Starting a Very Japanese Literary Journey

I’m not sure how this started but I’ve found myself hoarding Japanese literature like there’s no tomorrow. Throughout my life, I’ve sporadically developed an interest in Japanese books. Yet funnily enough, the experiences I’d had with them should be deterring me from buying more books rather than redoubling my hunger for them.

Like most people, my gateway to Japanese literature was through Haruki Murakami. As a young high school student, I bought myself Murakami’s then-newest title, the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I read about 100 pages before giving up. I found Murakami’s style too abnormal and fantastical to my taste. Also in high school, I read Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. The themes and story of the novella completely flew over my head. I just didn’t get it. During my first year in uni, I purchased a double book; The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki. I thought they were okay and I liked the plot twists although I found the subject matter themselves quite twisted. And finally, a couple of years ago I read the short horror story collection Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I thought it was okay too; I was expecting to be more spooked than I ended up being.

So why has this sudden obsession with hauling Japanese literature reared its head again?

The truth is I don’t know myself.

It could be a number of reasons. During my final quarter in uni, a creative writing class had me reading “The Elephant Vanishes” by Murakami. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think “The Elephant Vanishes” was possibly the best gateway into Murakami’s magical realism. It had a touch of the fantastical but was still deeply rooted in reality, an excellent way of easing yourself into Murakami’s style. “The Elephant Vanishes” made me want to give Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman another shot. Maybe that’s it. Maybe “The Elephant Vanishes” whet my appetite for Japanese literature all over again.

There was also a now-aborted plan to go Japan for the Christmas holidays. I bought myself The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Theodore W. Goossen in anticipation of the trip. At the time, I wanted to learn all I could about the culture via their literature. Maybe despite the trip being a no-go now, that desire is still spurring me on.

But I’m always overanalyzing things. Maybe I’m just bored of British novels, those go-to literary comforts of mine. Maybe I just want something new. Something new to mirror this new phase in life where I’m out of uni and having to job-search and in general be an adult.

So without further ado, let us see what lovely books await me in this new odyssey:

  1. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

I did say that “The Elephant Vanishes” made me want to give this book another chance. Before, I started reading without knowing anything about Murakami and what to expect from him. And I know that my literary tastes have changed and expanded over the years so I have feeling that I will enjoy Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman this time around.

  1. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Theodore W. Goossen

At $19.95, this particular book was a bit pricy but it seems like a good overview of Japanese literature. Inside, it has short stories by big names such as Junichiro Tanizaki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, Haruki Murakami, and Banana Yoshimoto. Incidentally, the curated Murakami story in this anthology is “The Elephant Vanishes.”

  1. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

I’ve read The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man by the same author. They were fine novellas but they were a bit unsatisfying. The Makioka Sisters promises to remedy that, since it’s a lengthy family saga. I love epics and family sagas, sign me up for anything resembling one!

  1. Out by Natsuo Kirino

Of all the Japanese books on this list, Out is the one book that I have actually read. It was the last book I read, really. I utterly enjoyed it. I loved the style, which I though was crisp and clean while being cold and clinical at the same time. It really fit the psychological thriller genre of the book although I am aware that some people would find the prose style stilted.

For a supposed thriller, Out isn’t exactly a page-turner. It took me a little more than two weeks to finish and I usually read fast. But that was because I wanted to enjoy every word. In no way was the book itself poorly-paced.

I was warned that the novel contained a gory dismemberment scene. Maybe I have a strong stomach for things like these but I didn’t find the scene as graphic as I thought I would. It was fine. The plot involves a murder and several women working together to cut up the body to keep the police off their trail so the dismemberment was by no means gratuitous.

Out is a will-they-get-caught? novel rather than a whodunit. It tries to be a whydunit as well although in the end it didn’t succeed in this area. I was still puzzled as to why Masako, the ringleader of the group, would agree to help with this entire scheme. I have a blurry idea but no definite answer.

Fair warning though. The ending was disturbing. It involves rape and torture. So if you don’t have the stomach for that stay far, far away. It certainly wasn’t the ending I had hoped for and the final scene left more questions than answers but overall, Out was probably my favorite experience in immersing into Japanese literature so far.

  1. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

I bought Grotesque together with Out. The truth is the synopsis of Grotesque intrigued me more than Out but I have a habit of reading the book I’m less interested in first. Delayed gratification, as it were. Grotesque promises to be an investigation of the adolescent female mind and the state of Japanese women in society, topics that greatly pique my interest.

  1. Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

I just brought this book yesterday. The Kinokuniya where I lived was having a storewide sale and that’s always a good reason to hoard more books into my limited shelf space. I ended up buying this book because I was intrigued by the synopsis on the Vintage edition:

“Tokyo, 1912. The closed world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders – rich provincial families, a new and powerful political and social elite.

Kiyoaki has been raised among the elegant Ayakura family – members of the waning aristocracy – but he is not one of them. Coming of age, he is caught up in the tensions between old and new, and confused by his feelings for the exquisite, spirited Satoko. When Satoko is engaged to a royal prince Kiyoaki realizes the magnitude of his passion.”

Promising, eh? A David Mitchell quote at the back says “An austere love story, probably my favorite of his novels.” I can’t resist a good love story although I can tell from the synopsis that this is the hallmark of a doomed romance.

So many lovely books I’ve got. Keep your eye out for reviews and such!

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