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Category Archive for 'Japan'

Beginning this novel in 1937, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists, takes a new direction in this novel, his last. Here he describes the lives and cultures of a succession of Japanese house maids in a financially successful household. The novel’s time frame, 1937 – 1962, is obviously a time in which Japan faced some of its most dramatic changes and these changes, as described by Tanizaki, were at least as dramatic sociologically as they were historically during this period. The class system was being dismantled, local languages and dialects were changing, movement from the countryside to the city and back was becoming relatively common, and a sense of independence among young women was emerging. Tanizaki saw it all, and while a previous novel, The Makioka Sisters, focused on those who lived comfortable lives, this novel focuses on those who helped make the lives of those people as comfortable as they were. These were the people who saw and dealt with the greatest changes – the maids who lived “below stairs,” as translator Michael P. Cronin describes them in his Afterword. In this novel, which was published in installments in a Japanese newspaper in 1962, his purpose seems to have been, instead, to seize the opportunity to talk to his readers about the changes to Japanese society that he has noted over the past twenty-five years. While this is often intriguing and even fascinating, new readers to Tanizaki will want to start with one of the other Tanizaki novels previously reviewed on this site.

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Serialized simultaneously in two newspapers in Tokyo and Osaka in 1918, this short novel found a ready audience in a country already well familiar with Edgar Allan Poe, and author Tanizaki added some twists of his own, making his novel even more attractive to his audience – it is far more psychological, even twisted, and more obviously sexual than Poe. Romantic, even gothic in its approach, it is a tale which entices the reader through the speed of its narrative, moving so quickly that Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is intensified – the reader wants to get on with the excitement of this wild story and does not want to be bothered much about the obviously bizarre (and unrealistic) circumstances which make the excitement possible. The atmosphere and tone of the novel is set when the narrator, Takahashi, recalls a telephone call he received from his friend Sonomura, who asks him to come to his house immediately. Takahashi, a writer, has been up all night, working on a deadline, and is not able to travel to Sonomura’s right away. He is nervous about the call, informing the reader that mental illness runs in Sonomura’s family, and that he has concluded that “This time…Sonomura really had been stricken with lunacy.” Sonomura, quoted in the opening lines of this review, tells Takahashi (and the reader) that he knows, for sure, that at one o’clock that night, a murder will take place in a certain part of Tokyo. He does not know exactly where, but he wants to go see it happen. He also wants Takahashi to be there with him.

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Like so many other young men in the 1960s, Jonathan Ashe, a young man from a farm in rural Norfolk, England, has escaped his small village to travel the world and, on some level, to find out who he really is. He and his older brother, who has been left in charge of the family farm following the death of his father, have little in common, and some event from the past has alienated them. Though he has feelings for his mother, he cannot bring himself to write to her on a regular basis. Now in Viet Nam, half a world away from England, Jonathan decides to challenge himself as a photographer during the Vietnam War, anxious to expand his views of the world in an effort to understand more about life and death and survival. Jonathan’s own father died of an accidental gunshot wound when Jonathan was a young child, and the suddenness of the death and the memories he has of the aftermath have haunted Jonathan ever since. Now he as he thinks back on his childhood, he wonders how much of what we remember about a person or event is actually real and how much is what we wish for – or what we choose to remember? Can we ever learn to see traumatic experiences in new ways without lying to ourselves and others about the realities? Harding keeps her style simple and quiet, and except for one surprising coincidence, the novel resonates with honesty and truth, as Jonathan begins to find out what he needs to do to be happy, ending the novel on an upbeat note.

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Irony is too mild a word to describe the twists, surprises, and reversals which bring this book so wildly alive that it is almost impossible to believe the book is not written by a contemporary author. The characters, each of whom is beautifully delineated and brought to life within the limited context of a particular place and imagined time, not only feel real but reflect the universal concerns of human beings around the world, regardless of class or culture. Originally published in 1935-36, the book is as witty, relevant – and, in places, even darkly humorous – as any recent book I can think of, and the novella, from which the book gets its title, and the two stories, with all the imagery they conjure up, constantly reinforce the impression that the author is smirking in the background as we read. Though readers often characterize Japanese literary fiction as being restrained and refined, Tanizaki’s exuberance bursts those bounds and challenges stereotypes, both in tone and in subject matter. In the three stories in this book, he focuses on ordinary people, not aristocrats, trying to get by as well as they can, a focus which allows the author to use colloquial language and write about earthy and sometimes inelegant subjects.

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The “sensitivity” of Japanese soldiers, their “wisdom in understanding,” and the “higher side of themselves” which they celebrate in the novel were lost on the allied Prisoners of War under their control, and these qualities will be just as lost on readers of this novel as they read about unconscionable examples of gross inhumanity. Set during World War II, when many Australians became POWs after the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the novel details the brutality of the conquerors, their starvation of prisoners, their forcing of dying soldiers to work until they collapsed and expired, their murders and tortures, and even their use of conscious prisoners as guinea pigs for Japanese officers who wanted to test their bayonets. The sadism which paralleled the officers’ interest in poetry was cultivated and celebrated among themselves as proof of their dedication to the Emperor, who could do no wrong. Much of the action here takes place during the building of the Siam to Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, which the Emperor wanted finished immediately so that it could eventually be extended to India. Balanced against these horrors, which Flanagan depicts in grim and uncompromising imagery, is a non-traditional love story, which shows aspects of the Australian society from which most of the soldiers have come and hope to return, and particularly the society of Tasmania, which several main characters call home and where author Richard Flanagan himself grew up and has spent most of his life.

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