Category Archives: Japanese literature

My Japanese pantheons


When I began this blog I did not foresee that I would run out of Japanese movies and books to post about. They have not been my exclusive focus, but despite the name of the blog, I’m embarking from that Japanese archipelago—first from Japanese to Javanese, then to rescuing from oblivion various lists I posted on the defunct epinions.

Before making this pivot, I decided to look back and list my favorite Japanese writers and film directors. I think quality has much to do with my esteem, but these are rankings of how well I like their work, not claims that the lists are in order of merit.


Had I been asked a few years ago which Japanese film directors I most venerated, I would have said “Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu.” Great as I think “Sanchô, the Bailiff” is, I’ve cooled on Mizoguchi. Before I began blogging, Kobayashi had bumped Mizoguchi from second place. Before 2016 I had never seen a Kinoshita film, and I have been amazed by his successes in diverse genres. And I have decided that at least in the films in which his wife, Wada Natto, was involved in the scripts (credited or not), Ichikawa directed some great films (and many that have not made there way across the Pacific). I think the three films Teshigahara directed written by Kôbô Abe are great, other Tshigahara films (of which there are not many) less so.

I had only seen one Naruse film (A Woman Ascends the Stairs). Seeing more has not impressed me with his visual flair, and, even more than Mizoguchi, they are repetitively portraits of female misery that become tiresome.

I like the least typical Ôshima film (Merry, Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which is mostly in English) the most, whereas many others try my patience. Imamura made some boring, opaque films, too, but also many very good ones.

So, my new “holy trinity” is Kurosawa, Kinoshita, and Kobayashi. Another, still active K, Koreeda may some day join them, and has already earned a position in (the bottom tier of) my pantheon. The members with my favorite of their films:

Kurosawa Akira, Sanjuro

Kobayashi Masaki, Harakiri

Kinoshita Keisuke, Spring Dreams

Ichikawa Kon, Tokyo Olympiad

Ozu Yasujiro, Ohayo

Shinoda Masahiro, Moonlight Serenade

Imamura, Shohei, The Eel

Mizoguchi Kenji, Sanchô, the Bailiff

Koreeda Hirokazu, I Wish

Shindô Kaneto, Onibaba

(My favorite Japanese movies made by a directors not in my pantheon are Okamoto Kihachi’s “Rainbow Kids” and  Fukasaku Kinji’s “Fall Guy,” both black comedies)



Inoue Yasushi, Tun-Huang

Dazai Osamu, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji

Mishima Yukiô, After the Banquet

Tanizaki Yunichiro, The Key

Endô Shûsaku, Deep River

Nastume Sôseki, Kokoro

Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital

Ranpo Edogawa, The Red Chamber

Murakami Haruki, Kafka on the Shore

Oe Kenzaburô, Prize Stock

(the image at the top is one of Hokusai’s hundred views of Mount Fujiyama)

The second collection in English of Mishima stories

I read most of the major novels and the then-only collection of short stories in English translation (Death in Midsummer) by Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) long ago. I recently read Gogo No Eikô (translated as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea), which I found irremediably repellant — participating in, not just portraying cruelty, delusional belief systems, and evil. It was published in Japanese in 1963, as were three of the seven stories (two of novella length) in Acts of Worship, a 1989 collection of Mishima stories that had not previously been rendered in English.


I disliked the ending of the 1963 novella “Sword” (Ken), which has some of the same youthful puritanical obsessions so that there are some adults with some control over the enthusiasm of the boys). I was amused by the ending of “Fountains in the Rain” (Ame no nake no funsui). I think it is ironic even beyond the titular spectacle of water shooting up from a fountain as water pours down from the heavens. Some of those who knew him have reported that the man Mishima had a sense of humor, but one is little evident in his work about obsessives often possessed of considerable arrogance. The boy who has forged a relationship with a girl for the pleasure of breaking up (and making her cry, also in the rain) is cruel and narcissistic, as many Mishima characters are. (He was acutely narcissistic, but seemingly not cruel himself.)

There is fairly prominent evidence that the macho bodybuilder recalled the sickly youth which he had been before he willed himself muscular (a path from sensitive ugly duckling to muscular swan of many a gay male in recent decades). Mishima claimed that Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku, 1948) was fiction and rarely let the mask slip thereafter. The collection translated by John Bester also includes the 1946 story “Cigarette” (Tabakao) that launched Mishima’s career as a writer, attracting the attention and sponsorship of Kawabata Yasunari (who would become the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature). It shows a frail youth desperate for acceptance from the young machos, and the worship of masculine strength that is central to the stuttering youth who will burn down the national treasure, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

The homoeroticism of a bond between a rough youth and a sensitive one is front and center in “Martyrdom” (Junkyo) from 1948. It is very “poetic,” in the not altogether positive sense (common in Japanese art) of making what happens mysterious. Like Sailor, the world of boys’ school dormitory dominance and submission/sadomasochism (complete with a “Demon King”) resonates with the proto-fascist world of Musil’s Young Tôrless.

Mishima as St. Sebastian.jpeg

“Sea and Sunset” (Umi to yuyake, 1955) is set in medieval Japan, but its protagonist had been a shepherd in the Cévenne (in France) before joining the Children’s Crusade (the Fifth, ca. AD 1212), and, like many of the young would-be crusaders, being sold into slavery. Though not lacking in sadness, this is another story with ironies suggesting some sense of humor on the author’s part.

S&S is devoid of eroticism. The other 1963 story, the murky (or opaque) “Raisin Bread” (Budopan) drips eroticism with no evidence of any sense of humor. Its protagonist seeks to renounce the world and to influence a group of fellow young people (not unlike Mishima forging a private army while expressing despair about Japan in his last years).

The negative side of my ambivalence toward Mishima was flowering by the time I reached the start of the novella that closes the book and gave it its title, “Act of Worship” (Mikumane mode, 1965). It did not immediately hook me, but I was slowly forced to recognize that it is a masterpiece made with the unpromising materials of a plain woman and would-be poet who has served as housekeeper for a scholar-poet with a clique of followers. He takes her on a pilgrimage to three Shinto shrines in the vicinity of where he grew up (and has been avoiding for decades). While making perfect sense, the ending surprised me, in contrast to the schematic inevitability of Sailor, or the more forced unpleasant ending of “Sword.”

There are some interesting female characters in Mishima’s writings, for all his devotion to a cult (or cults) of masculism and suicide. In addition to the self-effacing subordinate in “Acts of Worship,” these include “Madame de Sade” (in the 1965 play named for her), and the vivacious proprietress of the restaurant in After the Banquet. For sure, Mishima did not dote on women as objects of worship in the manner of his predecessors Tanizaki and Kawabata, but he sometimes portrayed subjectivity and agency of women rather than just the arbitrariness of female actions or heterosexual female masochists. I’ll have to say that all three writers were obsessed with youths, though only Mishima refused to grow old himself…


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A romance with a happy ending from Mishima Yukio

Mishima Yukio (pen-name of Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-70) was a rising, if somewhat notorious (for the homoeroticism of Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors) Japanese novelist when he managed to journey to “the West” (east of Japan, the US, Brazil, France, Greece) in 1951-52. In Greece, he decided that his writing had been unrelievedly dark and set out to write a sunnier book, Japanizing Longus’s second century (CE) Hellenistic novel Daphnis and Chloe, which, though set on an island much smaller than Honshu (or, for that matter, the other three largest islands of the Japanese archipelago), concerned shepherds. The Sound of Waves/Shiosai, however, is set on (a fictionally renamed) Kamijima, a small island on the Ise coast.


In Mishima’s novel young would-be lovers faced the sea, not any pastures. His Chloe, Hatsue, is an abaloneY diver, as is the mother of his Daphnis, Shinji, who is a fisherman. In Longus’s novel, the romantic leads are both foundlings; Shinji is raised by his mother who was widowed by US strafing of the boat in which her husband was fishing. Her father, Terukichi Miyata, had given Hatsue to adoption (ot pearl fishers) on another island, but recalls her when his son dies. He announces that he will adopt whomever marries Hatsue (marrying in and taking the wife’s patronym is a venerable way to maintain lineages in Japan, Taiwan, and southeastern China).

As in Longus, there are failed rapes, malicious false rumors, and Shinji has a dalliance with another woman, Chiyoko, the daughter of the lighthouse-keeper. Chiyoko is a student at the University of Tokyo and encourages Kawamoto Yasuo to rape Hatsue to make Shinji renounce his interest in Hatsue and focus on Chiyoko.

Rather inexplicably, Terukichi, hires both Shinji and Yasuo to work on one of his ships. (Terukuchi gets a letter from Chiyoko explaining what really happened, that Yasuo rather than Chinji had attempted to rape Hatsue later.) Chinji saves the ship in a storm, while Yasuo floundered. After that test, Tekuchi gives Chinji permission to marry Hatsue, and they live happily ever after.


In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene explains that “apart from his general desire to depict the brighter side of human life, he wanted to prove that he could make the most hackneyed of stories come alive through his skill as a stylist. The enormous popularity of The Sound of Waves was a great surprise and even a disappointment” (being more acclaimed that work Mishima considered greater accomplishments, such as Kinkauji, Kyôkos House, and his final Sea of Fertility tetralogy; Robert Nathan’s biography of Mishima reports Mishima calling it a “joke on the public”). But, Keene continues, “The most important contribution made to Mishima’s artistic development by The Sound of Waves was that it demonstrated that classical literature, whether of Japan or the West, could serve as an effective substitute for personal experience,” including his modern versions of Nô plays.

There is a plot and action scenes (the storm at sea) and I find hornets averting Hatsue’s rape by Yasuo rather funny, though Mishima’s fiction is deficient in comedy. The novel has some of the insipidness I often find in the work of Mishima’s master and advocate, Kawabata along with the lyricism. I certainly like it more than I like The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (as much as I like that title, which I long thought was “fell into” rather than “fell from”) or Patriotism.


The novel was filmed almost immediately (in 1954) by Taniguchi Senkichi with a then-notorious nude scene, and a four more times, not counting a 2003 anime version.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Kawabata stories

Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasuari’s fiction, whether autobiographical or not, delivers very little in the way of plot. I would not say his work is character-driven either. The novellas “Diary of My Sixteenth Year” and “The Dancing Girl of Izu” reveal something of the diffident orphan Kawabata was, three overlapping reflections on the deaths and funerals of his family in “Oil,” “The Master of Funerals,” and “Gathering of Ashes” a bit more.

Somber facts lead off “Oil”: “My father died when I was three, and my mother died the following year, so I do not remember a single thing about my parents.” Moreover, the grandmother who raised him died when he was seven, his only sibling, a sister whom he only saw once after their father’s death, when he was eleven, and his grandfather just before his fifteenth birthday. Becoming “the master of funerals” was pretty much inevitable. What he remembered or was told by relatives about his conduct is obsessively revisited in the three stories, augmented by his memories of nosebleeds he disguised from others at the funerals.


(Kawabata at 16 or 17)

“Jûrokusai no Kikki”/“Diary of My Sixteenth Year” (fourteenth by western reckoning) begins with a text Kawabata claimed he wrote 4-16 May 1914 (his grandfather died 24 May). It shows a young boy very uncomfortable about attending to the grandfather, who cannot remember just being fed and who must be aided in urinating (he has stopped defecating altogether). It is pretty uneventful, with the death occurring after the end of the diary. The 1925 afterword, Kawabata later (1948) labeled the first afterword fiction, while continuing to claim authenticity for the 1914 diary.

All four of these stories obsess about the fallibility — or poverty — of memory. Kawabata wrote that he did not remember the sordid details of his grandfather’s last month that he had recorded a decade earlier, did not remember his parents or the funeral of either of them, depending on being told about them by others who attended. (BTW, the three funerals of “Masters of Funerals” were of persons the narrator/Kawabata had not met or at least did not recall having met.


“Izu no Odoriko”/”The Izu Dancing Girl” published in 1926 was, according to Donald Keene, “the work that not only brought him fame but, even more than his longer novels, remains the one many people remember him for.” (It has been filmed at least five times.) Nothing, unless one counts rain, happens in it. The narrator, a high-school student, recalls a walking trip on the Izu peninsula (the real-life basis was in 1922, when he was 22), in which he fell in with a small group of itinerant entertainers (whose status was very low, equated with beggars in being unwelcome in a sign on the outskirts of Oshima, the largest city and port of the peninsula.

The one male in the troupe, Eikichi, is very friendly. The dancing girl (and drummer) of the title is Kaoru, his fourteen-year old (I’m not sure whether this is Japanese or western reckoning of age, i.e., she may have been thirteen). Though she dresses like an older woman, she is a virgin, and chaperoned most of the time. The narrator does see her naked at a hot springs, and does not attempt to seduce her. (Kawabata continued to be fascinated by girls on the cusp of puberty and to find adult women repulsive.)


(Kawabata in 1937)

Insubstantial as these autobiographical stories were, the “palm-of-the-hand stories”, running 1.5-5 pages, 18 of which were published between 1923 and 1929 that J. Martin Holman translated and included with them (having already published a translation of other “tanagokoro no shôsetsu)”, are even wispier, including some that are condensed versions of Chinese and Japanese legends. Perhaps they seem less surrealistic to Japanese readers, though I suspect that Kawabata’s world and worldview are nearly as alien to contemporary Japanese as they are to me.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

I am indebted to Donald Keene‘s magisterial Dawn to the West for the biographical situating of Kawabata’s early stories.

I have also posted here about

Thousand Cranes

With Beauty and Sadness

The Sound of the Mountain

The House of the Sleeping Beauties and One Arm

The Old Capital

Love and politics in 1950s Japan

Utage no Ato/After the Banquet (1960, published in English, translated by Donald Keene, in 1963) is with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (the basis for Enjô/Conflagration), the most acclaimed novel by Mishima Yukio. Most of the bookis about the relationship between a retired diplomat, Soguchi Tuken, and Kazu, the owner of Setsugoan (After Snow Retreat), a chic restaurant with an impressive garden where a group of retired diplomats has a reunion. One, a former ambassador to Nazi Germany, has a stroke in the lavatory of the restaurant. The only single (widower) guest stays a while to help. Is struck by his once-elegant (in the English fashion), now shabby clothes and wants to take care of him. She has foresworn love after a career in which at least some of her advancement came from work she did on her back. It seem to me that there is much that is maternal in her attraction to Soguchi, though he does not seem to be seeking a new mother, and resists her spending money on him.


He has agreed to let his energetic younger wife (a young 50-somthing in contrast to his old 60-something) continue to operate her successful business and sleep on the grounds there weeknights. When Soguchi decides he is going to run for office, Kazu (unbeknownst to him) throws her energy and resources into the campaign, starting before it is legal to do so (before the election is formally called). Soguchi is stiff and proper, but Kazu connects with lower-class voters, à la Eva Peron, eclipsing her prosaic husband devoid of the popular touch:
“The phrases from Kazu’s lips – ‘reform of the prefectural administration,’ ‘positive policies to combat unemployment,’ and the like – plummeted to the ground like swarms of winged ants which have lost the strength of their wings, but the words visible on the lips of the crowd dripped like red meat in the sunshine.”

(On the first page of the novel, Mishima wrote: “Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a mans resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm.” Neither the society nor her husband are prepared to accept such a dynamo unleashed in the political sphere.)

For a time Soguchi leads in polls, but the Conservative Party publishes a scurrilous book about Kazu’s sexual history and otherwise considerably outspends the Radical Party’s campaign for Soguchi. After he loses, he retires, but his wife is not ready for a quiet life. She is, as I mentioned, more than a decade younger, and accustomed to being among men (her customer base having been Conservative Party politicians), followed by a very active role campaigning (not just financing her husband’s campaign). She cares nothing about ideology, and has a much firmer understanding of how politics resembles (or is a form of) prostitution than her idealistic husband does.


There is no depth psychology (not just Mishima, but most Japanese literature prefigured the noveau roman in chronicling objects—especially clothing, but also including menus—rather than exploring motivations). In particular, while Kazu’s feelings are detailed, the motivations of Soguchi, beyond seeking to be a public model of rectitude are not limned, and his expectations of a subservient wife seem foolish from the get-go as she more or less conquers him and is obviously a more than competent business owner. Also, she is more in love, eager to advance her husband (by any means, not just the patrician ones of which he approves). In contrast, he is not particularly in love and is totally indifferent to what his wife wants (for him or for herself), indeed is clueless about what that might be.

A third major character is Yamazaki, Kazu’s political mentor, a Radical Party operative accustomed to defeat by the money the Conservative Party uses (“Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the least surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road”). He advises both Soguchi and Kazu and appreciates her more than her husband does.

Still, the protagonist of the novel is Kazu and it focuses on her difficulties, not at all colluding the male privilege or taking a male perspective on female aspirations. (Also see the entirely female world Mishima created in “Madame de Sade” and Asako in  “Rokumeikan.”) Given Mishima’s horror about the ravages to the body of age that led to his suicide in 1970, the book is remarkably sympathetic to characters older than he would allow himself to become,


The real-life model for Soguchi was Arita Hachirô, who had been Japanese Ambassador to Austria and Belgim, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Like Soguchi , he won a seat in the House of Rpresentative in 1953, ran and lost a campaign to be Governor of Tokyo in 1955. The married Arita had a notorious affair with a Ginza hostess. Arita won a suit for invasion of privacy by the novel, though it seems to me that there were major differences” Arita rose much higher in the government, his wife was dead when he took up with a hostess, and his attempt to become Governor of Tokyo was not a comeback and was not waged as a radical against his former partymates. And rather than retiring after defeat, he ran (and lost) again four years later. I don’t know how close to the real-life model Kazu was, but his political career did not end with the 1955 defeat.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

On the road… to Golgotha

Hasekura Rokuemon (1571-1622), the titular samurai of Endô Shusakü’s 1980 novel is a middle-aged, low-rank (likened to a lance corporal) samurai, with no experience of battle, who is placed in nominal charge of a delegation of four envoys and some merchants dispatched to New Spain (later Mexico) in the second decade of the 17th century (C.E.). They are not representing the shogun (the newly dominant Tokugawa one, Ieyasu) or the emperor but a lord (daimyô) from Tohoku in northern Honshu, Shiraishi, who tells his envoys, “In the land of the foreigners, the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. You must not cling to Japanese customs if they stand in the way of your mission. If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black. Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face.”


Having traveled to Acapulco, then overland to the capital (Mexico City), they learn that no decisions about trade or other relations with Japan can be made by the viceroy there, so they journey on to Vera Cruz, then across another ocean to Madrid. There, they learn from the king (Felipe III) that the pope (Paul V) must be consulted. The samurai and the three envoys still with him consent to be baptized in order to be received in the Vatican (that is, their “conversion” is policy, not motivated by belief in Christianity) They attain an audience with the pope in Rome, but nothing is resolved, and they return by the same route they had taken eastward.

While they were gone, Japan has closed itself off again. Hasekura has become a true believer, but even the nominal baptisms are viewed as treasonable in their xenophobic homeland. And the diplomatic/trade mission being back with them a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco. He seems more jesuitical than Franciscan to me, though he battles with the Jesuits who had already established a toehold in Japan. Father Velasco is exceedingly vain, ambitious, manipulative, and lacking in scruples or doubts in his understanding of a very alien culture. He seeks to be named Bishop of Japan, but attains a spectacular martyrdom (before those missionaries who Endô portrayed in The Silence).


Endô himself had a sojourn in Europe (to study French Catholic writers), and much of his fiction that I like most involves Japanese outside Japan (Deep River,Japanese in Warsaw). Most of it concerned the incompatibilities between Japanese culture and Christian faith that he grappled with himself. The Jesuit debating Velasco sounds recurrent Endô themes:

“The Japanese basically lack a sensitivity to anything that is absolute, to anything that transcends the human level, to the existence of anything beyond the realm of Nature: what we should call the supernatural. I finally realized that after thirty years there as a missionary. It was a simple matter to teach them that this life is transitory. They have always been sensitive to that aspect of life. The frightening thing is that the Japanese also have a capacity to accept and even relish the evanescence of life. This capacity is so profound that they actually revel in that knowledge, and have written many verses inspired by that emotion. Yet the Japanese make no attempt to leap beyond it. They abhor the idea of making clear distinctions between man and God. To them, even if there should be something greater than man, it is something which man himself can one day become. Their Buddha, for instance, is a being which man can become once he abandons his illusions. Even Nature, which for us is something totally detached from man, to them is an entity that envelops mankind. We…we failed in our attempts to rectify these attitudes of theirs.”

The Holy Mother Church does not come off well in Samurai, but Hasekura’s faith and, ultimately, Father Velasco’s willingness to die for it are treated with respect.

BTW, the historical Hasekura Rokuemon died within two years of his return to Japan in 1620, but was not executed. And Endô has the Spanish priest speak directly (i.e., Velasco’s first person), but not the Japanese convert (i.e., third person narrative for Hasekura). There is little “local color” in Mexico and Europe in Endô’s novel about Christian faith, and no swordplay (or spearplay) contrary to the cover images..

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A long and talky portrayal of a splintered doomsday-advancing cult


I am puzzled that Oe Kenzaburo (1935-) was promoted by Grove Press publisher Barry Rossiter and remain dubious about awarding a Nobel Prize to him (for a then-living Japanese writer in 1994, I’d have picked Inoue Yasushi). In his speech accepting the award, Oe said that he was finished with autobiographical fiction. I think that his guilt about his brain-damaged son Hikari became tedious, and welcomed moving on to other topics.

His first post-prize novel, the 576-page 1999 Chugaeri,/Somersault, lacks the concision of his early and middle-period work. It was stimulated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system of 1995 that was the biggest trauma for Japanese between the atomic bombs/surrender/occupation and the 2011 Fukishima nuclear reactor explosions following the Tôhoku earthquake.


The sprawling novel focuses on the revival of a cult that had been dissolved a decade earlier by its founders, Patron and Guide, appalled at a militant faction that was planning to seize a nuclear power plant. (This is the titular “somersault.”) A remnant (Technicians intent on speeding the end of the world) has kidnapped Guide, and Patron wants to lead an alternative, more peaceful group than that of his former followers.

Patron lacks convincing charisma and the characters of his circle seem forced notions with pat motivations and no substance. Kizu, a painter who has become new co-leader with Patron, is dying of colon cancer and discovers homoerotic feelings that seem borrowed from Thomas Mann’s (much shorter and focused novella, Death in Venice with an older, more brutish Tadzio, herein named Ikuo). The ghost of Dosteovesky (especially  Devils and The Possessed) also lies heavily on the cult members.

There is obsessive, very stilted dialogue about the cult (a toxic mix of Christianity, Judaism, animism, and Buddhism), its attempted dissolution, and the eschatological message of the Church of the New Man (with no new visions since Patron’s original ones, explicated by the now unreachable Guide, before the “somersault”). Oe does little to illuminate why some people join doomsday cults; Murakami’s Underground, comprised of interviews of Aum members and survivors of the subway attack casts more light and takes less effort slogging through turgid theological discussions and painstakingly detailed logistics of running a cult.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A chaotic, but IMHO better, Oe representation of a cult (of a particular saint) is

An Echo of Heaven. I’ve also written about earlier Oe fiction (in chronological order of their publication):

Nip the Bud Shoot the Kids

Prize Stock, etc. (early novellas)

A Personal Matter

The Silent Cry

A Quiet Life