Audition

Audition
Ryu Murakami

cover of Audition by Ryu MurakamiIt’s been six years since Ryoko’s death, but Aoyama is not even dreaming of dating, lest marrying again. Only when his teenage son, Shige, starts urging him to find a new wife, is he willing to give it a try.

When Aoyama tells his friend Yoshikawa about his plans, film director Yoshikawa is all ears and sets up an audition to find his friend not just any, but the perfect wife. The whole scheme is skillfully disguised as the well-publicized search for the main female character in an upcoming movie. Of the thousands of applicants, young Asami captures Aoyama’s heart at first sight, and they soon begin dating, despite Yoshikawa’s warnings, who feels that there is something wrong about her.

And indeed, at first, everything seems perfect, but how far is Asami – in her desire for love, undivided one, that is – willing to go?

I have read a few of Ryu Murakami’s novels, and this one is an easy introduction to his works. The book starts out with a desperate man trying to find love again – and succeeding quickly, to his great delight. Soon, however, a feeling of danger is creeping into the story, and the finale – very typical for Ryu Murakami – is drowning in blood…

Ryu Murakami is the enfant terrible of Japanese authors. Born in 1952, he started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before he moved on to film and writing books. His first book was written when he was still in highschool, immediately winning him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart.

Get this book from amazon – if you dare!

An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World
Kazuo Ishiguro

cover of artist of the floating worldIt’s just after WWII and Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter, is in the middle of marriage negotiations for his daughter Noriko. The procedures disrupt his quiet retiree life full with gardening, making house repairs and drinking with old friends in the local pleasure district – now all but abandoned. To secure a positive outcome for his daughter, Masuji is forced to revisit his past – both figuratively and literally in the form of old acquaintances from before the war, and not all of this is as pleasant as he might have wished.

We follow Masuji Ono from 1948 to 1950, in which Japan makes a rapid jump towards industrialisation, American style. While Masuji is more and more ready to accept responsibility for his past actions of glorifying the war through his art, it appears that the views of his surroundings take the opposite direction, as they are striving to let go of the past and look toward the future.

WWII is still a sensitive topic in Japan, and not readily talked about. Also in school, many parts of the war that are less than pretty are left out deliberately or are heavily censored and sanitised. I found Ishiguro’s view from the outside in – as an Englishman with Japanese roots – very interesting and enlightening.

Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki in 1954, but living in England since age 5, has just been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though he never lived in Japan, his books have definitely a Japanese feel to them, with his many allusions and implications that are directed at the insider. Many of his novels come with a shocking twist somewhere, that hit the reader – the outsider – with a harsh surprise.

Try out this – or other novels by Ishiguro – on amazon.com.

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

Cover of Colorless Tsukuru TazakiTsukuru Tazaki is an engineer in Tokyo who is living his dream: building railway stations. Recently he started to see Sara, a travel agent, and as they get closer, Tsukuru opens up and tells her a secret: 16 years ago, when he was a student in Tokyo, the tight-knit group of friends he belonged to in highschool abruptly and without explanation cut off all ties to him. Sara urges him to find closure, and he agrees to visit his four friends in Nagoya and get to the bottom of the issue. Tsukuru returns to his old world of friendship, dominated by unwritten obligations to protect the weakest member under all circumstances…

The novel’s title is an allusion to the names of the five friends: All except Tsukuru’s last name contain a color: red, blue, white, black. Haruki Murakami draws an image of deep friendship among the five highschool students which is destroyed forever on outcasting one of them, who, for lack of understanding, is himself reduced to utter despair that lasts for years.

When I first read this novel, I found it incomprehensible how the four “color” people could ditch Tsukuru from one day to the other without explanation, without talking to him, without apparent remorse. Now that I lived in Japan for longer, I can see that this is a very standard Japanese pattern. It is done to protect the harmony of the group, which is paramount in Japanese society and thinking. And sometimes, it’s not the “guilty” person who has to leave, it is somebody else. Been there, had that done to me…

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. Born in Kyoto in 1949, he studied drama in Tokyo and became the owner of a Jazz bar. At age 29, he started writing, and since has become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. Even though many Japanese critics don’t like his work because they see it as “too Western”, he has won many prizes in Japan as well as abroad.

Interesting book – check it out on amazon.

The Hunting Gun

The Hunting Gun
Yasushi Inoue

Hunting Gun CoverA man who calls himself Josuke Misugi recognizes himself as the figure described in a poem published in a hunting magazine. He writes to the poet and sends him three letters he had received from the three most important women in his life.

Saiko, Josuke’s wife, found out the identity of his long-term lover, and now wants a divorce. In a matter-of-fact way she not only tells him what she has chosen from their property, but also that she had been unfaithful as well for years.
Midori, Josuke’s lover and cousin of Saiko, has been sick for a long time. When Saiko finds out about the affair with her husband, Midori is ready to put a long intended plan into action. She writes a last letter to Josuke and then poisons herself.
Shoko, Midori’s daughter, finds her mother’s diary and is shocked to learn about the affair. Finding it hard to deal with it, she decides to end all contact with both Josuke and Midori.

The three letters tell the story of not only the three women’s, but also of Josuke’s life, and the only things we hear about him are seen from their perspective. The main themes of the novel are love and loneliness, and how the former may lead to the latter.

Of all the four people involved, I mostly felt for Shoko. Finding her mother’s diary and seeing how she had suffered emotionally for so long, almost leads to Shoko’s own breakdown. Shoko’s letter feels the most distressing of the three, her new and thus still raw feelings are expressed beautifully and perfectly by the author.

Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was born in Hokkaido and studied history and art at Kyoto University. He started writing very late, and his first short stories were published in 1949; they won him the Akutagawa Prize one year later. In the 40 years until his death, he was one of the most prolific writers of Japan, he published many short stories, but also full size novels. He is most famous for his accurate historical fiction and is still one of the most read Japanese authors in Germany.

Check the book out on amazon.

Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen (A manga)
Keiji Nakazawa

Cover of the first volume of "Barefoot Gen"Gen Nakaoka is a boy from Hiroshima. He is six years old and goes to school where he has friends – and foes, of course. Gen is a normal but a bit mischievous boy and sometimes gets himself and his poor parents in trouble. Following Gen and his family through the early summer, this could be a nice kid’s book.

But it isn’t. It is the summer of 1945, and the Japanese troops fight all over the Pacific islands. Gen is excited about the war efforts – other than his father – and he cheers when his big brother goes off to join the Navy – other than his father.

And then, on August 6, 1945, the US air force drops an Atomic Bomb onto Hiroshima. Thousands are killed in an instant, and although Gen and his mother survive, they cannot save his father and younger siblings, who are trapped beneath their house and die in the subsequent fire. From there, we follow Gen, his mother and his baby sister, born only hours after the bomb fell, through Hiroshima where they meet other survivors who just try to figure out what’s next…

Barefoot Gen is a series of manga that describe – in a very graphic way – the life of an average Japanese family until the atomic bomb attack and the horrifying aftermath including the American occupation until about 1947. First published as magazine serial from 1973, Barefoot Gen was published in book form from 1975. There are 10 volumes altogether.

Keiji Nakazawa, manga artist and writer, was born in Hiroshima in 1939 and survived the atomic bomb attack together with his mother. He moved to Tokyo in 1961, and started to write about his experiences in Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. Barefoot Gen is considered his masterpiece; it was turned into animated as well as live action movies and was translated into many languages. Nakazawa died in 2012 from metastasized lung cancer.

Check out the book – or better, the whole series – from amazon.

I am a Cat

I am a Cat
by Soseki Natsume

Cover for I am a CatThe cat in question, which has not been named, lives in the house of a schoolteacher, Mr. Sneaze, a somewhat stingy and definitely dyspeptic man with a wife and three children. As soon as the cat arrives at this household, it begins to quietly observe his master and the friends that come to visit: Mainly Coldmoon, a former student of his master and now looking for a wife, and the rich Waverhouse telling his stories, whether true or false, and a number of others. The cat is always there, occasionally taking matters in his own paws, but mostly observing from the background and commenting on the three men and the things that happen to and around them.

The cat’s observations are pointed and witty, sometimes scathing, and always come from a somewhat aloof position. This way, the reader is presented with an interesting picture of humanity in general, and those living in Tokyo of the Meiji period in particular, where Western influences creep into Japanese culture and make for an especially interesting mix.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this book, and I have read it twice now. It has been written as a series of short stories that appeared in a magazine. The first story is hilarious, and its success prompted the author to write more stories about the nameless cat. The stories can stand alone, but there is a common arc throughout, which would have been better if the book had been planned as such from the outset, I think. And towards the end of the book, the cat (or rather: the author) loses himself in long and rambling philosophical meanderings, which are sometimes hard to follow. Friends have assured me though that the Japanese original reads much better than any translation. Okay – I may get back to it again in a few years.

Soseki Natsume is considered the best writer of Japanese (modern) history, and he is still widely read today. He was born in 1867 in Tokyo and studied English literature from 1890. He spent two years in England, which he thoroughly disliked, and when he returned to Japan in 1903, he started publishing his works. “I am a Cat” was among his first published books, and is considered a masterpiece. Soseki died in 1916.

Get I am a Cat from amazon and let me know what you think!

I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While

I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While
Taichi Yamada

Cover of I haven't dreamed of flying for a whileTaura is shocked. The woman he had just spent the night with is 20 years his senior, and he already considers himself old at 48. Hidden behind the screen of the hospital room, both unable to move, they shared a night full of talk and erotic passion. When Mutsuko appears in Tokyo a few months later, Taura is surprised at her looks. Without timidity, Mutsuko tells him that she is getting younger, in painful attacks that can last for days. Taura, all but dumped by his entrepreneur wife and grown-up children, and transferred to the department for “special projects” in his company where he cannot do any harm, starts an affair with Mutsuko. She, aware of what her journey must inevitable lead to, attempts to live her newfound youth to the fullest, drawing Taura into a maelstrom of sex, adventure, and lies, that even gets him into prison for child abuse. And yet, he cannot let go of Mutsuko, and she keeps getting younger and younger…

The story is written from Taura’s perspective, and he tells it rather matter-of-factly, almost unemotionally. Except for Mutsuko’s reverse ageing, everything is realistic, but we also hear very early on about Taura’s mental instabilities. Is Mutsuko real, or does she just exist in Taura’s imagination?

What an interesting idea this story is! An old woman, at the end of her life, gets a chance to relive it and, literally, be young again. And this time she is prepared to live it to the fullest! Mutsuko’s affair with Taura seems to be the only thing that is stable in this new life of hers, and while at the beginning they meet irregularly, later on, when Mutsuko turns into a child, she must rely on him more and more. Since Mutsuko is physically changing drastically at each and every one of their meetings, I cannot help wondering how much a physical change I could bear in a partner of mine. Could I really be “in love” (and intimate) with my partner if he looked, say, like a 12-year-old?

Taichi Yamada was born in Tokyo province in 1934 and studied literature before entering the Shochiku film studio. He left in 1965 to become a free screen writer, and some 30 of his scripts have won prizes in Japan. He has written mostly screen plays, but also a number of essay collections and novels.

Check this book out on amazon.

Salvation of a Saint

Salvation of a Saint
Keigo Higashino

Cover Salvation of a SaintYoshitaka Mashiba is found dead in his livingroom. Soon it is clear that he was poisoned by arsenic in in coffee, and when it transpires that he had an affair with his wife’s assistant, the prime suspect is logical: Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane. But since she had spent that weekend in Hokkaido with her parents, she could not have committed the crime, could she? Detective Kusanagi is convinced of her innocence and tries to find another suspect, but his young assistant Utsumi is not so sure. And when she sees that Kusanagi is falling for Ayane, she must be ready to call on an outsider to prove her suspicions and solve the case.

This is another of Higashino’s crime novels featuring detective Kusanagi and his old friend Prof. Yukawa. Although not on speaking terms at the moment, Yukawa is intrigued by the ostensibly perfect crime that has been committed and agrees to help. Once again, the solution comes at the very end and with a twist that is completely unexpected and touches the reader to the core.

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. At age 27, his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he began to write professionally. In the West, he is mostly known for his brilliantly crafted mystery novels.

The book is available on amazon – enjoy!

Creation of Japan

Yesterday was Kenkoku Kinen No Hi, the National Foundation Day, which is a perfect opportunity to have a look at the Japanese creation myth. The source used for my summary here is the Kojiki from 712, a fascinating account of Japanese myth that later turns into history, and the oldest surviving Japanese book.

In the beginning, there was chaos. But then, the light and the particles separated and ascended, but because the particles were heavier than the light, they could not rise that high – this is why the light is above everything else, and then there are the heavens and the seas and lands below it.

Five generations of heavenly deities and two generations of earthly deities came into existence, they were neither male nor female, and hid shortly after. Then, five pairs of deities  – brother and sister – came into being, the last pair were called Izanagi and Izanami, respectively. To these two the older deities gave the order to make, consolidate, and give birth to the land now known as Japan, and they handed the two siblings a bejewelled spear to do so.

Izanami and IzanagiIzanagi took the spear and stirred the oceans with it, and when he lifted the spear out of the waters again, the drops falling from it formed the island Onogoro. On that island, Izanagi and Izanami built a palace with a mighty pillar in its middle. They then decided to procreate as they had been ordered, and to do so, they first circled the pillar in opposite directions.

When they met on the other side, Izanami spoke first: “Oh, what a beautiful and kind youth indeed!” and Izanagi answered his sister in the same words: “Oh, what a most beautiful and kind youth!” Izanami then went on to bear two children, but they were both misshapen. So, they went back to the heavens to inquire the reason for this, and the elder gods said: “This is because the woman spoke first when you met at the opposite side of the pillar”.

Izanagi and Izanami returned to Onogoro and repeated the ritual of circling the pillar, now taking care that Izanagi spoke first, and henceforth, Izanami bore many healthy children. Their first eight children were the Oyashima, the (then known) major islands of Japan: Awaji, Shikoku, the Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima, Sadoshima, and finally Honshu.

Afterwards, Izanami bore six more islands of Japan, and then began to give birth to a plethora of different gods and goddesses, until she died of the wounds she suffered at the birth of the God of Fire. But that’s another story that’s starting here…

I find this creation story quite interesting. Of course, there are many themes we have seen before: A chaos giving way to order, the first gods coming out of nowhere and giving birth to the land (and many more gods). The interesting part is the story of Izanagi (male-who-invites) and Izanami (female-who-invites), and I am not aware of a similar one.

Even though ordered to procreate, Izanami voluntarily agrees – after an inspection of each other’s bodies – to Izanagi putting “his excess into her scarcity”, a scene that must be so raunchy in the original that the first English translation dares only reproduce it in Latin (for the sake of the reading ladies, obviously). This is a far cry from the common rape and abduction scenes and even the “oh, by the way, you’ll be having God’s child” of Christianity. And even though it is punished immediately, it is the female Izanami who speaks first at what could be interpreted as a wedding ceremony. The story is almost feminist, which I find quite exceptional.

Anyway, the list of eight major islands mentioned in the Kojiki shows its age: At the time it was compiled, Okinawa had not been discovered (that would take another 60 years). And Honshu’s north was so scarcely populated, that even the existence of Hokkaido does not seem to have been common knowledge until the Nihon Shoki – the second oldest book in Japan, also a myth/history compilation – was completed in 720.

If you want to read further in the Kojiki, you can read the very first, 1882, translation into English at Sacred Texts. The footnotes are extensive, but not really needed if you are simply interested in the (hi-) story of Japan. In any case, I might come back at a later time and tell some more Japanese myths.

Parade

Parade
Shuichi Yoshida

Book cover paradeIn a small apartment in Tokyo live four young people in their twenties: Ryosuke, a student whose favourite pastime is to wash his car. Kotomi who faithfully waits in front of the telephone for her lover to call. Mirai, manager of an import company who spends her nights getting drunk in gay bars. Naoki, who works for a film distributor and goes running for stress release. Although they live together in rather cramped conditions with boys and girls sharing one bedroom respectively, each of them more or less remains to themselves.

Then Satoru is brought home by Mirai, and the 18-year old who “works in the night” stays on the couch in the livingroom. His sudden appearance promptly upsets the fragile balance of the roommates, and cracks begin to show…

The book is written in five parts – one from the viewpoint of each protagonist. Although the story stays chronological, this change of viewpoint makes it feel a bit fragmented. Also the fact that the four roommates are “good at playing friends” without actually being so – as Satoru observes – did not make me care for the characters or draw me into the story. And the end – a shocking revelation about one of the five, which was shrugged away and covered up by the others – left me very dissatisfied. This can’t be how young people live these days?

Shuichi Yoshida was born in Nagasaki in 1968. He began writing very early, and received the Bungakukai Prize for New Writers in 1997, and the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 2002. Today, he has published 15 novels and 11 collections of short stories, however, only two of his novels have as yet been translated into English. Parade was his first novel, published in 2002 and translated in 2014.

The book is available on amazon.