Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Sôseki

kokoroKokoro こころ means heart, soul or true spirit. The novel was written in 1914 on the heights of the author‘s career. Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) was born in Tôkyô and became a professor of English Literature at the Imperial University in the Japanese capital after his work as a governmental scholar in England for three years. He resigned because of boredom at his University post and became a fulltime writer in 1907. Until today he is a role model for many Japanese authors and his portrait is to be found on the 1000-yen banknote.

The main topic of this novel is the loneliness of man in modern society, the loss of orientation due to modernization processes and the consequences of loosening family structures in Japan. During the story the death of Emperor Meiji 明治天皇 occurs, who was the symbol of Japan in a period (1867 to 1912) of vast political changes, when Japan was evolving from a „feudal state to a capitalistic and imperialistic power“. What makes it important to the narration is the suicide of General Nogi shortly afterwards! He committed ritual suicide together with his wife referring to the samurai tradition of following one’s lord into death. This is called junshi  殉死 . It was a spectacular act, that shocked the Japanese nation and the motif of General Nogi was vividly discussed. Why has he killed himself at this time, why had he waited so long.

„Sensei“, the central character of Kokoro, is also using this expression junshi 殉死 when he is talking to his wife about his own suicide intentions. In his case junshi means devotion towards a close friend, which he had once betrayed. He is not able to overcome his feelings of guilt. Therefore his real intention of killing himself is grounded on his grief and has nothing to do with the Emperor. But viewing from the outside, one could or should think, that his motif is based on his devotion to the Emperor. Natsume Sôseki draws no explicit conclusions about General Nogi’s intentions, but Kokoro has been discussed in reference to these parallels.

The story

The narrator of the first two chapters will remain without a name throughout the story, he is telling the story from the first person‘s perspective. It begins with his view of his relationship with „Sensei“ (master), as he addresses him respectfully. It takes place in Tôkyô, where the narrator has just graduated from University and is now seeking for a job. The narrator admires an elder fellow, an independent academic, who hides a dark secret before everyone, even his wife. Every now and then „Sensei“ goes to a graveyard in the neighbourhood in order to pay his respect to an unknown dead person. But he will not tell anyone about the background story. The young narrator is fascinated by the wise „Sensei“ and seeks to understand his mysterious behavior. The friend seems to be depressed on a deep-rooted level.

Stricken into his own family business due to the illness of his father, the young academic has to leave Tôkyô for a while. He stays at his father‘s house, when the death of the Emperor Meiji and the suicide of General Nogi hit the news. The family is discussing the shocking events, when surprisingly the young narrator receives a very long letter from „Sensei“ — it is his death letter.

This becomes the last chapter of the novel. The perspective changes: The reader is now getting to know the autobiographical story told from the perspective of „Sensei“ in the first person. „Sensei“ makes his confession about a big failure and the consequences of this deep self-inflicted burden.

This novel‘s interesting structure intertwines the two main characters and yet leaves the young academic behind. The story is well written. Every single move is well observed. The story is lively, very detailed, psychologically rich. The beauty of Natsume Sôseki’s writing is defined by his ability to describe the  inner thoughts of both characters so realistically, which makes everything understandable. This book is one of the must-reads of modern Japanese Literature.

The book was also made into a film twice by Kon Ichikawa in 1955 and by Kaneto Shindo in 1973.

夏目 漱石: こころ, 1914. Natsume Sôseki: Kokoro, translated by Edwin McClellan 1957. The Japanese text can be found here at aozora

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