Mieko Kawakami: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich)

The latest addition to my website is Mieko Kawakami‘s ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich). This is a charming novel about a ten year old boy, an only child whose father died when he was four, who is struggling with growing up. He takes a fancy to a woman he nicknames Ms Ice Sandwich, who works at the sandwich bar in the local supermarket, though he is too shy to speak to her, except to order a sandwich (which he often does not eat). It is a girl of his own age – nicknamed Tutti Frutti – who does more to introduce him to the opposite sex, when she invites him to her house to watch her father’s DVD collection and, in particular, Heat, with its frequent shoot-outs, which appeal to Tutti Frutti. Haruki Murakami praised Kawakami but while I found this novel a pleasant read, I cannot share Murakami’s enthusiasm.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 黒白 (In Black and White)

The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 黒白 (In Black and White). This is the sixteenth Tanizaki on my site. It was first published in 1928 in a newspaper but it has never been published separately before, either in Japanese or in any other language. It appeared in his collected works published in Japanese in 1957 and will appear in French ten days after appearing in English. It is a clever crime story about a dissolute crime writer who writes a story about the perfect murder, with the murdered being based on himself and the victim being based on a casual acquaintance. He then worries the model for the victim will really be murdered and he will blamed. He tries to make sure he has a continuous alibi in case the man is murdered but then forgets, as he is distracted by a German prostitute who occupies most of his attention. It is a clever story and it is surprising that it has never been published separately before.

Minae Mizumura: 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother)

The latest addition to my website is Minae Mizumura‘s 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother). This is a feminist novel, about the changing role of women in Japan. We follow three generations of Japanese women, who all have their own problems, caused or exacerbated by their sex. We mainly follow Mitsuki and her older sister Natsuki who are dealing with the illness and then death of their mother, Noriko. Mitsuki, in particular, feels the responsibility she has for looking after her ailing mother, even while she learns that her husband is having an affair and planning on leaving her. But we step back to Noriko and to Noriko’s mother, who both struggled against the contemporary mores regarding the role of women. Things may have improved, but it still is not easy for women in Japan. This is another first-class work by Mizumura.

Yoshio Aramaki: 神聖代 (The Sacred Era)

The latest addition to my website is Yoshio Aramaki‘s 神聖代 (The Sacred Era). This is a science fiction novel in the tradition of Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick but it is a highly intelligent and serious work. Yoshio Aramaki has a reputation in Japan (but not elsewhere) as a first-class writer of speculative fiction (and, more recently, of virtual reality war novels). This is in the former category and considered his best work. It is set on an imaginary planet that has many features of Earth. The planet has a Christian-like religion but one that is Quadritarian rather than Trinitarian, with the Holy Igitur being the fourth divinity. It is facing serious climate change problems as a result of extraction of the hydrogen from the sea and has managed to travel great distances in space. Our hero is K. who, like his Kafkaesque namesake, is a solitary person who has been selected to take the special Sacred Service Examination. Successful candidates (there are fairly few) join a select group of people. He becomes the youngest to pass and is selected to study the Planet Bosch (named after the painter, who exists on their planet as well). However, he has to deal with the ghost of a famous heretic, Darko Dachilko, who was beheaded seven hundred years previously and who seems to like strangling people, an unusual career path, and travel to several exotic planets where he meets Lucifer (the devil), Darko Dachilko and a sex doll. While using conventional science fiction tropes and ideas, the book is ultimately a very serious examination of the nature of humanity, where humans are going a the relationship of humans with the divine.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 白昼鬼語 (Devils in Daylight)

The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 白昼鬼語 (Devils in Daylight), the second of two Tanizaki novels to appear from New Directions later this month (April 2017). This is a fairly short and early novel. It has one of Tanizaki’s favourite themes – the femme fatale. The Tanizaki alter ego, Takasashi, the narrator, tells of his somewhat unbalanced, rich and single friend Sonomura who gets wind of a murder to take place and wants Takasashi to accompany him to witness but not intervene in the murder. Takasashi reluctantly does so and, after one failed attempt to find the house where the murder takes place, they do seem to manage to find the house. They are able to hide and watch what seem to be foul deeds being committed by a man and a woman. Takasashi is even more concerned when he finds his friend having Eiko, the woman, in his house and then, later the man. Sonomura is clearly sexually attracted to Eiko, not only because she is a very good-looking woman but because her sexual attraction is enhanced by her involvement in dangerous deeds. Tanizaki tells a good story, with the inevitable unexpected twist.

Shinobu Orikuchi: 死者の書 (The Book of the Dead)

The latest addition to my website is Shinobu Orikuchi‘s 死者の書 (The Book of the Dead), a wonderful Japanese ghost story, set in the eight century. The story starts with a dead man in his tomb, who is just waking up. All he can remember is the sight of the beautiful Mimimo no Toni, whom he had never seen before but fell in love with at the moment of his death. (He was a member of the royal family and been executed, following a political intrigue some fifty years previously.). He appears as a giant ghost over Mount Futakami, and is seen by the maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara Clan (based on the historicalChūjō-hime, daughter of the powerful Fujiwara no Toyonari). She abandons her home in Nara and walks to where she has seen him and enters a nearby temple, therefore defiling it, as women cannot enter. He continues to appear to her, perhaps mistaking her for Mimimo no Toni, whose great-great-niece she is. The story follows his appearances and the dilemma faced by the monks and the powers in Nara, about what to do with her as well as how the maiden reacts. It is a superb novel, a classic of Japanese literature, which deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 台所太平記 (The Maids)

The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 台所太平記 (The Maids). This was the last novel he wrote and is something of a counterpoint to 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters). The latter tells the story of the owners, while this novel tells the stories of the maids. Though the maids are not the maids of the Makioka sisters, Tanizaki used his own life as inspiration for both novels. Indeed, Raikichi, the employer of these maids, was clearly based on Tanizaki himself. Tanizaki is always a good storyteller and his stories of a series of maids bring out their individual,characteristics and quirks. The book also shows the changing mores of Japan over the period of the novel (1935-1962), as Raikichi moves away from a strict hierarchical treatment of the maids to becoming closer to their children than to his own grandchildren. While obviously not of the quality of 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters), it is still a fascinating cap to a fine career as a writer.

Japanese Literature Part 2

Those of you of a certain age and, probably, British, may remember a song by the Vapors called Turning Japanese, with the chorus I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so. After having read twenty Japanese novels in a row, eaten several meals of sushi, drunk loads of miso soup and watched one Japanese film, I don’t think that I am quite turning Japanese, but I certainly feel more attuned to Japan and its way of thinking. So what have I learned from my reading?

  • The Japanese like sex but have an ambiguous attitude to it. Nothing new there, as the same could be said about Western literature. If you thought that the Japanese were prudish about sex, you are probably right. So are or (can be) the British, the Americans and everyone else. However, they are, like the British, the Americans and everyone else, not afraid to portray it. We have, of course, seen that with Tanizaki, for example, but we can also see it in some women writers, writing over fifty years ago, such as Hayashi, Uno and Enchi, which we might not have expected. Only one of the novels I read – きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle) – dealt with homosexuality and then in a sort of mocking way.
  • They like their food. Again, food is an omnipresent in most literatures. In most literatures it can also be used as a ritual, as with big family meals or the like. The Japanese are, of course, noted for their tea ceremony and other food-related rituals, but in the twenty novels I have just read, I was surprised that snacking seemed fairly common, from the sushi served at funerals in Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) to the continual snacking of the two protagonists in Fujino’s ルート225 [Route 225]. In some cases – 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo) is a good example – eating seems to be almost obsessive.
  • Again, not surprisingly, they have a Buddhist approach to death. In Western literature, death is often considered a tragedy. The Japanese take it much more in their stride, as part of the normal course of events, which, of course, it is.
  • They are very much influenced by Western literature. We see the detective novel in Murakami and Yumeno and surrealism in Yumeno. The I-novel is clearly influenced by the Western autobiographical novel. There are lots of references to Western novels in Japanese novels but not, as far as I am aware, many references to Japanese novels in Western novels.
  • Christianity is only practised by one percent of Japanese, yet it does seem to have influenced some Japanese writers, particularly Endo and Ayako Miura, whom I nearly read this time but who did not quite make the cut, though writers such as Shimazaki and Shiga were influenced by it. 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree) was the only one dealing extensively with Buddhism.
  • It is obvious that past and tradition remain important in Japanese literature (as well as Japanese society), even in modern novels. There is still a far greater veneration for the elderly, for the ancestors and for old customs. Obviously, we see this in Western literature, though nowadays far less than in Japan (yes, I am excluding Downton Abbey). For a Western reader, it is this sense of custom and tradition that makes the Japanese novel both exotic and fascinating, not least because it is sometimes not entirely clear why they do follow the rituals they do (but then they might think the same if they watch Downton Abbey).
  • Again, like Western writers, they have an ambiguous relationship with cities. Tokyo fascinates, as do London, New York, Paris and other cities in the West. But like Westerners, they like to get away from the city and enjoy the countryside. Two of the books – Hino’s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams) and Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) show the fragility of Tokyo – air raids in the war, floods, fire, earthquakes and tornadoes, which we do not see so much outside science fiction books in the West (for which the Japanese have Godzilla, the Tokyo-munching monster). Three of the novels – Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody), Hino’s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams) and Maruya‘s 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow) – specifically deal with how much Tokyo has changed.
  • They like quirky but then so do Westerners.
  • I did not read any mobile/cell phone novels – maybe I should – but nevertheless was mildly surprised to find that technology did not play any significant role in any of the novels I read.

In conclusion, I found this a fascinating experience and am glad to have read such a variety of novels, the first published in 1935 and the most recent in 2010 (both, incidentally, by women). I have added a Best Japanese novels lists, based entirely on my idiosyncratic taste. If I did again tomorrow, it may well have been different. And now back to the rest of the world, where books have been published, prize longlists released and writers have carried on writing.

Risa Wataya: 勝手にふるえてろ [Tremble All You Want]

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The latest addition to my website is Risa Wataya‘s 勝手にふるえてろ [Tremble All You Want]. This is the first-person story of the twenty-six year old Yoshika Etô, virgin, loner, and deeply in love with a young man she knew in high school but whom she has not seen for several years. Kirishima Ni, one of her colleagues where she works, is attracted to er andh asks her to be his girlfriend. She is torn – between living her dream, which seems unlikely to be fulfilled, or dating and, perhaps, marrying a man whose interests are different from hers, whom she does not really like, who smells of soup and who repulses her when he tries to kiss her. Ichi, the man she loves, was seemingly popular at school and she barely had any contact with him, speaking, very briefly, to him on only three occasions. But Ni’s attempt at kissing her, prompts her to set up a high school reunion, with Ichi present. By the end of the evening, he admits he does not know her name. Can she grow to love Ni or should she just take some time off and disappear? Another quirky Japanese tale about the morass of love and romance in the modern world.

Kaori Ekuni: きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle)

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The latest addition to my website is Kaori Ekuni‘s きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle). This is another quirky novel about a quirky relationship. In this case Shoko, an emotionally unstable woman, who is a borderline alcoholic, is married to Mutsuki, a homosexual. Both are aware of the other’s situation. However, Shoko had been advised to get married to help her become more emotionally stable and, after rejecting seven other possibilities, had married Mutsuki whom she liked, who is a doctor and who was happy to marry her. He had agreed to marry her because his mother said a doctor must have a wife and Shoko seemed to be happy not to have sex with him but allow him to continue his sexual relationship with his boyfriend, Kon. The relationship seems to work reasonably well, though there are issues. Mutsuki’s weekly ninety-minute clean-up really annoys Shoko and has her shouting and throwing things at the plant and the paintings on the wall. Generally, however, they get on. However, the respective parents do not know about the situation of their new in-law and when it looks like coming out, things take an unexpected turn.