A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.
The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.
The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.
Mee’s rating: 4/5
And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.
Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.
In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.
Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.
I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.
The Book of Tea was first published in 1906 – surprisingly, in English! I only realised this after trying to find the translator, or which translation was best, and a book group friend was looking for “the original”, hah! Here I thought Kazuo Ishiguro was the only Japanese writing in English (I’m sure not the only one, but certainly the most famous?). Apparently Okakura did it a long time ago.
This quote from the book seems apt then: “Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade, – all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?”
The life story of Okakura himself might be even more fascinating than his little book. He was given a Western education at a missionary school by his father, and ignorant of Japanese culture until he was eleven. He mastered English as a young boy, but had troubles reading Japanese. To remedy the situation, the father then placed young Kakuzo in a Buddhist temple where he studied Confucius, koto (Japanese musical instrument), and calligraphy. A bit late apparently, but better than nothing I suppose.
The Penguin edition has introduction by Christopher Benfey that covers a bit of Okakura’s life. What I gathered was a man who was continuously torn between the East and the West. And this is apparent in The Book of Tea, in which he defends – too hard at times – the Eastern and Japanese culture, which was belittled by the West at the time (probably still is?).
The 89-page book is a collection of essays about tea, “Teaism”, taoism and zenism, art appreciation, and flowers. I liked the first 2 chapters about the history of tea, how it is originated from China, and about the three schools of tea: cake, powder, and leaves – that is in chronological order. Japan remains on the second school (i.e. matcha or powder green tea), as it was separated from the mainland, while China’s powder tea culture was wiped out by the Mongolians, and turned to leaves.
However going a bit further, it was a bit uneven for me in terms of enjoyment level. The chapters on taoism and zennism for example, I don’t have much knowledge of or keen interest in. The art appreciation and flowers chapters are quite interesting – as I love art and flowers. But I still think the book is most interesting when it talks about tea, and kept wishing it’d go back to tea.
The last chapter talks a lot about tea-room – an idea that is both idealistic and impractical to my modern mind: “The tea-room is unimpressive in appearance. It is smaller than the smallest of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty. Yet we must remember that all this is the result of profound artistic forethought, and that the details have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than that expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples. A good tea-room is more costly than an ordinary mansion, …”
That sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. I’d love it if tea-room is just really humble and minimalist. Sure quality can still be important, but to compare it with richest palaces and temples and mansion? Pushing it a bit far I’d say. I think this also makes the text feel a bit dated. Not sure how it was in early 1900s, but in this day of age the whole tea room concept seems only for the very wealthy and the elite few, a luxury that is the exact opposite of the humble cuppa that can be enjoyed by all, no matter which class of society you’re in.
Runaway Horses is the second book in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. You do have to read the books in order, so there will be spoilers for the first book below (My review of Spring Snow).
The book starts with Honda – Kiyoaki’s friend in the first book, who is now a middle age judge. He meets a young man named Isao, who he finds out later to be Iinuma’s son. Iinuma was Kiyoaki’s tutor, who after his dismissal went to marry the lover from the same Matsugae house. So some old faces from Spring Snow, which I was quite glad about. The prince that Satoko was supposed to be engaged with also makes appearances and plays quite an important role, albeit from the sideline, just like his role in Kiyo and Satoko’s story.
It should be well known from those following or intending to follow the series that the main character dies and is believed to reincarnate in each book, with Honda as the persistent character witnessing the existence and life of his friend and the subsequent lives he was born into. In Runaway Horses, Honda believes that Isao was Kiyoaki reincarnate.
Isao is a patriotic 18-year-old who has problem with the direction Japan goes (the story is set around 1930s). The governmental body is gaining power, reducing the power of the Emperor and the imperial family. There’s reformation of samurai class, which bans the carrying of swords in public. There are many references to real life events – so wiki became my friend (or our friend, since I read this together with my GR Japanese Lit bookclub). I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the many layers of Japan political situation in this period at the end, but I did learn a great deal more since I started. Lots of history to digest.
But don’t worry too much if you don’t know this period well, as I think it doesn’t hinder you from enjoying the story. An idealistic young man wants to do something radical (and illegal) that he thinks is good for the country. That’s something that everyone can recognise, right? But just because this is Japan, there’s a heightened perception of suicide and taking one’s life to preserve one’s honour and purity.
If you know a little bit about Mishima, you’d know that he committed suicide not long after he finished writing this tetralogy. In a way it’s hard to read Isao without having Mishima at the back of your mind. I’m thinking among the 4 characters in the 4 books, Isao is probably the closest to Mishima himself in terms of ideals and personality. The subsequent characters in the series will be younger and younger, as the timeline is bound by Honda’s age, so I’m very interested to know Mishima’s take on them.
Similar to my experience with Spring Snow, I found the beginning to be slow. There’s a whole chapter early in the book, that is sort of a book within a book – a propaganda pamphlet that Isao gets his idealistic inspiration from. In a way it was a bit boring to read, but it really set the stage of what is to come. And just like Spring Snow, I found Runaway Horses to be a satisfactory and worthwhile reading at the end. I definitely intend to continue to read the third and forth book.
Buddha is an 8-volume manga by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is best known as the creator of Astro Boy, which I never watched or read, but I knew Tezuka has also produced some more grownup manga, like Buddha. This is my first time reading his work, as I noticed the big volumes readily available at the Westminster libraries.
As titled, Buddha tells the story of Siddharta Gautama, on whose teaching Buddhism was founded. I have only a rough idea of Siddharta: how he was a prince born in India, and in opposition to the caste system he renounced his identity and went on a journey until he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.
Knowing that, I expected volume one of Buddha to jump straight to his birth and early childhood, however it is not the case. In volume one: Kapilavastu Tezuka takes his time to introduce the other characters (some invented, some possibly historical), but most of all, the caste and society system of the time. The birth of Siddharta practically just appeared in a few pages of the 256-page manga.
Though that surprised me a little, it makes sense. Siddharta is born a prince as the highest caste (Brahmin). There needs to be a balance, other characters that are born as the lowest caste (slave and pariah) who will show the flaws and cruelties of the caste system.
Kapilavastu is the place where Siddharta was born – in Nepal, just close to the border with India. There’s a map at the beginning of the book, showing places that we visit in that volume and future ones. So I wasn’t quite right about Siddharta being born in India, but very close.
Animals have quite an important role here. One of the teaching of Buddhism is that animals are just as important as humans (hence the preference not to eat animals), and according to the story I was told as a child, upon Buddha’s death 12 types of animals come to give him respect, and those become the symbols of Chinese zodiac as we know it until today. Animals seem important in the story of the Buddha and I like how this is used by Tezuka early on in his retelling. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Buddhist so my knowledge is pretty limited, mainly gained from some older family and even so the beliefs and teaching have been very watered down I assume.)
Some qualms: some attempts to modernize are downright silly (e.g. comparing a big city in Nepal at the period with New York or Paris. WHAT. I’m really curious whether this is just the translation problem.), some attempts to be funny are not funny (e.g. jokes at serious times seem misplaced), and the nudity seems unnecessary (I wonder whether women being bare-chested is the norm for its time and place?)
Negative point notwithstanding, I enjoyed the compelling story, and I love to learn more about the making of the Buddha, and Tezuka’s take on it. Hubby who is not a big reader is devouring volume after volume of this series, faster than me! I’ll definitely be reading more and gradually finishing the series.
Continuing my Japanese book strikes, my first book of 2016 is The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi. I read this together with the Japanese Literature book group on GR. It won the most votes out of the 5 books I proposed, and coincidentally it was probably the one I wanted to read the most, so it worked out nicely :).
Just a couple of dozens pages in, I was already surprised how quickly the plot was laid out. Somehow I was expecting it to be a slow read. The book is set in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). It started with Tomo – wife of a high Japanese official – looking for a young girl to be brought home. For what purpose, it was clear to the reader: to be a second woman, or a concubine, but it was never said out loud among the characters. Unlike some other cultures, there was not an official concubine role in this society, as the man does not marry the girl. And I mean it when I said “girl”, because they were looking for a 15 year-old, inexperienced girl. The fact that the girl is underage made a very uncomfortable read to my modern eyes, probably more than any other issues that appear throughout the book.
The book kept surprising me throughout. I anticipated it to concentrate on catty rivalries between Tomo and the new girl, Suga, in the style of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (which I have not read, so I may be totally off, however Wikipedia mentions that Nagai Kafu was in young Enchi’s reading list). But it’s not. There would be more women coming into the house later on, but all the female characters get along with each other, for the most parts. How they behave felt very realistic, and to me showed how women behave in real life more than TV dramas. Hint: I’m not a fan of Asian TV dramas. I don’t like how in them people behave in such outrageous, outlandish, exaggerated manners.
In this book, the women are dignified and logical in handling what life gives them. I loved that we get very close into the heads of the women, offering insights that I never felt I got when I read the other big name Japanese authors – who happen to be mostly male. As far as I remember, the female characters in books written by Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Kobo Abe, or Mishima even, are all very distant and aloof, and we never really get into their heads. It’s hard to see them pass their outwardly submissive demeanour.
In the Waiting Years, though the women may still look to be submissive, there’s a lot of internal conflicts and struggles, and there’s anger that bubbles up in the characters, which is obviously Enchi’s own feminist views of the system. And that brought me to conclude, that this book I think could only be written by a woman, and I’m thankful Fumiko Enchi gave voices to these women and made them real. It’s an interesting portrait of Japanese culture at a particular time from a point of view that we rarely get.
I was wavering between 4.5 and 5 stars, but the ending pushed it over the edge. It’s incredibly powerful, and so sad that I shed some tears.
During the reading, I coincidentally found a beautiful second hand copy of Masks – another popular book by Enchi, which I look forward to reading sometime.
A very successful challenge I must say! Considering my Japanese literature reading had been zero for the past few years. Will I continue the strikes? The books did whet my appetite for more, but on the other hand I have a lot of (reading) projects going on. Perhaps I will wait until June to continue again. See you in JLC 10 :)
Silence is a historical novel by Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese, making his perspective unique in the country that primarily practice Shinto and Buddhism.
There’s historical note at the beginning of the book, giving the frame of the story: Christianity was first introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier and his colleagues in 1549. For the next 60 years, Christianity spread, finding favour in the Japanese court. By 1600 there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts in Japan, though there started to be some oppositions. Between 1614-1640 it is estimated 5000-6000 Christians were killed by the authority who wanted to destroy Christian influence in Japan. The use of torture was introduced in an attempt to force Christians to apostatize – to renounce their faith. In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked by the news that Father Christovao Ferreira – the Portuguese leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan – had apostatized. By 1643, when Silence in set, Christianity only survived in underground communities and was ruthlessly suppressed.
So that’s a crash course of how Christianity entered Japan. It’s a crucial framing, and absolutely necessary to read, so don’t skip it! While Xavier and Ferreira are real historical people, Silence’s protagonist is Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a fictional character (though possibly based on composite of real life characters too). Rodrigues is a former student of Ferreira, who could not believe that his respectable teacher has apostatized. So apart from missionary duties, his personal interest is to find out what really happens to Ferreira.
The concept of apostatizing is a key point in this story. It is what makes you a true Christian. The Japanese authorities would often make light of it, saying that it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a formality, it doesn’t have to mean that you truly change on the inside, if you just step on this fumie and spit on it, it would make it easier for all of us, and we’d let you free right away.
But of course it is not that simple for the Christians. Either you keep to your principle or you don’t. There’s no two ways about it. It’s like there’s a line on the ground, and once you cross it there’s no turning back.
However, there’s one character who always apostatized when he was forced to, as he was weak – he admitted it himself. He would trample on the fumie, be freed, have deep regrets, wail for forgiveness, but apostatize when caught again and threatened with torture. Repeated over and over again. His struggles are interesting. It is pondered throughout the book, that it just happens that they live in the period of persecution. If they all lived in time of peace, people who apostatized may prosper as leaders of the church. How true is this? I imagine 99% of Christians today would apostatize in a blink of an eye with the first threat of torture.
Because religion is so central to the story, it’d be hard to talk about it without giving away your own beliefs to give it a bit of background about where you stand and how you may take the book. I was raised a Catholic, went to both Catholic and Protestant schools (at different times), but I’m now an agnostic. And because of that, I could sympathize with the struggles of Rodrigues, but all the way wondered why anyone needs to suffer and to die for an idea. So much pain, and for what? It was all so futile, so many lives wasted.
There are quite a few discussions between the characters in the book about this too. About Catholicism, Christianity, and why people felt the need to penetrate Japan with these ideas, a faraway country where people have a completely different belief system, i.e. the Japanese largely believe in polytheism – in spirits that live in all kinds of elements on earth, while Christianity is of course a monotheism – believes in a singular all powerful God.
Subtle differences between Catholicism and Protestant were another issue, which made an already volatile situation in Japan even more confusing, as the Catholics, who were the Portuguese and the Spanish, and the Protestant, who were the Dutch and the English, had their own problems with each other. One party would often dissuade the Japanese converts to listen to the other party. Poor the Japanese. As if there isn’t already a lot to take to learn about foreign Deus (God), and now there’s a different kind of foreign teaching that is true and not true. Sigh.
One aspect that I could see help the adoption of the faith by the Japanese is the class system of the society and how hierarchical it was. It must’ve been refreshing to learn a new teaching where everybody is supposedly equal and loved. True enough, majority of the converts were peasants.
I was acutely aware that the original period happened in 1600s, that the book was published in 1960s, and that I was reading this in 2015. Society is changing all the time, religions are evolving, and you probably read it differently now than if you read it at the time the book was out. And I believe it will be read very differently too half a century later. By then religion would probably be as condemned as racism or colonialism. But I digress.
Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I loved reading it as a historical novel as it tells the story of the period and setting that I would never have learnt otherwise. But it may have a bigger impact on me if I read it a few years ago when I was on the brink of leaving religions forever. As of now I’ve been on the other side, the faith struggles could seem a bit.. silly. I love the ending, it is realistic, true to history, and doesn’t make this an evangelical novel – the direction I was worried it’d go into at certain points of the book.
Apt timing for me. As soon as I finished the book, I saw news about the upcoming movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese. I heard about the film being picked up a while ago, but wasn’t sure if they really went ahead with it or not – sometimes movie projects just peter out. But with these recent images, seems like we’ll be seeing it soon at the cinema.
I had a very long break of Japanese literature. I used to read tons of it when I was in Singapore, but then I moved to Sydney, and London, and Japanese lit took a back seat. I don’t even remember what’s the last Japanese lit book I read. So with a happy heart I finally got to finish Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima — my first voyage into this master’s catalogue. Reading this with a nudge from Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 9.
Even before I read his book, I was already fascinated by Mishima’s life story, including, especially, his death by committing seppuku (ritual suicide). I know, it seems all the great authors are either gay or suicidal.
Spring Snow is the first book in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy – a final body of work from Mishima. I’m imagining a dramatic scene at the end of his writing session in which Mishima exclaimed “I wrote my masterpiece! I can now die happy!” SEPPUKU! ;)
In Spring Snow we follow a son of a rising nouveau-riche family Kiyoaki Matsuage, and his childhood friend turned lover Satoko Ayakura, who comes from a declining aristocrat family. (The way I described the Kiyoaki to hubby is “imagine the son of Japanese Gatsby”) The story is set in early 1900s Japan, 1912 to 1914 to be exact, so I found the society dynamics and the underlying historical setting very interesting. I’m sure I missed a lot of the historical subtleties, but by reading this book you get to understand a lot more, about the rigid customs and relationships between the Imperial family, aristocrats, and upper class society in early 20th century Japan. The Western influences have entered Japan too, giving it an extra layer of color.
A semi-important character is Kiyoaki’s friend Honda – a son of an intellect, sort of the Nick of Gatsby, mostly hovering on the side of the main love story, and occassionally giving hand at crucial moments. Honda will be a very important character in the subsequent books in the series, but I shall say no more.
I have to admit, the beginning and the middle were a bit of a slog for me, and I really didn’t like Kiyoaki’s character as he was exhibiting an array of teenage angst (the early 20th century Japanese version of it). I found that I had little patience for childishness and youth pride. Mishima took his time in building his characters and setting. He was being very careful, and it’s great in a way, but you need to push through the initial hump. (The book is almost 400 pages thick)
But once I hit the half point, I raced through the book in no time at all. I finished it in my week long trip around Central/Eastern Europe just last week, mostly between city to city in a train. The end just hit me like a ton of bricks. The last sentence left me dumbstruck. It probably shouldn’t have if I knew what the tetralogy was about, but I never quite knew what to get from quick browsing around goodreads and wiki. In other words, just go and read it, no need to find too much what the book is about :).
Spring Snow has turned me into a Mishima fan. I have yet to see anyone not liking his work no matter which book they start with, and I used to wonder about this. Now that I’ve crossed to the other side, I can say, yes yes it’s true, he’s amazing, come join us!
I plan to read the rest of the tetralogy. I have the first one on Kindle, but now I wonder whether I should collect the paperbacks. There’s the Vintage UK version and the Vintage International (US) version. Which do you think has better cover? I tend to lean towards the US version (only if it’s matte though, not glossy) but it seems harder / much more pricey for us to get the US version here.
Hoping to read another Japanese lit book by the end of the challenge in January 2016! I’m thinking The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi, but we’ll see. Let me know if you’re interested in it too, perhaps we can buddy read :)