The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

First published in 1943

My last book of 2017 is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (if you want to be pedantic, it’s Jun’ichirou – which implies him being the first born son, but I couldn’t find much information on this). At 530 pages it’s no mean feat for me, and actually took me 2 months to finish. But I’m very happy to have finally read it. This is only my second book by Tanizaki. I really liked The Key, which I read aeons ago, and I had been meaning to read more of his books. I still do, after reading The Makioka Sisters.

You can probably guess from the thickness that this is a sweeping, ambitious novel. Not a family saga though! It tells the story of the four sisters of the Makioka family from Osaka, who is a respected, wealthy family, but is in the state of decline since the death of the patriarch – the father of the sisters. After the father’s death, the head of the family role is taken by the husband of the first sister, who took the Makioka name. The husband of the second eldest sister similarly formally joined the Makioka family and took its name. This shows how the two men’s birth family were ‘below’ the Makiokas, and hence they gained status by marrying into the Makioka family.

In fact class and good name are the main themes running throughout the entire book. The two eldest sisters have married well, but the third and the forth sisters are yet to marry. They have to marry in order, so the last sister cannot marry before the third one does. This causes an amazing amount of troubles and may sound ridiculous. But coming from an Asian family myself, this concept of marrying in order is actually quite familiar and not uncommon. Sure in my generation, people are not strict anymore, but the preference is still to have siblings marry in order. There’s a kind of bad luck attached to ‘skipping’ an older sibling, and a lot of the times the ‘skipped’ sibling stays unmarried.

Tanizaki weaved some historical events into the story: natural disasters like a big flood and typhoon, and the foreboding war. It’s also a period when everything western starts to seep into Japan, fashion being one of the most defining interestingly. I read Mishima’s The Sound of Waves in between this book, and I could tell the setting is after the Makioka Sisters, from the clothes the characters wear! The Makiokas also befriend a few foreigners from Russia and Europe, which was slightly jarring somehow, but further emphasised that ‘Westernisation’ period.

I haven’t read enough of Tanizaki to comment for certain, but I picked up many of East meets West elements, old Japan vs. new Japan (and the author’s seeming preference of old Japan). The decline of the Makioka family seems to reflect the decaying of old Japan.

I reckon less people finish this book than the ones starting it because of the thickness, which is a shame because I think the whole book is a beauty. It takes some time and patience (don’t read it when you’re in a rush) but it’s constructed very finely, building and building up to a poignant ending. I enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with keen interest in Japanese culture.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Sound of Waves – Yukio Mishima

First published in 1954, translated from Japanese

The Sound of Waves is the first of Yukio Mishima’s book to be translated into English, and I can see why. For the fans expecting the darker, more brooding version of latter Mishima might be disappointed. This is Mishima when he was not yet cynical, the world was still a nice and simple place, and love triumphed. For Western audience, this seems a perfect entry into his works too. It’s short with just 183 pages, the story is simple, the plot is safe, the setting is an exotic remote island of Japan. What’s not to like?

The book runs on the main plot of two teenagers getting in love with each other, but lo and behold, social class barrier! Unsupportive parents! Tale as old as time you might say. But the real appeal I think is in the description of the island and the life of its inhabitants. Set somewhere in the 50s, or late 40s at the earliest, the island is late compared to the mainland of Japan in terms of trend and technology, and pretty much everything else. Life is much simpler and bare on the island. I loved it.

I may sound slightly cynical about the love story, but I actually loved it too. I found the depiction of the teenagers love believable and quite accurate – the awkwardness, the drama, the vague respect of existing beliefs and societal systems, the lack of control. This book is published in 1954 when Mishima was 29. I’m curious about when he wrote this, because it seems written by someone who had not left teenage-hood for very long. Someone in my Japanese Lit reading group mentioned that Mishima had a sickly and controlled childhood, so it’s possible he was still quite young, even at the age of 29.

I’d highly recommend this especially for someone looking for an entry into Japanese literature, though there’s lots to like for veterans too. My third entry for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

I’ve only read The Sea of Fertility tetralogy (the first three), and now this. I haven’t read Mishima’s earlier works, so I’d be interested to see how they compare. Taking his most famous books (translated to English), the list by the order of publication is:
Confessions of a Mask
Forbidden Colors
The Sound of Waves *
The Temple of Golden Pavillion
After the Banquet
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
The Sea of Fertility tetralogy *

(I’ve only read those marked with stars)

Bearing in mind the order of publication may not reflect the time of writing, especially at the beginning of an author’s career, I do wonder if you’re to read them in order, whether you’d recognise an obvious “flip” when he goes darker and more cynical. With this in mind I’d be interested to read Confessions of a Mask or The Temple of Golden Pavillion for my next Mishima (when I get to them, and after finishing the tetralogy).

Black Rain – Masuji Ibuse

First published in 1965, Japan. Original title: 黒い雨 [Kuroi Ame]
Black Rain tells the aftermath of the infamous atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Personally I never read book that describes what happens to the people on ground zero – not to this extend anyway. For some reason in my mind it was total annihilation, but of course it wasn’t as clean as that. People in the vicinity were affected in thousands different ways – and to my mind they suffered the most (compared to instant death). The many ways the atomic bomb affected people are so varied, that when I thought the worst has passed, worse scenes came around the corner, again and again.

To think that humankind has done this to each other in the past, and knowing what happened, keeps the possibility for the future. It’s hard to comprehend. This should be a required reading, especially for anyone having any access to or any influence over the nuclear button. Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would happen if it were Tokyo? It’s equally unthinkable for other major cities with the highest density and the most important infrastructure. At this point, a few countries in the world have the weapon almost just to keep each other in check. But it’s not hard to imagine that at the end, it could be triggered by a human mistake. Then we are truly doomed. Humanity as we know it may perish. Apocalypse in the truest sense.

Ibuse based his tales on real life diaries and interviews of the victims so it’s free of sentimentality, it’s fact after fact. You’d think it’d be permeated with rage, but it’s not. The overwhelming reaction is that of bewilderment. The nuclear bomb at the time was an unknown entity, a completely new weapon. The people of Hiroshima have been the guinea pig of the world.

Structure wise it could use some improvement. The book laid out diaries of a few people with not very strong connections, which shouldn’t work as narrative fiction. However you can’t read it as fiction, you read it as non-fiction, no matter how Ibuse labeled it. I suspect it gave him more freedom to do it as a work of fiction. I like the framing of the story in particular. It starts with a young woman called Yasuko, who has trouble finding a suitor because of the circulating rumors that she was affected by the bombing radiation. Such a ‘small’, domestic beginning, starting a year after the actual bombing. Bigger things are revealed gradually to readers, each thing more devastating than the next. For me the end is hopelessness. Truly nothing good comes out of war.

“I hated war. Who cared, after all, which side won? The only important thing was to end it all soon as possible: rather an unjust peace, than a “just” war!” – p161

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Masuji Ibuse 1898-1993

My second book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima

First published in Japan in 1970, The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. My review for book #1 Spring Snow here and book #2 Runaway Horses here. If you have not read the first two, warning there will be possible spoilers.

So my relationship with Mishima’s epic has been long and slow going, as I read Spring Snow in 2015, and Runaway Horses in 2016. With The Temple of Dawn in 2017, I plan to read the last book The Decay of the Angel in 2018. That’s one book per year if you noticed, as I’m not the type of reader that can read more than one book consecutively by the same author. The good thing is that way you give adequate time for each book, the bad thing is you may forget details from previous books.

I read this with my Goodreads Japanese Literature group (discussion board here), and it seems to cause very conflicting reactions – unlike the first two books. My own take was just lukewarm – there are bits I liked and bits I didn’t like. But my overall impression is that it’s definitely the weakest book of the tetralogy so far. Even Mishima couldn’t avoid the “saggy middle” that seems to often happen to a book and especially a series of books. It felt like a filler, something in between an exciting beginning (book 1), peak (book 2), and the (possibly exciting) ending (book 4). Makes me wonder, do we need a middle at all? Why don’t we just cut the middle of everything?

So in The Temple of Dawn, the readers are brought to Thailand and India at the early chapters – which I actually quite enjoyed, before going back to Japan. Mishima used the settings to explore the roots and other branches of Buddhism, including Hinduism. He went into the history and philosophy of those religions, which I could see the reasons of, considering the series is all about transmigration. But it doesn’t bring much into the narrative. It’s meandering and self-indulgent, and I’m not sure how much I remember of it at the end.

Unlike the previous two books that concentrate on Kiyoaki and Kiyoaki reincarnate, The Temple of Dawn dwells on Honda, who is frankly a boring character compared to any form of Kiyoaki. This time Honda believes that he has encountered his friend in the form of a Thai princess, who is somewhat still related to the two Thai princes appeared in Spring Snow.

The book is divided into two parts, separated by untold years of World War II. I initially thought WWII would take central stage in book 3 or 4, but apparently it was just swept under the rug. The princess is 7 years old in part 1, Honda 46 years old, and the year is 1941. Part 2 is set 11 years later in 1952, Honda is 57 years old, Ying Chan the princess is 18 years old.

So Kiyoaki is now in the form of female – a passive one annoyingly, and is the object of obsession of Honda. Is he symbolically attracted to “life” and the embodiment of the mysterious transmigration? Or is there a homosexual undertone there? (Mishima is largely accepted as homo or bi-sexual – though his wife would disagree.) In any way I failed to grasp the purpose of Honda’s lust in the overall narrative. He came across as an old creep. The age and gender of Kiyoaki’s form this time really hinder her to blossom into her own character like Isao, who was at the peak of his life. As Kiyo reincarnate gets younger and younger, I wonder how his last form will contribute to the narrative. Those who have read all books in the series hinted that the last book makes the whole journey worthwhile. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

My first book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

The Hunting Gun – Yasushi Inoue

First published in Japan, 1949

This is the first book I finished after a couple of months of reading slump. And it was just the right book. It’s short and compelling, and the Pushkin edition is just beautiful to hold and read.

It’s not a perfect book, and for me the ending peters out a little. But there are a lot of things to like. I find the story framing fascinating in particular. The story starts from a poet, who is sent letter by a reader of the poem recently sent to a magazine. The reader thinks the poem is based on him, as he remembers a time and place, where he carried a specific type of hunting gun – all elements of which were featured in the poem. Together with his letter, the reader attaches three letters from three women in his life. Through these letters the story is told.

I don’t generally like novels written in letter format, as they often feel contrived. But the book is short enough for me not to mind. It just felt like story told from three point of views.

The Hunting Gun is Yasushi Inoue’s debut novel. He later won the Akutagawa prize for his second novel, also published by Pushkin: The Bullfight. The three perspectives in The Hunting Gun reminded me of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s possibly most famous short story: In a Bamboo Grove (which Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon is based on). I read and mentioned this not long ago, and would highly recommend the short story, in which a single event is told from multiple character perspectives. It seems very apt for Inoue to win the prize, though it’s for his second book.

I read the book with my Japanese Lit GR group. We agreed that the prose was such a delight to read, that we could gloss over the possible lack of depth in characters and unique story line. But really for a debut book that barely reaches 100 pages I think it’s accomplished a lot.
It’s my first time to read Inoue, and I’d be interested to read more of his works in the future when I get the chance.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Inoue Yasushi

Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

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

rashomon

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.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

The Book of Tea – Kakuzō Okakura

the book of tea Kakuzo Okakura

 

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.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

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