese society, with the way marriages, courtships and extra-marital affairs are handled being very different to what we (in the West) might expect.  As Ibuki gets closer to Yasuko, his wife becomes suspicious, but the way she reacts (and Ibuki's reaction to her reaction) is slightly alien.  Mikame's calm acceptance of the way matters unfold is also puzzling - the very idea of what a marriage is (as shown by Mieko's husband's 'traditions'...) is completely different to the Christian norm.

Masks is a novel that unfolds elegantly, with an excellent plot which is gradually revealed.  The men are pawns in a game, that much is clear from an early stage - we're just not quite sure what the game is and who the main player is:
"You and I are accomplices, aren't we, in a dreadful crime - a crime that only women could commit." (p.126)
Yasuko's comment to Mieko towards the end of the novel may give you a hint of what is to come, but only a hint.  This is a very subtle game ;)

Although I've read some of Enchi's work before (in the form of short stories), this is the first longer piece I've tried, and I found it excellent.  There's great command of the characters, with a focus on dialogue and the psychological development of the mian figures, and the writer's knowledge of Japanese literary culture comes through in the way classic stories are used in the text to foreshadow later events (it comes as no surprise to learn that Enchi translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese).  Praise must go, of course, to Winters Carpenter, who has created an excellent English-language text, a credit to Enchi's story.  In particular, the dialogue and thought are rendered superbly, an area which can often let a translation down.

Masks is a short novel, but it's a very good one by a writer who certainly knows her craft.  It's a warning of the perils of human relationships and an examination of woman as both comfort and danger.  As Mieko concludes in her essay:
"Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man's eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.  The Rokujō lady is an embodiment of this archetype." (p.37)
Perhaps she's right - but I can think of another one...

Sunday, 18 January 2015

'The Hunting Gun' by Yasushi Inoue (Review)

After starting their expansion into Japanese literature with a collection of Ryu Murakami books last year, Pushkin Press went a little more traditional with their second major J-Lit writer.  Yasushi Inoue was a well-respected figure in twentieth-century Japanese writing, and the retranslation of his Akutagawa-Prize-winning novella Bullfight was a big success on its release.  Since then, Pushkin have brought out a couple more of Inoue's works in their beautiful mini-paperbacks, and today's is a story every bit as beautiful as the paper that contains it :)  I haven't just stopped at a review today, though - keep reading afterwards for a more in-depth look at the text...

*****
The Hunting Gun (translated by Michael Emmerich, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a haunting story of love and lies, related in a series of letters.  The tale is set up by a frame narrative told by a writer, a man who submits a prose poem to a hunting magazine.  Once the piece appears in print, he realizes that it's slightly out of place and expects some harsh responses from the magazine's readership.

In fact, the submission elicits just one reply, in the form of a letter from a certain Jōsuke Misugi.  While Misugi enjoyed the poem, his reason for writing to the narrator is his belief that he is the figure depicted in the piece, lost in thought; having read it, he decides he'd like to explain to the poet just why he looked so distracted on that crisp early morning:
"You will no doubt be puzzled by what I am about to explain, coming as it does out of the blue, but I have here three letters that were addressed to me.  I intended to burn them, but now, having read your poem and learnt of your existence, I find myself wanting to share them with you."
p.17 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
Thus, the writer comes into possession of the three letters, all from women in the melancholy hunter's life - together, they tell quite a story...

The Hunting Gun is a classic novella, very Japanese in its content, but similar in style to many Western works, particularly Victorian epistolary classics (e.g. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).  Inoue calmly, gradually reveals the story behind the poet's image, the hunter lost in thought, casually holding his gun.  Each new letter is a further layer to the story, shedding new light on proceedings, both in terms of the backstory and Misugi's character and behaviour.

The first of the three letters is from his niece, Shōko, ostensibly thanking him for his concern in helping with the arrangements after her mother, Saiko's, death.  However, in reality, she is writing to reveal that she knows about the secret he has been keeping for decades.  The second letter is sent by Misugi's wife, Midori, one in which there's a nasty surprise awaiting the husband.  Finally, we get to hear (posthumously) from Saiko herself, and this letter fills in the final details of the story behind Misugi's forlorn condition.

While the plot isn't that hard to guess, I'd prefer to leave most of it unspoken (this is a J-Lit review, after all) - part of the beauty of the book is the way in which the story unfolds, with differing points of view transforming events described in earlier passages.  The writing is beautifully elegant (and I'll be looking at Emmerich's work in more detail soon), and great work has gone into the creation of the voices.  There are actually five different speakers, including the narrator and Misugi, and each is distinct, from Misugi's clipped, formal style to Midori's indirect chatter.  Still, a lot is left between the lines for us to infer - this isn't a story which imposes its meaning upon the reader.

The Hunting Gun is a nostalgic tale, one of lost loves and a painful longing for the past:
"Each of you was silent, lost in your own thoughts.  The adult world was so lonesome, scary and sad that I could hardly bear it." (p.45)
As Shōko discovers, the adult world is full of secrets and lies, and there is a stark contrast between the poetic images we see from a distance and the truth that lies behind them.  Inoue's tale is a wonderful story that shows that every poem or painting has a backstory which is every bit as fascinating as the work of art itself...

*****
I'd actually read this story before, albeit in a different version.  In the classic anthology Modern Japanese Stories (edited by Ivan Morris, link is to my review), the story appears as Shotgun, in a translation by George Saitō, and the 1962 version has a rather different feel in places to the 2014 translation.  Let's take the passage at the start of the story where the narrator explains how his poem came to be in the magazine:
"It so happened that an old high-school classmate, the editor of 'Fellow Hunters', asked me to write a poem - noting that even at my age I was still writing after my fashion for obscure poetry magazines.  He probably asked me in a mood of fancy and out of courtesy after a long lapse in our association.  Ordinarily I would have declined such a proposal, since I had no interest in the magazine and his request was that I write about hunting.  It happened, however, that I had thought of some day writing a poem about the hunting rifle and man's solitude.  This would be exactly the right outlet." (Saitō, 1962, p.417)

"It just so happens that the editor of 'The Hunter's Friend' is a high-school classmate of mine, and when he heard that even now, at my age, I haven't outgrown the habit of publishing my somewhat idiosyncratic poems in a privately printed journal some of my poet friends and I put out, he asked if I would contribute a piece to his magazine.  Presumably he was only being polite, suggesting this on a whim as a way of making up for our having been out of touch for so long.  That's all it was.  Ordinarily I would have demurred without a moment's hesitation, seeing as the magazine focused so narrowly on a topic with which I had no connection, and because he had stipulated that the poem had to deal in some way with hunting; but as chance would have it I had recently been led to feel a certain poetic interest in hunting guns and their relationship to the solitude of the human condition, and I had just been thinking that I should write something on the topic one day.  His magazine seemed like the best possible venue for such a work..." (Emmerich, 2014, pp.9/10)
The first thing that stands out, more clearly than I'd thought, is the length of the respective passages.  Saitō has managed to dash his off in a breezy, matter-of-fact manner (I imagine here Dickens asking Trollope - over a few beers - to contribute something to one of his monthly magazines and Trollope cheerily agreeing - although with the subject matter, perhaps it should be the other way round...).

Emmerich, however, has lengthened the passage considerably - or, should I say, kept the original length (if anyone out there has the original...).  In particular, the last two sentences of Saitō's version expand to almost double the length in the newer translation, and the extra detail included is rather effective.  Emmerich's narrator seems to be attempting to justify his decision to write the poem, going beyond the call of duty to explain his reasons to the reader.  Why?  Well, that's for the careful reader to decide ;)

Reading the two texts (not just the passages above) side by side, I noticed several other clear differences in the way the translators have gone about their work.  I suspect that in terms of faithfulness to word order and cohesion, Saitō sticks to the original more closely (which is not always a good thing - Japanese repeats the same coordinating conjunctions frequently, where English opts for a variety of subordinating conjunctions).  Emmerich appears to have made judgement calls on where best to position clauses in sentences to make the text read more naturally in English.  Having said that, the passages above also suggest that the older translation deliberately omits 'unnecessary' details to move the plot along more quickly.  Again, a look at the original text would be handy here...

There's also a major difference in the length of the sentences used by the two translators.  Both Saitō and Emmerich use five sentences to convey the information; however, with Emmerich's version being much longer, the sentences, necessarily, contain much more information (in fact, the one short sentence in the middle of Emmerich's version, merely echoes information from the end of the previous sentence), and his final sentence actually goes on to include information rendered in a further two-sentence paragraph in Saitō's text.

One of the effects of the extra length of the newer version is that the language appears much more tentative in the modern version: 'as chance would have it', 'been led to feel a certain poetic interest', 'had just been thinking', 'seemed like the best possible venue'.  I certainly had the impression that Emmerich's narrator was a much more careful writer, a poet to Saitō's prose novelist.  Perhaps a better indication of this might be seen in the first lines of the actual prose poem the narrator submitted to the magazine, 'The Hunting Gun' (or, less poetically, 'Shotgun'):
"Large pipe clamped between his lips, a setter just ahead, the man trudged up the path towards the summit of Mount Amagi, through early-winter brush, crushing hoar frost beneath his rubber boots."
(Emmerich, p.10)

"A man with a big seaman's pipe in his mouth went up the path slowly, weaving through the bushes on Mt. Amagi in early winter, walking a setter before him and treading the frost needles under his boots." (Saitō, p.417)
Well - what do *you* think? ;)

Thursday, 15 January 2015

'Manazuru' by Hiromi Kawakami (Review)

Today's post sees my review of the first of the two January in Japan group reads, and while the writer is very familiar, the book itself is perhaps less well known.  It's the story of a woman trying to find herself, and looking in one particular place...  The weather's nice - let's take a trip to the coast ;)

*****
Hiromi Kawakami's Manazuru (translated by Michael Emmerich) is centred on Kei, a middle-aged woman living with her daughter, Momo, and her mother back in the family home.  Twelve years ago, her husband, Rei, vanished without a word, and while her life has stabilised to a certain extent, thanks in part to a relationship with a married man, she certainly has a lot of unfinished business.

One day, on a whim, Kei sets off for the seaside town of Manazuru, hoping to find answers in the course of her travels.  It's the first of several visits, and the only one she spends alone.  On the next outing, she's accompanied by her daughter; after that, her companion is someone slightly less familiar...

Kawakami is well known for her novel The Briefcase (AKA Strange Weather in Tokyo), and for those who have already tried that one, Manazuru may come as a bit of a surprise.  It's certainly a little darker and edgier, with a more surreal style in parts than The Briefcase.  Of course, with only the two novels out in English, who's to say which is the more representative of her style.

The main theme explored in the novel is that of letting go and finding closure.  Kei, understandably, was shattered by Rei's disappearance, and you get the sense that her daughter and her mother have been tip-toeing around her for a long time - only now are questions being asked about Rei, and the couple's life together.  Through fleeting glimpses of a diary in which we see random messages, and Kei's flashbacks to Rei's (imagined) affair, we start to piece together what actually happened.  The truth is, though, that we are just as confused as Kei herself is.

One of the coping strategies she uses is her long-term affair with Seiji, a married man, a relationship which definitely feels like a crutch to help her carry on:
     "To become involved is not to be close.  It isn't exactly to be distant, either.  When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation."
p.7 (Counterpoint Press, 2010)
While she seems like the clingy one, the truth is that Seiji's stand-offishness is more of a defence mechanism - he senses that Kei still has another man in her life...

A large part of the book is about the relationship between the three women.  Having returned to her family home after her husband's disappearance, Kei is now one of three generations of women under the one roof:
     "Now that we were living together again, were we close?  Three women, our three bodies.  Like spheres joined in motion, that is how we are.  Not concentric spheres, each sphere cradles its own center, not flat but full, that is how we are." (p.21)
With Momo going though her teens, Kei is trying to hold onto her daughter's love, regretting the loss of the closeness they once shared.  Only gradually does she realise that her mother feels the same way about her.

Of course, while the human is important, it's the supernatural that stands out.  The striking feature of Manazuru is the spirits that follow Kei around, appearing both at home and in public.  While most are indistinct blurs, one eventually coalesces, a woman who keeps drawing Kei back to Manazuru, threatening to pull her across into the other realm:
"I notice, suddenly, that there is no sound at all.
     Gripping my half-drunk cup of coffee in one hand, I have been gazing down at the woman's face, reflected in the puddle.  The size of a bean at first, it grew to walnut size, then finally assumed the the size of an actual human face." (p.97)
It's in this other realm that she hopes to finally find out what happened to Rei - but is he even there?  What if her trips to the coast are all a big mistake?

Manazuru is a book I enjoyed a lot the first time around.  It has a subtle style, written in short, clipped sentences, with a cinematic air to the whole story.  In typically Japanese fashion, you sense that the important information remains unspoken, with much lying beneath the surface.  Each of the main characters, while generally acting calmly, were adrift in a sea of emotions: Kei's rage at Rei's disappearance; Momo's hurt and desperation; the Mother's fury at her son-in-law and desire to help her daughter; and Seiji's hidden desire to get closer to Kei.

However, when I looked at other's comments, not everyone seems to have enjoyed it as much as I did, and on a second reading, a few weeks later, it did appear a little less appealing.  The language was more troublesome on the second attempt - deliberately short and confronting, the spiky sentences sometimes get in the way of the reading.  I also found Kei a little more annoying at times, and knowing where we were going, I actually found the story a little too vague this time around.

Most readers will prefer The Briefcase, but this is still a good read, one I'd recommend (particularly if you like the understated variety of J-Lit).  If you want to see what others thought, check out the dedicated page over at the JiJ blog, and if that's not incentive enough, I've got a few surprises for you.  Kawakami may only have two novels translated into English, but the page does have a few other bits and pieces I've managed to dig up.

Off you go, then ;)

Monday, 12 January 2015

'The Kojiki' by Ō no Yasumaro (Review)

While January in Japan is a time to catch up with some of my favourite Japanese writers, I also like to look at some more classical texts, and when it comes to classic J-Lit, you can't really go much further back than today's choice.  We're going back in time with a book first written at the start of the eighth century - the content, however, dates from much earlier than that...

*****
The Kojiki (translated by Gustav Heldt, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is, as it says on the cover, an account of ancient matters.  The book was compiled by an official of the court (Ō no Yasumaro) in an attempt to codify the many versions of the Japanese ruling family's genealogy.  All of which sounds innocent enough, until you realise that the Emperor and his family actually claimed divine descent from the gods themselves, a fact that allowed certain liberties to be taken over a thousand years later...

The work itself is divided into three books, roughly equating to the eras of myth, legend and history.  In the first, the reader is treated to the Japanese creation myth, in which a collection of spirits appear, later begetting the first big names in the pantheon, Izanagi (He Who Beckoned) and his sister Izanami (She Who Beckoned).  While their methods of creating the Japanese archipelago are unusual (and slightly incestuous), unfortunately, the nation's gender roles are established right from the beginning of the country, when a couple of false starts with the creation of the Japanese homeland are blamed on Izanami's temerity in speaking first...

Later we get to meet Amaterasu (Heaven Shining), the ruler of all heaven, and her destructive brother Susa-no-o (Rushing Raging Man) and learn what happened when she fled to the underworld (and how she was persuaded to return).  The section ends with a shift from the age of spirits to the world below:
"And with these commands, the mighty one Ripening Rice Ears Lad of Heaven left his stone-firm seat in heaven and pushed through layer after layer of heaven's trailing clouds.  After solemnly selecting his path, he stood tall on the floating bridge of heaven, then descended to the wondrous ancient peak of Mount Thousand Rice Ears Tall in Sunward on Land's End to reside there."
p.50 (Columbia University Press, 2014)
Better known as Hiko-ho-no-ninigi, this spirit is the one who will be the ancestor of the mortal rulers to come.

The second book begins with the voyage of the first (mythical) Japanese Emperor Jinmu as he travels from Kyushu to the Nara region, subduing rivals as he goes.  As we move from ruler to ruler, the writer describes their wives, offspring and notable actions whilst on the throne.  While this part is more concerned with the exploits of men than spirits, we're still very much in the realm of fantasy, with several Emperors living far beyond a century (and one described precisely as being 10 feet 3 inches tall...).

There's a focus here on war, with many Emperors winning fame by forcing 'barbarian' tribes, including some across the water in Silla and Paekche (Korea), to submit to the Yamato forces.  It's mostly written in a sombre tone, but there is the odd note of unintentional humour:
     "Now the mighty one Pacified Land Lad shot an arrow that straightaway struck the mighty prince Clay Calmed Brave, slaying him.
     So his force was shattered, and they fled, scattering.
     And so their foes chased after the fleeing force, pursuing them to the ford of Camphor Leaves, where they were so hard pressed that they soiled their breeches.
     Hence that place was named Soiled Breeches.  (Nowadays it is called Camphor Leaves.)" (pp.86/7)
It's probably for the best that they changed the name back...

In the final book, the story turns to more historical figures, and the focus on the otherwordly starts to disappear.  Having vanquished most foes, now it's time for the Yamato to turn on each other, with much of the book taken up with power struggles between scheming brothers, each of whom is eager for the ultimate power ( a warning - there will be blood...).  The other main theme here is romance, with many of the Emperors using their time between murders to compose impromptu songs in an attempt to court comely maidens, a sign of things to come in later classic Japanese literature :)

The Kojiki has a lot to interest those with a strong passion for Japanese literature, but I'd have to caution the casual reader - this isn't a book anyone can just pick up and speed through.  The style is a rolling, clipped prose, reminiscent of the language (in English) of Beowulf or the Greek myths.  There's also a fascination (understandably, given the book's origins) with the royal lineage, and in the second and third books in particular, there are pages filled with '...and ruled over all under heaven from there...' and 'This sovereign of heaven took to wife...'.  Believe me - some of these rulers did nothing but rule under heaven and take women to wife...

Some of you may also have noticed that many of the names above, both of people and places, look rather... well, unjapanese, and that's because Heldt made the decision to transfer them all into English.  It was probably a wise decision as these names can be very long (and similar), but it does make things confusing if you do know a little about the creation myths, as you're constantly trying to connect the Japanese and translated names.  Still, there's a wonderful glossary at the end of the book (with maps!), and the names Heldt has chosen are, for the most part, suitably elegant and poetic :)

A book for J-Lit purists rather than newcomers, then, but it is an essential read if you have more than a superficial interest in the culture.  Just as the Bible and the classic Greek texts underpin much of western literature, so too does The Kojiki inform later Japanese culture, if not always for the better.  As I mentioned above, there is a dark side to tracing back your royal family's origins to the gods - this connection to the spirits allowed Japanese nationalists to harp on the unique nature of the Japanese people, with tragic consequences during the first half of the twentieth century.  Myths are all well and good, provided that they're not used as justification for exploitation and war...

*****
Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)

Saturday, 10 January 2015

What's Happening in January in Japan?

This is just a quick post to update everyone about the challenge kicking off 2015, January in Japan!  We're already well underway, so if you haven't joined us so far, this is what's been happening...

Four lucky readers have already won a book each by Yasunari Kawabata in the first of our Golden Kin-Yōbi giveaways, but there are more great prizes available in this week's competition, courtesy of Kurodahan Press.  Just click on the link, choose which book you'd like to win and you might be walking away with a slice of J-Lit goodness :)

This week also saw the first of our J-Lit Giants posts for 2015, with Ryū Murakami being inducted into the pantheon.  The 'other' Murakami is the thirteenth entrant into our hall of fame, but there'll be several more coming up over the next few weeks.

This year, we have two group reads planned, and the first is Hiromi Kawakami's novel ManazuruNext Thursday, the 15th of January, I'll be posting a page at the JiJ site with some information about the writer and a place for everyone to share their reviews of the book.  If you want to be involved (and you have a copy of the book), there's still time to join us...

And speaking of reviews, don't forget to have your say by adding to the list.  If you follow this link to the 2015 Reviews page, you'll be able to share all your January in Japan thoughts with the rest of the participants :)

So, what are you waiting for?  Enter the contest, read about our J-Lit Giants, and share some of your January reading - let's make January a time for J-Lit enjoyment ;)

Thursday, 8 January 2015

'Almost Transparent Blue' by Ryū Murakami (Review)

While I was looking for a couple of Korean books in the University library recently, I accidentally stumbled upon something I hadn't noticed on previous visits - the rather larger Japanese section just around the corner.  With January in Japan coming up, I realised that this was a sign, so in addition to the two K-Lit books I took with me, I decided to get a couple of Japanese offerings too.  Today sees the first of these reviews, and while the source is new, the writer will be very familiar to regular readers of the blog ;)

*****
I read my first Ryū Murakami book just in time for the first January in Japan event two years ago, and since then I've tried a few more, but one I've been meaning to try for some time is his debut work, Almost Transparent Blue (translated by Nancy Andrew).  A novella running to around 120 pages, Murakami's first publication won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1976, and it made waves in Japan with its shocking depiction of drug use and sexual freedom.  Even today, it can be a confronting read at times.

The book starts as it means to go on, with the first few pages not only introducing our narrator, nineteen-year-old Ryū, but also casually detailing group sex, violence, squalor and explicit drug use:
"Reiko pouted and glared at Okinawa as she took the leather thong and made a tight tourniquet around my left arm.  When I made a fist with my hand, a thick blood vessel stood out in my arm.  Okinawa rubbed the spot with alcohol two or three times before plunging the wet needle tip in toward the bulging vein.  When I opened my fist, blackish blood ran up into the cylinder.  Saying Heyheyhey, Okinawa coolly pushed the plunger, and the heroin and blood entered me all at once."
p.15 (Kodansha International, 1981)
From there, the story continues into a description of a life spiralling out of control as Ryu and his friends drift from one 'party' to another, the playthings of American soldiers, scorned by mainstream society - at times rightly so.

Ryū is an interesting character, a bisexual, crossdressing teen at the centre of a group of friends determined to make every moment of life count.  These are hedonistic times, and the friends are open to any and every experience, no matter how unsettling they might appear to the sensitive reader.  The orgy (or 'party') scenes are particularly strong at times, with some of the action verging on rape, even if the participants don't see it that way.

As the book progresses, Murakami widens the scope a little, and we see the group venturing into the outside world of 'normal' society.  This then develops into a clash of cultures, where the drugged-up youths disturb the daily routines of the mainstream citizens, vomiting on trains and scaring schoolchildren out on an excursion.  However, when police burst in on them, we see that in truth they're just a gang of overgrown kids, hiding away from the real world.

Almost Transparent Blue is written in the form of short chapters which, while chronologically in order, appear disjointed and discrete, each an experience in its own right.  While they depict people living for the moment, the reality is that there doesn't appear to be much joy involved; often, the scenes seem mechanical, numb, emotionless.  This is a look at the lost boys (and girls) of a rebellious generation, a group of young people reliant on each other, scared about what's on the other side of their crazy years.

One of the first characters Ryū encounters in the book is Lilly, a prostitute, one of the more grounded characters in the story.  The scenes in her bedroom are the calm amongst the storms, a chance for Ryū to centre himself.  In fact, he's a contemplative soul, teased by the others for his ability to withdraw when he wants to:
     "Well, you mean with Acid?  You'll experiment with stuff like that?  I don't get what you want to do."
     "Yeah, I don't get it myself, I don't really know what I should do.  But I'm not going to go to India or anything like that, nowhere I want to go, really.  These days, you know, I look out the window, all by myself.  Yeah, I look out a lot, the rain and the birds, you know, and the people just walking on the street.  If you look a long time, it's really interesting, that's what I mean by looking around.  I don't know why, but these things really look new to me."
     "Don't talk like an old man, Ryū, saying things look new is a sign of old age, you know." (pp.97/8)
Ryū is definitely a little different to some of his friends - we do wonder though whether he'll be able to come out of the whirlpool of hedonism with soul and body intact...

The intriguing title comes from a scene near the end of the book, one in which Ryū sees a broken shard of glance and marvels at the colours he can see in it.  As he walks towards his apartment at the start of a new day, there's a sense that this is his opportunity to turn things around.  By this time, though, it might already be too late for our impressionistic young friend.  Having come too close to the eye of the storm, it's going to take a major effort to make his way out again.

Almost Transparent Blue isn't for everyone, but it's an excellent (quick) read and a shock to the system - little wonder that it stood out on its publication.  Murakami's novella is a window into a world most of us will never be a part of, and in many ways the choice of the author's own name for his central character is apt.  Ryū is our ticket into the chaos of the scenes depicted in the book; while following him through the streets of Tokyo, we feel that we are being sucked into the hedonistic world of the sixties...

...like I said, this won't be to everyone's tastes ;)

Monday, 5 January 2015

'Rivers' by Teru Miyamoto (Review)

With the new year already a few days old, it's high time for my first review for January in Japan :)  I'm kicking off my series of posts with a look at a writer whose work I've tried once before.  Today's book, however, is where he made his name, an excellent collection of three works which, for the first time, are now available in one volume in English.  Let's take a walk down to the river...

*****
Teru Miyamoto's Rivers (translated by Ralph F. McCarthy and Roger K. Thomas, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press) brings together three of the writer's most famous pieces.  'Muddy River' won the Osamu Dazai Prize in 1977, while 'River of Fireflies' was awarded the 78th Akutagawa Prize the following year.  These two novellas run to about about fifty pages each, but the third story, 'River of Lights', which also began life as a novella, was later expanded into a 150-page short novel.  The three parts of Rivers are unconnected in terms of characters and plot; however, as you'll see, there's a lot which links the stories together and justifies the decision to collect them in one volume.

The first story, 'Muddy River', is set in the mid-1950s, with eight-year-old Nobuo living above a noodle shop by a river close to Osaka Bay.  It's a working-class area, fairly removed from the aesthetically-pleasing settings of some well-known Japanese fiction:
"A patch of sunlight fell on one corner of the boat's decaying wooden roof.  Nobuo turned his eyes to the river.  He'd lived his entire life next to those muddy waters, but now, for the first time ever, they struck him as filthy and repulsive.  The horse-dung-littered asphalt, the jumble of sagging gray bridges, the soot-blackened houses - everything seemed hopelessly dismal and dreary."
'Muddy River', p.14 (Kurodahan Press, 2014)
The story focuses on a short period of Nobuo's life, one in which he meets Kiichi, a boy living with his mother and sister on a houseboat.  The two boys quickly become friends, but Nobuo gradually comes to realise that Kiichi's circumstances are very different to his own, learning a few lessons about life on the way.

'River of Fireflies' sees us leaving the Kansai region to head to Toyama, on the Sea of Japan coast.  It's now 1962, and a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, Tatsuo, is coming to terms with the impending death of his ageing father and his growing feelings for childhood friend Eiko.  Over the course of a few months, the teenager goes through a pivotal time of his life, facing up to death, responsibility and confused emotions, the story culminating in a summer day to remember - a search for the elusive fireflies...

The final part of the trilogy draws us back to Osaka, but this time the focus has shifted from the bay to downtown.  It's 1969, and university student Kunihiko is working at a small coffee shop called 'River' to make ends meet, a café located in the middle of the red-light district:
"All at once crowded, then as if by prior arrangement all at once vacated, River fell quiet as it emptied.  The rain that had begun early in the evening was falling harder.  A waterlogged drunk went staggering by.  With the colors of neon lights reflected in the puddles, the surface of Soemoncho Avenue glistened in various hues.  Hostesses plucked up the hems of their dresses as they held umbrellas for customers getting into taxis."
'River of Lights', p.128
Starting slowly, the story gradually reveals the different facets of the Dotonbori area, introducing the reader to drag queens, strippers, billiard halls and the neon lights dominating the quarter.

The greater scope of 'River of Lights' allows Miyamoto to spread his focus, and the second major character of the story is Takeuchi, the owner of the café.  He becomes a kind of guardian to the parentless Kunihiko, despite the fact that he has a son of his own, a billiard player working his way up the ranks of the Osaka hustlers.  In the floating world of Dotonbori, the café owner eventually decides that it's time for him to intervene in the lives of both young men, either with financial help or with his trusty billiards cue.

While I enjoyed my previous look at Miyamoto's work, the short-story collection Phantom Lights, Rivers is a far better book.  All three of the stories provide intriguing glimpses into the Japan of the time, with traces of the post-war poverty evident in each of the pieces.  There are old soldiers with visible war wounds, bombed buildings with people setting setting up stalls amongst the rubble and businessmen with an eye for profit taking advantage of the opportunities to make a quick fortune.

It's also hard to avoid the feeling that the three books form a deliberate trilogy, one in which the writer explores his own youth vicariously.  While the main characters are different, each time we move on seven years, as do the boys.  Each of them is forced to contemplate mortality (with the first death occurring a matter of pages into 'Muddy River'), and we move from a young boy with a sick mother, to a teenager with a dying father and then finally meet a young adult who has lost both parents.

Towards the end of 'River of Lights', Kunihiko looks out over his realm and realises how empty it all is:
"When I walk through Dotonbori at daybreak, I always get so depressed I can't stand it.  I feel like some kind of filthy stray dog and don't give a damn about anything."
'River of Lights', p.215
The words come from the mouth of his walking companion, but the sentiment could be his own.  Having followed the progress of the youth of the time, the trilogy actually has an open end, where we wonder what will become of Kunihiko, or his next incarnation.

Miyamoto is a contemporary of the two Murakamis, and while he's unlikely to achieve their level of fame and success, it's definitely worth comparing the work of the three writers.  In particular, with 'River of Lights' being set in 1969, there's an obvious opportunity to read it alongside Haruki's Norwegian Wood and Ryu's Sixty-Nine.  Three men on the cusp of adulthood, three different areas of Japan, three ways of coping with a changing society - these are books which all benefit from being read in a wider context.  Here's hoping that more western readers will put the Murakamis aside for a little while and give Miyamoto a try - I can assure you that you won't regret it :)