Books on Japan: Japanese Fiction
Japan Fiction 3
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by Shusaku Endo
What would you do if someone posing as you were going round the red-light districts of Tokyo committing acts that besmirched your character? This is the conundrum faced by Suguro, the respected Catholic novelist who is Scandal's protagonist. The Kafkaesque premise of the licentious doppelganger is enough to engross the reader in a tale where the twisting alleys of Shinjuku, stalked by pimps and harlots, become a place to explore the darker aspects of what makes us human. Endo, as usual, explores morality and mortality through a uniquely Japanese Christian perspective that is more interested in considering personal responsibility and enlightenment than achieving some kind of heavenly salvation. Nor is Endo's purpose to judge and condemn, but rather to try to understand the human psyche. Indeed, the pursuing reporter who is the embodiment of moral indignation is shown to represent a red herring: it is not outside retribution that we should be afraid of, suggests Endo, but rather the power of our own minds to corrupt our lives. Scandal's main players are complex characters in which dark and light elements coexist - they are, Endo is telling us, moral doppelgangers of all of us.
by Shusaku Endo
At first light comedy, then fast-moving thriller, Wonderful Fool gradually focuses on its Christian Japanese author's favourite theme, the suffering and redemption of the common mass of humanity, but is never bogged down by overt religiosity. Its central figure, the eponymous fool, is a Frenchman with the physique of a sumo wrestler and the heart of a child, reminiscent in his dogged innocence of Dostoyevsky's similarly named Idiot. Like Prince Myshkin, Shusako's Gaston Bonaparte is descended from noble stock, but where Myshkin is feeble in body, Gaston's lumbering form betrays no Napoleonic dignity. What Gaston shares with Myshkin, apart from a lack of wits, is an instinctive, Christ-like need to help those around them that first exasperates, then dumbfounds, and ultimately enriches the people who are fortunate enough to come in contact with him.
by Kenzaburo Oe
There are not many Nobel-prize-winning authors who would describe someone's anus, but Oe Kenzaburo has done just that in this novel - and memorably - as the "dried-up fruit of a jujube tree". Oe deems nothing beneath his observant gaze, and his literature, and the world's, is arguably better for that. If only there were more such down-to-earth observations in Oe's Somersault: in the end it amounts to little more than a 570-page spiritual shaggy-dog tale.
by Susan Barker
Bad timing. After taking the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm in 2003, the then titled Tsunami Bar, a novel about a blond British bargirl paid to flirt in a "hostess bar" in Osaka, was set to do the same for the world. The world, however, intervened. Just prior to publication, a real tsunami wiped out much of parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere on December 26th. The publisher, fast on its feet, realized it had to make a quick name change - hence, Sayonara Bar.
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
translated by Donald Keene
The original story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, taketori monogatari, is believed to have been written in the ninth or tenth century, which makes it the oldest surviving work of fiction (Genji Monogatari was written about 1010). Taketori has come down into our era primarily as a children's story, and many versions survive. The names of the characters themselves are sometimes different - and at times there are even contradictions (the cutter says at the beginning that he is over 70 years old, but at the end we are told he has just turned 50!). This version is a modern rewrite from Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata. It has been translated by the foreign Dean of Japanese letters, Donald Keene. Lastly, it has been lovingly illustrated by Masayuki Miyuta. The story itself is quite universal and will be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It comes in a beautiful boxed set.
Inside and Other Short Fiction
forward by Ruth Ozeki
Inside is a collection of the freshest and most vibrant women's fiction coming out of Japan today. This collection showcases some of Japan's brightest young and not so young talent. Among others it features: Tamaki Daido, Rio Shimamoto, Yuzuki Muroi, Shungiku Uchida, Chiya Fujino, Amy Yamada, Junko Hasegawa, and Nobuko Takagi.
The Bamboo Sword
translated by Gavin Frew
This is a delightful collection of eight stories. It brings to life early 17th-century Japan, when peace at long last reigns after centuries of internecine warfare. It is a period rife with intrigue, clan politics, and betrayal.
by Lewis Libby
Yuck...This is what happens when a diplomat has too much time on his hands; he attempts to write the great ex-pat Japan novel. The novel tells the story of a young man called "The Youth" (how original) who works as an apprentice at a rural inn in Northern Honshu during the winter of 1903. He gets entangled with a group of mysterious travelers and falls in love with a young female performer. Most of The Apprentice reads like a very poor imitation of a Kawabata Yasunari novel and the author lifts plot elements from In The Name of The Rose, Pulp Fiction and Blue Velvet. The bland prose also contains disturbing passages describing bestiality, incest, rape and pedophilia: "At age 10 the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their customers. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest." This decidedly unerotic writing would hardly get a mention if it wasn't for the fact that The Apprentice was written by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was the Chief-of-Staff and National Security Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and Assistant to President Bush. The irony is that Libby seems to have great sympathy for the apprentice, an innocent bystander whose life is jeopardized by the covert actions of very powerful men in the government, yet he had no qualms about leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press and putting her life in danger.
This review was originally published in Kansai Time Out
Honeymoon to Nowhere
Akimitsu Takagi's murder mystery was easy to read and digest from the very beginning. It tells the story of a young woman, Etsuko, who gradually falls in love with a university lecturer called Yoshihiro, after they (accidentally) meet in a cafe. Etsuko's father would like her to marry a young lawyer whom he has known for many years but she is far from keen on this plan of action. Yoshihiro's father died in prison and therefore he is reluctant to tell Etsuko about his past life. Although she has doubts about his past when he asks her to marry him, she agrees to be his wife against her parent's wishes. On their wedding night her new husband Yoshihiro receives an urgent phone call in their hotel room. He reassures Etsuko that he will be back very soon and then leaves the hotel in a hurry. Yoshihiro does not return to the hotel and so the mystery of what has happened to him begins. The author keeps the reader guessing and interested throughout the book with a fluid writing style similar in tone to his two other books translated into English. His style is deceptively simple and even-handed. Unfortunately the plot is too hurried towards the end of the book and the ending is somewhat disappointing, but nevertheless the book remains an interesting read to those interested in another side of Japanese society and life.
The Tattoo Murder Case
This book takes you into the fascinating world of the Japanese art of tattoos, with a great detail of emphasis on the amount of work that goes into this art form, and the design and pain of tattooing. The story also tells of a Professor who has an eerie fascination for tattoo skins, and this is the background for an intriguing page-turning murder mystery that has the reader guessing the identity of the culprit until the end.
by Ryu Murakami
It is the summer of '69 - cue the Bryan Adams CD - and Ken, a 17-year-old student at a middling high school in middling town Sasebo, has been inspired by the actions of Parisian student militants, Vietnam protests, and the works of such French luminaries as Sartre, Genet and Godard (some of which he may possibly have laid eyes on) to stage a revolution against the reactionary establishment embodied in the stultifying teaching staff. No, scratch that - he's inspired by the thought of getting laid.
Country of Origin
by Don Lee
W. W. Norton & Company
This first novel from Don Lee, acclaimed short story writer, interweaves the lives and longings of expat adulterers, Japanese detectives, Tokyo sex workers, and CIA agents. Part crime story, part exploration of the seedy intersection of corporate culture and Japanese sex clubs, and part meditation on race and identity in contemporary Japan, Lee traces the mysterious disappearance of Lisa Countryman, ainoko, or half-breed, who comes to Japan to search for the Korean woman who may be her biological mother, and to escape escalating feuds with her African-American sister. Along the way, Lee tells the stories of the two men who are searching for her: the obsessive-compulsive detective Kenzo Ota, tormented by his own self-failings and the ridicule of his peers; and Tom Hurley, a low-level American Embassy official who yearns to be loved by the wife of a high-ranking CIA spy.
Because of an unprecedented snowstorm in Tokyo and the ensuing flight cancellation (hence the title of this work), thirteen passengers are stranded overnight at an unnamed airport in an unnamed country. With nothing better to do, they begin telling each other stories. Their thirteen stories are set in thirteen countries with thirteen different protagonists. Apart from an uneasy sense that something is amiss in present-day society, all that they share is a sense of the magical immanent in the mundane - these are truly modern-day fairy tales in which their characters' drives and weaknesses lead the reader into unexpected mental and emotional territory. This is as once the strength and weakness of this ambitious first novel. While the writer wows us at times with unexpected denouements and memorable characters, and an apparently effortless depiction of each far-flung city, his magic-realism style is almost the only thing that the stories share. There is little attempt to combine the episodic into the epic whole, which may leave the reader impressed but unmoved in the end. I found myself wondering whether the author would have seemed so impressive if he had been telling one single, coherent narrative. That remains to be seen. At least Tokyo Cancelled's flights of the imagination may fuel in its readers a few fantastical dreams worthy of our jaded, jetlagged age.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders
by Soji Shimada
This mystery is both gory and intelligent, and it perfectly exemplifies a charge many make of Japanese culture: that its quiet veneer of kindness, patience, and civility covers nothing less than a roiling, profound violence. Shimada structures the book like a play, and he frequently dips into the narrative to invite the reader to follow clues and put forth hypotheses, along with his two protagonists, amateur detectives who take up Japan's "greatest unsolved mystery."
What we know is that the mystery encompasses a series of grisly murders committed 40 years ago, that they are at least tangentially related to the bizarre astrological beliefs of an artist who may or may not have been the first victim, and that these killings were executed, at least in part, because of this artists' fascination with building "Azoth," a perfect female constructed from the bodies of many other women. What we don't know is how these murders are connected, who committed them, why the bodies were found hacked to pieces along certain longitudinal or latitudinal axes, where - if anywhere - Azoth has been hidden, and whether our amateur detectives can answer these questions in the five days they've been allotted before fresh scandals emerge.
Tokyo Fragments: Short Stories of Modern Tokyo by Five of Japan's Leading Contemporary Writers
Tokyo Fragments was conceived to introduce the English-speaking world both to Tokyo and to five Japanese authors who remain relatively unknown outside their country, despite their domestic fame. Its preface claims that the book "is designed tohelp the reader build up a composite picture of the whole city from its constituent parts," and to "give some idea of the complexity and variety of life in a city whose population, were it a country, would place it thirty-fourth in the world, below Tanzania but above Canada."
Not surprisingly, then, the characters and their stories are so dissimilar that we are left less with a sense of a single urban landscape than of a kaleidoscope of disparate city-dwellers. Morita writes of the gritty life of two high school dropouts, whose penchant for glue-sniffing, voyeurism, and nae romance lead them into the underbelly of Tokyo's organized crime; Muramatsu's deceptively simple tale follows the mundane conversation of a group of pub regulars whose interests are finally piqued - along with the reader's - by a mysterious woman; Hayashi's protagonist longs for a love that looks as perfect as the polished streets of Aoyoma, only to find that her own superficiality may be her deepest obstacle; Shiina follows the fortunes of a plucky salary man who discovers true comfort in a tent overlooking the city and freedom in the loss of his material possessions; while Fujino's depressed housewife copes with the claustrophobia of her banal existence by becoming obsessed with Tokyo's drab police boxes. What each of the characters shares is that, while all are in some way shaped by the place they call home, none actually ever seems at home within it.
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