Book Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’ tells the story of Satoru, a young man and a cat, named ‘Nana’. She was a stray cat who chose Satoru as her ‘pet owner’. Both are going on a trip through Japan by car. They visit several childhood friends of Satoru. In the beginning we get to know Sosuke, a school buddy and read about their youth, in the following chapters about Yoshimie, Sugi and Chikako and last about Noriko, his aunt.

With each visit we learn about another exciting part of Satoru’s life-story, told in flashbacks or through conversations.

The novel plays in present times, but the time setting is irrelevant to the story. It could have happened in the last century or even before.

The overall theme of the ‘Travelling Cat Chronicles’ is friendship and love. The message is: Respect all creatures on earth. Think about your pet as a friend.

Hiro Arikawa (有川 浩) was born in Japan in 1972. She is a female Japanese author of light novels, and she has written some Japanese Young Adults novels. ‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’ has been translated into about eight languages. Her novel was also made into a movie in 2018 (See International Movie Database).

The story is narrated by an omniscient narrator and partly from the point of view of the cat Nana in the first-person. The narration of the cat is subjective, in part opinionated, and she is making mostly comments about human behavior. She is also lecturing about how to communicate with a cat correctly. The narration of the overall story is combined with episodes narrated by Nana in a naïve, sometimes child-like writing style.

The author uses the point of view of a cat. Natsume Sôseki’s famous novel ‘I am a Cat’ written in 1905 is her role model. She indicates that with her introduction, which is a citation of ‘I am a Cat’ as follows: “I am a Cat. As yet, I have no name.” Arikawa continues: “There is a famous cat in our country who once made this very statement.”

Having read and admired Natsume Sôseki’s classic tale ‘I am a Cat’ I had high expectations of ‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’. I think the author set her bar high in choosing the first sentence, but maybe she just wanted to make a joke. I mean, it is difficult to compete with a classic of that high rank.

What I like about the book is the overall message to respect cats and every animal on the planet and respect your next one. Nana even is telling you her dos and don’ts of how to communicate with her. So, a good side effect of the novel is that you learn using cat language. And as a cat-lover that was the funniest part for me.

There is nothing to dislike about the novel. I mean, it is very friendly. Love and friendship, taking care of each other, what can be wrong about that.

Normally I do not read Young Adult fiction anymore because I am not in her typical target audience. I recommend the book to all readers who like to read about cats, friendship and who like the YA genre. It is an interesting bestselling Japanese book.

Reviewed title:
有川浩: 旅猫リポート. Arikawa Hiro: Tabineko ripôto. Kodansha 2015.
Hiro Arikawa: The Travelling Cat Chronicles. Translated by Philip Gabriel.
Berkeley 2018 (Cover)


Three Exciting Coming-of-Age Books by Japanese Authors

The ‘Coming-of-Age Day’ is celebrated in Japan on every second Monday of January as a national holiday since 1948. It is called 成人の日 – Seijin no Hi.
Japanese who turn 20 are celebrating this day, because from now on they are fully grown-ups with every right and responsibility legally speaking. And from now on they are also allowed to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Young women are dressing up on the ’Coming-of-Age Day’ in a long-sleeved kimono and men in formal suit and tie.

Coming-of-age is an exciting topic described in world literature as in Japanese novels as well. The following books are good examples of what it feels to become an adult in Japan.

Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki
What is it about?
It is a surrealist novel about a 15-year-old boy leaving his father behind and going on a secret journey. With only one photo in his hand, Kafka Tamura searches for his mother and sister, who left him and his father behind years ago. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 海辺のカフカ (Umibe no Kafuka) 2002.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage International (Cover 2006).

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ôgawa Yoko
What is it about?
This is a story about an extraordinary friendship between the 10-year-old boy named Root and a retired math professor, who is slightly losing his memory because of brain damage. In the beginning they share only their passion for baseball, but soon the professor needs more help.  Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 博士の愛した数式 (hakase no aishita sûshiki) 2003.
Translated by Stephen Snyder. Vintage International (Cover 2010).

Kitchen by Yoshimoto Banana
What is it about?
It is about a young woman dealing with life after the death of her beloved grandmother. A new friendship with a boy and his transgender mother. It is about mourning a profound loss and the beginning of a new life. All in all an emotional and touching debut novel of the now so famous Japanese author. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: キッチン (Kitchin) 1988.
Translated by Megan Backus. Grove Press (Cover 1988)

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.

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.

‘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.