Book Review: Rashômon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke

rashomonThis is a fabulous selection of Akutagawa‘s stories from his early years until his later work period including his classics and some little known works. The stories are selected and translated by Jay Rubin and the book comes with an introduction by Murakami Haruki.

Akutagawa Ryûnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927) is one of the most influential Japanese writer and was even praised during his lifetime by his contemporaries. The young Akutagawa was encouraged by Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) and became an idol for many Japanese authors until today. Murakami Haruki admires him since his early schooldays.

Akutagawa has written mainly short stories, a genre very popular in Japanese literature. His first stories include mainly historical themes. Rashômon and In a Bamboo Grove are rewritten folktales of the 12th and 13th century. These were made into the well-known movie Rashômon by Kurosawa Akira in 1950.

Apart from that The Nose and Hell Screen are remarkable historical tales, outstandingly and thrillingly narrated by Akutagawa. Then there are some of his tragicomedies in this collection like Under The Sword, where a samurai suffering from migraine makes a deadly mistake with his sword. In Horse Legs the reader gets to know, how a man lives with two horse‘s legs.

Akutagawa‘s early stories of his own imagination are vivid psychograms. He read a lot and was influenced by Western authors as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Strindberg and others, which can be seen in his works.

His later semi-auto-biographical stories are very moving and astonishingly well-observed. Especially Daidôji Shinsuke: The Early Years, The Life of a Stupid Man and Spinning Gears. Akutagawa writes here about his own family background, behaviors and manners, inner struggles and personal stories.

Akutagawa was strongly influenced by the mental illness of his mother, who became mad shortly after his birth. She was living in the same house with him, but was not able to raise her son. Constantly under psychic pressure he became sick himself and permanently feared to get mad. Akutaga killed himself by an overdose of Veronal at the age of 35. His death shocked the whole nation.

His stories are outstanding until today, combining Japanese topics and symbolism of several historical episodes, rewritten for the modern reader. Furthermore his short stories of later years give a lively insight to his suffering and daily life and can be seen as unique documents of his life.

Many of his works have been translated into English and are available in various compilations, but this book is a good starting point and gives an overview of the work of Akutagawa Ryûnosuke.

Rashômon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, Penguin Classics 2006.

Book Review: Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

Mrs. Sonoko Kakiuchi is unhappily married. Unsatisfied with her husband she first tried an unlucky affair with another man, but then she turns towards the girl Mitsuko. She believes that a secret friendship between women would not be a threat to her marriage. She does not know yet that nothing could be farther away from the truth.

Mrs. Kakiuchi invites Mitsuko to her house. At home, she feels safe, and she dares to seduce Mitsuko. Rumors about them having an affair are running quickly at the Art School, where Sonoko and Mitsuko are studying painting. When her husband is getting suspicious, the married couple starts to quarrel.

Mitsuko on the other hand is not faithful either. She is turning her attention to a handsome man of her age. One day the young couple gets into trouble at a love hotel, because someone stole their clothes. In need for help they turn to Sonoko Kakiuchi, and she comes to the hotel, where she hands them new clothes. She becomes jealous, angry, and hopelessly heartbroken because Mitsuko is unfaithful to her. After this incident, Sonoko confesses her affair to her husband, and promises to be a faithful wife in the future. But this is not the solution of their marriage problems. It is just the beginning of the story ‘Quicksand’.

Again, Tanizaki has written a novel about love and betrayal, and this time he tells a love story between women. The work was serialized between 1928 and 1930 in the ‘Kaizô’ magazine.

All main characters are struggling with the moral rules of that time. The key questions are: What is going on under the surface of an arranged marriage and what is becoming of people’s dreams and hopes under strict moral standards in modern Japan.

These are the ingredients of an amazing story. The plot is thrilling, Tanizaki is an observer with psychological skills and writes deeply intertwined storylines. There are many unforeseen turns and maybe Tanizaki is exaggerating a little in the end. All, but one of the four vivid characters are getting down a slippery road until a surprising double-suicide occurs, which is a romantic Japanese topic by the way. I think one could call ‘Quicksand’ a psychological thriller, if it does not sound weird, comparable to Patricia Highsmith’s or Margaret Millar’s works.

Reviewed Title:

Tanizaki Jun’ichirô: Quicksand. Translated by Howard Hibett. Vintage, 1994 (Cover)

Book Review: The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Jun‘ichirô

Yukiko is thirty years old and unmarried — that is a disaster. She was born in the year of the Ram, which is an unfortunate sign, some Japanese believe. But what is more important, her younger sister Taeko cannot marry before her elder sister, but has a steady boyfriend since long …

Ito Shinsui

The Makioka Sisters were called the “Pride and Prejudice” of Japan. Written in the 1940‘s, when most Japanese writers were silent, because of the nationalistic censorship, Tanizaki wrote one of his masterpieces. It was serialised in 1943, but was halted by the government. Tanizaki secretly distributed copies of it in his private circles. After World War II it was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948.

The story is about the decline of a wealthy upper-class family from Ôsaka in the 1930‘s. Traditional customs are now bound to fail and the new attitudes of the young generation is breaking with the lifestyle of the parents. The national crisis has it‘s impact on everyone‘s live in Japan. The international threatening of the upcoming World War II and Japan‘s nationalistic expansion policy is the background of the story.

Yukiko is an old-fashioned proud character, who takes her time to consider her marriage carefully. There were many miais („seeing each other“ as traditional marital arrangements), but no man seems to be good enough for her. One has a mentally ill mother, the other speaks to himself loudly, when he thinks himself alone and they all have something ridiculous, which in the end leads to the failing of negotiations. Tanizaki is a master in describing the miais and their circumstances en miniature. His storytelling is lively and often amusing.

Yukiko seems to be unmarriageable. And that goes on the nerve. She lives her life by fulfilling family duties and is shifted around from one household in Ôsaka to the other household, the so-called main house, in Tôkyô. Behaviour and customs of an aristocratic Japanese family, once being respected, is described fully detailed and can be regarded as a unique chronicle of Japan in the 1930‘s, when overcoming traditions clashed with adopting Western ideas.

The Makiokas have contact with Italian and Germans. Especially the German family named „Stolz“ (proud) is described vividly as neighbours and friends of the Makiokas, who‘s friendship lasts, as the Stolz‘ family is moving back to Germany, when they write letters to the Makiokas. It is evident why Tanizaki choose Germans as foreigners in this novel as Japan had an alliance with Germany. They were described a bit silly, when for instance they shouted banzai, when they were rescued after a heavy rainfall in Ôsaka.
Sometimes Tanizaki names historical landmarks as the invasion of China and the building of the puppet regime Manchukuô. Taking the risk of censorship Tanizaki is critical of the Japanese policy.

Taeko, called Koi-san as the youngest sister of the Makiokas, is a modern working woman of Japan in the 30‘s, a typical moga (modern girl). The character reminds one even of Naomi in Tanizakis novel of 1924.

Taeko does not want to marry her boyfriend Kei-Boy, as he reveals himself as an unfaithful, pampered mama’s boy, who is seeking only pleasure for himself. Taeko therefore changes her boyfriend and has several affairs hidden by her sisters to hold up the facade of the Makioka family on the outside. On the other hand her unmoral behaviour is a risk for Yukiko, who has one failing miai after another. The head of the Makioka family is getting desperate, as the family image slightly cracks. Yukiko is getting harder to marry, because Taeko‘s escapades sum up. Taeko is reluctant to advises of the main house in Tôkyô and to her sisters good words. Whereas Yukiko plays cool: she is reluctant to any of the prospects. Will she ever get married?

In the neighbourhood, where the Stolz‘ family once had lived, suspicious foreigners move in. A Swiss and his wife, who are spyed upon. The reader is tapping in the dark. The Makioka sisters travel between Ôsaka and Tôkyô often, Tanizaki describes both cities and the contrasting customs and conflicts lively.

After a while Taeko is abandoned by the Makioka family when her love life becomes uncontrollable. After that she has to go through many hardships, but Yukiko is on her side.

Until the end the story is entertaining and has many unforeseen turning points. It is a multi-faceted story of Japanese women in the 30‘s and Japans modernization conflicts. Tanizaki intersperses some political turning points and stories without being politically too much. The Makioka Sisters are a chronicle of Japan before World War II. It has rich and vivid characters, a well-structured intertwining story, thrilling until the end.

Japanese: Tanizaki Jun’ichirô. 細雪 Sasameyuki, 1943-1948.

Book Review: Naomi by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

Have you ever heard of Naomi- ism?
That was the effect of Tanizaki Jun‘ichirôs book in Japan  in 1924. It was a hit!

It was serialized in the Osaka Asahi newspaper from  March 1924, censored and forbidden by the government in June 1924, but five month later published and completed in the modern women‘s magazine Josei (woman).

Young progressive men and women of the Japanese Jazz age were eager to read the novel. It was Tanizaki‘s breakthrough and is still seen today as a modern, provocative novel.

The Taishô era (1912-1926) was „a significant era for women,[2] when women began to play a wider role in society. The number of working women [shokugyô fujin] had been increasing along with the rapid progress of industrialisation and urbanisation.[3] The development of the higher education system, particularly the rapid expansion of women’s higher schools [kô tô jogakkô], produced more educated women participating in various levels of the workforce as professionals.[4] More women began to discuss women’s rights issues such as suffrage, birth control, equal employment opportunities and property rights.[5] Some young women adopted Western fashions, cut their hair short and wore
dresses. These ‘new women’ came to light as a group, not only as social or political participants but also as vigorous consumers in Japanese society.[6] They had a wider choice of lifestyles[7] and more diverse viewpoints about society than their predecessors,
who had few choices besides marrying and raising children. The magazine Josei [Woman] styled itself to suit the needs of these women“. (cited: Kazumi Ishii: Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context S. 1.)

artspaces.net_4The Japanese title Chijin no ai means „A Fool‘s Love“ and describes the nature of the relationship between Jôji and Naomi.

Naomi is 15-year old Japanese girl with an exotic name, that sounds Western. She is attracted by Kawai Jôji , an 28-year old engineer. They first met at the Café Diamond in Asakusa, Tokyo‘s amusement district, where she works as a budding hostess.

Exotic Western and stylish appeal, looking like Mary Pickford, that is the description of Naomi. Jôji thinks that she is not the most beautiful woman in the world, but he is not willing to marry a woman at his age, because of all the annoying effects of the procedures of omiai and the disadvantages of a marriage. Instead of this, he wants to take young Naomi into his house, let see her grow up and consider then, if he can marry her. So far his plan ….

351px-Mary_Pickford-Ziegfeld

Naomi comes from a socially disadvantaged family, that does not care much about her. She is freely allowed to move into Jôji‘s Western styled house, where they live leisurely as friends. Jôji’s passion is to dress her as stylish as she can be. He buys her tons of cheap Western clothes. He is possessed by the wish of making her his own. In order to model her after his wishes and the new fashion of Tokyo, they invent plays and funny rituals at home. Jôji is aware, that he is making a fool of himself, but cannot withstand her. He acts more childish than Naomi herself. He does not only love her, but wants to possess her.

There is an imbalance from the start, as he is fathering her and deep in his mind he is wanting her as a woman. Therefore literary critics often compare Naomi to Lolita by Nabokov, but it can be also seen as a Japanese My fair Lady.

Once on a trip to Kamakura, Jôji watches other Japanese women on the train. As he thinks about them, he regards them as sophisticated and well-mannered as they are styled in the old traditional Japanese way. Suddenly he feels ashamed of Naomi. In comparison to the others he regards her as cheap looking and having bad manners. Their natural relationship shows the first sign of a crack. Because of his class distinction, he is showing some guilty feelings.

One day Naomi takes him into her arms and he falls in love with her, swearing eternal love by giving her everything she wishes and all his money. He wants to overload her with everything and his overwhelming feelings.

At the age of sixteen he registers Naomi as his wife with the consent of his and her families. But Jôji‘s mother gives him a warning about Naomi’s low character. On the outside they are still acting not as a couple, everybody should think they are just friends.

First she does not want all Jôji’s money, but only the payment for music and English lessons. When Naomi goes out frequently, she learns to know others at her age and dancing will become her greatest enjoyment, as Tokyo has got the dancing fever.

Jôji becomes slightly aware, that Naomi is not the person of his imagination. Their relationship changes, when he realizes, that she is a woman, that attracts others. He goes crazy about her.

The story has many absurd scenes, is funny and breathtaking crazy. Naomi is a real unique literary figure. The story has many turns and one can grasp the feeling of the roaring twenties. It is a story about a Japanese amour fou.

Tanizaki Jun’ichirô: Naomi. 谷崎潤一郎 痴人の愛 1924.

My Reading List of Japanese Literature

There are many reading lists on the Internet. I like to read blogs, who deal with reading books. Some blogs I follow take their reading list from the Time Magazine as 101 books or from the BBC like Emily January, one blogger created his little blog of books and then there is goodreads. Good hell! A lot to read!

I love how people write about their reading and I read a lot too. Especially I am fond of Japanese literature and always interested in how Japanese books are understood by others.

When I took a look at 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die I discovered, that it includes the following Japanese titles:

Kafka on the Shore – Murakami Haruki
After the Quake – Murakami Haruki
Sputnik Sweetheart – Murakami Haruki
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Murakami Haruki
The Sea of Fertility – Mishima Yukio
Rashomon – Akutagawa Ryûnosuke
Kokoro – Natsume Sôseki

A good selection, without question, but unfortunately it refers only to seven books of four Japanese authors and includes four of seven titles of Murakami Haruki and only three other important works. I thought one has to add the two Nobel prize winners Ôe Kenzaburô (1994) and Kawabata Yasunari (1968) at least. But then we are only at six Japanese authors.

2c2e00e617430307eaa4c249713b4a70So, I thought to myself, how about making my own personal Japanese literature reading list? And here it is: now on a new page on this blog. It includes books I want to read or re-read and write a review here.

I would be happy, if you visit it once in a while, or make suggestions, what you like to read.

Have you already read one of the above mentioned Japanese titles? What is your favourite Japanese book?