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

Runaway Horses – Yukio Mishima

runaway horses

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.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka (Vol 1: Kapilavastu)

buddha vol 1
First published in Japan in 1972, published in English in 2004

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.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Osamu_Tezuka_1951
Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989)

 

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

the waiting years

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.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

220px-Enchi_Fumiko
Fumiko Enchi – finally, a favorite Japanese female author! (I really don’t like Banana Yoshimoto. I couldn’t stand her books.)

This also concludes Japanese Literature Challenge 9. From June 2015 to January 2016, I read 3 Japanese books:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

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 :)

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