Category Archives: Japanese literature

Flat Ishiguro detective story

When We Were Orphans (2000) Kazuo Ishiguro ’s fifth novel is not the incomprehensible, nightmarish (ersatz Kafka) mess that his previous novel, The Unconsoled 1995), was. But it is also far from returning to the mastery of an unreliable narrator (who does not understand what he is relating) of his superb Booker Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day, or his earlier, also quite accomplished The Artist of the Floating World. All three are set in the days just before World War II (which began earlier in China than in Europe). The earlier ones were set in Japan and England. A large (and not very interesting!) chunk of When We Were Orphans is set in England, but even there, the narrator (Christopher Banks, called “Puffin” for no discernible reasons) is preoccupied with the relationships of his childhood: relationships to his parents, both of whom mysteriously disappeared when he was ten, to the Chinese woman who cared for him (his amah), and to his Japanese playmate Akira.

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Seemingly even before Akira and he began playing detective imagining resolutions for the kidnapping of Christopher’s father. In England he develops a reputation as a discerning sleuth, though this is asserted rather than credibly illustrated by Ishiguro. Inevitably, he returns to Shanghai to try to solve the mystery of the successive disappearances of his parents. To put it mildly, 1937 is a particularly difficult time to do this, as the Japanese invaders are fighting in the streets of the Chinese city of Shanghai (though leaving in place the international concessions where Christopher grew up).

The most vivid part of the novel involves getting to a house Christopher is convinced that it is where his parents have been held for two decades. However, it is on the front lines of the battle with first Chinese and then Japanese help. He also gets an earful about the Kuomintang’s greater concern with fighting communists than with fighting the Japanese invaders. .

The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard. Certainly, Ishiguro has drawn unsympathetic protagonists before, but they are more interesting and more plausible than Christopher is. Although most of the loose ends are tied up (one irritatingly is not), at the close of the novel I have no clear idea about what Christopher felt about what he learned, or, for that matter, what he remembered from his childhood. “Uncle Philip,” the novel’s most interesting character seems to have prefigured Christopher in the role of male English spinster, and is indeed emotionally stunted, but at least he feels and communicates some emotions. Uncle Philip’s final scene is extremely melodramatic, but in it he almost comes to life, The reader is, however, given no indication of what Christopher feels about what he learns about the central mystery of his past.

I’m not sure whether he becomes more unreliable as the book progresses, though early on his dissent from the recollections of him at school are suspect. Even Christopher considers that he may have hallucinated some other Japanese soldier into a reunion with Akira in an hour of great need for both. (Why doesn’t he try to follow up and contact Akira’s son after the war?)

The other orphans (both females) are underdeveloped and implausible. Christopher’s behavior toward Sarah at the end of her stay in Shanghai and toward a driver and a KMT lieutenant who has aided him in getting close to the house he seeks are particularly ill-conceived and unlikely, or, at least, are badly executed. The expectations of what Banks can accomplish that are held by the Shanghai Europeans bewildered by the beginning of war are ludicrous, but not implausible. And what Ishiguro writes about the politcal economy of opium seems quite accurate. Although it gets hallucinatory, the background setting is mostly deftly drawn.

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(Ishiguro in 2005, photo by Mariusz Kubiki )

Ishiguro’s masterpiece of an emotionally blocked, politically blind “unreliable narrator” is clearly still Remains of the Day. Although Ishiguro has a talent for recreating the 1930s and writes often limpid descriptive prose, I have found his work since Remains disappointing, particularly deficient in character development, which was what was most impressive about Remains.

 

©2000, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

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Two novellas about young male creators by Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (née Ohnuki Kano, 1889-1939) was a scholar of Zen Buddhism and a tanka poet who wrote fiction during the last three years of her life. Being of upper-class origin, her fiction tends to focus on resentful working-class males. Whether males from lower classes of the early Showa-era idealized her peers as she portrays them as doing is a question I can’t answer, though I am suspicious.

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The protagonist of her novella Riot of Goldfish (Kingyo Ryōran), Mataichi is the son of a goldfish-seller who is enchanted by Masako, a shy girl whose rich father (Teizô) underwrites Mataichi’s fishery studies. Though distant glimpses of Masako, up the hill above his family’s fishponds, enchant him, he has no chance of wedding her and sublimates his desire into trying to breed a goldfish as beautiful as (he thinks) Masako is. The breeds he engineers (life he creates) keep being washed away in floods. Masako has no idea he is trying to recreate her in piscine form, or, for that matter, that he has been in love with her for most of their lives.

“The Food Demon” (Shokuma), Besshirô, is also smitten by the beautiful daughter of his patron, Okinu, and desperate to be regarded as a master artist, to be addressed with the honorific “sensei.” He alienates those who had admired his knowledge of and skill at painting and calligraphy, though what he produces is dismissed as “tasteful,” lacking the spark of genius.

His genius is for the less exalted “art” of cooking, which has lower prestige but gives very tangible pleasure. He gives cooking lessons to the pampered Okinu and her drudge sister Ochiyo, but only the latter really notices how handsome and gifted he is.

Their father provides Besshirô and the meek wife he has been pressed by the aunt of his dead painter/restaurant-owner friend, Higaki, to marry a small house and a small stipend, and Besshirô takes out his frustrations mostly on his wife, Isuko (Higaki’s only cousin).

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There are no female characters developed at all in either novella. The only one who is not a drudge or an impossible fantasy is a female Buddhist scholar (what Okamoto was) who delivers the “no more than tasteful” verdict on his paintings, but genuinely appreciates his culinary skills. Even she is little developed.

The protagonists bring Zola (especially L’ouevre) to my mind with his fatalism in the traditional Buddhist guise of karma. Mataichi is more focused (beyond the point of obsession!) than Besshirô, who writhes in disappointment and resentment of his social superiors.

Goldfish has something of a plot, Food-Demon fills in the background of its protagonist, including the harrowing cancer death of Higaki). In the story’s present Besshirô gives a demonstration of handling endive, leaves his female students in their mansion, goes home, rails at his wife, and drinks a lot of beer as he watches hail fall, and while his wife keeps their son quiet in the bedroom.

Food-Demon is more about attempts to integrate Eastern and Western art and aesthetics than the aesthetic of Mataichi, though he is even more intent on creating beauty than Besshirô is.

The two novellas, translated by J. Keith Vincent were published in 2010 by Hesperus with an enthusiastic foreword by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

More recently translated, mostly Taishô-era Tanizaki short fiction

Though my enthusiasm for the writings of Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) has waned over the years and turned into ambivalence, I still think he may be the greatest of 20th-century Japanese writers. Some of his early work, when he was most influenced by writers from Europe and the US, has made it into English of late (2016-17). The novella The Gourmet Club and five shorter fictions, translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy, were published in 2001. The title novella (first published in 1919) is very sensual. In it Count G discovers a sort of dining hall (not a restaurant open to the public, but only to Chinese) in a back alley and begins serving the members of his gourmet club (numbering five) exotic Chinese dishes appealing to multiple senses. There is not a plot other than his being blocked from dining at the Chinese establishment by its president.

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The other stories are kinky, though lacking the foot fetishism that increasingly flared up in later Tanizaki fiction. The only late “story,” the 1955 “Manganese Dioxide Dreams” is mostly a plot summary of the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller “Diabolique,” followed by examination of the narrator’s turds floating in a western-style toilet. I don’t much care whether the latter contemplation is fictional or autobiographical. Diary of a Mad, Old Man has some resemblances to this narrative, but is far better.

“Two Acolytes” (1918) is somewhat based on “the road not taken” (becoming a Buddhist monk) by Tanizaki earlier on. He definitely opted for the world of sensation rather than ascetism. I suspect that the sadomasochism central to the 1911 “The Children” is a mix of fantasy and schoolboy experience. In it a girl subdues her brother and two of his classmates into eager abjection. The perverse Mitsuko torturing male admirers is a very Tanizaki figure. And the man obsessed by an actress in “Mr. Bluemound” (1926) is also a very Tanizaki figure, though not the narrator. The narrator is a movie director who has explored his wife, Turako, with a camera for general delectation and is startled to find the lengths of imaginative bonding to which one fan whom he meets in a bar has gone.

Something of a change of pace—or at least of final destination—is offered in “The Secret” (1911) in which obsession eventually turns to disenchantment when the narrator runs to mundane reality his “dream woman” and learns her name (Yoshino). (The story also encompasses the pleasures of cross-dressing, but that is incidental to the usual heterosexual obsession.)

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I like the three earliest stories of the six the best, the last the least. Are they better? They are shorter. They are also more focused on sexual obsession (along with “Mr. Bluemound” rather than on the alimentary system. With “Red Roofs” (the title story, not the collection in which it is the title story), I think the four stories of sexual obsession in The Gourmet Club: A Sextet add to the body of Tanizaki fictions I find interesting. Early cinema is prominent in “Mr. Bluemound” as in the too-pat for me purported murder mystery Devils in Daylight (1918). (“Manganese Dioxide Dreams” shows that Tanizaki remained interested in international cinema, though plot regurgitation seems to me beneath his genius.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Taishô-era Tanizaki short fiction

I long believed Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) to be the greatest 20th-century Japanese writer and the one who should have been the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (he was dead by the time Kawabata did in 1968). I was having qualms about his limits before the new batch of translations into English of work from the teens and twenties of the previous century appeared. Tanizaki’s foot fetishism is not prominent in them, though present in his 1925 “Red Roofs,” a story told from the point of view of Mayuko, a sadistic young (20ish) screen actress using men, including using young men to satisfy the cuckold fantasies of her 44-year-old patron, Odagiri, who seemingly felt but did not act on desires for the muscular young males who fucked his mistress. (Odagiri thought “it would be comical for a man of his age to have a fondness for boys” (151), though Mayuko is boyish.)

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The narrator of the stories that — with the exception of the very overwritten and hallucinatory “The Magician” (1917) — read like reportage rather than fiction, are novelists like Tanizaki, even if provided another name, such as Takahashi in Devils in Daylight (1918), another tale of a willful woman (Eiko) and a patron happy to be manipulated and drained of his fortune. The narrator is a sort of Dr. Watson, the protagonist a friend named Sonomura (“obsessed with moving pictures and crime novels”), who drags Takahashi along to watch a murder that ends with eradicating any trace of the murdered man (in a bath of chemicals) and who fancies himself a brilliant, detached detective like Sherlock Holmes, though also longing for a woman who will destroy/murder him.

Devils draws on a code drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” which was Poe’s best-known work in English in the late-19th century and was well-known in Japan after Lafcadio Hearn kicked off a Poe boom there. (Tanizaki’s brother Seiji translated “The Gold Bug,” and was not the first to translate it into Japanese. The tribute of creating a pen-name Japanizing Poe’s was made by “Edogawa Rampo.”

Along with Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson (whose title “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was echoed by Tanizaki’s 1926 “The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga”), the young Tanizaki seems to me to have been influenced by French decadents (Huysman et al.), especially in “The Magician,” but also in the Nanjingbrothel crawl of “A Night in Qinhuai” (1919), a “story” with no plot. It is no wonder it was taken as a travel essay rather than as a fiction.

There are plots of sorts in the two novellas, and the other two stories translated by Anthony Chambers in Red Roofs & Other Stories. The novellas are both mysteries, albeit not (despite initial appearances in Devils) not murder mysteries. They are mysteries of quite perverse characters, male in “Tomoda and Matsunaga,” Eiko and various male collaborators in “Devils.”

Men willingly surrender all to the whims of beautiful (greedy, willful) young women in many Tanizaki fictions, notably including Devils and “Red Roofs” from the new crop of translations into English. In these early works, the supine, obsessed male is not the narrator. The novelist narrator writes about friends in “The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga” and Devils in Daylight. The perspective is that of the actress in “Red Roofs,” though it is told by an omniscient third-person narrator Tomoda complained that novelists are like policemen because “both like to find all about other people” (45—while revealing little about themselves).

For me, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and “Red Roofs” are overly contrived, “A Night in Qinhuai” undercontrived (without even a weak ending), so I guess “Red Roofs” is my favorite. I guess the fantastic “The Magician” is the least voyeuristic, having a male narrator who is bewitched by a male manipulator (the titular magician). The novelist narrator is inveigled by other persons to help understand the Tomoda/Matsunaga coincidences and the murders suggested in Devils.

P.S. I have to say that it is very strange that the title blurb by J. Keith Vincent of Red Roof & Other Stories, asserts that the title story is “about youth culture in Tokyo.” It is set in the countryside between Osaka and Kobe, and as Chambers and McCarthy pointed out, the Japanese movie industry had relocated from Tokyo to Kyoto after the 1923 earthquake. In an afterword the novella he translated (Devils in Daylight Vincent explains its title’s connotations, and the other two translators provided useful discussion of what exoticism meant in early 20th-century Japan and call attention to the unusual turn-around of sexual objectification in “Red Roofs,” which was “unusual among Tanizaki’s works in that it is narrated from a woman’s point of view—and a sexually predatory woman at that.”

Red Roof & Other Stories, translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2016, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions in 2017.

Also see Tanizaki’s breakout successful 1924 novel Naomi with its modern (moga—western-emulating) woman/vampire title character whose patron does not like being cuckolded and Quicksand (1929) with a more fatale femme fatale.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

An Okinawan Holden Caulfield

In 1989 Brown University Japan Studies professor (now emeritus) Steve Rabson translated and contextualized two Akutagawa Prize-winning novellas by Okinawan writers (in Japanese): “Cocktail Party” (Kakuteru pātī, 1966) by Ōshiro Tatsuhiro and “Child of Okinawa” (Okinawa no shonen, 1971) by Higashi Mineo (born—on Mindanao— in 1938). Both were published while Okinawa was occupied by the US (the US still has large military bases on the island whose people chose to return to being a part of the country of Japan, despite a history of discrimination by “mainland” (Honshu) Japanese against Okinawans). Both have been adapted to the screen, btw (in 2016 and 1983, respectively).

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Higashi does not try to take on as much as Ōshiro did. Tsuneyoshi, the titular Okinawan boy, is a sort of Okinawan Holden Caulfield. He is a junior high student who lives in Koza. His parents run a small bar that provides prostitutes for American servicemen. There are two prostitutes and only one bedchamber for their tricking, so Tsuneyoshi is sometimes ejected from his bedroom for a quarter hour or so (and a change of sheets). Also a drunk solider urinates in the container of drinking water Tsuneyoshi draws each day.

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Tsuneyoshi hates depending on the income from Okinawans prostituted to members of the occupying army. He quarrels with his parents and frequently skips school, gravitating to the beach. Tsuneyoshi has something of a crush on Chīko, who treats him as a younger brother. One of her customers is frustrated at her refusal to go with him again and tosses a grenade into the bar, burning her. Tsuneyoshi cannot strike back, and decides to steal a boat and escape. He does not think this through, even to choosing a destination (though he dreams of Saipan, where he was born), and neglects to pack drinking water. He has been reading Robinson Crusoe and fantasizing about living alone on an unpopulated island.

After a series of flashbacks and vignettes of his present (1950s or 60s) reveries and frustrations and a typhoon (or, perhaps only when its eye arrives) he cuts loose a yacht.

Neither novella has a real end with a possibly more interesting journey (in the Okinawan court system of Ryukuan waters) beyond the cessation of the account of frustrations of occupied Okinawans. Tsuneyoshi’s are more those of a sarcastic virginal adolescent condemning his elders than specifically about the injustices inflicted by occupying armies. It invokes the particular geography and botany of Okinawa in 38 short chapters. Also Tsuneyoshi learns how to masturbate and wonders why the GIs need to pay to get off.

In Japan the book was hailed for having the rhythm of the Okinawan language (in Japanese), something that is lost in translation. The aggrieved point of view of a boy struggling against colonial emasculinization and engaging almost necessarily in voyeurism, however, comes through clearly. He casts off clutching a knife, though there is no prospect of anyone for him to stab in his solitary expedition, but “a surge of violent excitement set my whole body quivering” is the last phrase of the novella.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Stress at a multinational cocktail party in occupied Okinawa

In 1989 Brown University Japan studies professor (now emeritus) Steve Rabson translated and contextualized two Akutagawa Prize-winning novellas by Okinawan writers (in Japanese): “Cocktail Party” (Kakuteru pātī, 1966) by Ōshiro Tatsuhiro and “Child of Okinawa” (Okinawa no shonen, 1971) by Higashi Mineo (born—on Mindanao— in 1938). Both were published while Okinawa was occupied by the US (the US still has large military bases on the island whose people chose to return to being a part of the country of Japan, despite a history of discrimination by “mainland” (Honshu) Japanese against Okinawans). Both have been adapted to the screen, btw (in 2016 and 1983, respectively).

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IMHO, Ōshiro stuffed too much into “Cocktail Party.” It begins on a base near Naha with a cocktail party for a mix of Americans and Okinawans with one Chinese thrown into the mix. The nucleus of the party, hosted by a Mr. Miller (who has hidden that his position is in military counterintelligence), is a group that is practicing/learning Chinese. The party breaks up when the Morgan’s son is discovered to be missing and everyone goes in search of him (it turns out that the Morgan’s Okinawan maid took him home without telling anyone; they eventually charge her with kidnapping).

The solidarity in facing possible harm to an American child completely breaks down when the daughter of one of the Okinawan guests, City Hall employee, Ogawa, is raped by an American serviceman, Robert Harris, who has been renting a room in the Ogawa house to copulate with his Okinawan girlfriend.

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Mr. Miller is not willing to intervene on behalf of his Okinawan “friend.” Mr. Sun, the Chinese refugee attorney, is very reluctant to bring charges of rape against a G.I., knowing that the Okinawan court has no authority to punish an American (and that a court-martial will cover-up rape by servicemen of locals). Adding insult to injury, the raped girl is charged with assaulting Harris (she pushed him off a cliff after he finished with her, so it doesn’t count as “self-defense”).

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Mr. Sun points out to Mr. Ogawa the latter’s acquiescence through silence of atrocities Japanese committed in China, including some of which Ogawa was aware. Moreover, Japanese soldiers had raped Mr. Sun’s wife. And Japanese had mistreated Okinawans both before and during the war when they were in authority there. Mr. Sun also acknowledges Chinese mistreatment of Japanese after Japan’s surrender. No group has clean hands, and justice is but a dream. Nonetheless, Mr. Ogawa brings charges in a court that cannot compel Harris to appear. The real victim of the story’s present (some time during the 1960s), the daughter, is not even given a name by Ōshiro.

(Rabson writes that Robert Harris is a catalyst rather than the villain. I think he Mr. Miller are villains and that Mr. Sun is the catalyst of recognizing that others occupying armies —most particulary Japan’s—mistreted the conquered peoples, not that this justifies Americans in raping Okinawans and jettisoning “international friendship” when something is asked of them.)

Alse see Medoruma Shun’s In the Woods of Memory, also centered on the rape of an Okinawan girl by US militart personnel.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Urban (Tokyo) isolation briefly interrupted

In 2014 Shibasaki Tomoka (1973-) won the Akutagawa Prize for Haru No Niwa (Spring Garden) a short (147 pages in the new Pushkin Press edition) novel focused on two of the four people running out their leases in View Palace Saeki III, an apartment complex in the Setagaya neighborhood (quasi-suburb of sprawling Metro Tokyo, the site of the 1964 Summer  Olympics) that is slated for demolition once all the leases run out (in another year). The apartments have names from the Chinese Zodiac, though the first three (including mine, the tiger) are missing. Taro, who lives in the pig one, works in advertising, though trained as a hair stylist and having run a salon owned by his (now ex-) father-in-law. His major motivation in life is not to be bothered, though he has a sort of voyeuristic interest in observing other people, including Nishi, who lives in the Dragon unit.

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Both of them are interested in a nearby sky-blue house with some stained-glass  windows. Two decades earlier, its then owners, Gyushima Taro a sort of star in creating advertising, and Umamura Kaiko, an actress who was never a star (and is now a yoga instructor), published a book of photographs of themselves in their house, titling it “Spring Garden” (though its focus was on the interior of the house, not its garden). Nishi, who draws mangas, was intrigued by the book long before moving close to it and gets a copy of the out-of-print book for “her” Taro.

Nishi befriends the current resident (owner?), Morio Miwako, who is a bit stir-crazy, knowing no one in Tokyo and trapped at home with two young children, one of whom Nishi finds in the street and returns home. Though Nishi has gained access to the house that long has fascinated her, she has not seen the green-tiled bathroom and conspires with Taro to get into this inner sanctum. Is that the “plot” of the book? The quest has its costs and Taro takes even greater risks to sleep in the house after the family has moved out.

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(Aw1805 Creative Commons photo of Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya)

I don’t see anything photo-realist about the book, though Nishi used to take photographs and there are some specifics about appearances. There are also some memories, though nothing concrete or insightful about the woman to whom Taro was married. (The recurrent subject of his regret-filled memories is his father, who died young.)

His sister suddenly starts narrating in the first person more than two-thirds of the way through the book. This is jarring and falls afoul of the “problem of perspective.” This new first-person narrator seems familiar with what the reader has read, though she was not there to observe any of it. After a few pages, the narrative returned to omniscient third-person, though the sister makes off with an armchair that Miwako had given Taro.

Though Nishi becomes a sort of friend for the isolated Taro, there is no romance or even yearning for one from either one of the remnants of the complex’s tenants, who are doomed to forthcoming dislocation. Taro already knows he cannot live with other people, having been married, and in his childhood sharing a room with his sister (“It’s amazing that we managed to live all that time in the same room.” “ We didn’t know what it was like to have our own space yet, that’s why.”)

A subsidiary theme, at least for non-Japanese, is the endless exchange of gifts. This may seem natural to Japanese and illustrated what Marcel Mauss wrote about reciprocity and obligation in receiving gifts. The endless (re)construction of urban spaces, specifically Tokyo, is another underlying theme. View Palace Saeki III is far from being uniquely transient. Taro has “here today, gone tomorrow” experiences of other edifices he observes on the way to and from his office. (He becomes adept at recognizing units or freestanding houses that are not occupied.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray