About Japan Kaleidoskop

Freelance writer and translator (Japanese-English-German) with a doctor's degree in Japanese Studies. Author of Japan Kaleidoskop: A blog about Japanese culture, art and literature.

Book Review: Klara and the Sun

cover image Klara and the Sun by Kazu Ishiguro

“The sun always has ways to reach us.”

It is difficult to write about ‘Klara and the Sun’ without giving too much away about the story. Basically, it is about Klara and her life. We get to know Klara in a robot store together with many artificial beings where she is available for sale.

Klara later becomes the artificial friend of Josie, a teenage girl. Josie lives together with her divorced mother in a fancy, modern house and Melania, their housekeeper. One day Klara is brought into Josie’s home and will stay there.

What is special about the story? It is told by Klara, an artificial human. Everything is told from her perspective in her own manner. Everything is new to Klara. How will she be integrated into human society? How is everyone treating Klara, and how is this affecting her thinking, feelings, and actions?

It is not clear if the story takes place today or in the near future. I do not know about the newest technology, and what today’s robots are capable of. It is not so relevant, because the story raises ethical questions. I think bottom line it is about ethics: How do we deal with one another personally as humans. How do we define life? Where does consciousness begin? How do we behave towards artificial intelligence?

Similar questions were raised in numerous sci-fi movies. I am a big fan of Star Trek Next Generation and was reminded of Data, the beloved android. I think also of the replicants in the Blade Runner-movies. Artificial life is also a topic in literature, from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘Machines like me’ by Ian McEwan.

I liked ‘Klara and the Sun’ very much. It took me a while to get used to the writing style, and to the way Klara sees everything. She finds her own expressions to describe the world. Sometimes it is funny, when she sees a ‘dog lead woman’, ‘headset walkers’ or ‘pedal cyclists’.The narrative shows a consistent narrative style from the perspective of Klara: her language and her way of observation.

The novel is interesting. There are almost no lengths in the narrative. The plot development is stringent and logical. The story of Klara is very touching and sad. ‘Klara and the Sun’ is no light novel. It reads lightly, but all in all it is a classical drama.

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote several books about many topics. I have read ‘When We Were Orphans’, which is one of my all-time favorite, and his novel about an ukiyo-e artist ‘Artist of the Floating World. Kazuo Ishiguro has proved his writing skills again with ‘Klara and the Sun’.

Reviewed Title

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun. Knopf, 2021 (Cover).

Book Review: Before the Coffee Gets Cold #1

cover-before the coffee gets cold

“If you could go back, who would you want to meet?

I took this book from the library as it was free to borrow, and I have seen it around on goodreads and on some blogs. I had no expectations, judging from the cover I thought it would be a light, entertaining novel.

The idea of time traveling sounded interesting.

The book consists of four chapters, each is a separate story of someone time traveling. The stories are loosely tied together. The time travel takes place in a café named Funiculi Funicula. There are a set of rules, and you can travel in time. Each chapter deals with basically the same characters, but different relationships are being explored. The chapters are named

  1. The Lover
  2. Husband and Wife
  3. The Sisters
  4. Mother and Child.

The four stories are different, but after a while it gets repetitive. You get to know the rules in the beginning, but they are repeated several times. Also, the ceremony is always the same.

Although the question, if you want to travel in time because there is a regret or an unresolved issue, is intriguing, I find the novel a little superficial. The personal fate of each time traveler is sad in its own way, and they deserve compassion for their situation, but I cannot feel other than that the narration is exaggerated, and all in all it was way too much drama for me. I like it better, if a story is narrated more subtle. ‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’ is a rewritten play and maybe that is the reason, why it did not feel like a novel.

The writing style did not inspire me, because the author is telling too much. There are some lengths in the narrative, so it gets boring very quickly. I guess, the idea is good, but the stories did not work for me. There is a second book in this series, but I would not read them. After finishing it, I asked myself if I wanted to go back in time? I am still thinking, I am not sure. Maybe the book taught me to live every moment of my life mindfully.

Reviewed Title

Toshikazu Kawaguchi: Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Picador, 2019 (Cover).

川口俊 和: コーヒーが冷めないうちに. 2015.

Art on Tuesday: Plum Garden

This woodblock print shows the ‘Plum Garden in Kamata’ 蒲田の梅園 (Kamata no Umezono) otherwise called ‘Umeyashiki Park’ in Kamata. It is designed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) as part of the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo in 1857 (picture no. 27, spring).
The ukiyo-e shows a wide plum garden in the south of Ômori. You see several plum trees in blooming. Some tea houses are surrounded by visitors. On the right there is a palanquin with a blue cushion used for travelling.

Book Review: Where the Wild Ladies Are

Cover Image Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaThe seventeen modern female short stories by Matsuda Aoko are inspired by Japanese folktales and traditional plays in her new book published in 2020. The Japanese female writer and translator made her debut in 2013 with the book ‘Stackable’.

Some of her stories in this anthology are based on plays, in Japanese rakugo 落語, which are performed on a Kabuki theater stage by a solitary storyteller.

Matsuda Aoko’s short stories are powerful modern ghost stories. You can understand them without knowing the Japanese traditional background. When it is necessary for the understanding there is a short introduction to the theme. In the back of the book, you find a list with titles of the original tales.

Many cultures believe that death is not the end but it is a transformation into another form of being. Folktales are based on myths, narrations about ghosts and strange occurrences. The strong ancestor worship tradition in Japan is a sign of this belief: this world and the afterlife is connected, and the dead can visit you.

Matsuda’s stories are not mere retellings, but original, sometimes funny, mostly empowering stories about contemporary women who meet a ghost, are ghosts or know about ghosts.

Many women grew up with the belief, that they are not good enough and with ideal body images, that results in the conviction they should be different. Matsuda is questioning traditional female role models and attributions. She writes about transience, change, self acceptance and empowerment.

My favorites stories of this collection are the following:

  • ‘Smartening Up’ is a hairy story of empowerment. An online version of this story is published at https://granta.com/smartening-up/
  • ‘My Superpower’– Leads to the question: “What is your superpower?”
  • ‘Quite A Catch’– A tale about skeleton fishing.
  • ‘Silently Burning’ is based on the famous Yaoya Oshichi folktale.
  • ‘The Missing One’– A homage to Okiku who inhabits the well of Himeji Castle.

This book is a gem and I really, really liked it. Matsuda Aoko has also inspired me to read old myth and folktales.

If you like to read more traditional stories, you can start with some old anthologies for free at gutenberg.org. Here is a short list of interesting titles.

Reviewed Title:
Aoko Matsuda. Where the Wild Ladies Are. Translated by Polly Barton. Tilted Axis Press, 2020 (Cover).

Book Review: Moshi Moshi

cover image Yoshimoto Banana Moshi Moshi“When we start something new, at first it is very muddy, and clouded. But soon, it becomes a clear stream, whose flow conducts itself quietly, through spontaneous movements.”

‘Moshi Moshi‘ is a love declaration to Shimo-Kitazawa, the beloved neighborhood in Tokyo with the hipster, Bohemian air. Famous for the many cafés, bars and restaurants, the secondhand shops. A lively, colorful atmosphere. The young and vibrant city district is known for its varied nightlife, local art, and design. Some call it the coolest part of Tôkyô.

Shimo-Kitazawa 下北沢 is six stops from Shinjuku with the Odakyû Line or four stops from Shibuya with the Keiô-Inokashira Line, a district in Tokyo (Setagaya).

But this quarter is in danger. City officials planned to build an 81-foot-wide thoroughfare, which will tear the neighborhood apart. In 2013 the train tracks were removed, and the station is under construction. Plus, it will be allowed to build higher buildings, which was restricted before. (links to articles about Shimo-Kitazawa with pictures: https://trulytokyo.com/shimokitazawa/ and https://www.shimokitazawa.info/ and https://www.odakyu.jp/station/shimo_kitazawa/).

The story in outlines
Yoshie–Yocchan– a young woman moves to Shimo-Kitazawa after the death of her father. He had died in a mysterious double suicide with a strange woman. On this day he forgot his cellphone at home and could not call for help. Ever since, Yoshie is haunted by dreams and her wish to call her dad because she wants to know who the woman was, and if he really wanted to die with her.

As she moves into a small, shabby apartment in Shimo-Kitazawa she feels free from the home of her parents. She tries to get rid of her memories. She grieves but gets better when she takes a job in the café Les Liens. Then, her mother comes to visit her, and asks if she can stay with her in Shimo-Kitazawa for a while. Imagine your mother wants to move into your tiny student apartment with you! So, that is the situation in the beginning.

Moshi Moshi もしもし means ‘hello’, especially on the phone. Or, if you want to say ‘excuse me!’, when calling out to someone. (for different use and meaning, please see: https://ejje.weblio.jp/sentence/content/もしもし).

Evaluation
The story is told by Yoshie’s point of view. You learn about her inner thoughts and her emotions in an interior monologue. The narrator reflects about the death of her father, about childhood and her future as the story moves on. The setting of Shimo-Kitazawa is essential. It becomes a symbol of the transience of all things.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel sounds a little nostalgically, but it is understandable, because she describes changes, which are not only due to a natural cause, but due to gentrification of the beloved Shimo-Kitazawa. So, this is not mere regretting of the past, but some critical viewing about modern capitalism.

As always, I liked the writing style of Banana Yoshimoto. And I liked especially this novel, because I once knew the Shimo-Kitazawa, she is describing in her book very well. So, farewell lovely Shimo-Kitazawa, it was good to know you.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. もしもし下北沢. 2010.
Banana Yoshimoto. Moshi Moshi. Translated by Asa Yoneda. Counterpoint, 2016 (Cover).