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: Breasts and Eggs

Mieko Kawakami is probably most famous for her book ‘Breasts and Eggs’, which has been translated into English and published in 2020. The first part, a novella, was originally published in 2007 by the monthly magazine ‘Bungakugai’ (Literary World) and was awarded with the Akutagawa Award in 2008.

The book with the English title ‘Breasts and Eggs’ is called 夏物語 (natsumonogatari) in Japanese, which means ‘summer story’ or ‘Natsu’s story’ and consists of two parts.

The first part is an edited version of the Japanese book called 乳と卵 (chichi to ran) which means ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The second part is the prolonged story of the narrator Natsume Natsuko. I do not know why the whole book was published with the title of the first part, but I guess ‘breasts and eggs’ sounds catchier than ‘a summer story’. Still, I find it confusing.

The first part is a novella which can be read alone.

Makiko and her daughter Midoriko are visiting Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko is 39 years old and works as a bar hostess in Ôsaka. Midoriko is a teenager. Natsuko and her sister Makiko grew up in poverty in Ôsaka. Their mother had been working as a hostess too, she died of cancer, so had their grandmother. Natsuko tried to escape the tristesse and poverty by becoming an author in Tokyo. The novella is about a short visit of three days, which grows slowly but unavoidable into a tragedy.

Japanese_Cover_Breast_and_Eggs

The second part tells the story of Natsuko years later. Makiko and Midoriko are playing minor roles in the background.

Natsuke is now a female writer in her late 30s. We read about Natsuko’s mostly lonely life in Tokyo as a successful writer. This part reads more like a journal, where we get to know about her daily routines and meetings with friends and her female editor. When Natsuko hears about an ex-boyfriend’s marriage, she is reflecting her lifestyle as a single woman in Japan. She gets obsessed with the idea of getting pregnant by sperm donation from a direct donor. The atmosphere is oppressive, her reflections are meandering and repetitive.

‘Breasts and Eggs’ deals with feminist themes: female body image, life as a single woman, female sexuality, pregnancy, single motherhood, poverty and poor working conditions in Japan. All of these are exciting and important topics to discuss.

Evaluation

I liked the first part very much. It is originally and skillfully narrated. It is lively, and I read it in one go. I was very much impressed and emotionally touched. It is an exciting stand-alone novella.

The second part, however, is clearly not written as well as the first part. It is different in style and both parts seem to be glued together. Natsuko’s days are boring. She is depressed. Nearly nothing happens. And then, suddenly, she wants to get pregnant. All characters are rather stereotypical, and the story is far too long. At around page 256 I had enough and wanted everything to be over but had to read another 174 pages to finish the novel. I do not say it often, but the second part was rather a disappointment. Mieko Kawakami is strong with novellas like Ms Ice Sandwich and with the original ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The longer version was not as exciting, as I hoped.

Reviewed title
川上未映子. 夏物語. 文藝春秋,2019 (Cover).
Mieko Kawakami. Breasts and Eggs. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Europa Editions, 2020 (Cover).

Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Bookcover-Mieko Kawakami- Ms Ice Sandwich“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer.”
Ms. Ice Sandwich is a charming novella.

A boy in fourth grade is the main protagonist, from his perspective the story is being told. His life is not easy. He is raised by his mother, who is absent most of the time. His grandmother is living with them, she is ill and needs home care.

In school, he is being teased by a girl named ‘Tutti’, in his eyes other girls in his class are stupid teenagers with hobbies like silly dancing and who are bullying others. So, he feels somewhat lonely.

His only pleasure are the blue-painted eyes of the unreachable Ms. Ice Sandwich. A woman he sees daily when buying an egg sandwich at her stand in a supermarket.
Things change a little when he gets to know Tutti better, but he is still fascinated by Ms. Ice Sandwich, and he cannot forget her. With Tutti’s help he is figuring out how to address her.
The story is set in contemporary Japan. The overall theme is first love. It teaches you about listening to your heart and taking your chances in the moment.

A novella is usually shorter than a novel, so there are only 92 pages. ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ is written in a clear written language. The story is narrated in a linear structure. Mieko Kawakami chooses her words in a fresh and interesting way: You read about the inner conflicts of the (nameless) boy. The characters of Tutti and Ms. Ice Sandwich are painted colorfully. The story is bittersweet because of the grandmother’s fate and the sad absence of one parent in both families, the boy’s, and Tutti’s, but everything is mixed with a touch of humor with the ingredients of friendship, forgiveness, and self-confidence.

I liked the writing style of the author, and I am curious about her other books. I had read only one story of Mieko Kawakami, which was published in ‘March was made of Yarn’ before and was impressed by ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’. Surely, I will read ‘Breasts and Eggs’ next, and will write a review on this blog soon.

Reviewed Title:
川上未映子. ミス・アイスサンドイッチ. 2013.
Mieko Kawakami. Ms Ice Sandwich. Translated Louise Heal Kawai. Pushkin Press, 2018 (Cover).

Art on Tuesday: Dawn at Isawa

woodblock print by Hokusai -Dawn at Isawa
This ukiyo-e is from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ 富嶽三十六景 by Hokusai (1760-1849).
The series was made in the early 1830s. This is picture No. 43 with the title ‘Dawn at Isawa in the Kai Province’ (甲州伊沢暁—kôshû isawa no akatsuki). The Kai province is located in today’s Yamanashi prefecture of Japan. Here you see typical historical Japanese houses with thatched roofs. On the middle road groups of merchants are transporting commercial goods, some on horses. They are carrying items like rice, food and various products in wooden boxes or in bundles.

Book Review: Death by Water

Bookcover-Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water“And like the river current, you won’t return home.”
Kogito Choko, a writer in his seventies, is haunted by the memory of his father’s death. He had been a child, when he witnessed his father going on a boat trip during a storm, where he drowned. Kogito Choko has been traumatized by this tragedy, and nightmares about drowning are troubling him ever since. He always wanted to write a novel about it but could not.

Ten years after the death of his mother, he still wants to write his so called ‘drowning novel’. He says that he could not write this novel for several reasons, but most importantly he waited for documents stored in an old red leather trunk, which belonged to his father. His mother had restricted him access to them because she wanted to protect the family’s reputation.

Now, he hopes for creative inspiration by opening the red leather trunk, so he can finally write the ‘drowning novel’.

Kogito’s sister Asa, who is living in their parental home in Shikoku invites him to stay there. She has connections to a theatre group called the ‘Caveman Group’. The stage director and the actors have been dramatizing his works for a long time. The director is devoted to Kogito’s works. The Cavemen Group is staging a play, when Kogito comes to visit. In the ‘Forest House’ they meet and discuss Kogito’s novels and plays.

The actress Umaiko, however, finds new ways of interpreting his works. She is one of the main characters of the book. Her life intertwines with the protagonist’s in different ways as the novel moves forward.

Kogito Choko is depressive and struggles with his writings throughout the novel. His inner monologue is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader over the course of the events. This combined with letters of his sister Asa and descriptions of the evolving story presents a multi-layered picture of his family history.

Two other important characters of ‘Death by Water’ are Akari, his brain-damaged son, and Daio, a friend and life companion, who was devoted to his father. Both persons are also staying at the ‘Forest House’ during certain episodes of the novel.

Structure and Theme
‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburô Ôe was published in 2009 in Japan. It was translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm in 2016 and was an International Booker Prize Nominee for the Longlist 2016.
The narrator Kogito Choko is the literary alter ego of Kenzaburô Ôe. The story is mostly told from the first person’s perspective in addition to letters and dialogues.

The novel is set in the 2000s partly in Tokyo and mostly in Shikoku in the house of Kogito’s sister, a family resident, where Kogito Choko grew up. The setting in Shikoku is essential to the story. The narrator grew up in this environment. When his father drowned in the river nearby, Kogito flew into the forest. The neighborhood is relevant, because of the local myths and legends.

‘Death by Water’ is a multi-layered novel with many references to Ôe’s literary works. Although Kogito Chôko is the narrator, there are many similarities between his and Kenzaburô Ôe’s life and works.

The overall theme is coming to terms with the past on an individual level, and with the past of the WW II and nationalism in Japan. ‘Death by Water’ deals with death, memory, growing older, guilt and atonement as an individual, as a family member and as part of the Japanese society. The novel also depicts the changes of generations and generation conflicts. It discusses the works of the author and presents a view of the younger generation and female viewpoints.

‘Death by Water’ is the latest novel of the Nobel Prize winner Ôe. A late work, where all his former works come together, with many references to his own works and to others, especially Natsume Sôseki’s ‘Kokoro’.

Evaluation
The novel is narrated in a detailed and multi-faceted manner. I liked the honesty in the inner monologue of Kogito Choko. I have not read all books by Ôe but see ‘Death by Water’ as a good reason to study them more deeply. I also liked, that the book is not only a personal novel, but the writer is coming to terms with Japanese history in a unique way. The author also references to the classic novel ‘Kokoro’. I admire the way Ôe has constructed his novel in a multi-dimensional way, and how he mastered to add new perspectives, like through the story of Umaiko.
The novel is detailed and difficult in parts. The repetitive style can be tiring and sometimes even exhausting, but I think that this is a necessary part of the reading experience. ‘Death by Water’ is one of the most complex and challenging books I have read lately.
I encourage you to read the book, but maybe not to start with it as the first book of Kenzaburô Ôe. I would recommend reading ‘A Personal Matter’ and ‘The Changeling’. Ôe also wrote many short stories. I will probably read ‘A Quiet Life’ next.

Reviewed title
大江 健三郎. 水死. 2009.
Kenzaburô Ôe. Death by Water, 2009. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 2016 (Cover).

More reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
Book review of ‘A Personal Matter’
Book review of ‘The Changeling’

Art on Tuesday: Sumida River

woodblock print Sumida River at the Massaki district by Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重 (1797-1858) made this woodblock print as part of his series: ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ (名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei). It is picture No. 35.

You see a cherry tree trunk on the right side in full bloom with many cherry blossoms hanging at the top. The Sujin Shrine is located in the valley on the right in a little forest. The Sumida River at the Massaki district is in the center and in the background you see the famous Mount Tsukuba (筑波山). The mountain’s double peak consists of the so called female-body-mountain (女体山) and the male-body-mountain (男体山). Some of the oldest legends are related to them.