Category Archives: Japanese literature

A slight Mishima novella appearing in English now

Writer Mishima Yukio appeared as a yakusa (gangster) in the 1960 movie “Karakkazeyaro”/“Afraid to Die.” He was not born with movie-star good looks and worked very hard to build up his body.


Rikio, the protagonist of hi very slight s novella “Star” that has just made its way into English is only 24 and very good-looking without having to work on building up his body. He is like Mishima in being preoccupied with suicide and not wanting his body to age—obsessions that dovetailed in Mishima’s public suicide in 1970. Mishima was not a movie star, though the character he imagined was.

Rikio is plenty narcissistic, though it is difficult to imagine anyone exceeded Mishima himself in narcissism.

Rikio disdaines the unattractive women who are his fan base (one of whom tries to crash into the movie he is shooting), though his constant companion is not a beautiful actress, but his blowsy assistant. There is no indication that he has sex with her. Indeed, he may be a virgin.

Part of his attitude to his fans is “I’d much rather have a girl masturbating to my picture than actually trying to sleep with me. Real love always plays out at a distance.” I have my doubts that the second sentence could have come from Rikio,

After one picture is wrapped, Rikio goes to the studio barber and sees a great matinee idol of the past whose looks are now maintained by trickery. Rikio is determined not to outlive his attractiveness.

I don’t know why this novella has been published in English now. Its themes are better developed in Mishima works translated during his lifetime. The other 2019 publication of a previously untranslated (into English) Mishima novella, Frolic of the Animals, is longer and more substantive.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray



Imaginative, poignant stories of the last part of WWII in Japan

Nosaka Akiyuki (1930-2015) is known in the West almost entirely for the 1988 anime adaptation of his story of children after the 1945 firembombing of Kobe, “The Grave of the Fireflies” (Hotaru no Haka) by Takahata Isaho), Nosaka was also a member of the Japanese Diet (legislature) and a pop singer. And another of his works was the basis for Imamura’s dark comedy “The Pornographers” (1966).


The stories in The Cake Tree in the Ruins include seven that the same press (Pushikin) published as The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine, the leadoff story, a very poignant story anthropomorphizing a jumbo male sardine whale. After being ignored by female whales, he fixates on a Japanese submarine, tries to mate with it, and starts following it up and down and al around.


Many of the stories involve an animal and a human, as in “The Parrot and the Boy” “The Elephant and Its Keeper,” and “The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl.” The one nonfiction story, “A Balloon in August” is not without poignancy, either, though Akiyuki does not invest the balloon with emotions.

Most of the stories end with death, sometime gratuitously (IMHO). The only one with a happy ending is the title tale in which a tree grows from cake crumbs and nourishes some children who survived the intense fire-bombing of civilian populations by the US. A 1945 fire-bombing (that the author surived) killed Akiyuki’s adopted father. A sister and a step-sister died of starvation.

Many of the children’s fathers died in distant (colonial) wars, including the one who dug a bunker that his son cherished and his mother heedlessly had filled in after WWII (“My home bunker”). There is also one story set away from Japan, “A Soldier’s Family,” which resonates with “Fires on the Plains” in showing the desperate hunger of troops cut off from resupply.

The stories lack bitterness, though often sardonic about Japan’s military endeavors. Nor is there any explicit condemnation of the US targeting of civilians.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Mishima’s Frolic of the Animals

Had I not known that Frolic of the Beasts (originally published in Japanese in 1961 as Kemono no Tawamure) was by Mishima, I’d have guessed it was by Tanazaki. It is, perhaps, not kinky enough to be Tanizaki fiction, and warped relationships were by no means missing in Mishima’s works translated into English sooner. But there are no suicides. There is an attempt to maintain purity from carnal desire, a refusal to enact the frolicking beasts that the husband longs to watch.


I found the opening of the book quite confusing, but the reader learns why Kôji is in prison relatively soon. A university student, he had been employed by a dandyish former professor turned merchant, Ippei. Ippei, “who may have lost his, [but] made use of the youth of others,” was a flagrant womanizer, eager to make his beautiful young wife, Yûko jealous (Ippei is the very Tanizaki character for me). She refuses him the satisfaction, though she discreetly hires a private detective and knows what he is up to.

The three of them and Ippei’s current main mistress are together. Ippei twice knocks Yûko to the floor and Kôji brings a wrench down on Ippei’s skull (also twice), after which Ippei is paralyzed on his right side.

Yûko takes over a set of greenhouses that supply orchids etc. When Kôji is released from prison (17 months, even though his attack was ruled to have been premeditated—which it was not, at least not by him!) he goes to live and work at the enterprise. He is intent not to have sexual congress with Yûko, who is sometimes teasing, sometimes needy, and cares for her disabled husband.

A typhoon threatens and we learn that the other employee raped his daughter after his wife died. Plus there is another triangle interlude centering on a ukulele (the daughter works in a ukulele factory). This inner(-narrative) triangle has some relationship to the 14th-century nô play (Motemazuka) the translator, Andrew Clare, believes Mishima was parodying.


There is so much description of settings that I find it hard to think the story derives from a nô play. Moreover, the fiction is followed by an epilogue (for me the best part of the book) in which Mishima recounts how he heard the story and got somewhat involved (visiting the model for Yûko in prison, where his fiction does not consign her). The fictional priest does not resemble the one whom Mishima admired, btw.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Donald Keene in San Francisco, 1996

I went to a lecture by Donald Keene (born in Brooklyn in 1922) at the Miyako. He speaks entertainingly and modestly. He is even shorter than I imagined and has some New York accent. I think he’s probably a queen, but am not entirely certain.

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(Keene in 2002, photographed by Aurelio Asiain)

He said that the two people he’s known whom he considers geniuses are Arthur Waley and Mishima Yukio, because he can’t imagine how anyone can do what they did. Specifically, in Waley’s case, translate Genji monogatori, in Mishima’s, write non-stop in final form without correcting anything. He recalled a wartime student of Waley’s saying something about the ambiguities of Heian Japanese, and his being startled, exclaiming “I never found it so!” He also told someone that he thought it should be possible to learn Japanese in about a month. Even if he meant to learn to read Japanese for someone who could read Chinese, this is an astonishing estimate.

He finds Lafcadio Hearn repellent (racist) though an acute observer. In that his reminisces were about Americans discovering Japanese literature, I asked about The Chrysanthemum and the Sword as an explanation of Japanese culture to America. He didn’t answer my question about its role, but responded to my preamble, by saying that he has high regard for the book. When it was translated in Japanese, many Japanese were unhappy with it and tried to assail it, but have not shaken its foundations, which despite the great difficulties of working from America with Issei who mostly had left long ago, he considers generally sound, beautifully written, and an impressive accomplishment of understanding another culture.

He credits Kurosawa’s film of Rashomon with a major impetus to the “Japan boom” in America of the 1950s, along with Edward Seidenstecker’s translation of Some Prefer Nettles, and then the Zen fad. And he reiterated that the Nobel Prize was headed for Mishima and was sidetracked by a Northern European “expert” (who had spent two weeks in Japan and assumed from Mishima’s age that he must be a leftist!).

The contemporary female Japanese writer of whom he thinks highly (and considers likely to “last”) is Dazai’s daughter. Keene said that he mostly reads classical Japanese literature, and established writers. He regrets that he does not know the work of more younger writers (younger than Ôe Kenzaburo), but doesn’t think he can do more, only having two eyes…

© 26 February 1996, Stephen O. Murray

Alienated Tokyo Hyperrealism

Okada Toshiki (1973-) is a “lost generation” (1990s stalled Japanese economy/recession) writer and anime producer sometimes labeled “hyperrealist,” which means manufacturer of banality to me. His novella The End of the Moment We Had/ The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed was based on his 2007 Kishida Drama Prize-winnning “Five Days in March” (Watashitachi ni yurusareta tokubetsu na jikan no owari). It begins with a tedious visit of six very drunk male friends to a Roppongi bar. The narrator , Azuma,stumbles off with a woman for four nights of frequent sex with a bar pickup.

For no particular reason I can infer, the narration shifts from the man to the woman roughly half way the recounting of the frequent fucking, sleeping some, venturing out from the Shibuya love hotel. The narrative voice changes little, making the switch all the more once inexplicable. At the end they part without exchanging contact information, unlikely to meet again.


(Shibuya district)

Before cutting themselves off for the extended sexcapade, the couple are dismayed by the prospect of war starting in Iraq, following an ultimatum from George W. Bush to Saddam Hussein. By the time their tryst is over, the US has invaded Iraq, though US forces have not yet taken Baghdad. This is part of the reality the two flee from for a few days. (They never turn on the tv in their refuge, which has no clocks and no windows to let its inhabitants know whether it is day or night.) Each thought the war would be over in a few days with Bush triumphant. The account ends with the woman throwing up, partly on herself (the last few pages have an omniscient narrator).


There is a second, slightly longer novella, “My Place in Plural” with only one narrator, a bored 30-something wife, too bored to go to her part-time hob, lying around, but never reaching a deep sleep. Nor succeeding in slaying a cockroach that scurries to the safety of a drawer. Presumably, she is still married to her hard-working husband, who has two jobs in contrast to her less than one. The mood of both novellas is encapsulated into the wife’s generalization about opening new windows on her laptop: “In the few seconds while the page loaded, I felt like I was holding out hope for something, though I’m not sure what. But as soon as the content came on screen my hope vanished.”

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A delirious love story disguised as a police procedural novel

The first novel by Higashino Keigo (1958-) translated into English (in 2011)* is the 2005 Yōgisha X no Kenshin (as The Devotion of Suspect X), which won the Naoki Prize (the Japanese prize for genre fiction) and several Japanese mystery novel prizes. In that it starts with the gruesome slaying by his ex-wife Hanaoka Yasuko and her teen-age daughter (by another man) Misato gruesomely slaying Togashi, there does not seem to be a mystery. There are protracted attempts by Tokyo policemen to prove that Yasuko murdered her ex-husband. I have doubts about labeling the killing “murder,” since Yasuko was defending her daughter, but that issue never comes to trial.

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Indeed, the novel ends before any trial, with some definite surprises revealed along the way.

In that the suspect is Yasuko’s neighbor, mathematician Ishigami, I don’t know why the title has a “suspect x.” The only uncertainty on he part of the police and Ishigami’s former Imperial University friend, physicist Yukawa (who sometimes aids the police, who have dubbed him “Dr. Galileo”) is how many people committed the murder, more specifically if Ishigami was involved before Togashi was strangled. (The police are skeptical that a woman ten centimeters shorter than the “victim” could physically have strangled him).

I’d say that the key word in the title is “devotion,” not “suspect,” and that rather than being a mystery novel, or even a police procedural one, it is a love story. The measure of devotion is astounding, and more troubling than the initial strangulation.

For me, the pace is slow, especially since the police don’t investigate anyone else who was associated with Togashi, a quite nasty character whom I can imagine multiple people wanting to eliminate.


* Since then, Alexander O. Smith has also translated Salvation of a Saint and Midsummer Equation (and another five Hagshino novels not in the “Dr. Galileo” series have appeared in English).   “Suspect X” has also been filmed twice, once in Japanese, once in Korean.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A pair of Japanese poets tour Manchuria and Mongolia in 1928

Not finding the book I was looking for on the library shelf, I picked up and then read Yosano Akiko’s (1878-1942) account of a 1928 visit to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as guests of the (Japanese owned and operated) South Manchurian Railway Company. Political unrest made it unsafe to go to Beijing, and a warlord (Zhang Zuolin) whose wife had entertained her was blown up with another official a few miles from where they had gone. The encounter with the warlord’s wife is practically the only encounter with anyone Chinese. She did note that Mongolians were being pushed out by Chinese. And opined that the Chinese merchants worked harder thta the Japanese.


(with her husband)

Akiko deplored the generally low opinion Japanese of her time had for the Chinese and the Chinese language (even as her husband, Yosano Tekkan Hiroshi) wrote some Chinese verse) and after touring a Russian cemetery in Harbin asked “Why was is that in Japan and China where we practice ancestor worship, we generally show so little attention to graves?” (102). That surprised me, because as in Taiwan and the cemeteries I saw (in Hokkaido) seemed well-tended.

The narrative gives no clue that the author was a feminist, and not much that she was a poet (though occasionally she writes one, her husband’s are quoted more often).

She was very precise about city walls and appreciative of sunsets, mostly taking for granted hospitality, and mostly associating with Japanese working in China before the annexation of Manchuria by Japan.

I’m not sure the book even provides much insight into the feminist poet author, or Yosano Tekkan, or Japanese pre-colonialism (pre Great Asian Prosperity Sphere). It has to be one of the most minor translations from Japanese (in this case by Joshua Fogel of UCSB, author of The Literature of Travel in the Rediscovery of China, 1862-1945).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray