Book Review: Record of a Night Too Brief by Kawakami Hiromi

Here is a collection of three short stories by Kawakami Hiromi 川上 弘美 (b. 1958) of her early career as a Japanese female writer, beginning in 1996. All were translated into English and published in 2017. Kawakami Hiromi is best known for her novels ‘The Brief Case’ (センセイの鞄) and Manazuru (真鶴).

In the title story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ Kawakami Hiromi describes dream sequences of a journey into an undiscovered land. It begins with the narrator becoming a horse and a stream of people leading her to a big banquet table with a buffet of delicious food. The scenery is depicted with surreal pictures and reminds me slightly of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. From there on the tale reads like a stream of continuing changes. It is a Kafkaesque metamorphosis of an indescribable plot containing elements of a locked-in situation, a monkey hunting the narrator and eventually a porcelain girl becoming a pearl.

The second story ‘Missing’ tells a family history from the perspective of a girl. One day her brother no. 1 disappears, but sometimes his voice can be heard and from time to time he makes himself visible to her. The narration is inspired by Japanese folktales including elements of magical realism.

‘A Snake Stepped On’ is one of Kawakami Hiromi’s best-known tales. 蛇を踏む (Hebi wo fumu) won the Akutagawa Award in 1996. It is a highly symbolic story about a struggle for independency with elements of folktales like the snake spouse. The narration follows the surreal paths as the first two stories in this collection. All three are well written and highly imaginative. Because of the experimental character of the stories they are sometimes difficult to understand.

Title:
Kawakami Hiromi: A Record of a Night Too Brief. Pushkin Press, 2017. Translated by Lucy North.

Book Review: The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Motoya Yukiko

‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ is a short story collection written by the female Japanese author Motoya Yukiko 本谷 有希子 (born 1979). It consists of ten, mainly weird surreal short stories. The longest story, about half of the book, is called ‘An Exotic Marriage’ which won the 154th Akutagawa Prize in 2016. The central theme is about daily life from the perspective of a wife, who compares her relationship with her husband with a so-called snake ball. Imagine two snakes eating each other from the tail up to their heads until they form a ball. It is obvious, that she struggles with the concept of marriage and her odd husband, who is going through a metamorphosis throughout the story with a surprising end.

The other stories of the compilation are different in quality and length. They can be summarized as bizarre, witty, surreal and somewhat absurd.

I liked ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’, a story of a wife who begins body-building in order to impress her husband. As her muscles grow everybody around her makes remarks, but the one who does not notice her physical changes is her husband.

The ‘Fitting Room’ is very funny as it takes the idea of customer service on to a new level. ‘Q&A’ contains an interview with a fictional female celebrity in her eighties, which is amusing and witty.

‘Dogs’ is a dream-like story about solitude and dog-friendship in a surreal setting during winter in an isolated mountain cabin.

Motoya Yukiko writes stories of magical realism.  She cares about females struggling with loneliness and unfulfilling relationships. Her ideas are based on the idea of woman’s emancipation and liberation from modern Japanese society. I think her writing is unique and recommend her book to readers who like experimental literature.

Title:
”The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ by Motoya Yukiko was translated by Asa Yoneda. It was published in 2018 in an US version. The anthology was also published as ‘Picnic in the Storm’ in Great Britain.

Book Review: Pinball, 1973 by Murakami Haruki

‘Pinball, 1973’ (1973年のピンボール) follows ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ by Murakami Haruki. It was published in 1980 in Japan and is the third part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’.

The author depicts the wild lifestyle of the 1970’s in Tokyo and continues the story of the friendship between the nameless protagonist and his friend ‘The Rat’. This time the protagonist is sharing his apartment with two female twins. As in the first book J’s bar is one of the main places of the novel.

The book contains mainly stories about the superficial twins and meetings with ‘The Rat’ and their thoughts about love and life. A pinball machine becomes important in the latter half of the story.

The atmosphere can be characterized by the absence of real human connections, feelings of boredom and isolation. The storytelling is monotonous through most of the book, and the characters are painted in pale colors. The main character is lacking from a purpose in life until he becomes alive in the hunt for a specific pinball machine.

Murakami uses the same collage techniques as in his first book. The short novel is also written in juvenile language. Because the author talks mainly about daily vanities and pinball machines are not very interesting to me, reading became a drag towards the end.

In my opinion ‘Pinball, 1973’ lacks the freshness of ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and cannot be compared to any of Murakami’s later books. It appears a little immature to me and maybe it was published too quickly after his first success.

Book title

村上春樹: 1973年のピンボール, 講談社 1980.

Murakami Haruki: Pinball, 1973, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1985 (cover photo). A new translation by Ted Goosen is available since 2015.

Book Review: Hear the Wind Sing by Murakami Haruki


‘Hear the Wind Sing’ (風の歌を聴け) is the first novel of Murakami Haruki published in the literary magazine ‘Gunzo’ in 1979 and won the ‘Gunzo Prize for New Writers’.

Murakami wrote two following books and named it the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’. The second novel is ‘Pinball 1973’ followed by ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’.

‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is about friendship between two young men and the beginning of a love-story with a woman added by a mix of childhood memories, bar stories, therefore lots of alcohol and music.

A nameless student visits his hometown during the summer holidays in the 1970’s. He spends most of his time with his old buddy ‘The Rat’ in J’s bar. One day he finds a drunken woman in the restroom and takes her to her home. A love story begins.

The book contains mainly discussions with ‘The Rat’, memories of the protagonist’s childhood and ex-girlfriends. Thoughts about love and life in general.

Murakami uses collage techniques adding song lyrics and quotations of books. The novel is written in juvenile language and depicts the style of the 70’s in Japan.

Considering that ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is the first novel of Murakami Haruki it was an interesting read. The potential of the then young author is clearly visible and the reason for the newcomer award of Gunzo in 1979. What I liked most about the book was the love story and the overall collage style.

Book title

村上春樹. 風の歌を聴け(kaze no uta o kike), 講談社 1979.

Murakami Haruki: Hear the Wind Sing, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1987 (cover photo). A new translation by Ted Goosen is available since 2015 (Harvill Secker).

International Ninja Day

Today is the ‘International Ninja Day’. Ninja 忍者 were covert agents or mercenaries. Most people know them from fiction and movies. Utagawa Kunisada 歌川 国貞 (1786-1865) painted a scene of a ninja on a Kabuki stage about 1830.

If you are interested in ninja and their history you will find a comprehensive article on the English website of wikipedia. See also an article about famous ninjas at https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-ninjas-195587 and about the allegation that maybe everything you know about ninjas is wrong at https://kotaku.com/all-you-know-about-ninja-is-probably-wrong-5932403.

Book Review: Strangers by Yamada Taichi


Yamada Taichi, a well-known Japanese author, born in 1934 is internationally accepted for his scriptwriting of TV drama and movies. ‘Strangers’ (異人たちとの夏) was published in Japan in 1987, where it was awarded with the Yamamoto Shûgorô Prize. It was also made into a movie by Obayashi Nobuhiko (大林 宣彦) in 1988.

With ‘Strangers’ Yamada Taichi wrote a modern urban ghost story about loneliness and grief. It plays in the 80’s during the time of the O-Bon-Festival when the Japanese traditionally meet their ancestors and greet the returning spirits of their beloved dead.

The male protagonist, age 47, a freelance scriptwriter for TV dramas, is living in his office after his divorce. The place is deserted at night.

Mamiya, also age 47, a friend and colleague, suddenly stops by to tell him that he will quit working together with the protagonist because he wants to marry his ex-wife Ayako. He feels betrayed and very lonely.

He seems to be the only person left in the building. Then one night, he surprisingly meets Kei, a woman, who is in a similar situation. After a short visit at his apartment, they become lovers.

At his birthday, he spends the evening alone at his birthplace in Asakusa, a district of Tokyo, and happens to meet a man at the theatre who is a spitting image of his dead father.

His parents died when he was 12 years old. So, this cannot be possible. He is fascinated by the similarities and follows the man. The man strangely recognizes him as his son and takes him home, where he also meets his mother.

Could this all be a trick of his imagination caused by unresolved anxieties, he asks himself? But, everything is lively and real. As time goes by the relationship with the girl at the office building grows stronger and he also secretly bonds with the ‘new’ parents.

The story reaches its climax, when the protagonist changes visibly and Kei gets to know about his ghost-parents. She is giving him a serious warning not to meet them again, but he struggles to say good-bye to the beloved father and mother.

‘Strangers’ is about life and regrets. It shows how memories are playing part of one’s life and even ghosts can appear in it without giving it an appeal of a fantasy novel. It is emotional, exciting and very touching. All characters are depicted very lively. Yamada has written a remarkable magical realistic novel. It was a surprisingly exciting read and I will look out for other books of Yamada Taichi as well in the future.

Book title
山田太一: 異人たちとの夏. 新潮社, 1987年.
Yamada Taichi: Strangers, translated by Wayne P. Lammers, Vertical, 2003.

Other books by the same author, translated into English:

遠くの声を捜して, 1989年.
In Search of a Distant Voice, translated by Michael Emmerich, Faber and Faber, 2007.

飛ぶ夢をしばらく見ない,1985年.
I Haven‘t Dreamed of Flying for a While, translated by David James Karashima, Faber and Faber, 2008.

Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki

This is the 3rd book of Murakami Haruki and the 3rd part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’.

The prequels are ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball 1973’, the sequel is ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’. I have not read the first books, honestly due to lack of interest so far. They came into my focus shortly when they were published in German language in 2014, but I have forgotten them. A new English version is also available since 2015.

It is my second reading of the ‘Wild Sheep Chase’. I bought the first English paperback edition in Tokyo some time ago and was delighted: the writing was so different and fresh then. This time it was different to me: the melody sounded more seriously, but the story still interested me. Murakami was a young man, when he wrote the book, and is regarding ‘The Wild Sheep Chase’ as his first real book. With it he was laying the groundwork as a popular Japanese writer.

There are many similarities in his later works. The typical lonely protagonist here is a nameless translator and publicist. A friend of ‘the Rat’ from the first two books.

He is working in a small ad agency, which he owns together with a male business partner. The story plays during four weeks in 1978. It starts when the protagonist uses a photo of an idyllic landscape of Northern Japan: only mountains in the background and many sheep on grass. A lovely scenery useful for a print advertising.

Soon afterwards a gangster appears in his office. He threatens him, because he had used the sheep photograph. He forces the protagonist to look closely at the herding sheep, and then he recognizes an unusual sheep with a star on his back! This is meant to be a very special sheep. And his life will depend on it.

The sheep has some transcendent meaning. It is said to possess magical power. The boss of the gangster is a powerfull right-wing figure who had built an underground network since 1937. He himself was possessed by the mentioned sheep, which helped him, but he lost it not long ago. The boss is dying. But before his death the sheep must be found, or his underground mob group will fall into pieces.

So, the gangster sends the protagonist on a dead or alive mission to find the sheep with the star on his back. And, the wild sheep chase begins.

The protagonist is recently divorced, but got to know a new girlfriend, a special lady who works as an ear model. She will accompany him on his journey. They will go to Hokkaidô and check-in at the Dolphin Hotel, which is known from Dance, Dance, Dance. On their tour they will encounter strange people and get stranded in a lonely place. The story comes with some surprising turns, but the full meaning of all will unfold in the end.

The book is written from the first person’s perspective. The narrative style is interesting, funny, and witty. The author is also critical about the Japanese history. Although it is an early work of Murakami Haruki you will find the typical mixture of a lonely protagonist alongside quirky characters, read his philosophical thoughts and will witness supernatural encounters. In the end it made me curious about the first books.

Book title

Murakami Haruki: A Wild Sheep Chase, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. First edition by Kodansha International, 1989.

村上春樹: 羊をめぐる冒険 , 講談社, 1982.

Labor Thanksgiving Day in Japan 勤労感謝の日

Today is Labor Thanksgiving Day in Japan 勤労感謝の日 (kinrō kansha no hi). The national holiday was established in 1948. Each year on November 23rd this day is dedicated for celebration and honoring work and production, also to give thanks to one another.

It is traditionally connected with the Niiname-sai Festival of Food 新嘗祭 which is a harvest festival based on Shintô rituals. On this day the tennô is offering the newly harvested rice to the kami in order to pray for a good harvest in the following year. He is eating the first rice together with the kami in a ceremony held in the Imperial Household.

The picture above is an ukiyo-e of Hiroshige (1797-1858). A Path through Rice Fields at Ōmori on the Tōkaidō Road 東海道大森縄手.

Book Review: The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi

 Hiraide Takashi is a Japanese author born in 1950 in Kitakyushu. He is known for several books of poetry, essays and prose. ‘The Guest Cat’ was first published in Japan in 2001. It was translated into several languages and soon became a bestseller in the USA as in France.

This small book is a remarkable lovely story about a Japanese couple in their thirties living in a suburb of Tokyo in the early 1990’s.

Set in a romantic environment with an old Japanese mansion, a tea pavilion in an idyllic garden and a big Keyaki tree.

When the story begins the writer and his wife are living in the teahouse surrounded by the Japanese garden for some years. They are both working at home, he as a writer and she as a corrector. They both enjoy a quiet life.

One day, a neighbor’s cat is climbing through a hole in the garden fence and visits the young couple. They enjoy the company of the cat very much and even more as the cat strolls around day by day. So, after a couple of weeks the ‘guest cat’ becomes a dear friend and an integral part of their life.

In the course of the story some serious lifechanging events happen, but when the old landlady moves into a retirement home the story is at a big turning point. Now, she even wants to sell the property.

The story is told chronologically with some backflashes from a first-person viewpoint of a thirty-something writer. It is about life changes and episodes of the visiting cat as a symbol of transience of life. Hiraide Takashi uses a poetic language and he observes everything mindfully.

I enjoyed the novel very much. It is heartwarming and let me think about the preciousness of life. What I liked most about ‘The Guest Cat’ is the love and respect for the environment, for nature and the care for every creature. I would like to recommend the book to everyone not only to cat-lovers.

Title in Japanese and English:

平出 隆: 猫の客. 河出書房新社. 2001.

Hiraide Takashi: ‘The Guest Cat’, translated into English by Eric Selland in 2014.

The author’s website is https://takashihiraide.com/

 

Art on Tuesday: Tama River

‘Autumn Moon on the Tama River’ 多摩川秋月 is part of Utagawa Hiroshige’s series ‘Eight Views in the Environs of Edo’ 江戸近郊八景之内 made around 1837/38. It depicts the  beautiful atmosphere of early autumn.

The Tama River flows through Tokyo and is the border of Kanagawa. A main river of Japan with a lenght of ca. 138 km. The river is very popular among inhabitants of the area and tourists because of the beauty of the landscape. Many people enjoy a walk or a picnic at the shore.

Katsushika Hokusai  shows the Tama River in his series the ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūrokkei). The title is called ‘Tama River in Musashi Province’ 武州玉川 painted in 1830 to 1832.