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Category Archive for 'Japan'

Author Helen DeWitt expresses her admiration, at one point, for “the type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.” And she obviously writes for this type of reader as she performs amazing literary and scholarly acrobatics in this unique and energetic novel which never flags–and certainly never bores! Main character Sybilla is the hard-working, single mother of Ludo, a 6-year-old genius who gobbles up even the most complicated subjects, seemingly overnight, and DeWitt incorporates many esoteric subjects here–Japanese language, Greek verbs, Icelandic verse, Fourier’s analysis, Arabic, astrophysics, and tournament chess, bridge, and piquet, among other things—as she describes their intellectual daily life together. Despite Sybilla’s arcane subjects and complex ideas, DeWitt manages to write so entertainingly about them that they enhance, rather than obscure, the human story at the heart of the novel, when Ludo studies Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and then set tests for seven men, one of whom might by his unknown father.

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Set in Berlin and Tokyo in the 1930s, Swiss author Christian Kracht’s latest novel offers an unusual fictional vision of the prewar years in Germany and Japan – one in which the primary focus of the author – and ultimately of his two main characters – is not that of reality as much as it is of cinema: Life and the future can be controlled in a film, even if they can not be controlled in real life. Emil Nageli, a young Swiss film director nearing his thirtieth birthday, has been in Berlin talking with the Reich Minister, who believes that a well-made horror film – “an allegory, if you like, of the coming dread” – would attract much attention, even in America. He also wants to involve the Japanese, however, since he believes that they “will sooner or later subdue the Asian continent.” Masahiko Amakasu, a Japanese film maker and admirer of Nageli, hopes to establish a relationship with the Germans. Amakasu, too, envisions film changing the world, hoping that a Japanese film will “counteract the seeming omnipotence of American cultural imperialism.” A thin plot connects some well developed characters as real characters mix with fictional characters and the action fades to a conclusion.

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Keiko Furukura has been working at her local Smile Mart convenience store for half her life, for the eighteen years since she finished school, and she is completely comfortable in her job and in her ability to manage her life. Though she works only part-time because she says she is “not strong,” she knows where everything belongs in the store, how to restock shelves and supplies, how to update displays, and how to avoid conflict with her co-workers and customers. She likes her job, they like her, she never gets angry, and she is as happy as she can be in her role – one which that she regards as “not suitable for men.” It is the other women in her life who eventually begin to question her role at the store and her future there. She is, after all, a woman in her mid-thirties, approaching the age at which she may soon be “unable” to marry and have children, goals her family and friends have already achieved for themselves and which they hold for her for the future. The introduction of a man to her life at the convenience store changes the trajectory of Keiko’s life – but not in the ways the reader expects, a man who believes that society has not changed since the Stone Age. With humor and irony, author Sayaka Murata develops the complications which seem to placate Keiko’s family and friends while complicating Keiko’s own life.

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In Black and White, a murder mystery set in the late 1920s, provides plenty of excitement, both real and psychological, while also offering some unusual and creative thematic twists on the connections between fiction, reality, and the writing life and its consequences. Here the main character, Mizuno, a writer like author JunichiroTanizaki, is hired to write a serialized novel for a Japanese newspaper, a task he must begin immediately, and for which he must continue writing every day without major revisions and without allowing the story to fall apart. His eventual story is one in which Mizuno, the writer, chooses a real-life acquaintance, Cojima, another writer, to be the model for his victim in the fictional murder mystery. Giving him a similar but false name, Codama, within the story, Mizuno then arranges for the fictional Codama, to be murdered.

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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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