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Japanese Literature Challenge 9 Round Up

 

Today the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 draws to a close. Thank you Dolce Bellezza for hosting!

I planned to read eight books this year but only read seven. I did start and abandon an eigth – Mari Asakasa’s Vibrator. It was only short but I found the narrator’s world to be too disaffected and alienated for my liking. However, I can see why it won prizes in Japan.

My favourite reads this year were:

Audition by Ryu Murakami – absolutely fantastic! Hilarious and oh-so-wrong at the same time! Read it!

Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura – Very dark but also surprising.

Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami – Oh so very odd. Highly memorable.

To see the whole list click here.

I really enjoy this challenge and this year I got sidetracked from my reading list by stumbling over a few titles I hadn’t heard of before. Next year I hope to follow my original plan and work through the back catalogues of authors I have previously discovered in this challenge – Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa and Keigo Higashino.

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Don’t Expect Quirky: Strange Weather in Tokyo

strange weatherStrange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake. A tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.

This was a pleasant* story but it didn’t really do it for me. Not only did I find it a bit slow, I felt I had read something vaguely similar before, namely Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor which was originally published four years earlier than this novel and I felt it to be the superior of the two. The general story of a friendship between an older man and not quite so young anymore woman seems to be particular to Japanese literature so I don’t think Kawakami necessarily borrowed the idea. I just didn’t want to take the journey a second time this year.

This novel also presents a also a perfect case study for not judging a book by its cover. The cover implies a somewhat quirky and offbeat tale yet it is rather conventional with characters older than you would presume (not that I have a problem with their ages!). I personally don’t think the title fits the story, yet the other English title, The Briefcase, doesn’t seem a perfect suggestion either.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and am glad I finally got around to it. Despite being well written it has left me a little underwhelmed but I can see why it would be both a good winner for the International Mann Booker Prize and a good** taster for Japanese fiction.

*I was almost going to call it a nice story yet it wasn’t quite that bland.

**Now I am using good a lot.

 

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First-Rate Storytelling: Gush

GushGush by Yo Hemmi

In this collection of three deeply bizarre yet comedic novellas, Hemmi delicately contemplates the interconnectedness of life. Gush recounts the narrator’s relationship with a beautiful young woman who suffers from a mysterious condition that causes her body to fill with water. In Night Caravan, the narrator embarks on a midnight journey in the company of two Vietnamese prostitutes and their pimp. Piano Wire tells the story of how one family’s struggle with cleanliness and order is radically changed when a mysterious teacher shows up on their doorstep.

The Review:

As there are three separate stories in this collection, I thought I should mention each in turn:

Gush: I dislike magic realism so wondered how I would feel about a story based around a woman filling up with water. Would it be too abstract? Luckily no! An interesting story that doesn’t seem fantastical at all. I particularly liked the narrator’s strong voice. At the beginning he sounded like someone from a Victorian Sensational novel (you won’t believe me but let me tell you about the most curious thing I discovered on a regular day…) which I loved. Just the right amount of mystery! I also really liked his breaks in the story as well as the updates about his sales month in the office. How mundane!

Night Caravan: This is a short but wonderful character study that feels like Graham Greene meets Haruki Murakami. Well done sir!

Piano Wire: A great story by itself but I would have liked to see it set along a river somehow so to have a stronger link with the other two stories in the collection. I also think there was scope in this story for a more sinister tone; could the sound of the piano wire be more frequent and menacing? Is there something else about the kind stranger we should question? Regardless, it’s a slightly offbeat and enjoyable story.

 

Overall: Glad I stumbled across this collection!

 

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Think I Got It All – Revenge

RevengeRevenge by Yoko Ogawa

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart for her son’s birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake even though he died in an accident when he was six years old. From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative. Each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos and chilling in its cruelty.

First Impressions: I liked the writing style. The first story was good and I guessed the stories would get even better… I was right!

Highlights: I was amazed at how subtly all the stories carried on from each other and were linked. This did not feel forced or contrived as I had originally feared it would. A lot of the characters and plots appear over a few stories so it is hard to say which stories or characters I liked best but the narratives around Old Mrs J, Lab Coats and Tomatoes and the Full Moon were most memorable. Ogawa has the power to shock in these stories when you least suspect it and I did gasp out loud a few times when reading.

If I was an editor: Oh, some of the characters definitely deserve their own novel!

Overall: I think I picked up all the links to different characters and stories… At least I hope I did!

Revenge: 5 Stars

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Introspective: Last Winter We Parted

Last Winter We PartedLast Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura

A young writer arrives at a prison to interview a convict. The suspect, a world-renowned photographer named Kiharazaka, has a deeply unsettling portfolio–lurking beneath the surface of each photograph is an acutely obsessive fascination with his subject. He stands accused of murdering two women–both burned alive–and will likely face the death penalty. But something isn’t quite right. As the young writer probes further, his doubts about this man as a killer intensify, and he struggles to maintain his sense of reason and justice. Is Kiharazaka truly guilty, or will he die to protect someone else?

First Impressions: I liked the depressive tone of the narrator. It was clear early on that the gruesome crimes were to take a back seat to an individual’s personal struggle.

Highlights: How unusual to have a crime novel where the crime itself is secondary to the plot. Instead, it details an artist’s futile quest to capture the full essence of a person in a photograph and then in memento dolls. The story is based on Akutagawa’s short story Hell Screen and it doesn’t shy away from references to the original tale. I would have liked an edition that also includes the original story or an abridged version of it but that is just me. I have since sought out a copy of Hell Screen to satisfy my interest. I also liked the narrator’s dissatisfaction and intolerance of his own life; it borders on self-destruction. Finally, although the crime is secondary to the story, it is described in detail near the end. In true Japanese fashion, not an easy one to guess at all!

If I was an editor: I found some of the contributions to conversations a bit inane and unnecessary, such as ‘…Hmmm,’ and ‘…Well, now’. These comments had no effect at advancing the plot. Furthermore, sometimes I found the conversations difficult to follow after a while and became confused with who was talking. The different archival material also became confusing towards the end as it took a little bit to work out who belonged to the story. I don’t think this is a problem with the translation but it all may have been easier to follow in the original Japanese.

Overall:  A pastiche of character introspections.

Last Winter We Parted: 4 Stars

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Catching up on my J-Lit

 

After finishing Book 6 in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series I’ve been at a loss as to what to read next. The series has consumed me for the past couple of months.

I need some short reads that leap off the page so I’ve decided to work my way through a pile of Japanese novels that have been sitting on my shelf for a while.
(Ozeki isn’t really short…)

I’m far from disappointed with this decision. I’m having an enjoyable time reading these stories as I love the unexpected and surprising things that Japanese authors throw at their (Western) readers. Much to my amusement I’ve been exclaiming out loud when reading.

I anticipate a big contribution this month to my Japanese Literature Challenge!

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Oh So Odd: Now You’re One of Us

Now You're One of UsNow You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami

Here’s a story about a bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.

First Impressions: It read like a lot of contemporary Japanese novels. Perhaps not *quite* as engaging but there was more than enough to keep going.

Highlights: Even though this is a rather bizarre story in the end (of course it is!) I think the author really captured the difficulties of marriage for women in modern Japan. The family situation felt stifling and Noriko’s grappling with where her loyalties should lie was believable and I found it a little uncomfortable. Is there really nothing more important than her husband’s family? I was almost surprised the family let her meet with her friend Tomomi. I have since read that Asa Nonami has a decent female following in Japan as she provides searing critiques of Japanese society in her writings. Yes, definitely a feminist novel!

If I was an editor: Well, I knew it would get weird but the revelation was really out there. It wasn’t the supernatural explanation I was expecting and I still can’t decide whether this disappoints more or not. If you can believe it, the family secret is both so offbeat and underwhelming at the same time. There must be some cultural nuances and references I don’t understand (guilty!). Also, while it is a relatively short novel I think it could have been shorter – Noriko wavered one (or two) too many times with her feelings of loyalty to the family.

Overall: Odd but is seared in my memory.

Now You’re One of Us: 3 Stars

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Eerie/Heartbreaking: Hardboiled and Hard Luck

Hardboiled & Hard LuckHardboiled and Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto

This book contains two novellas possessed by the ghosts of love found and lost.

In Hardboiled, the unnamed narrator is hiking in the mountains on an anniversary she has forgotten about. As she nears her hotel and stops on the way at a hillside shrine and a strange soba shop, a sense of haunting falls over her.
Hard Luck is about another young woman whose dying sister lies in a coma. Kuni’s fiance left her after the accident, but his brother Sakai continues to visit. 

My thoughts

Hardboiled definitely has fantastic gothic undertones. It is a little creepy with that anticipation of doom just hanging over you. It would make a great film. In fact, I enjoyed the dark side to this novella so much I was disappointed when it ended. Couldn’t it be a full novel??!! On another note, I liked the flashbacks to the narrator’s past relationship too.

Hard Luck didn’t grab me so much at first. I found it rather depressing and slow. However, towards the end of the novel I was hit with the narrator’s pain and emptiness with regards to her sister and therefore the ending really affected me.

Overall: Beautiful, simple writing.

Hardboiled and Hard Luck: 4 Stars

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Hilarious Horror: Audition

AuditionAudition by Ryu Murakami

Documentary-maker Aoyama hasn’t dated anyone in the seven years since the death of his beloved wife. When his best friend comes up with a plan to hold fake film auditions to help choose a new bride, he decides to go along with the idea. Of the thousands who apply, Aoyama only has eyes for Yamasaki Asami, a delicate ballerina with a turbulent past. There is more to her than Aoyama can see and by the time he discovers the terrifying truth it may be too late.

First impressions: As with many modern Japanese authors I read, I really enjoyed Murakami’s writing style and the way the characters and story is introduced. It could also be due to  a great translator!

Highlights: Your apprehension is there right from the first page. You know something terrible is going to happen and it keeps niggling at you. Why is Aoyama so naive? The foreshadowing of doom is so ridiculously obvious it is hilarious. I think this is a feature of contemporary Japanese fiction and I love it.

If I was an editor: I would say there is a little too much gore for me at the end but I still had a smirk on my face when reading it.

Overall: The ‘other’ Murakami wins my vote! More please!

Audition: 5 stars

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Intro to Mathematics 101: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the ProfessorThe Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

I have been incredibly busy in January – even busier than I was in December – but have luckily found time to review this short novel in time for it to count towards the Japanese Reading Challenge, and with one day to spare!

A young housekeeper is sent to look after an old maths professor with a peculiar problem: due to an accident his working memory only lasts 80 minutes. Every morning the Housekeeper and the Professor become reacquainted. Although the professor can only remember eloquent maths formulas, a bond forms between the two.

First Impressions: When I flipped through the novel I saw a few mathematical formula scattered here and there so I worried that perhaps too much of the text would be over my head. Not true! The novel wasn’t as sentimental as I feared either. Ogawa writes with the detached style typical of Japanese authors.

Highlights: Much to my surprise I loved the mathematical musings and found myself trying to work out the problems before the answer was revealed! I felt the same about the many references to baseball teams and statistics, which I was not expecting. I found the Housekeeper’s backstory to be really interesting and would have loved more of this to be included.

If I was an editor: I would find it hard to think of a way to improve this story. More intrigue is always encouraged. Much to my relief it wasn’t overly sentimental and neither was the ending predictable. I do now realise I approached the story expecting (fearing?) a European narrative.

Overall: A great example of Japanese fiction for western readers. A touching way to wrap up my Japanese Literature Challenge.

The Housekeeper and the Professor: 4 stars