The Dancing Girl of Izu by Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

On the road, a traveling companion; and in the world, kindness.

~an old Japanese saying

I first heard of this short story from Masa, our travel guide, when I was visiting the Izu Peninsula in Japan two years ago. He asked if I had ever read it, as it was one of his favorites, but I told him I had not.

Just now I have finished this lovely, gentle story by Yasunari Kawabata. It tells of a twenty year old student from Tokyo as he briefly follows itinerant entertainers who perform for people in tea houses. He has noticed the beauty of the dancing girl and cannot bring himself to leave her, or her family, until he runs out of money to travel and must return to Tokyo.

There is no consummation of their relationship; there is not even an embrace, let alone a kiss. But, her hair brushes his shoulder as they play a game with stones called “Five-in-a-row.” She asks him to read her “The Story of The Lord of Mito.“

I picked up the book, with a certain expectation in my heart. Just as I hoped, the dancing girl scooted over beside me. Once I began reading, she brought her face close enough to touch my shoulder, her expression serious. Her eyes sparkled as she gazed at my forehead without blinking. It seemed to be her habit when she was being read to.

She asks him to take her to a silent movie when they come to town, but when he does, her mother forbids her to go.

They have nothing between them but a strong connection, a great affection particularly on his part. He finds something within the traveling group, within the dancing girl herself, which provides some comfort to his spirit. It isn’t until the end of the story that we find out why.

Twenty years old, I had embarked on this trip to Izu heavy with resentment that my personality had been permanently warped by my orphan’s complex and that I would never be able to overcome a stifling melancholy. So I was inexpressibly grateful to find that I looked like a nice person as the world defines the word.

I read this beautiful, melancholic short story (first published in 1926) for free by downloading it from Internet Archive, which proves to be a wonderful resource for borrowing literature. It is perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13, and the first short story I’ve read for the Deal Me In Challenge.

On The Bus in The Rain, a novella by Haruka Kimura

Across the aisle and diagonally to my right, my exact double is sitting in a one-seater. No… technically, he’s me as a high schooler. Reflexively and vigorously, I rub at my eyes, and it sure isn’t hay-fever season.

While on the bus in the pouring rain, our narrator notices his seventeen year old self sitting to his right. Should he get up and tell his younger self that everything will be all right, at least until he reaches the age of twenty-seven? And, wouldn’t he like to know his future self at the age of thirty-seven?

This novella is an introspective look at who we were, who we are, whom we might become.

I know that I constantly examine who I was, and often wish that I could have told my younger self information that I only know now that I am older. But, would I really tell myself what would happen? What I should do? I have learned from making the choices I did, they have formed who I am today.

What would be gained by talking to my future self? Do I want to know the joys, or sorrows, of what will happen in the next ten years? Perhaps it is best to get off the bus without saying a word, to face each year with fresh innocence. Perhaps it is best that we don’t know all that we will choose, or all the events that will make us who we are, in advance.

“On the Bus in the Rain (雨の日のバスで)” won a Kobe Shinbun (newspaper) literary contest in July, 2019. You can read this novella yourself by clicking here.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (a most excellent beginning to the Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

I can’t help feeling there’s something inexplicable about this crime. I don’t know how to express it precisely, but there’s something incoherent or indefinable about it, something the human mind isn’t equipped to engage with. (p. 63)

How I love an intriguing mystery, a well written, well developed story that has not been manipulated for “twists and turns” but naturally unfolds it’s layers as a flower unfurls its petals. You can trust a Japanese author to do just that, and Riku Onda does it magnificently in her novel, The Aosawa Murders, which won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, beginning with a police interview conducted with Hisako Aoswara which only gives the barest glimpse into her account. Gradually we become aware of a certain crepe myrtle tree, a blue room, and a strange letter left under a vase for a single flower at the scene of the crime. The fact that Hisako is blind only serves to obfuscate her side of the story.

What becomes clear Is that seventeen people have died by drinking poisoned soft drinks or sake at a birthday party for Dr. Aosawa and his family. The drinks were brought and left by a messenger wearing a black hat and a yellow raincoat. Only one person in the family has survived: the beautiful young daughter who is blind, Hisako.

One by one we read the perspectives of the people who can give their account of what has happened. First, is a conversation with Makiko Saiga, the author of the book Forgotten Festival, which gives her side of the story as she was a neighbor Hisako’s age when the murder occurred. Then, we have the point of view of her assistant who points out a few discrepancies in Makiko’s book.There is an excerpt from Forgotten Festival, an interview with the housekeeper’s daughter, and the detective’s thoughts himself. From these testimonies, and several others, the truth is gradually revealed.

But, what is truth? How can any of us know what another’s experience has been? Consider this quote from the author’s assistant:

I hope you understand that truth is nothing more than one view of a subject seen from a particular perspective. (p. 59)

It was fascinating to read each account, to gain an understanding of what really happened as each piece was laid in place. It was a puzzle which was solved by seemingly unrelated pieces which fit together perfectly once they were laid down. I was surprised when all was known, but then again, I have never been a child in the blue room with a white crepe myrtle flower in full bloom.

About the author: Ricky Onda, born in. 1964, is the professional name of Nanao Kumagai. She has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television. The Aosawa Murders won the prestigious Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. It is Riku Onda’s first crime novel and her first work translated into English.

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda will be published in the U.S. by Bitter Lemon Press on February 15, 2020. But, I will send my copy to a participant of the Japanese Literature Challenge, U.S. only please. Simply leave a comment below, and I will draw a winner a week from today.

Welcome to the Japanese Literature Challenge 13!

Now it is January; now we officially begin the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

If you are participating this year, here are the few guidelines:

  • The Challenge runs from January 1, 2020 through March 31, 2020
  • In March, there will be a read along of The Makioka Sisters for those who are interested.
  • Read and review one or more books which have originally been written in Japanese.
  • Use #JapaneseLitChallenge13 on Twitter or Instagram (#JLC13 is used for something else).
  • Find an additional resource here.

Because the Linky widget will not work on WordPress, I have created a separate review site for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13. Please go here to leave the links to your reviews.

It’s time to begin thinking about the Japanese Literature Challenge 13

One of the greatest joys of blogging, for me, is the opportunity to share Japanese literature with one another. Judging by the inquiries I begin receiving in November and December, it appears that many bloggers who remember it, as well as some who have heard of it, are also eager to begin again.

The idea began in 2006, when ‘challenges’ were quite common in the blogging world. They gave an opportunity to meet like-minded readers and to participate in reading endeavors that thrilled us all. To make this event less of a challenge, and more of a pleasure, I decided that all we needed to do was read at least one work of literature, originally written in Japanese, and review it on our blogs. Now there is the broader impact of social media with Twitter and Instagram, and so those platforms are welcome, too. The idea is, take January through March to read as much Japanese literature as you would like, and tell us about what you read.

When I put up an official welcome post, I will specify the hashtags we should use (how about #JapaneseLitChallenge13?) on social media, and a place where you can leave a link to your reviews.

Some of the books that I plan on reading are:

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage International). This novel was sent to my by dear Silvia a few months ago, and it is one of the few by Ishiguro I have not yet read.

Another novel I plan to read was just sent to me yesterday: The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (Bitter Lemon Press). It won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel, and it will be published on January 16, 2020 in the UK (February 15, 2020 in the US).

I also have hopes to read The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue.

If you are looking for titles, here is a list of books read from years past: suggested titles for Japanese literature. It is, of course, only a jumping off place and by no means complete. And, as this is simply a “begin thinking about it” post, I welcome any ideas you have to incorporate this time around. A read-along title? A favorite work of yours? A dedicated place for reviews such as I used to use in 2013? Please feel free to let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below, and know that I welcome your participation in January.

I have never read a “locked-room mystery” before; Murder in The Crooked House by Soji Shimada

20190701_065958.jpgApparently, a locked-room mystery involves a murder which occurs in a room that has been locked from within. The room seems to have no way for someone to enter, so how did the murder occur if it wasn’t a suicide?

Soji Shimoda takes us to the northern tip of Japan, to Hokkaido, where Kozaburo Hamamoto has built an eccentric house. The floors slant; the tower next to it leans like the Tower of Pisa. Guests gather in late December for a Christmas holiday, as the snow falls, and the mood is created for three bizarre murders to follow.

Each murder finds the victim fallen, with a knife wound, and one limb tied to a piece of furniture. Clues are meticulously laid out, but they are for a reader far more astute than I.

In some ways, this novel reminds me of Sherlock Holmes because it is all so logically presented (and solved). It also, strangely enough, reminded me of Agatha Christie; the guests become suspicious of one another and gather in the salon with their suppositions.

I liked it. But, I didn’t love it. I kept reading to the end because I wanted the solution, not because the story gripped me relentlessly. What I really wanted was to visit Hokkaido…

If Cats Disappeared From The World by Genki Kawamura

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Soon after a young postman learns that his migraines are due to a cancerous brain tumour, he is visited by the devil and offered a deal.

“In order to gain something, you have to lose something…It’s just a matter of a simple exchange.”

“Exchange of what?”

“All you have to do is remove one thing from the world and in return, you’ll get one more day of life.”

Now I love getting rid of things. I’m not diagnosed with cancer, and I don’t make deals with the devil, but purging the house? Emptying shelves, closets, and drawers? I feel very liberated after doing that. So, the deal doesn’t sound all that negative to me. Especially when the first thing to disappear from the world is his phone. And not only his; cell phones are gone from the world. What commisseration I felt in reading this:

Mobile phones have been around for only about twenty years, but in just that short amount of time they’ve managed to take complete control over us. In the span of two decades something that we don’t really need has come to dominate our lives and make us believe we can’t live without it. When human beings invented the phone, they also invented the anxiety that comes with not having one on you. (p. 35)

The next things to go are movies, clocks, and then the issue of cats. Does the postman have it in him to rid the world of cats just so that he can live?

The book is a bit “lumpy”, whether that’s due to translation or the youth of the author I can’t quite tell. There are things that don’t quite connect; for example, what has happened to all the things the devil made disappear from the world when he made a deal with previous people? The theology is a bit wonky, too, in the idea that the devil represents all the regrets one has in one’s life. (If only he was that innocuous!)

But, when I step back and look at it as a whole, I find some very pertinent issues are addressed, such as the relationships in our lives which may need to be healed. Or, the recognition of how fragile we all are. It is the journey which the author takes us on, the discovery through the postman’s eyes, which is what makes this book special.

Yeah, but just being alive doesn’t mean that much all on its own. How you live is more important. (p. 152)

Yes, to that.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12: We Have Come To The End

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It has been such a privilege to read Japanese literature with you these past three months. I want to extend a big thank you to Gnoe who inquired about it last Summer, and Mel U who has participated since the beginning years of the challenge; they were enough to let me know that at least three of us would be reading Japanese literature together. But, there have been so many more who read with us, both old friends and new. Andrew Blackman joined for the first time, as did Gretchen. My friend from the Man Booker Shadow Panel, Vivek, has expressed an interest in joining in next year. Hooray!

Gnoe read and reviewed one of my favorite books for the challenge this year, The Traveling Cat Chronicles. I was intrigued by how she threw it across the room, declaring her hate for it, and in the next sentence saying how much she loved it. Because it is sad and joyful at the same time, I think.

Akylina has read my favorite crime writer, Keigo Higoshino, whom she mentioned is one of her favorites as well. She reviewed A Midsummer Equation by Keigo Higashino, noting that unlike many other Japanese crime novels, we don’t find out what happens until the end.

Andrew Blackman wrote the finest review of The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogon that I have ever seen. I enjoyed his perceptive, in-depth, and interesting thoughts as much as I enjoyed her “diary” giving us an account of life in the Empress’ court.

Nadia of A Bookish Way of Life reviewed several stories from the Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, a collection I’m now longing to buy myself as she mentioned two of my favorite authors.

Nishita of Nishita’s Rants and Raves has begun Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for the challenge proving it’s never too late to pick up a Japanese novel even if this particular challenge is over.

Suko of Suko’s Notebook has read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore, my favorite of all Haruki Murakami’s novels. It is not an easy job to define his work, and she does a brilliant job of highlighting the most important aspects of this book.

Michelle of su[shu] has read and reviewed Penance by Kanae Minato, and novel I enjoyed as much as her novel, Confessions. Michelle, too, compares the two novels, and says this of Penance: “It felt like a little study of character. It was as if the book was the answer to the question, “If a friend is assaulted and murdered, how would it affect you? Where would you end up?”

Although the challenge is officially over, I have two books waiting for me when my Man Booker International Prize long list reading ends. One is If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura and the other is Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. I hope that you, too, will continue to enjoy Japanese Literature as we “wait” for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 to come around next January. Thank you for the books we’ve shared together this time around.

Star by Yukio Mishima (A review and give-away for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12)

“Not once had I been able to forget so entirely that a town was all hollow, all facades and make believe.”

Rikio Mizuno is a star, playing the leading role of a yakuza, followed by screaming young girls he cares nothing about.

I was exhausted. The girls could scream their way to hell for all I cared. Their shrill voices splashed over me like rancid oil. If only I could line them up and march them all into the mouth of an incinerator. (p. 22)

This jaded attitude is shocking from a 23 year old, just turning 24, who knows that real stars never attend a party even if its for their own birthdays.

It’s better for a star never to be around. No matter how strict the obligation, a star is more of a star if he never arrives. The question of whether he’ll show up gives the event a ceaseless undercurrent of suspense. But a true star never shows. (p. 27)

As I read, I found myself rereading paragraphs several times over, sensing that Rikio was speaking about the set as well as real life. The two seemed intertwined, almost indistinguishable from one another

I was no longer on a set, but in an undeniable reality, a layer inside the strata of my memory. (p. 34)

Over and over again, we are pointed to the isolation he feels. Certainly being a star does not bring the fulfillment he desires.

It’s useless trying to explain what it feels like in the spotlight. The very thing that makes a star worth watching is the same thing that strikes him from the world at large and makes him an outsider. (p. 47)

When the American Academy of Awards displayed the stars hoping to win an Oscar Award on February 24, 2019, I remained largely as unimpressed as I ever have been. Their empty world of facades and images means nothing to me. What is a star more than a flawed character filled with desparation at living for fame?

It’s become a tradition for me to pin up the life-size poster from my current project right inside the front door. That way every night when I get home I’m the first one there to greet me.

The self adoration is so ridden with loneliness it’s heartbreaking.

Written shortly after Yukio Mishima himself had acted in the film “”Afraid to Die,” this novella is a rich and unflinching psychological portrait of a celebrity coming apart at the seams. With exquisite, vivid prose, Star begs the question: is there any escape from how we are seen by others? (back cover)

An even more important question may be, “Is there any escape for a star to care about how he is seen by others?” Because one of the most freeing things in the world is to be fully secure in oneself, secure enough that it doesn’t matter what opinions others may hold.

I found this novella very piercing, one which had me pausing every few pages to ponder the subject of stardom, weighing it against the values I hold dear. It is one of the books for which I am hosting a give-away. If you would like to enter, leave a comment with your opinion on what it means to be a star. I will announce the winner a week from Sunday, March 17, 2019.

Japanese Literature Challenge 12 (State of the Challenge #8, and the winner of Desire by Haruki Murakami)

img_0312Strange Weather in Tokyo, giving us a heartfelt response similar to the one I experienced myself after reading it. (Although my edition of the same book was entitled The Briefcase, oddly enough.)

Juliana has done a masterful job of reviewing The Pillow Book by writing a letter to Sei Shōnagon here.

Andrew Blackman has also read The Pillow Book, mentioning it in his February post, promising to publish his thoughts which I am eager to read.

I have read and adored The Emissary and Hideo Yokoyama’s latest book, Seventeen.

As promised, I have a winner for Desire which was offered as a giveaway last Thursday. The easiest, and fairest, way to find a winner was to simply pull a name from those who left a comment on the original post. And so, I am pleased to announce that Abby has won this particular book. I will email you, Abby, to ask for your mailing address. Thanks to all who entered and enjoy Japanese literature!