Bullet Train

Bullet Train
Kotaro Isaka

The Hayate Shinkasen leaves Tokyo for Morioka. A number of extraordinary people are on board, they are all dangerous – and on a mission:
Nanao must steal a suitcase and get off at the next station, but he isn’t the world’s unluckiest assassin for nothing…
Kimura is bent on revenge, but his target, known as The Prince, manages to turn the tables…
Lemon and Tangerine have rescued the son of a crime boss and are supposed to accompany him home, but when the boy winds up dead, they instead must find the killer before they arrive, if he’s still on board…

And while the train makes its way up north, these passengers’ goals become intertwined, and in the end, it’s all about who’s the last one standing.

Talk about a fast-paced thriller – no pun intended! I finished the book within a day. There is no ounce of fat in the narrative, every person, every thing that is introduced has its role to play at some later point. That means, you’ll need to pay attention throughout, but this never becomes tedious or annoying.

Interestingly, although all five main characters were decidedly bad people that I would go out of my way to avoid, I found myself rooting for one – and absolutely despising another.

If I had to quibble about something, it would be the introduction of two new characters close to the end, it felt too much of a “deus ex machina” to me. However, since they brought the story to a nice close and dealt beautifully with my least favourite bad boy, I will forgive the author for doing so.

Kotaro Isaka, born 1971, is a Japanese author of mystery fiction. He studied law at Tohoku University and after graduation worked as a systems engineer. His debut novel won the 2000 Shincho Mystery Club Prize and Isaka became a full time writer afterwards. He writes novels, short stories and manga, and 12 of his books have been adopted for film or TV so far. This particular thriller even made it to Hollywood and Brad Pitt.

It seems that the film has “adapted” the novel quite a bit – the train now goes into the opposite direction to Kyoto, for example – so if you’d like to read the original,you can get it from amazon.

Five Women Who Loved Love

Five Women Who Loved Love
Saikaku Ihara

These are five novellas about (forbidden) love from 17th century Japan.

Seijuro in Himeji loses his father’s (financial) support and, instead of spending his time in the local pleasure districts, has to find serious work. There, he promptly seduces his master’s daughter Omatsu…

The Barrelmaker Brimful of Love tells of a happy marriage between two people from its beginning to the tragic end of Osen and her lover…

What the Seasons Brought the Almanac Maker is another happy marriage destroyed by an adulterous prank instigated by Osan, the wife…

The Greengrocer’s Daughter with a Bundle of Love meets a dashing young man after a fire burned down her house. When Oshichi loses sight of him, she is ready to commit a serious crime to see him again…

Gengobei, the Mountain of Love, is a samurai from Satsuma who only loves young boys. Enter Oman, who is determined to change his ways for her own happily ever after.

These five stories are filled with eroticism, even though they are quite tame from our modern perspective. What makes them special – groundbreaking in fact, when they were written – is the detailed depiction of the life and affairs of Japan’s lower class townspeople in the Edo period. At that time, having an affair outside of one’s class (in general: with a higher-class woman) was forbidden and punishable by death. Yet, four of five women carry on such affairs regardless, and seem to take their inevitable punishment in their stride.

All five stories are based on real events that often happened just a few years earlier. This familiarity to the readers may have been one reason why they were instant bestsellers – the other one being the eroticism – and Saikaku quickly became one of Japan’s best-known novelists and poets of the time.

Saikaku Ihara (1641 – 1693) was a citizen of Osaka, then as now one of Japan’s commercial centers with a thriving population. He was one of the first to write exclusively of the chonin, the townspeople and their (love) affairs, and he was extremely popular among the people.

Contemporary writers found his style less appealing: Basho famously thought Saikaku’s style vulgar and uninspired, for example. In any case, Saikaku was very prolific and known for his marathon poetry performances, where he composed hundreds of poems on the spot. The “Five Women” were published in 1686 and remain one of his most popular pieces.

If you’re in for something … well, not really erotic, but depicting “real” life in 17th century Japan, get this one from amazon.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders
Soji Shimada

Japan, 1936: The testament of excentric painter Heikichi Umezawa reveals his disturbing fascination with his own daughters. He describes his plan of killing all seven of them and to use the most beautiful body part of each to create Azoth – the perfect woman. Since Heikichi is dead, nobody is taking this seriously – until the Umezawa girls suddenly disappear and their mutilated bodies are found exactly where Heikichi had planned.

Japan, 1976: For 40 years, the nation has been obsessed with these so-called “Zodiac Murders”, but they are still unsolved. Then, amateur sleuth Kazumi Ishioka gets his astrologer friend Kiyoshi Mitarai onto the case. Together, they try to unravel the mystery and follow the leads where they take them – to an unexpected solution and one final death.

The first 24 pages of the book – Heikichi’s testament – are, quite frankly, terribly written, and I struggled to get through them. In hindsight, this was on purpose, though. Because once the story turned to the two amateur detectives, things did look up. It was interesting to watch them decipher the hints, even though the actual solution happens off the page, which I don’t particularly like. However, the final reveal of the by now aged killer and the motive came as a shock to me.

Twice towards the end of the novel, the author inserted himself with notes in which he challenges the reader: “All pieces are in place, can you solve the puzzle?” I didn’t care for that at all, but other people may enjoy this.

Soji Shimada was born in 1948 in Hiroshima prefecture. “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” was his first book in 1981, and it was shortlisted for the Edogawa Rampo Award, a Japanese prize for crime fiction. Since then, Shimada has published numerous books and short stories, including the case books of the two sleuths on which this books focuses. In 2009, aged 61, he received the Japan Mystery Literature Award for his lifetime achievement.

If you’re in for a locked room mystery with a twist at the end, get this one from amazon.

Changed Perspectives

Not long after I came to Japan, somebody gave me a stack of books related to Japan: Japanese history, guidebooks, a few novels. I read them – some several times – and put them away.

One of those books was a short historical novel spanning 25 years of the Sengoku and early Edo period at the turn of the 17th century. The topic is tea master Sen-no-Rikyu and his death by suicide ordered by Hideyoshi. The main protagonist is one of his students, the (apparently non-historic) monk Honkaku, and he tries to solve the mystery why Rikyu had to commit suicide in the first place, and why he didn’t even attempt to appease Hideyoshi.

To be honest, when I first read this book some 10 years ago, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, the language is beautiful, even in translation, but I am one of the people who read primarily for the story, and it fell flat for me. Although set in Kyoto, the place names didn’t conjure up any images and the people, whether historic or not, were not fleshed out enough to make them interesting.

The whole novel was centred around the tea ceremony (of which I still only know the bare minimum) and could have just as well taken place in a chashitsu, a tiny tea house (and much of it actually did). So, after the reading the book then, I put it away with a label of “okay-ish”, and moved on.

Recently, something prompted me to pick it up again, and I’m surprised to say that my opinion has changed completely.

In the last 10 years, I visited countless places in Kyoto, and the author places Honkaku’s hermitage somewhere near my house, which is kind of funny. But more importantly, I learned much about Japanese history and culture in that time, not through any systematic study mind you, I just picked up bits and pieces here and there. And they all fell into place perfectly when reading this book again.

I now know about Rikyu and his successor as number one tea master, Furuta Oribe (who, coincidentally, also was ordered to commit suicide). Recently, I discovered the controversial figure of Oda Urakusai, another student of Rikyu’s. I still don’t know enough about tea ceremony to appreciate the many references to famous tea utensils – all of which have a name – however, overall, I found the novel very enjoyable this time around, even though it doesn’t solve the mystery in the end.

All of this goes to show that maybe we should re-read books. Our experiences in the interim may have increased our knowledge of certain details, changed our opinions on something specific, or even our outlook on life and the world as a whole. What we’ve tossed aside as a mere lump of coal may have turned into a diamond while we were busy with other things.

This is not one of my usual book reviews. Firstly, because I cannot unreservedly recommend the book in question. Given my own experience, I think you really need to be familiar with aspects of the tea ceremony, or its early protagonists, to enjoy it.

Secondly, the book still has not been translated into English. However, for my German-speaking readers, the book is Der Tod des Teemeisters by Yasushi Inoue, the Japanese original is called Honkakubo Ibun. Maybe it’s best to find it in a library, lest you are disappointed on the first reading, just like I was.

The Heike Story

The Heike Story
Eiji Yoshikawa

Young Heita of the Heike lives in poverty after his father, the samurai Tadanori, fell from grace at court. Not only that, the constant quarreling between his parents often lead him to roam the streets of Kyoto. When Heita becomes a member of the guards at the palace, he takes on a new name – Kiyomori – and soon his talent as a leader shows itself, and he rises in ranks and status. This leads to discontent among the rival Genji clan, and they begin plotting against Kiyomori, even involving the Retired Emperor. Kiyomoro, however, manages to foil all the intrigues, executes or banishes the Genji and their followers and eventually becomes the Chief Councillor to the Emperor. But one act of mercy allows the remaining Genji to hold on to hope, and dark clouds are forming over the head of Kiyomori and the Heike…

The Heike Monogatari is the epic tale of the struggle for power between the houses of Genji and Heike that culminated in the Genpei Wars (1180 – 1185) Eiji Yoshikawa bases his own story on the old tradition and starts with the youth of Kiyomori and tells about the rise of the Heike until shortly before the war begins.

Historical novels, especially when the protagonist is a well-known historical figure, often have to grapple with long stretches of time when nothing much is happening or entire characters drop off the scene. This novel is no exception, and thus there are many parts that could have been shortened. It is a sad fact that strife and battle are so much more interesting than the times of peace in between.

Eiji Yoshikawa (1892 – 1962) was not educated as a writer, yet, he worked as a journalist and wrote numerous short stories and novels. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer, he was considered among the best historical novelists of Japan.

I don’t think this book is as good as his Musashi or Taiko, but if you want to give it a try, it’s available from amazon.

The Diving Pool

The Diving Pool
Yoko Ogawa

This short book is a collection of 3 novellas:

The Diving Pool
Teenage girl Aya falls in love with Jun, who lives at the Light House, Aya’s parents’ orphanage. Every day after school, she watches him as he trains for a diving competition. Aya dreams of getting closer to Jun, but is unaware that he knows her darkest secret…

Pregnancy Diary
An unnamed woman meticulously records her sister’s pregnancy in a diary. She is happily fulfilling all her sister’s cravings for food, especially that for grapefruit jam, freshly boiled. But maybe, there is something sinister behind the ostentatious caretaking…

Dormitory
A young woman sets up her housing in her old university dormitory, which is slowly but inexplicably falling apart. With her husband overseas, she feels bored and finds herself taking care of the dormitory’s elderly manager. He believes that his life and the dormitory’s deterioration are linked, but what is really hiding within its walls?

I enjoyed reading the stories, and Yoko Ogawa is a master of words and vivid imagery. All three stories seem pleasant enough at first glance, but underneath the glossy surface lurks a darkness that only waits for a single moment of inattention…

Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962, studied at Waseda university, and became a medical university secretary. After her marriage, she quit her job and, unbeknownst to her husband, began writing. She won the Kaien Literary Prize for her debut novel n 1988, and has since written more than 50 works, both fiction and nonfiction. She has also won many prestigious literary prizes, among them the Japanese Akutagawa, Yomiuri, and Tanizaki Prize, as well as international awards.

Look behind the scenes of human nature with this book – get it from amazon.

The Nakano Thrift Shop

The Nakano Thrift Shop
Hiromi Kawakami

When Hitomi starts working in Mr. Nakano’s store, he tells her right away that they do not sell antiques, but rummage. It is a quiet store and every so often Mr. Nakano goes out with young Takeo to buy now old merchandise. Between old ashtrays, life-size advertisements cutouts, odd ball customers and old vases, affection slowly grows between Hitomi and Takeo. As both have been burnt by love before, their relationship is an awkward to-and-fro, with moments of intimacy and periods of rejection. And all between that, we hear of the women in Mr. Nakano’s life; about his current lover, but also about his ever present sister Masayo and the love of her life.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is the thread that weaves through a number of episodes in the lives of the protagonists, all of them centred on love in one way or the other. However, the decision of Mr. Nakano to open a real antiques shop in a more upscale neighbourhood tears apart the fragile web between the characters, and leaves a sense of loss in its wake.

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and started her career as a writer with science fiction stories, directly after graduating from college. She has since received numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Yomiuri Prize.

This lovely book of people that are still trying to find their own path in society is available from amazon.

Prefecture D

Prefecture D
Hideo Yokoyama

Season of Shadows
Osakabe has been assigned a temporary lead position in administration, but as his term is up, refuses to step down. But why? This is the question Futawatari from Personnel has to answer – and quickly. But Osakabe is avoiding him and keeps his cards close to his chest…

Cry of the Earth
An anonymous tip alerts Shindo of Internal Affairs that Station Chief Sone is visiting the local red-light district. Since Shindo knows Sone personally, his first suspicion runs to slander. Or perhaps there is something even more sinister going on…

Black Lines
Young officer Hirano disappears on her way to work. As this comes after extensive news coverage of a crime she solved, her superior officer Nanao is worried that the criminals may have retaliated…

Briefcase
A parliamentary debate involving the Chief of Police is just a few days away when Political Liaison Officer Tsuge is warned that one of the questioners is out for revenge. In his quest to diffuse or at least prepare for the situation, he is ready to overstep all boundaries…

These four short stories deal with the inner workings of the Japanese police force in (fictional) Prefecture D. We meet a number of policemen from Yokoyama’s Six Four again, but other than that novel, this collection does not involve any traditional police sleuthing to solve criminal cases. Instead, we delve deeper into the depths of internal police affairs and get to see what some officers are ready to do just to get ahead.

Hideo Yokoyama worked as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture before turning to a career as a novelist. His books are meticulously researched and often depict office politics within the police force. He has received five Japanese literary prizes focused on crime and has written short story collections and eight novels, six of which have been made into films.

Although it may sound a bit weird, but these four stories of office politics are as gripping as any other crime novel. You can get the book from amazon.

The Gate

The Gate
Soseki Natsume

The couple Sosuke and Oyone live at the verge of poverty in the outskirts of Tokyo in the beginning of the 20th century. When Koroku, Sosuke’s much younger brother, is forced to live with them and expects them to pay for his university tuition, the situation in the household goes from bad to worse. By chance, Sosuke and his landlord begin a friendship that may improve the lives of the three young people. However, when Sosuke hears that Oyone’s brother, for whose misfortune he believes to be responsible, is back in town, this might mean that they once again must leave everything behind and settle elsewhere. To clear his thoughts, Sosuke goes on a visit to a Zen monastery in the mountains…

A beautiful book by Soseki Natsume, although, to be honest, nothing much happens. We hear about the day-to-day life and hardships of the loving couple, but just as with many other Japanese novels, the most important things are only implied. Only more than half through the book do we hear about the reason for Sosuke’s estrangement from his family, for example. Things pick up speed when Sosuke visits the Zen temple, and his struggles with the unfamiliar life are depicted beautifully. What is your answer to this koan, posed to Sosuke by the head priest: “Your original face prior to your parent’s birth – what is that?”

Soseki Natsume, pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke, was born in 1867 as the 6th child of a rather poor family. From the age of 15, he wanted to become an author, but because of his father’s disapproval, he entered university to study architecture and English. He went to England in 1901 for two years, and did not like the experience. Today, he is one of the most famous writers of Japan. Soseki Natsume died in 1916, only 49 years old.

Soseki considered “The Gate” his favourite novel, and you can get it on amazon.

Novelist as a Vocation

Novelist as a Vocation
Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami ranks among the best known contemporary Japanese authors. In more than 30 years, he has written 14 novels, a number of nonfiction works and countless short stories and essays, many of which were translated into dozens of languages. Despite his status as an international celebrity, Murakami stays mostly out of the limelight, preferring to write books rather than giving interviews.

This book is a collection of 11 essays in which he talks about his path as an author. He explains his views on writing, his audience, literary prizes, and the relationship between mental and physical fitness when it comes to write books. Although some essays have titles like “On Originality”, “What to write about”, or “What characters do I put on stage”, these are not manuals on how to write but rather detail how Murakami himself approaches the craft.

I have read this book a few years ago in a German translation (Von Beruf Schriftsteller). While I like Murakami in general, that translation doesn’t read very well. He used a lot of “in my view” and “in my opinion” hedging, which may be expected by a Japanese audience, but to me, it seemed a bit arrogant at times. I wonder if the English translation suffers from the same problem. However, if you’re interested in a (partial) autobiography of one of the world’s best-selling authors, you should definitely read this one.

Even if you’re not a writer, this one is interesting if you like Murakami. Get the book from amazon.