Category Archives: Japanese literature

Sôseki’s haiku novel Kusamakura

Sôseki Natsume (né Kinnosuke Natsume in 1867) is the most enduringly read Japanese novelist of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He is roughly characterized as the Japanese Mark Twain in part for his whimsical early work (and like Samuel Clemens, his views darkened with age). Kusamakura, his 1906 sort-of novel is not at all like Innocents Aboard, or even his other 1906 autobiographical novel about a young would-be artist from Tokyo doing time in rural Japan, Botchan. (Kusamakura is not entirely devoid of humor, with some earthy characters the narrator meets around the place he tarries a week.)


Kusa Makura literally means “The Grass Pillow,” which in Japanese is a synecdoche for travel, “redolent of the kind of poetic journey epitomized by Bashō‘s Narrow Road to the Deep North” according to Meredith McKinney who translated the book anew (the earlier English version was titled The Three-Cornered World), leaving the title itself in Japanese. Sōseki called it a “haiku novel,” not because it is filled with haikus, but because it is short and attempted a haiku-like take on natural phenomena with no plot and no character development. The narrator is supposed to be a painter rather than a poet and muses on Japanese, Chinese and European painters, while quoting some Chinese and Japanese poets.

Kusamakura is set at the time of the Russo-Japanese war over Manchuria and the Yellow Sea (1904-05), a time when few Japanese were aimlessly traveling. Moreover, it seems to be out of tourist season at the remote and never particularly commercially motivated Nakoi mountain hot-spring inn,* where the narrator tarries, intrigued by Nami, the daughter of the owner, who was pressured to marry an urban banker rather than her local suitor and returned home after the collapse of the bank. The narrator thinks Nami looks like the Ophelia in an 1852 painting by Sir John Millais (reproduced as the first image accompanying this review; it is in the Tate Britain in London) though I find it difficult to imagine any Japanese woman looking like Millais’s floating corpse of Hamlet’s prospective spouse.


Nami remains mysterious to the narrator, even when her brother Kyûichi goes off to war by train (after she has told him to die for the fatherland, shocking their father, who wants his son to return victorious and clothed in glory).

The narrator, who like the author seems to have spent time in London, deplores industrialization and the loss of pastoral Japanese innocence (as much as evanescence was and remains a prime Japanese value). Sōseki’s subsequent novels focused on the contemporary “new” (post-shogunate) Japan.

McKinney explains that the “experiment” Sōseki undertook was “to explore just how and to what extent the serene beauty that was the artistic ideal of the past might be achievable in terms of twentieth-century Japanese consciousness and its artistic products. The lofty ‘inhuman’ and ‘nonemotional approach to which the artist aspires—the ideal of a cool and uninvolved aesthetic response to all experience—can only be compromised by experience itself.”

Though Sôseki invokes the aimlessness of Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, he/his narrator also espoused the romantic view that “the poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptom of its illness to the world” (albeit in 17-syllable bursts of haiku).

Though I was unable to make my way through the cutesy I Am a Cat, and made it through Kusamakura, I prefer the genial humor about time as a teacher in the boondocks of Botchan and the urban melodrama of Kokoro to Kusamakura. For hot-springs fascination for a rural woman of somewhat dubious reputation by a Tokyo dilettante, I prefer Kawabata’s Snow Country (Yukiguni). And for travels longing for the old-fashioned rural Japan rapidly slipping away, I prefer Dazai Osamu’s Return to Tsunguru and Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea (or “the real thing”: Bashô!).

Natsume moved from the plotlessness of Kusamakura to the hypertrophy of plot in his next book, Autumn Wind (Nowaki, 1907).

* In Dawn to the West, Donald Richie reports that the model for Nakoi was the Oama Hot Spring near Kunamoto… and notes that the novel has “little connection to traditional Japanese literature.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Soseki Nastsume’s Dreams filmed my 11 directors



Yume jû-ya (Ten Nights of Dreams, 2006) is an adaptation be eleven Japanese directors of a 1908 collection of stories Soseki Natsume  (1867-1916), Botchan, Kokoro) purported to have dreamt. I don’t think it as good as Kobayashi Masaki’s 1964 adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kwaidan,” which has more substantial four stories (and one director) or Kurosawa Akira’s film adaptation of eight of his own dreams (1990).

Even more than those progenitors of a genre, “Ten Nights of Dreams” convinces me that there is much that is culture-specific in dreams, whether or not there are archetypes and whether or not Freudian or Jungian analyses are culture-bound. Natsume’s collection was pre-Freudian, whereas the adapters (ranging from close adaptations to quite free-wheeling) are post-Freudian or at least ignoring psychoanalytical orthodoxy.

Beyond my interest in  Soseki, my prime motivation for checking out this fantasy/horror/ghost film was that one of the dreams was rendered by the great master of cinema Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008, Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad, etc.) and another by Jissoji Akio (1937–2006, Murder on D Street, Tampopo Noir).

Jissoji’s contribution is the first dream, an OK one about a writer whose wife makes tofu various ways each meal for him and then lies down to die (death is a white mask) for a hundred years. C+ for “A First Night of Dreams.”

I was also disappointed by Ichikawa’s contribution, the second dream. He envisioned it as a silent movie, in black-and-white with intertitles, though the sheath of a samurai’s dagger is red. The samurai is meditating on nothingness after a priest has scoffed at him. Another C+

The third dream, filmed by Shimizu Takashi (the Grudge series) is much wilder with another writer carrying a wizened old man the size of an infant (his sixth son) off into a woods where there is a shrine with six Shinto effigies. His pregnant wife has a recurrent dream about accidentally knowing the head off one. Her husband dreams of smashing the life out of a boy-infant, either the first or the sixth-born. This haunted tale gets a B+ from me.

Though I would make no claim to understand it, I thought that the visuals of the fourth dream (directed by Atsushi Shimizu) were very striking. The author goes to a small town to deliver a talk, flashes back and forth into being a tubercular youth and chases off a pied paper who leads the healthy children into the sea (lemming like). Both Shimizus deliver many surrealistic images, but my grade for this one is higher: A-

Keisuke Toyoshima’s fifth dream has a mother striving to outrun a monster to save her family. It seems pretty average horror movie stuff (and I am not a horror movie fan), so C.

Matsuo Suzuki filmed the sixth night in black and white. I think it goes on a bit too long, though I like its punchline. Most of it is a robot dance miming carving of a guardian figure that is in the wood the way Michelangelo said that sculptures were in the marble waiting to be revealed. Though jumping around while miming the carving, the “carver” only touches the wood twice, with what is extraneous falling away. A-

Dreams 7-9, directed, respectively, by Amano Yoshitaka and Masaaki Kawahara together, Nobuhiro Yamashita, and Nishikawa Miwa tried my patience, with giants, a sinister worm, and WWII battle hallucinations (remember, that these are supposed to be dreams dreamt in or before 1908). C- all around. (The English dubbing of the anime in the seventh detracts from its vibrant look.)

The final one, directed by Yamaguchi Yudai (Battlefield Baseball), may put many viewers off pork. It has some gross-out effects, but also a wicked sense of humor about a very vain young man intolerant of unattractive women getting his come-uppance. B+

Bonus features include a multi-screen essay by Nicholas Rucka about the genre of anthologies (with some not entirely arbitrary basis), a theatrical trailer, a teaser and a TV ad. The Japanese of these are not subtitled.

I recommend dreams 3,4, and 10. As I said, I’m not a horror movie fan. Fans of “The Grudge” series presumably would appreciate the anthology film more. Though much seems druggy to me — dreamy and druggy not being strangers to each other—I think there is too much that is sinister to believe that the movie might seem better to stoned viewers (as “Fantasia” and “2001” reportedly do).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Sôseki’s Kokoro

Sôseki Natsume  (1867-1916) was the most influential Japanese novelist of the Meiji period, the span of which was almost the same as Sôseki’s (1868–1912). Emperor Meiji’s death is more than noticed in the tripartite novel that is widely considered Natsume’s mature masterpiece (if less loved than his early I Am a Cat and Botchan), Kokoro, which was serialized in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun between April and August 1914.


The newish (2010) Penguin Classics translation by Meredith McKinney (who also translated the Pillowbook of Sei Shônogon and Sôsekis Kusamakura for them) retains the Japanese title, Kokoro, which means “heart” in the sense of heartfelt feelings.

In the first, and IMO most compelling part, “Sensei and I,” a never-named narrator who is a Tokyo university student relates his relationship with a married university graduate who has no official position or any admirers or followers other than the narrator. The older and seemingly wiser man is embarrassed to be called “sensei” (master, or at least someone who is looked up to for his mastery), but advises the open-hearted younger admirer, even while trying to guard himself against the later disappointment he is certain will come when the younger man revolts and throws off his admiration, which will make the older one even lonelier than he was before the stimulus of a young admirer. Living in a “new age of freedom” has left the sensei a superfluous man, educated but idle.

Feudalism is further in the past for the student, though he also has difficulty finding footing, in relation to his family and society, but also to the sensei with a sorrow he refuses to share or explain. In an era that especially prized sincerity (particularly in judging fiction) but also valued self-restraint, the younger man is frustrated, by his family’s inability to understand him and the times, but also at the sensei’s circumspection, which the youth interprets as withholding the key to the sensei’s ideas.


It does not take much perspicacity from the reader to suspect than the sensei’s monthly visits to a grave is related to his sadness and ennui. Other than buying books, the sensei lives frugally but comfortably on his inheritance with a devoted wife who is saddened by her inability to make her husband happy.

In the brief second part, “My Parents and I,” after his graduation, the narrator returns to his rural home, where his father is dying of kidney disease. The sensei urged him to get his father to specify division of the estate and cautions the very unworldly youth that when money and land ownership are involved, heretofore good-seeming people often act ignobly.

It is no surprise to learn in “Sensei’s Testament,” a very long manuscript the graduate receives in the countryside, that the sensei had personal experience of a family member cheating him out of much of his inheritance. The cause of the older man’s self-doubt or self-hatred becomes obvious far in advance of its full revelation, but this did not discourage me from forging on for the full picture.

The book proceeds in installments (turned chapters) of 800±125 words. I would have been frustrated reading it over the course of 110 days (instead of two) and am unsure why Natsume did not combine some installments into longer chapters, though going on to the next chapter is no effort.

The book is a document of shocks of rapid modernization with a modicum of individualism (though, as with Botchan, it debunks rural virtue and has the urbanized more innocent than crafty rural folk). Neither the sensei nor his dead friend lived up to their ideals. In that Japan is the prototypical “shame culture,” I was struck by how both the sensei and his long-dead friend K were guilt-ridden. Both were haunted by personal failures that were not publicly known, thus not occasions for shame.

Though self-critical, the narrator remains pretty guileless and does not return with any comment after opening the sensei’s apologia pro vita sua, addressed to his young admirer. The reader of the novel has no basis for judging what, if anything, the narrator learned and applied from the cautionary text of which he was the first reader. Having understood how burdensome carrying guilt is, there is no guarantee he will escape it.

I gather that betrayal is a Sôseki leitmotif. It is certainly central to the two Natsume novels I have read, his second (Botchan) and penultimate completed one (Kokoro). The betrayals are not solely of cultural codes for righteous behavior and honor, but of their own self-concepts, however unrealistic and priggish these seem. (Botchan’s were also unrealistic, perhaps, but not as rigorist).

BTW, the novel has been adapted to the screen by two great Japanese masters of cinema, Ichikawa Kon in 1955 and Kaneto Shindo in 1973. I’d wonder how much of the sensibility of the narrators was filmable, but Ichikawa wrought wonders with Mishima’s Temple of the Gold Pavilion as “Enjo” (1958).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The orgami of a thousand-yen note with Natsume on it is an homage to his first hit, I Am a Cat.


Soseki Natsume’s Botchan

Sôseki Natsume (né  Kinnosuke Natsume in 1867) is the most enduringly read Japanese novelist of the Meiji Era (1868–1912). He is roughly characterized as” the Japanese Mark Twain” in part for his whimsical early work; like Samuel Clemens, his views darkened with age) The popularity of Botchan (1906) has allegedly survived assignment in schools.


Reading it in Japan (but not in Japanese!), I thought it an odd book to assign students, since it portrays malicious students and duplicitous teachers and administrators. I can see that in a society which exerts considerable pressure for conformity that the Edokko (Tokyo-born) narrator who takes no guff from anyone and is constantly ready to throw away his position and salary could appeal to fantasies of salarymen. And I presume that female readers can also fantasize about rejecting expectations of servility and self-sacrifice and taking action against abuse of position.

Sôseki himself taught at the Matsuyama Middle School on Shikoku (Tokyo is on Honshu, so this was unfamiliar rural society for the real Edokko as for his fictional rebel) and was sent by the Japanese government to London, where he spent the years 1902-03 before writing Botchan. He taught English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University, after his return to Japan and was clearly influenced by the British mock-heroic/comic tradition.

At the start of the novel, the narrator expresses a shocking lack of filial piety. He dislikes and refuses to obey his father and, following the death of his father, makes no demands on his older brother of any inheritance. His heart belongs to Kiyu, a family retainer of longstanding who doted on the boy.

After graduating from the Tokyo Academy of Physics (now the Tokyo University of Science), he is assigned to teach math in an unnamed Shikoku town. The senior math teacher, Hotta, whom the narrator dubs “Porcupine” (for his spiky hair, though his personality is also bristling), helps the newcomer out, but the devious vice-principal, Akashatsu whom Botchan calls “Red Shirt,” poisons Botchan’s mind against him.

Botchan has a healthy appetite and is dismayed at the board of sweet potatoes, but when he goes out to have dumplings or tempura, Red Shirt chides him. The only comfort that is licit is going to the hot springs public bath.

Eventually, the blunt Botchan realizes the hypocrisy of the principal (whom he calls Badger) and Red Shirt and the improprieties (fiancée-stealing) of the sanctimonious vice-principal.


Though there is a lot of atmosphere, there is also a plot. The young math teacher has no romantic/sex life, but other teachers (and the vice-principal) have romantic intrigues. There is a big fight scene and also a beating, and much frustration by the straightforward city boy at the cunning and scheming of the rural teachers and students. And a sentimental ending that Dickens would have approved of.

In his introduction, translator J. Cohn cautions that the novel is pre-Freudian, something I think I would have noticed in its sentimentalizing of Kiyo. The early Sôseki foreshadowed the unsocialized rebelliousness of Dazai Osamu (the writer as well as his autobiographical narrators). Japanese readers seem to enjoy reading (or watching onstage or onscreen) rebels even while conforming themselves.

I found the novel an entertaining document from a time of very rapid social change in Japan. Though I tend to think of “city slickers” abusing “hayseeds,” the Marcel Pagnol/Claude Berri “Jean de Florette” provides a French example of the Parisian being bamboozled by wily, malicious rural folks.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray