A Japan Meme

Hello Japan

Hello Japan! November mini-challenge: a Japan meme

(Talking about last minute!)

My favourite Japanese food is sashimi because raw fish can be surprisingly YUMMY.

Breaking into Japanese LiteratureThe best Japanese book I’ve bought this year is Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text by Giles Murray. (I haven’t read it but I flipped through it and it looks awesome! It has 7 short stories both in Japanese and its English translation, complete with dictionary. We need more bilingual books!)

What Japanese author(s) or book(s) have you enjoyed that you would highly recommend to others?
Haruki Murakami, of course, who wouldn’t? Then Natsuo Kirino and Junichiro Tanizaki.

What is something Japanese that you’d like to try but haven’t yet had the chance?
Practicing Kendo.


You’re planning to visit Japan next year. Money is not a concern. What is on the top of your list of things you most want to do?
Ghibli Museum. You have to buy the ticket months in advance I heard.

ghibli museum


What was your favourite Hello Japan! mini-challenge topic?
I loved the one comparing two things Japanese where I wrote about the two directors of Ghibli: Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao. The one about manga and J-music brought lots of memories too, they were fun.

What topic(s) would you like to see as a Hello Japan! mini-challenge in 2011?
Share your Japanese or Japanese-inspired recipe!

Thanks for hosting Tanabata, as always!

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal RitesEqual Rites is the third Discworld novel and my first Terry Pratchett. Normally I would never ever read a book out of series order, but after hearing over and over from people that The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld novel, is not the ideal place to start since it’s not by all means the best of the lot, I gave up my insistence to start with book number one and started with Equal Rites. As you can see in this awesome Discworld Reading Order Guide, Equal Rites is the starting novel for the Witches series, and many people have told me that the Witches are the strongest / most interesting characters in Discworld.

In Discworld, a Wizard is chosen to be one and he must be the eighth son of an eighth son. One day however, an old Wizard bestowed baby Esk a staff, one requirement to be a Wizard, ignorant to the fact that Esk is a girl. As Esk grows up and starts to show signs of magic power, Granny Weatherwax, the Witch of the village where Esk lives in, takes her under her wing. But Granny is a Witch, while Esk is supposed to become a Wizard. So starts their journey to the Unseen University, where wannabe Wizards study to be real Wizards. Naturally, it’s not an easy journey for Esk (and Granny) as they navigate through the misogynistic world of the Wizards and hear too many times: Girls can’t be Wizards!

Unfortunately I did not find the book as exciting as I expected. Perhaps it was my fault to start this book right after One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it just felt bland and far too light. It wasn’t as funny as I expected and the story wasn’t as deep as I wanted. It took me a while to get through the book even though it’s rather thin and light in content, because I could never really get into it. I needed to push myself to finish it so I can at least say that I’ve read Terry Pratchett.

Don’t get me wrong. Equal Rites was not bad, not at all. It was just… ordinary, when I want wow-ness from my books. Esk’s story is a typical hero’s journey and there isn’t enough twist and turn to make me excited. It was not a very satisfying read for me.

Terry PratchettI know lots and lots of people love Pratchett, book bloggers and even several of my colleagues in real life alike (who all pushed me to try his book). But we didn’t click, Pratchett and I. I’m not sure if it was just the timing, but it might be a while before I try another of one of his books.

I’m sorry you guys. I’m just as disappointed as you!

3.5 stars
1987, 283 pp

First Line
This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.

Terry Pratchett Challenge

Also reviewed by
another cookie crumbles

Megumi: Documentary Manga on Abductions by North Korea

megumi manga

Before Megumi I never knew about the existence of “Documentary Manga” so I took the book out of the Japanese Foundation Library shelf with high curiosity. As what the title says, the manga is a true account of the abductions of Japanese people by the North Korea.

Revolves around Megumi Yokota (横田めぐみ) who is one of at least thirteen Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the story is told from Megumi’s parents perspectives: Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, who supervised the creation of the book (illustrated by Soichi Moto).

It is a very heartfelt manga as you learn about the poor fate of Megumi. One day happy with her family of parents and two younger brothers, and the next abducted to a foreign country, never to be heard again until twenty years later, during which Megumi’s family thought she could be dead. Until one day a North Korean agent spoke up about the whereabouts of Megumi.

What came after was horrible mind games done by the North Koreans. One day they would say Megumi was alive and the next send human bones claimed to be Megumi’s (a DNA test that followed proved that they weren’t). They said Megumi got married and had a daughter. While the daughter was allowed to send letters to the Yokotas, they do not allow any contact with Megumi. There are a lot of other little things that make me wonder what their real intentions are to play with people’s life and feelings. Megumi and the Yokotas were just ordinary people who were at the wrong time and the wrong place, sucked into psychological political war between the South and the North Korea (apparently the North Koreans abducted some Japanese to learn to disguise themselves as Japanese with the purpose to penetrate the South).

A lot of the scenes really got to me. I couldn’t help imagining if I were the 13 year old girl abducted and my parents lost me one day, not knowing whether I were alive or dead. For if there’s even a glimpse of hope that I’m still alive, I know my parents would go as far as Sakie and Shigeru Yokota do. Their perseverance and faith is so commendable, and truly touching.

I went to South Korea in 2008. Even to these days there’s huge tension between the two countries. There is a part in the book where Megumi’s parents went to visit the South and North Korean border, a place that I have visited as well. So I recognized many of the places and the experiences: the dynamites and electrified border along the highway, the armies, the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone): 4 km wide buffer zone between the South and the North–the most heavily militerized border in the world, the North Korean’s tallest flagpole (160m) with its biggest flag (270kg) in the world (which you can only see from afar with a binocular, on the South Korean side). It was such an eerie experience, to say the least.

Megumi is published with the aim to enhance the understanding of the international community concerning the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea. It is distributed through Japanese diplomatic offices, including embassies and consulates. But it is not available for purchase, which explains why I had never seen the book anywhere. It doesn’t even have a record on popular book website like goodreads.

Megumi is a very informative manga (as documentary should), packed with emotions as it is told from the parents of the abductee. I love how the Japanese use medium such as manga to convey an important message. It’s a bit of a weird read, since there’s no proper solution to the “story”. Even though I knew the real-life Megumi is still held by the North Korean and there’s no way the book ended up happily, there was a part of me that was still hoping for it. Alas, it’s real life and the struggle continues.

4.5 stars

You can read the excerpt of the manga here. Apart from the manga, there’s anime made available for download (25 minutes full version), and also 85-minute documentary film titled Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story that has won many awards, produced by Jane Campion. Both of which I look forward to watching sometime.

More info about Abductions of Japanese Citizens by North Korea.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The-Unbearable-Lightness-of-BeingPrior to reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being I was never quite sure what the book was about. It seemed to be one of those books that is hard to summarize. I would describe it as a book on relationships and sexual escapades with the backdrop of Czech politics. Main characters are Tomas the womanizer doctor, Tereza the naive country girl, and Sabina the free-thinker artist. The three of them make some kind of a love triangle with a twist. Who Tomas loves is really Tereza, but he also sleeps with Sabina even though he knows it tortures Teresa (hence tortures him too in a way). Sabina knows about Tomas and Tereza but doesn’t mind.

But really I just barely scratched the surface of what is in the book. There are many philosophical musings about love, life, relationship, politics, and the world. My did I enjoy them. The book is so so rich with ideas that I was in awe through and through!

The writing wasn’t exactly fantastic. The excessive parentheses especially annoyed me. Makes you wonder if they really came from Kundera himself in the original language. The book is translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim, who is an award-winning translator. So I guess it was already in the best hand as far as translation goes. It also drove me a bit crazy when it talked about kitsch for several chapters. A few checks into dictionary and wikipedia didn’t get me very far. I’m still not sure if I understood.

milan kunderaBut again, the ideas! How original! How thoughtful! How mind-bending! Anybody who could make politics seem so sexy must have exceptional talent! I chose to see the real strength of the book rather than the weakness–which now seems to be even less important. Boy oh boy how happy I was to finally try Kundera, who solidly earned his place on my favorite authors list. He must watch out because I’m going to go through his back catalogue!

I’d highly recommend the book for people who question lots of things in life, for those who experienced turmoil in their own country and might be forced to leave, or just those who enjoy discussions of out-of-the-box ideas. I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being immensely that I couldn’t give it anything other than

5 stars
1984, 304 pp

First line
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!

Memorable Quotes

“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.” ~ p46

“She had come to him to escape her mother’s world, a world where all bodies were equal. She had come to him to make her body unique, irreplaceable. But he too, had drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them: he kissed them all alike, stroked them alike, made no absolutely no distinction between Tereza’s body and the other bodies.” ~ p54

“Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.” ~ p71

“What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure.” ~ p85

“The  goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.” ~ p119

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. … The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.” ~ p215

“Attaching love to sex is one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had.” ~ p231

Read the Book See the Movie, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Reading the World

Also reviewed by
bibliojunkie | arukiyomi | Mad Bibliophile | Save Ophelia

The Movie (1988)

The-Unbearable-Lightness-of-Being-movieThe movie is played by Daniel Day-Lewis (of the Butcher in Gangs of New York) as Tomas and Juliette Binoche (who I knew from Catherine Earnshaw of the 1992 Wuthering Heights) as Tereza.

I thought Tereza was well-played, showing grace, youth, and innocence. But my gosh did I have problem with Tomas character in the film. I guess the main problem was, I did not find Day-Lewis sexy, so the whole Casanova thing he was meaning to pull did not work. The continuous smug smile on his face annoyed me as hell.

But you can kind of tell from the structure of the book, that a movie adaptation was not going to work well. The major (and the most crucial) portion of the book lies in the narrator and his philosophical musings, not the plot. Cinematic is great for showing plot and characters, but not deep inner thoughts.

With a bag of skepticism before going in though, I thought the film was somewhat decent for its ambition (it’s nominated for 1989 Oscar for Best Cinematography and Best Writing for Screenplay Based on Material from another Medium). It’s watchable, even if only for setting and lifestyle of the time and place. But it’s skipable for the non-fan of the book.

Rating: 7/10

Mori Ōgai and Gyogenki

Mori OgaiWhen I saw The Classics Circuit was having a tour on Meiji-Era Japanese Classics, I was intrigued. However apart from Natsume Sōseki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, I had a big WHO? moment. I had not heard the rest of the people on the list. One name did ring a bell, and I checked the books I got from Japanese Foundation Library and found that indeed there was one book of short stories collection by Mori Ōgai. Here was a good chance to participate.

Mori Ōgai (1862-1922) produced a wide range of works, from diaries, medical essays, aesthetics and literary criticism, to biographies, plays, Japanese and Chinese poetry, short stories, and novellas. He’s also a translator of contemporary European literature. In his final period of creative writing began in 1912, he turned to write almost exclusively in the genre of “historical literature”, which I guess what we often call now as historical fiction.

There are 10 short stories in the volume and after reading the short introduction for each story, I picked a piece called Gyogenki, a historical literature based on the Chinese Taoist nun and poetess Yü Hsüan-chi (I’m following the spelling in the book). Initially equally clueless about the great Chinese poetess as I was with Mori, I was intrigued by the brief summary of her life. She became a concubine of a wealthy man, got divorced, became a nun, had a lesbian relationship with another nun, then embraced a male lover, got insanely jealous over a maid, killed her, and was beheaded at the end. What a life!

Unfortunately the story felt pretty cut and dry, like reading a textbook. I can’t be sure if it’s the translation or not, but it didn’t make me want to continue reading the rest of the other stories in the book. Maybe I will eventually maybe I won’t, but I’m not rushing. I did enjoy reading the introduction about Mori at the beginning of the book and the short introductions for each of the short stories which honestly sound very interesting.

“Despite a lasting reputation in Japan, Mori Ōgai has yet to achieve any satisfactory reception in the West. Natsume Sōseki, the only writer of Ōgai’s generation to share his stature, has been widely translated and admired, but Ōgai remains a shadowy figure, austere, even obscure. It often happens, of course, that the work of certain writers cannot be sufficiently understood outside their own cultures. Some towering figures never earn anything like their rightful reputation through translation.” ~ The Historical Literature of Mori Ōgai: An Introduction

A bit sad. I guess there’s a reason why the book was withdrawn from Japanese Foundation Library. I know libraries usually withdraw books that have not been borrowed for a length of time. I’m glad I got to know a bit more about Mori-sensei and even tried his historical short fiction, even though I may not have “got it”. Who knows, maybe we’ll cross path again sometime in the future.

Meiji-era Japanese Classics

Check out the rest of the participants here. There are only a few of us this time!

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