Kabuki Dancer

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.

This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.

Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.

If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.

Kwaidan

Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things
Lafcadio Hearn

This is a, if not the, classic collection of Japanese ghost stories. While there are many famous ghost stories related to classic Japanese literature, like the Tale of the Heike, the 17 stories contained here are old folk tales. For example, “The Story of Mimi-nashi-hoichi” tells of the dangerous experience of a blind musician who gives a concert on a graveyard. And “Yuki-onna” warns of the dangers of not keeping a woman’s secret.

Collected more than 100 years ago, these stories have lost none of their charm and have rightfully earned their place among the must read books for everyone interested in Japan and its culture.

Lafcadio Hearn was born 1850 in Greece and moved to the US when he was 19 to work as a journalist. In 1890, he was sent to Japan and was soon offered a teaching position. Hearn wrote a great number of articles with a focus on Japanese customs and folklore, even though he is mainly known for the collection of ghost stories above. He married into a Japanese family and took the name Koizumi Yakumo, under which he is famous in Japan. He never left the country again and died in Tokyo in 1904 from heart failure.

Japanese people tell each other ghost stories in summer to cool down. To be true to tradition, you should get the book one of these days, perhaps from amazon.

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:

A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.

I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.

If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.

After Dark

After Dark
Haruki Murakami

Book CoverIt’s midnight in Tokyo and once again, Mari doesn’t want to go to bed, doesn’t even want to go home. A regular late customer, she sits in a Denny’s cafe reading when Takahashi enters, a trombone case slung over his shoulder. He recognizes Mari from a date some years previous and sits at her table for a while but he soon leaves for his band practice. Mari is alone again until Kaoru, the manager of a nearby love hotel, storms into the place and asks Mari for help. A young Chinese prostitute has been assaulted in her hotel, and she needs an interpreter. Mari follows Kaoru into the night, and soon she is enveloped in the weird stories that happen after dark in the big city.

Three stories are being told in this book: The one of Mari and Takahashi, of Kaoru and what’s going on in her love hotel, and – of Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister, who, like Snow White, has been sleeping for a very long time… The three stories don’t form a single whole, but like the myriad of rail tracks in Tokyo, only cross and touch each other at intervals, but in general, they run independently.

Haruki Murakami, born in Kyoto in 1949, studied drama in Tokyo and afterwards managed Jazz club in Tokyo. He started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. He has won many Japanese and international prizes. In this book, Murakami has painted a perfect japanese picture – beautifully detailed in the important parts, but with enough empty space for the beholder’s imagination.

Follow Mari into the night in Tokyo and check out the book on amazon.

Taiko

Taiko
Eiji Yoshikawa

Book CoverIn the year 1537, yet another child is born into the family of an impoverished samurai. Although little Hiyoshi is smart and streetwise, he cannot hold an apprenticeship and is finally kicked out of the house by his stepfather. Wandering through the provinces, he encounters the young Oda Nobunaga and immediately decides to serve him. Starting out as a lowly sandal-bearer, a combination of hard work, tenacity and wit lets him climb the social ranks higher and higher until, in his 40s, he is known as Hideyoshi and considered one of the top generals of Japan. From there, it is just a small step to avenge the murder of his lord Oda Nobunaga and to become Taiko, the leader of the country.

This epic historical fiction – the abridged English translation runs just shy of 1000 pages – follows the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi from his humble beginnings all the way to his appointment as Taiko. Through his sharp wit and gift for rousing speech, he manages to manoeuver the dangerous Sengoku Period (the Warring States of Japan) and remains the unchallenged victor at the end.

Whenever I read books like this, I wonder how much we really know about any historical figure. I know that the Japanese are meticulous record keepers and even many private letters of that time survive. Still, how much do we really know about Hideyoshi and his relationship to Nene, his wife? Anyway, If you’re even remotely interested in Hideyoshi and his time, this is a very exciting read!

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career at twenty-two years of age. During his thirties he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published serially 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 among the best historical novelists of Japan.

For all of you who need something longer to keep them occupied during the Corona shutdown, get this book at amazon.

Malice

Malice
Keigo Higashino

Bestselling author Kunihiko Hidaka was found murdered in his office by his wife and his old friend, Osamu Nonoguchi. Detective Kaga, who happens to be an old acquaintance of Nonoguchi’s, investigates the case and thankfully, the murderer is quickly found. All the evidence that is subsequently revealed seems to corroborate the motive as the murderer explains it, but detective Kaga is not satisfied. Thus begins a search for the true motive behind the killing, which sends Kaga back to the past of Hidaka and Nonoguchi – as well as his own.

This is not your typical whodunit, but more of a whydunit. After about a quarter of the story, the murderer has been found. However, the motive he reveals is nothing but a smokescreen erected to slander the victim beyond his death, and the real “Why?” comes to light only at the very end. While I know that people can go to great lengths to destroy an enemy, I found the fabricated motive too far-fetched, and the denouement of the real one at the end somewhat disappointing, although it was quite chilling. But maybe I’m just too much of a goodie two shoes…

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started his professional writing career in 1986. He published more than 60 novels, 20 of which have been turned into films. He won a number of prestigious awards and served as the 13th president of Mystery Writers of Japan from 2009 to 2013.

Find out why the writer was killed and get the book from amazon.

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami

Cover of "Norwegian Wood"Taru Watanabe is a student at a private university in Tokyo in the 1960s and he lives the average life of an average student: some parties, some studies, some music, some girls… But then Naoko re-enters his life, a girl he knew from school. Taru had a crush on her then, but she was the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki and thus off-limits. Now however, Naoko is free, and they rekindle their friendship that soon blossoms into a tender romance. But then Naoko disappears, and despite his efforts, Taru cannot find her.

At this time, he meets Midori, who is the total opposite of the quiet and introverted Naoko. Taru quickly falls in love with the outspoken and demanding Midori, but just as he is ready to commit, a letter from Naoko arrives…

On the surface, this sounds like a typical “man between two women” story, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Taru loves Naoko deeply, but her inner troubles don’t permit her a relationship. Midori on the other hand is open and available – which makes her scary in another way. Will Taru be able to choose in the end?

Haruki Murakami, born in 1949, is among the best known Japanese authors of today. He started writing with 29 and the above book, published in 1987, became his breakthrough with millions of copies sold in Japan alone. Haruki Murakami has been the recipient of a number of prestigious literature prizes, among them the Tanizaki Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.

To relive the times of young adult angst in and about love, get this book on amazon.com.

The Crab Cannery Ship

The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle
Takiji Kobayashi

Cover of The Crab Cannery ShipThis book consists of three novellas, all written in the late 1920s/early 1930s. All three concern class struggles, the rising of the working class, and the left-wing movements in Hokkaido.

  • The Crab Cannery Ship is a novella about a season of crab fishing near the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. Neither factory nor ship, local fishermen and other laborers from Hokkaido have to endure unspeakable hardships to feed their families, until, at last, there is an uprising… 
  • Upon the jailing of her brother, Okei and her mother must move to Otaru to make ends meet. Yasuko, the younger sister works there already, in a small restaurant. When she gets involved with Yamada, a member of the worker’s union, the lives of both sisters change, but whether it’s a change for the better remains to be seen.
  • Life of a Party Member is exactly that, the struggles of a member of the left-wing party who is forced into the underground. However, he still keeps up his work to convert people to the socialist movement. It is not clear whether this piece is autobiographical.

The three stories in this book can probably be called left-wing propagandist literature, and the author, as a member of the labour movement does nothing to hide it. However, the writing is incredibly vivid and conjures up dreary pictures of the lives of impoverished people. I felt very drawn to the protagonists, and was ready to step in to help, all the while seeing through some of the more obvious propaganda (of course, with almost 100 years of hindsight). The first story was republished in 2008 and became a bestseller in Japan, a sign for the constant need to make a change, I guess.

Takiji Kobayashi was born in 1903 and moved to Hokkaido as a small child. He started writing short stories and published them when at university, and at that time he became a member of the labour movement. “The Crab Cannery Ship” was written in 1929 and it sold 15.000 copies before it was banned. He continued to write more stories and books in support of the labour movement and socialist ideas. In 1931, Kobayashi became an official member of the already outlawed Japanese Communist party, and one year later, he went underground. In 1933 he was captured by the police, tortured, and died while in custody – officially – from a “heart attack”.

If you’d like to read this book that became a bestseller and sold 500.000 copies 80 years after it was published, head over to amazon.

Paprika

Paprika
Yasutaka Tsutsui

Cover for "Paprika"Atsuko Chiba has it all: The beautiful and brilliant psychiatrist is on the way to win a Nobel Prize for her work with mentally ill patients, using the PT device invented by her colleague Kosaku Tokita. As her alter ego, the “dream detective” Paprika, she uses the new machines to visit the dreams of patients, where she tries to find out the source behind their problems and attempts to cure them. This part of Atsuko’s work is illegal, but Paprika keeps being called upon by the rich and powerful in need of clandestine treatment.

When a greatly improved version of the PT device, the DC Mini, goes missing, Atsuko and Paprika are quickly drawn into an abyss of unhealthy dreams that take over the minds of colleagues and friends. Together, they need all the help they can get to keep the dream world and its nightmares from invading the real world…

I’m in two minds about this book. I greatly enjoyed the premise and the smart way of mixing dreams and reality. Towards the end of the book, you really don’t know where you are anymore. Unfortunately, Atsuko/Paprika was a typical Mary Sue character: beautiful, highly intelligent, every man would fall in love with her the moment he laid eyes upon her… It got too much pretty soon. Also, despite having a “strong” female main character, the book was full of misogyny. Part of it are the personalities of the two main antagonists, but part of it appears to be the views of the writer too, unfortunately. Saving grace in this respect is that the book was published back in 1993, and hopefully, Japanese views on women have changed in the last 15 years. Not really a recommendation, read at your own peril!

Yasutaka Tsutsui was born in Osaka in 1934 and lives in Tokyo. His works have laid the basis for Japanese postmodern science fiction and he often integrates psychoanalysis, surrealism, time travel, dream worlds etc. A number of his books have been adapted for tv or cinema. He is the recipient of the renowned Tanizaki Prize (1987) and the Kawabata Prize (1989), among others.

Probably the most controversial book I have posted on here. Make up your own mind with a copy from amazon.

Gray Men

Gray Men
Tomotake Ishikawa

Gray Men book coverRyotaro has had enough of the relentless bullying at his workplace. As he is sitting on a park bench ready to commit suicide, a mysterious man in a gray suit sits down next to him, claims to be able to see what Ryotaro is up to and convinces him otherwise. After Ryotaro has helped the man with a jewellery heist in broad daylight, he is introduced to other people who were saved from the brink of death. Together, they are ready to implement and even die for Gray’s plan to destroy the current rule of the One Percent and to give power back to the disenfranchised of society.

This is an extraordinary thriller I found hard to put down. The things the rich and powerful do – and get away with – are depicted in gory detail at times. And when at the end push comes to shove and Gray threatens to take it all away from them, you see the real lengths they are willing to go through to protect who they are and what they have. You are left wondering how far fiction goes and what might really go on behind those expensive facades.

Tomotake Ishikawa, born in 1985, works in an office as a salaryman like millions of other Japanese. He writes in his spare time and on commutes. Gray Men is his debut novel and in 2011 won the Grand Prize of the second annual Golden Elephant Award (an open literature award for full-length novels written in Japanese).

If you need something quick and easy (and a bit disturbing at times), Gray Men is available at amazon.