Showing posts with label J-Lit Giants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label J-Lit Giants. Show all posts

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 12 - Banana Yoshimoto

We're back on Wednesday with the final J-Lit Giants induction for this January, and it may well be the most controversial so far.  While one definition of 'giant' might be a writer whose work shines out from among that of other writers, another might be that of a writer whose personality and work somehow hits a chord with a generation of readers, both at home and overseas - which brings me to today's addition...

Banana Yoshimoto was born with the less fruity name of Mahoko Yoshimoto in 1964.  She grew up in a rather liberal family, where she enjoyed an unusual (for a Japanese woman) amount of freedom.  She later studied literature, deciding to choose her new name (while the pseudonym itself is unusual, the idea of taking one is a long-standing Japanese tradition).

She worked on her writing while she was working as a waitress, and her first story, Moonlight Shadow, was a big hit.  This was followed by Kitchen, a book which led to instant success at home, which was then mirrored overseas.  Yoshimoto was to become a J-Lit star, a Japanese export suited to a cutesy image people in the west were developing of the country; in fact, she was perhaps second only to you-know-who in her branding in the west.
She has since written several more books, with around eight of her works currently available in English.  The majority of her stories centre on familiar themes, such as the loss of a loved one, the difficulty of settling down into adult life and - of course - the supernatural...

While Yoshimoto is a big name in J-Lit, reviews of her work have not always been positive, and many see her work as light and superficial.  Her response?
"A lot of my critics like to point out the fun, escapist side of my writing. Some even say that it is superficial and specially catered for popular consumption. Sometimes, I feel guilty since I write my stories for fun, not for therapy. But I am not deterred from my ultimate dream of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature."
Well, that's confidence for you ;)  I have to admit that this quote comes from a blog which may or may not be hers (click here to see it).  However,while the quote is no longer on her English-language Wikipedia page (it used to be), much of the rest of the blog post still is.  True or not, it's all part of the image that is Banana Yoshimoto :)

I've now read most of Yoshimoto's work available in English, and I'm still not convinced.  However, while I struggle with some aspects of her writing, there's always something there that makes me come back for another try.  But where should the new reader begin?

1) Kitchen - The English version of Kitchen actually contains the title story, a two-part novella and the short story 'Moonlight Shadow'.  Both deal with the theme of grieving for loved ones and finding a way to move on with your life, and the stories are perfect examples of Yoshimoto's style and ideas.  If you don't like these, then it's probably best to just keep moving...

2) Amrita - This is one of Yoshimoto's longest books in English, probably her only full-length novel.  A stressed-out woman, on the verge of entering her thirties, has her life turned upside down by a simple slip on some stairs.  What follows is a story which has as its moral the importance of seizing the day - with some added ghosts, of course ;)

3) The Lake - Yoshimoto's most recent novel in English was longlisted for The Man Asian Prize, and it's a more nuanced work than some of her earlier efforts (even if the metaphor of the fog, which dominates parts of the novel, is a touch heavy-handed for some).  This is another tale of a struggling relationship, but one with a slightly more tangible root to its problems...

I've had my say - now it's over to you!  Are you a big fan of Ms. Banana, or is she a writer you love to hate?  Which of her books do you love (or loathe)?  Let me know in the usual place ;)

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 11 - Kenzaburo Oe

It's Wednesday again, which means that it's time for another J-Lit Giant to be introduced, and it's a big one today.  He's one of just two Japanese writers to have been awarded the world's highest literary honour, the Nobel Prize for Literature - truly a worthy giant...

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in a small, secluded town on the island of Shikoku.  As a child growing up during the war, his experiences (mostly second hand) were to have an influence on his later writing.  Although he wanted to stay at home and follow in his conservationist father's footsteps, he eventually visited Tokyo at the age of eighteen and later moved there to work on his writing.

Greatly influenced by French writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, he began to write short stories and quickly won acclaim.  One of his first efforts, 'Prize Stock', the story of a small mountain village and a captured American soldier, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1958, after which he began to write short novels (e.g. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids).

His life (and writing) changed forever with the birth of his son, Hikari.  The baby was born with a brain swelling which led to a mental handicap, and the trauma Oe felt was to overshadow his subsequent writing.  Many of his later works, including A Personal Matter, were semi-autobiographical works attempting to work through the writer's demons.

Besides his works about Hikari, Oe also wrote much about the war (especially in his early stories and in Hiroshima Notes, a book of essays) and the seclusion of his home town (The Silent Cry).  He gradually became an elder statesman of the Japanese literary scene, an influence on many younger writers (I can think of one prominent example...).  In addition to the Akutagawa Prize, he received many of Japan's highest literary awards (e.g. the Yomiuri Prize and the Tanizaki Prize) before being awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1994.  That wasn't the end of his career though; in fact, he published a new book (In Late Style) very recently :)

I haven't read a lot by Oe, compared to some other Japanese writers, but all three I have read (from his early career) are very good:

1) The Silent Cry - An intense, claustrophobic novel set in a place similar to Oe's real hometown.  While it's another attempt to deal with his disabled son, it's also a superb piece of writing about isolation from society.  Anyone wanting to see where Murakami got his inspiration should read this, as you'll be seeing hints in the first few pages ;)

2) A Personal Matter - A child is born, and a family's life falls apart.  A wonderfully honest account of the dilemmas facing a 1960s man who isn't ready for the task of bringing up a mentally-handicapped child.

3) Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids - A bunch of kids sent to a village in the mountains arrive to find it ravaged by disease.  What happens next?  A kind of Lord of the Flies in the Japanese countryside...

Bonus suggestion - My first encounter with Oe was 'Prize Stock', a forty-page story found both in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and the Oe collection Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness.  It's a great story which is extremely worthy of winning the Akutagawa Prize :)

There you have it - another giant inducted :)  What do you think - have you read anything by Oe?  What are your favourites?  Let us know by leaving a comment in the usual place...

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 10 - Yasunari Kawabata

In last year's original series, there was a serious oversight - neither of the Japanese Nobel Laureates were included.  With Kenzaburo Oe, I did have my reasons as I was saving him for later until I'd read more of his work.  With Yasunari Kawabata though, it was a genuine mistake - in my mind I'd actually already written the post...

Let's rectify that today :)

Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899, and his early life was a sad one.  He was orphaned at the age of 4 and grew up with his grandparents until their death forced another move.  At the age of eighteen, he went off to school in preparation for university exams, eventually enrolling at Tokyo Imperial University.

It was there that he caught the attention of famous writer Kikuchi Kan, and pieces of his writing were published in Kan's magazine Bungei ShunjuIn 1926, 'The Izu Dancer', his first really successful story, came out, but his serialised work of the next few years went through various styles; his serialised novel The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa was a vibrant western-influenced novel set in a bright, trashy part of Tokyo (a far cry from one of his next works, Snow Country!).

After World War Two, Kawabata arguably produced his best work, perfecting a style which was drifting, beautiful and oblique - what we now see as a typically-Japanese style of writing.  He finished works like Thousand Cranes, The Sound of the Mountain and The Master of Go (a semi-fictional account of a famous contest).  Not content with just writing, Kawabata was also the president of Japanese PEN and an ambassador for Japanese literature (in a couple of anthologies I've read, dating from the 1960s, the editors have expressed their gratitude towards 'Mr. Kawabata'!).

His literary career culminated in the bestowal of the Nobel Prize in 1968, the first time a Japanese writer had received the award.  Sadly though, he died four years later in what appeared to be a suicide (although some people have their doubts).  Haunted by nightmares of Yukio Mishima's shocking death, it seems Kawabata was seeking some peace...

My three picks?  Well, if I'm entirely honest, I haven't always got Kawabata completely.  I've enjoyed most of those I've read (six or seven of his major works), but I've only loved a few.  These really hit the mark though:

1) The Sound of the Mountain - Easily my favourite Kawabata work, a slow, poignant portrait of an old man facing his mortality - while his family does its best to disturb the peace of his golden years.

2) The Old Capital - A story of a year in Kyoto, The Old Capital is an elegant love story, with layer upon layer of meaning (most of which will undoubtedly be missed by the average Anglophone reader...).

3) Snow Country - A man travels from Tokyo to spend time at a traditional hotel with his lover, a young Geisha.  It's a wonderful story to read, but having tried it twice, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it ;)

Bonus pick: 'The Izu Dancer', included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, is a beautiful twenty-page tale.  It was my first introduction to Kawabata, and it's still one of my favourites.

Another giant enters the hall of fame - and about time too.  Have you read anything by Kawabata?  Do you agree with my views, or do you have a different favourite?  Perhaps his writing is not to your taste...  Whatever your view, please leave a comment below - that's what the box is for ;)

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 9 - Shūsaku Endō

Today sees the first guest post in our 2014 J-Lit Giants series, and I'm very glad to have someone come in and share the load.  Matt Todd blogs at A Novel Approach, and with an honours degree in Japanese postcolonial literature, he is a lot more qualified to do this sort of thing than I am - so I'll just pass you straight over to him...

Endō Shūsaku (遠藤周作, 1923-1996) is notable in the Japanese canon for several reasons, though the most important—and most obvious—is his faith. In a country that has a troubled history with Christianity (in contemporary Japan, less than 1% of the population self-identifies as Christian), it is intriguing to read an author who is so defined by the fact that he believes in this Western system of belief.

Endō’s world-view comes from his own experiences with the faith. He was baptised as Christian as a child, and as a result, was often mocked and ostracised as he grew up in a country not exactly renowned for its taking up of Christianity.

Many of his works interrogate historical incidents and events that are not usually considered by other authors, particularly inside Japan. His Akutagawa Prize-winning novella, The White Men (白い人), for example, explores questions of original sin and the good/evil dichotomy in Western thought from the point of view of a young man tortured in Nazi-occupied Lyon.

Endō’s most famous work (and the one that won him the Tanizaki Prize) is Silence (沈黙), a novel about a Portuguese missionary who is forced to renounce his Christian faith in public while still spreading the word in private, despite the ban handed down by the bakufu (military government). Martin Scorsese is adapting this into a film.

Inspired by his childhood in Manchuria, The Sea and the Poison (海と毒薬) sees Endo explore the legacy of the Imperial Japanese Army and the war crimes they committed. The book is thought to be based on the work of Unit 731.

Did you know that the first Japanese embassies to Europe were all influenced by Christianity? The Samurai (侍) fictionalises one such mission, showing the fickle nature of politicians and faith in mediaeval Japan.

His work is a distinct voice in the modern history of Japanese literature. From historical novels about the first Western missionaries in Japan, as well as the first Japanese to visit Europe, to contemporary novels about atrocities carried out by the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific War, Endō explores the ways in which faith, violence and humanity interact and connect.

For anyone interested in learning more about his life and his work, I would strongly recommend this essay, which goes into more detail about what I have skimmed over here.

Thanks for that, Matt - a great overview of the life and works of one of J-Lit's modern greats :)

As always, now it's over to you.  Have you read anything by Endō?  Did Matt leave out any of your favourites?  Is the writer's religious focus a drawing card, or has it put you off trying his work?  Leave a comment below, and let us know :)

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 8 - Yōko Ogawa

We're back with January in Japan for 2014, and what better way to kick off the second instalment of our event than with the next induction into our pantheon of Japanese writers?  That's right, it's time for the arrival of another J-Lit Giant - and the first one for 2014 is also our first giantess...

Yōko Ogawa is probably one of the best-known modern female Japanese writers (ignoring those who are named after fruits...).  While relatively few of her works have been translated into English, many more of her books are available in other languages.  In fact, according to her French Wikipedia page, you'll be able to enjoy more than twenty of her works if you are able to read in that language.

She was born in Okayama in 1962, and after studying at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, she began a writing career.  Like many Japanese writers, she made her name when she won the Akutagawa Prize in 1991 (for her novella Pregnancy Diary).  In addition, she has taken out other important prizes, such as the Tanizaki Prize and the Yomiuri Prize, awarded by Japan's biggest newspaper.

Her influences include traditional Japanese writers like Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, as well as the ubiquitous Haruki Murakami, but she is also influenced by American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver.  She has become a hugely successful writer in Japan, and some of her work has made it into film, such as her novel The Housekeeper and the Professor.

As is the case with Murakami, Ogawa's writing is clear and direct, unlike the ambiguous style of older Japanese writers, something which perhaps explains her success so far in English.  While her biggest success, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is a warm, romantic tale, her other work can be more challenging.  Hotel Iris, for example, is a far darker novel, one which might surprise those with memories of the gentle relationship of the earlier book.

With four books so far in English, but dozens in the original Japanese, there are a lot more Ogawa stories waiting to be read.  We just have to hope that someone is going to translate them into English - and, of course, get them published...

So, where to start with Ogawa's work?  Well, there are only four to choose from...

1) The Diving Pool - This was the first Ogawa work to appear in English and would be the perfect introduction to her world.  It's a collection of three novellas, one of which is her Akutagawa-winning effort, Pregnancy Diary.  It's also the book I've chosen for the first readalong (16th of January), giving you even more reason to try it :)

2) The Housekeeper and the Professor - I liked this, even though it was a little too sweet for my tastes, but most readers have loved it.  The intriguing story of the blossoming relationship between a housekeeper and a mathematician is complicated by two things.  One is the housekeeper's young son; the other is the fact that the professor's memory only goes back ninety minutes - after that, it's all gone...

3) Hotel Iris - Anyone for Japanese rope bondage?  Step this way...  Leave your preconceptions and your shyness at the door - after checking in at this hotel, you'll never see Ogawa (and J-Lit) in quite the same way ;)

4) Revenge - A series of eleven interlinked tales, this collection is said to be another dark one.  I haven't got around to this yet, but I'm very keen to give it a go :)

There you are - our first female inductee.  Have you read anything by Ogawa?  Do you agree with my views?  Has anyone read anything else (in Japanese, or perhaps French)?  Please leave a comment, and let us all know :)

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 7 - Haruki Murakami

Well, we're rapidly approaching the (calendar-dictated) end of January in Japan, but before February sweeps us off the stage, there's just enough time for one more J-Lit Giant to get up there and strut his stuff.  So, who gets the honour of closing the show?  You might just have heard of this one...

Haruki Murakami (born on the 12th of January, 1949) is quite possibly the most famous Japanese writer ever.  An exaggeration?  I don't think so.  In the English-speaking world, he has no rival for the title, and I'm sure that the same is true in most other countries.  Even in Japan itself, his fame may have outstripped that of traditional writers such as Natsume Soseki or Yasunari Kawabata.  But who is Murakami?

Murakami studied drama at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo, but before even finishing his degree, he got married to his partner Yoko, and they opened a bar (Peter Cat) together.  His life consisted of bar work and translation until, in a moment which could come from one of his works, he decided at a baseball game that he should try his hand at writing a book himself.  The rest, as they say, is history...

His early works earned him healthy sales and a certain amount of respect, but with the release of Norwegian Wood (his most conventional novel), Murakami's fame skyrocketed to such an extent that he was forced to flee Japan to escape the attention.  The later release of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a book many consider to be his best, brought critical acclaim to match his commercial success.  Kenzaburo Oe, who had been a critic of Murakami's work, praised the novel (which won one of Japan's most prestigious awards, the Yomiuri Prize).

The release of 1Q84 saw Murakami's fame at its peak in the west with publicity and hype at levels unheard of for a novel in translation.  However, in terms of literary success, Murakami's reputation is very much on a knife-edge.  Many believe that 1Q84 was overblown and repetitive, and that the book needed serious editing before being released in English.  Then again, many of these are probably the same people who complained that the English translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was majorly cut...

Murakami's literary legacy is uncertain (and probably best left to future generations!) - what is clear is that he has successfully crossed over into the English-language scene like few foreign writers before him.  He is prolific, and in addition to his fiction work (and his numerous translations of modern American literature), he has written volumes of non-fiction on a wide variety of topics, the majority of which are unlikely to see the light of day in English.  For anyone who has an interest in Murakami, Jay Rubin's biography (which I reviewed earlier in the month) is also a great read - but I'd recommend that you try a good few of his fiction works first ;)

One of the questions I've been asked most often in all my blogging career is which Murakami work to start with, and like all good questions, it is not an easy one to answer.  I've given different answers on many occasions, but here are three that might help you to ease your way into Murakami's world:

1) The Elephant Vanishes - Although Murakami considers himself a novelist, many readers prefer his shorter work.  The stories in this collection are a great introduction to his bizarre world, and if there are any which don't really take your fancy, there is always another one just over the page :)

2) Norwegian Wood - This is a wonderful, nostalgic novel looking back at a crucial time in the main character's life.  In terms of Murakami's ability to evoke images and emotions, this is as good as it gets.  Be warned though that the realistic style adopted for this novel is very unlike the themes he explores in most of his other work.

3) A Wild Sheep Chase - I would have chosen Murakami's first two novellas (Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973) here, were it not for the fact that they are once again almost impossible to find in English.  Instead, why not join Boku and the Rat in the third-part of The Trilogy of the Rat, a mesmerising hunt for a very special sheep, taking in a woman with beautiful ears and a very special hotel.  I doubt you'll regret it :)

So there we have it - a very short guide to one of the biggest J-Lit Giants around!  Please feel free to contradict me, suggesting alternative titles to start with (or slamming my choices).  The floor is now yours...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 6 - Kobo Abe

It's Wednesday - and that means it must be time for another J-Lit GiantGary, of The Parrish Lantern, is back again to introduce us to another great of Japanese literature - and after visiting the world of poetry in his last post, he is back to prose this time :)

A Man of Many Masks – Kobo Abe

Kōbō Abe (安部 公房 Abe Kōbō), pseudonym of Kimifusa Abe (安部 公房), was born on March the 7th 1924 in Kita, Tokyo, but he grew up in Mukden (now Shen-yang) in Manchuria during the second world war. In 1948, he received a medical degree from the Tokyo Imperial University, yet never practised medicine. As well as being a prose writer, he was also a poet (Mumei shishu - "Poems of an unknown poet" - 1947), playwright, photographer and inventor. Although his first novel Owarishi michi no shirube ni ("The Road Sign at the End of the Street") was published in 1948, which helped to establish his reputation, it wasn’t until the publication of The Woman in the Dunes in 1962 that he won widespread international acclaim.

Often described as an avant-garde playwright and novelist, he shared the same literary map as the likes of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Eugene Ionesco through a shared sense of the absurd and the central theme of an alienated and isolated individual at a loss in the world. Kobo Abe manages to do this within the realms of genres that would be recognised by most: if you fancy a detective novel, there's The Ruined Map; for Science Fiction, Inter Ice Age 4; for Fantasy, Kangaroo Notebook.  There’s even a love story aspect to The Face of Another.

In the 1960s, he worked with the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara on the film adaptations of The Face of Another, plus The Pitfall, The Woman in the Dunes and The Ruined Map. Then, in the early 1970s, he set up an acting studio in Tokyo, where he trained performers and directed plays. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977.

Among the honours bestowed on him were the Akutagawa Prize in 1951 for The Crime of S. Karuma, the Yomiuri Prize in 1962 for The Woman in the Dunes, and the Tanizaki Prize in 1967 for the play Friends. Kenzaburō Ōe stated that Abe deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he himself had won (Abe was nominated multiple times).

Kobo Abe, through his work as an avant-garde novelist and playwright, has had names of the calibre of Albert Camus, Alberto Moravia and Franz Kafka, (as well as those mentioned above) thrown at him, and like Kafka there is an apparent clinical detachment in the writing, as though Abe’s medical background has had a direct influence upon his writing style.  Yet with this there is also an elegance that makes his work an immensely enjoyable and also an incredibly satisfying read – on all levels.


Two Great Books by Kobo Abe

The Face of Another (1964) - A plastics scientist loses his face in an accident and proceeds to obtain a new face for himself. With a new 'mask', the protagonist sees the world in a new way and even goes so far as to have a clandestine affair with his estranged wife. There is also a subplot following a hibakusha woman who has suffered burns to the right side of her face. In the novel, the protagonist sees this character in a film (click link for my post).

The Ruined Map (1967) - The story of an unnamed detective, hired by a beautiful, alcoholic woman, to find clues related to the disappearance of her husband. In the process, the detective is given a map (a ruined one), to help him - this turns out to be more like a metaphor of the guidelines one should have in life. The impossibility of finding any relevant clues to solve the mystery leads the main character to an existential crisis, building slowly from inside, and this finally puts him in the position of identifying himself with the man he was supposed to find.

These are just two of around eight English translated novels and at least one short story collection from this fabulous writer, and I mean fabulous with all its connotations. Kobo Abe, manages to astound and amaze and yet remain within the realms of what could be defined as the mundane reality of the world about us.

For more information I will be posting a version of this post on my blog at a later date, with all the Novels and a synopsis of them.

Thanks again, Gary :)  Abe is another writer I should really have read more of.  Apart from a couple of short stories, I've only managed to get to his most famous work, The Woman in the Dunes.  More to come, I'm sure...

And how about you?  What is your favourite Kobo Abe book?  Just leave a comment in the usual place if your favourite hasn't been mentioned :)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 5 - Osamu Dazai

Today's J-Lit Giants offering is another guest post, this time from Patrick.  Patrick is not a blogger, but he is on twitter (@ResearcherNo1), and he is a big J-Lit fan.  In his own words:
"I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but now live in Seoul.  I'm currently a salaryman and have a degree in philosophy.  My interests include: books, movies, music, food (cooking and eating), baseball (watching, not playing), and travel."
Now that you've met Patrick, let's find out more about his chosen J-Lit Giant :)

Suicide, rebellion, addiction, genius and Dazai 

Osamu Dazai once wrote a short story entitled “A Handsome Devil with a Cigarette.” I had always thought it was a great title for a film. I like Dazai a lot.”  Film-maker Wong Kar-Wai
Osamu Dazai, the pen name of Shuji Tsushima, is one of the most famous 20th century authors in Japan. With an eponymous literary prize and his stories still being made into movies and manga, Dazai’s work continues to remain popular. However, outside Japan he is not as well-known as other Japanese authors. 

Born into a large and wealthy family in 1909, Dazai’s interest in writing started early. However, before even turning twenty, he had discovered women and drugs, and attempted suicide for the first time. After moving to Tokyo and entering university, he continued to be drawn to women and drugs and was arrested on more than one occasion.  And so began a cycle of Dazai getting into trouble, his family bailing him out and subsequently disowning him. This continued throughout his life, with friends eventually replacing his family. During his career as a writer, he ran away with numerous women, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, was committed to an insane asylum and attempted suicide numerous times. This of course is a short and crude, but accurate, description of a far more complex life, a life written about with far more skill by Dazai himself in many stories, including "Eight Scenes from Tokyo".  He continued to write through World War II and survived the many bombings, only to succeed in committing suicide in 1948 at the age of 38.

A master storyteller, Dazai’s body of work is diverse, though he is best known for his semi-autobiographical fiction.  For these stories, he borrowed liberally from the details of his life.  This, along with his use of the first person narrative, blurred the line between author and characters to create a style similar to what we see in some of the works of John Fante and Charles Bukowski.  Especially in Japan, Dazai is also well known for his modern retellings of classics and folk tales.  Not satisfied with merely updating these stories, he departs significantly from the originals to create something unexpected and wildly inventive.

Dazai’s themes of hopelessness, alienation and nihilism captured the feelings of many in post-war Japan, while his rebellion against the establishment has always endeared him to younger readers. For me though, it is his sense of humor and the humanity in his characters (for better and worse) that continue to draw my interest.

Despite his life being cut short, Dazai left us a significant number of short stories as well as novels and essays. While his exact place in modern Japanese literature is still debated, his importance is undeniable. Osamu Dazai is a complex individual, and there is much to discover and enjoy in his writing. Having read almost everything of Dazai’s writing translated into English, I can definitely say that I agree with Wong Kar-Wai. I like Dazai a lot. In fact, he has become one of my favorites.

Though Dazai is usually known for his pessimistic semi-autobiographical fiction, his work is actually quite diverse, which I’ve tried to reflect in my recommendations. 

No Longer Human – Quintessential Dazai at his nihilistic best and considered by many his masterpiece. It is one of the all-time best-selling novels in Japan, along with Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. 

Self Portraits – A short story collection of his autobiographical fiction spanning the years 1933 – 1948. This work includes his first story using the name Osamu Dazai, “Train,” the previously noted “Eight Scenes from Tokyo” and “Handsome Devils and Cigarettes,” as mentioned by Wong Kar-Wai. 

Blue Bamboo – A collection of seven stories including Dazai’s modernized retellings of classics and folk tales. For these he draws from a wide range of material, including Japanese and Chinese classics and even Hans Christian Anderson. A departure from his autobiographical fiction, this book offers another facet of Dazai the author and showcases his talent as a master storyteller. 

* If anyone is interested, contact the author ( for an almost complete list of Dazai’s short stories translated into English (around 100). 

Thanks to Patrick for his views on Dazai, a writer I want to try more of.  The only one I've read so far is The Setting Sun, a great novel which didn't even make Patrick's top three!

As always, now it is over to you!  Have you read anything by this writer?  What would you recommend as a first Dazai book?  Please leave a comment if you want to give us the benefit of your experience :)

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 4 - Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

It's time to praise another of those J-Lit Giants, and I'm especially happy to introduce today's writer.  He's a man who straddles both sides of the Kanto-Kansai divide and a writer who, while unwilling to write conventional endings, is very interested in what his characters get up to in the bedroom...

Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, born in 1886, is one of the most popular and well-known modern Japanese writers.  He was born in Tokyo and spent most of his young adult life writing for newspapers and magazines, with moderate success.  At this time he had a great interest in all things western, even moving to Yokohama, where there were more foreigners than in Tokyo.

However, it wasn't until he moved to Kyoto, after the 1923 earthquake in the Tokyo region, that his writing became more widely noticed.  His move to the Kansai region brought about a rediscovery of traditional Japanese culture, and this translated into a different style of writing, one in which his characters attempt to return to their cultural roots.  This was a way for Tanizaki to work through his own feelings about the way modern Japan was developing.

Anyone who has read works by Tanizaki will probably agree though that another theme which pervades his work is eroticism - put more bluntly, sex.  Many of his more famous works are relatively explicit and utterly compelling.  Again, there is more than a hint of the writer's own life in these tangled relationships (although his novels are definitely fiction...).  Tanizaki repeatedly attempts to examine the conflict between the need to keep up a show for outsiders while a marriage is falling apart, often because of differing sexual needs.

Tanizaki's work can be quite accessible, but at the same time a little unfamiliar.  Perhaps more so than usual, his works seldom have a conventional ending, leaving the (western) reader stranded and confused.  He believed that if he described his characters well enough, there was no need to spoon-feed the readers with an ending.  This is writing for those who are prepared to draw their own conclusions :)

My three Tanizaki books to start with are:

1) Quicksand - This is a fast-paced psychological, erotic novel, one which twists and turns, amazing the reader both with its unexpectedly risqué storyline and its continual developments.  New readers will enjoy a slightly stronger emphasis on plot than can be the case with Tanizaki.

2) Some Prefer Nettles - The writer's twin obsessions of relationships and the Kanto-Kansai divide are both present here in a short psychological work, detailing the disintegration of a marriage.  This is a work which definitely falls into the ambiguous-ending category ;)

3) The Makioka Sisters - Generally regarded as Tanizaki's classic, The Makioka Sisters is a fairly long novel for J-Lit, running to close to 500 pages.  It follows three sisters living in Osaka as they attempt to balance their family responsibilities with their own wishes and a changing society.

Does this sound like your kind of writer?  If so, why not give him a try soon?  I'm sure that some of you out there will be able to recommend several other Tanizaki works to start with too.  Comments in the usual place, please :)

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 3 - Ryuichi Tamura

We're into January now, and it's time for another episode of our J-Lit Giants series.  Today's post marks a couple of firsts: Gary, of The Parrish Lantern, is the first guest reviewer to offer up a favourite writer; and his choice (which should surprise nobody) is the first poet in the series too...

The Four Thousand Days and Nights ~ A few words on Ryuichi Tamura
Ryuichi Tamura (田村隆 ~ Tamura Ryūichi ) was born in Otsuka, Tokyo in 1923. He graduated from the Third Tokyo High School in 1940 and entered the Literature Department of Meiji University in 1941. He was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1943, serving at the Yokosuka Second Naval Barracks as an instructor with the Naval Flying Corps. This would have seen him when necessary having also to man one of the gun emplacements in the case of an American invasion and, although this never happened, because of the USA’s nuclear strikes, he had already lost a good many friends in the Kamikaze missions, and his hometown no longer existed - this would obviously have a major impact on his writing.

His career as a poet started before the war Whilst still in his teens, he contributed to the coterie* magazine Shin-ryodo (New Territory**), with Taro Kitamura a fellow student & member of the Arechi (The Waste Land) group. It was in the post-war period, with the revival of Arechi and with Tamura being instrumental in establishing it as a literary magazine with his surviving friends, that his reputation took off. The Arechi poets mixed the influences of T.S Elliot and W.H. Auden with the Existentialist musings of writers such as Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre to express their perception of themselves and through that their country. This featured a harder tone than had been previously seen in Japanese poetry, and perfectly described the sense of dislocation and crisis that was the post-war experience of most Japanese as they tried to come to terms with the destruction and onslaught of a rapid modernisation programme that saw most of what was originally considered to be “Nihon”*** being brushed aside.

The Poet Ooka Makoto, writing about this period, said “The key subjects for poetry in this period were devastation, anxiety, desperation and death; this reflected the social circumstances just as prose writing does. Poets, living in grim uncertainty and suffering the horrifying aftermath of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, generally expressed their pessimistic vision of the future of humankind through their works.”

This was the subject matter of his first anthology Yosen no hi no yoru ("Four Thousand Days and Nights", 1956), particularly in the title poem which starts;
In order for a single poem to come into existence
you and I have to kill,
have to kill many things,
many lovable things, kill by shooting, kill by assassination,
kill by poisoning.
He followed this with the publication of his second collection The World Without Words, in 1962 This was to establish him as a major poet and would see him universally regarded as an important figure in modern Japanese poetry. In 1998, Ryuichi Tamura received Japan's highest honour, The 54th Japan Academy of Arts Award for Poetry Later that same year, he died of cancer of the oesophagus.

There are eyes in the stone, the eyes
closed in grief and fatigue.
The man in black passes my door -
You, the Emperor of Winter,
my lonely Emperor, walking to your own
grave in Europe,
your white forehead shadowed by
your back to the sun.
Your self-punishment is so painful,
Flowers! You stretch out your hands to
But universal winter has set in
after the era of reason and progress.
European beauties are nothing but
Who will kiss your hands
whose fated palms are dark and dry and
Flowers! Those scars are flowers.

* Japanese poets usually form groups of like-minded writers with the aim of helping each other to become better poets & they usually publish their own magazines - such groups are called coteries.
** A title in homage to Michael Roberts's anthology of contemporary English poetry New Country.
*** The constitutional monarchy occupying the Japanese Archipelago.

Thanks for that Gary - a great introduction to a writer I hadn't heard of before :)  Has anyone else tried Tamura?  Do you have any favourite Japanese poets?

If you are itching to post on your favourite Japanese writer, just let me know - next time, it could be your post adorning the blog ;)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

J-Lit Giants: 2 - Yukio Mishima

I'm back again with another in my J-Lit Giants series, in which I (and, hopefully, a few guests) introduce a famous Japanese writer and recommend a few books to get you started.  Today, we'll be looking at a writer who made the headlines for more than just his literary legacy...

Yukio Mishima (real name Kimitake Hiraoka) was a prolific writer who came to a rather untimely end.  He began writing during his high-school days (even though his father was against his literary pursuits), and he had one of his stories published in a famous literary magazine.  His career began in earnest after World War Two, and he went on to write a host of famous novels, including the four-part Sea of Fertility quadrilogy.

Mishima was very different to your average writer.  He was an actor and a model, appearing in films and photo campaigns, and he also had a keen interest in weight-training and body-building (something your average writer is not exactly known for!).  He also had a keen sense of tradition and responsibility - something which was to have an impact later on in his life...

In November 1970, Mishima and a group of his followers attempted to start a coup against the Emperor.  After his half-hearted attempt was laughed down, he calmly went inside and committed seppuku - ritual suicide.  One of the most famous writers in the world attempted to disembowel himself with a sword before being beheaded by a helper.  Imagine the headlines today...

One reason for his decision may have been the fact that Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, meaning that Mishima was unlikely to ever win the award, despite having been a favourite to win it several times.  Whether this was the reason or not, it was a sad end for a great writer.

Mishima is probably not the most accessible of Japanese writers.  Some of his best works are dense and can be hard going for newcomers to his work.  However, they're not all quite so difficult to get into.  My three to try would be:

1) Spring Snow - This is a late-career novel, the first in his famous Sea of Fertility series, but it's a wonderful love story and a novel which is easy to get lost in.

2) After the Banquet - The story of a high-class restaurant owner's marriage to a dour politician is a novel about opposites attracting, but failing to go the distance.  Again, it displays a much lighter touch than some of Mishima's works.

3) The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea - This is a short work, more of a novella than a novel, but it is a powerful one.  A sailor's relationship with a single mother is threatened by the woman's son - a boy with some very disturbing tendencies.  This may not be one for those with faint hearts and weak stomachs...

So there you have it - another great writer with lots of books to explore :)  As always, let us know about your experiences with today's giant, be they happy or depressing ones.  Our comments box is always open ;)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

J-Lit Giants: 1 - Natsume Soseki

Welcome to the first in what may become a short series of posts, introducing readers to some of Japan's most famous writers - or, as I like to call them, J-Lit Giants :)  Over the next couple of months, I hope to have other bloggers talk about their favourite writers, but today I'll be starting off with a short post on one of the most famous of them all...

Natsume Soseki (the pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke) is the father of modern J-Lit and arguably Japan's most famous writer.  Certainly, when I asked Japanese students to name a famous writer (back in the days when I taught English in Japan), his was inevitably the first name uttered.

After studying English literature in Tokyo, Natsume worked in the provinces as a high school teacher, gathering experiences which would help him write several of his later works.  Then, in 1900, he was chosen to travel to England, the first Japanese scholar to study in this country.  Sadly, this wasn't the experience it might have been - lack of money and strong feelings of homesickness meant that his time in England, while useful for his career, was a depressing one.

On his return to Japan, a few years later, he became a lecturer in Literary Theory and Criticism at a famous Tokyo university.  However, once he began to produce fiction, he gave up the job, preferring to work for a newspaper instead.  Indeed, like many Victorian English novellists, his work often appeared first in newspaper serialisations.

Natsume's works are very different, depending on when he wrote them.  His early works, such as I am a Cat and Botchan are light, amusing stories, not characteristics we associate with J-Lit today!  Soon, his style developed into a more aesthetically-concerned, drifting style (e.g. Kusamakura and Sanshiro).  Eventually though, his work became more serious, novels such as Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside concerned with the dilemma of integrating western ideas into Japanese society without sacrificing native traditions.

For those wanting to try Natsume Soseki's work, I'd definitely recommend starting at (or near) the beginning, as his early fiction is much more accessible than some of his more famous later books.  My three to try would be:
1) Botchan - This is a comical (semi-fictional) look at the writer's time as a high school teacher in the provinces.  Caught between jaded, unfriendly teachers and rural students who could beat him to a pulp if they wanted to, the hero of the story discovers that he's not in Tokyo any more...

2) Kusamakura (also known as The Three-Cornered World) - A laconic look at an artist's stay in a rural village and his encounters there with a beautiful woman.  Nothing happens, and the book is all the better for it :)

3) Sanshiro - The first in a (very) loosely-linked trilogy, this book marks the start of a shift to more serious writing, but the youthfulness is still there.  A young student moves to Tokyo from the provinces, ostensibly to become a university student, in reality to learn more about life.  A Japanese Bildungsroman, this is an excellent, moving story.

That's all from me - over to you :)  Have you read any of these books?  Have you tried any of Natsume's other works?  Leave a comment, and let us all know about your experiences with the father of modern J-Lit!