Newcomer

Newcomer
Keigo Higashino

When a woman is murdered in Tokyo’s busy Nihonbashi district, newly transferred detective Kaga is assigned the case. His sharp observation skills and relentless questions lead him through the woman’s neighbourhood, which is filled with little, old-fashioned shops. Many have been there for generations, and Kaga uncovers a number of their owner’s carefully kept secrets. But which ones are pertinent to his case? It turns out that the murdered woman, who had only recently moved to that neighbourhood, had some secrets of her own…

This is another one of Keigo Higashino’s masterful mysteries, but this time it’s told from the perspective of the people of the neighbourhood, as detective Kaga is coming around and asking questions. We peek into their lives and follow what’s going on right behind the old shopfronts, where not everything is what it seems but deserves a closer look. I love Higashino’s mysteries, I feel that he comes up with something new in every book.

Keigo Higashino grew up in Osaka and is one of the most popular writers in Asia. He has written more than 65 novels, including books for children. Almost 20 of his books were turned into movies, and his work was also translated into many languages. He has won numerous Japanese awards for his books, and in 2012 he received the American Library Association Award – Best Mystery Novel for his book The Devotion of Suspect X.

Newcomer is set in Tokyo in the sweltering heat of summer, so if you need something suitable for beach reading, you can get it from amazon.

The River With No Bridge

The River with no Bridge
Sue Sumii

Koji Hatanaka has just started school. He has many friends in Komori, his village, and he even wins the governor’s prize as the top student of his class. Still, his future is less than bright because all the people from Komori are eta or burakumin, outcasts from Japan’s strict class hierarchy for generations. Once Koji understands what that means, he is determined to prove all of those wrong who call him dirty and a good for nothing. But this may mean to leave Komori behind, like his older brother did, and even in the big cities, escape from his background is not certain.

The book is set in the early 20th century, when discrimination against the burakumin was officially outlawed after centuries. However, old habits die hard, especially in the countryside. We follow Koji through his time at primary school as he becomes more and more aware of the daily injustices he and his fellow villagers have to endure. It is heartbreaking to read about his struggles, even more so when you realize that the story is all too close to reality.

Sue Sumii was born 1902 in Nara Prefecture. She was an advocate for the burakumin and devoted her entire life to breaking down barriers for them. The River With No Bridge is her best known work with that goal; however, of the 7 volumes, written over 30 years, only the first has so far been translated into English. Sumii died in 1997.

If you want to learn more about a part of Japanese society and history that is decidedly not talked about, get this book from amazon.

The Decay of the Angel

The Decay of the Angel
Yukio Mishima

Former judge Honda is 75 years old and long retired when he meets Toru by chance. The teenage boy bears three moles that make Honda believe that Toru is another reincarnation of his school friend Kiyoaki. Honda sees another chance to prevent Kiyoaki’s/Toru’s premature death, and he decides on the spot to adopt the orphan.

But Toru could not be more different from Kiyoaki. He has a malicious streak and joyfully seeks to thwart Honda’s best intentions. He gets one of his tutors dismissed, destroys a proposed marriage and abuses the maids. Things only escalate when Toru becomes a legal adult, and he is now violent towards Honda as well.

However, when his presumed former lives are revealed to him, and that he may be a fraud after all if he survives his 20th years, Toru cannot accept this. Clearly upset, he makes a drastic decision that changes his life for good.

This is the last of the four books of the “Sea of Fertility” and the one I liked least. Toru is, quite frankly, an asshole from the very beginning. In “Runaway Horses”, I didn’t care for Isao’s nationalistic views, but he honestly believed that he’s doing the right thing. Toru, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities, he is mean because he can. Interestingly, it seems that Honda can see through his facade also from the beginning, and yet, he doesn’t do anything to address the issue, not even when he stop believing in his reincarnation theory.

Over all, the book is worth reading, though – Mishima was a great writer – but you may need the other three books to understand some of the references, and the ending in particular.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) is considered one of the greatest writers of 20th century Japan. Already his first short story was a great success, and in 1968, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which ultimately went to his benefactor, Yasunari Kawabata. Besides being part of the intellectual elite of his time, Mishima trained rigorously in martial arts and achieved several black belts in kendo, battojutsu, and karate, respectively. After a failed coup d’état that he instigated, Mishima committed ritual suicide. This book was finished only shortly before that.

Follow Mr. Honda through the last years of his life and get the book from amazon.

The Temple of Dawn

The Temple of Dawn
Yukio Mishima

Shigekuni Honda, successful international business lawyer, is called to Bangkok in 1941 to settle a dispute. While engrossing himself in the study of Buddhism, in particular reincarnation, he is permitted an audience with the royal princess Chantrapa. She is the daughter of Honda’s high school classmate and insists that she belongs to Japan. When she recognizes Honda, he believes her to be a reincarnation of the revolutionary Isao whom he had defended years ago, but in the end, he must leave Thailand without proof.

They meet again 11 years later when the princess – now 18 years old and calling herself Ying Chan – comes to Japan to study. Honda is obsessed with the young woman and tries to crack her secret, but Ying Chan avoids him whenever she can, just spurring on the advances and scheming of the lawyer.

The first part of this book, set in Thailand, is heavy with Buddhist teachings that demand quite some attention. In the second part, we can focus on Honda and his desire to find out whether Ying Chan is indeed Isao’s reincarnation. Although some of Honda’s schemes are quite unsavoury, I still felt sympathy for him overall. I feel that Mishima is at his best when describing land- and cityscapes, and I loved the images of Bangkok he could conjure up in my mind’s eye. This is probably the reason why I liked this book more than the “Runaway Horses”, and I myself got very curious about this whole reincarnation business…

This is the third book in Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” cycle, and it centres on Honda, who has hitherto been a mere side character. There were so many references to Isao, the protagonist of the second book, that it would be hard to follow without having read “Runaway Horses”.

Yukio Mishima is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost authors of the 20th century. A weak child, he took up bodybuilding and kendo when he was older and became very fit. He started writing early and eventually became the protégé of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Besides his numerous books, he also wrote plays for Noh and Kabuki, as well as for contemporary theatre. He was 45 when he committed ritual suicide.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into Buddhism and the practice (or art?) of reincarnation, you can get this book at amazon.

Runaway Horses

Runaway Horses
Yukio Mishima

Japan, 1932. Isao is a youth who lives and breathes the ancient samurai spirit. He is worried about the modern Japan that he sees in the hand of greedy industrialists instead of that of the benevolent emperor. Spurred on by a book bout a group of rebels in the early Meiji era, he forms his own “League of the Divine Wind” with 20 of his best friends. Supported by high-ranking men in the military, they set out to kill the country’s business elite and to restore the purity and integrity of Japan under the emperor.

This book tells of a fanatic group of young men in their early 20s who see the greatest honour not necessarily in killing, but in dying for a cause they believe just. Ideas of nationalism are expounded in detail, which make this book difficult to read at times, in particular when knowing that these ideas led to war just a few years later.
This is the second novel in the “Sea of Fertility” series by Yukio Mishima. Except for a few recurring characters, it can be read as a stand-alone, though.

Yukio Mishima was born into an old samurai family in Tokyo in 1925. He started writing at a very young age and had his first work published in a literary magazine when he was only 16 years old. Five years later, he approached Yasunari Kawabata with manuscripts and became his protégé. Mishima wrote 15 novels and more than 250 other works in his lifetime. He is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost novelists, but his nationalistic tendencies are viewed more sceptically by the Japanese. The above novel foreshadows his own death in 1970.

Not my favourite novel of the four, but if you want to have a go at it yourself, here’s a link to amazon.

Spring Snow

Spring Snow (Sea of Fertility I)
Yukio Mishima

Japan 1912. The Meiji era has just ended, and the old ranks of aristocrats are slowly giving way to a new class of rich people who are staking their claims at the top of society. Kiyoaki Matsugae, of lower samurai class, has been raised by the aristocratic Ayakuya family, together with their daughter Satoko, who is two years older. Kiyoaki’s complex feelings for Satoko eventually blossom into a tender young love, which is destroyed because both lovers avoid being open with each other. Only when Satoko is promised to an Imperial Prince do they recognize what they are about to lose, but now it is too late for a happy ending…

This is one of those romances where you’d like to slap both parties and force them to speak to each other. Much pain would have been avoided. And yet, Mishima draws a detailed picture of the time with all the scheming going on so that the Matsugaes can advance their position and the Ayakuras can at least keep theirs.

I greatly enjoyed this book; the romance between the two youths is only a part of it, which is growing in importance towards the climax. I loved the insight into Japan of the early 20th century, and Mishima once again is able to draw up splendid pictures in your mind’s eye.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970; pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka) is considered one of Japan’s greatest authors. When he was 16, he got a story published in a very prestigious literary magazine, the editors of which thought him a genius already. After the war, Mishima was taken under the wing of Yasunari Kawabata. Both of them were considered for the Nobel Prize of 1968, but the elder Kawabata received it. Mishima wrote 34 novels in total, and committed ritual suicide after a failed coup attempt.

This book is the first of four novels that make up the “Sea of Fertility” cycle, which were the last four books written by Mishima before his suicide. I have read them all, and will give a final verdict when I post the last one. In the meantime, you can get this one from amazon and judge for yourself.

Thousand Cranes

Thousand Cranes
Yasunari Kawabata

Kikuji is on the way to a tea ceremony held by Chikako, who had been his father’s mistress. Over the years, he had received many invitations from her, but since his father’s death, this is the first one he accepts. At the ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota, who is the total opposite of Chikako, and Kikuji falls for her immediately, just as his father once did. From then on, Kikuji finds himself at the center of Chikako’s intrigues, and although he is not a born fighter, it is not clear yet who will get the upper hand in the end.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Kikuji who is torn apart by his feelings for no less than four women: meddlesome old crone Chikako who wants to see him married to Miss Inamura, a nice girl and protégé of hers, and the attractive and still young-at-heart Mrs. Ota and her daughter Fumiko, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with her mother’s strange attraction to Kikuji – or her own.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972), was born in Osaka into a wealthy family, but was raised by his grandfather after he was orphaned. From a young age, he showed talent – and was interested in – both painting and writing, but he eventually turned to writing and published his first stories when still in high school. After graduating from university, Kawabata quickly became one of the most important modern Japanese writers. After WWII, his fame spread internationally, and in 1968 he became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you’re up for something melancholy and short, try this one – it’s available on amazon.

Coin Locker Babies

Coin Locker Babies
Ryu Murakami

When Kiku and Hashi meet at an orphanage, the two boys quickly bond and become friends, because of their shared history: Both were abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers at train stations in Tokyo. They are adopted by parents from a rural village where they grow up together, but at all times they keep harbouring the wish of finding their mothers. As young adults, both leave the village and return to Tokyo where they end up in Toxitown, an abandoned plot of land within the city where outcasts, criminals, and other lost cases end up. Hashi eventually escapes to become a successful singer, but in the end, Kiku’s destructive tendencies will catch up with both boys.

An interesting story of two boys looking for the love of a mother they never knew. While each of them seemingly finds their own solution to the feeling of loss, in the end, they both succumb to violence and self-destruction. It would not be a book by Ryu Murakami if they didn’t…

Ryu Murakami was born in 1952, and started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before moving on to film and writing books. His first book, written in university, won him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction, only the first of many more prizes to come. A number of his novels have been turned into films. 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.

If you want to try anyway, Coin Locker Babies is available on amazon.

Musashi

Musashi
Eiji Yoshikawa

Takezo and his best friend Matahachi barely survive the battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600. Upon returning to his village without his friend, Takezo incurs the wrath of Matahachi’s mother, but he is saved by the travelling priest Takuan Soho who becomes Takezo’s teacher for the coming three years. Afterwards Takezo – now calling himself Musashi – travels through Japan to study swordsmanship and to challenge other famous fighters. However, he soon learns that brute strength alone is not sufficient to win and he begins to study calligraphy and painting, wood carving, and even farming. On the path to ever refine his Way of the Samurai, he makes a number of influential friends, and even more powerful enemies, until it comes to the great duel with Sasaki Kojiro, another of the great wandering samurai of his time.

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the best-known swordsman of Japan. It is said that he never lost a duel, and he has 61 victories to his name, more than any other samurai. This book depicts about 15 years of his life from the battle of Sekigahara to the duel with Sasaki Kojiro. In this fictionalised biography we nevertheless meet a number of real people who influenced him, like Honami Koetsu, Takuan Soho, Yoshino Tayu, and of course, Sasaki Kojiro, another great swordsman of the time who eventually becomes Musashi’s arch enemy. Overall, the story is that of a reluctant hero trying to find his own way.

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career when he was 22. During his 30s he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published as a series in newspapers and magazines. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer in 1962, he was considered one of the best historical novelists of Japan.

If you’re in for an excellent novel about one of the great figures of Japan, this book will do the trick. Get it from amazon.

Last Winter, we Parted

Last Winter, we Parted
Fuminori Nakamura

A writer – whose name we never learn – has taken a commission to write a book about Judai Kiharazaka. The famous photographer has been convicted of burning two young women alive, and the writer interviews him to understand the motive. Kiharazaka is reluctant to open up, but the more the writer learns about Kiharazaka’s background, the more an obsessive personality comes to the foreground. However, when his investigations lead him to K2, a group centered on an artist who creates life-sized dolls after the image of dead women, the writer begins to doubt everything he has found out about Kiharazaka so far…

A complicated thriller, written from perspectives of both the writer and that of Kiharazaka. It is comprised of interviews, letters, and the writer’s notes and memories, and the plot unfolds slowly and in bursts. The big reveal at the end is a twist so far out there, I doubt that anyone could see it coming.

Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1977, is a Japanese writer. He published his first novel “The Thief” in 2002 and won three prestigous literature prizes within three years, one of them the Akutagawa Prize. In 2010, he won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize. A translation of “The Thief” was selected among the best 10 books of 2013 by the NY Times. Out of his 15 books, 7 have been translated into English so far.

If you’re in for something different – warning: it’s not a lighthearted read this one – then you can get it on amazon.