Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Tsukuru Tazaki

Title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Japanese Title: 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年
(Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to kare no junrei no toshi)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Publisher: Bungei Shunjū
Publication Year: 2013
Pages: 370

From July to January of his second year of college, Tazaki Tsukuru was absorbed by thoughts of death. His four best friends from high school suddenly stopped talking to him, and he had no idea why. Sixteen years later, the 36-year-old Tsukuru is employed a railroad company, where he works on the design and construction of train stations. He’s single, but he has kindled a romance with a businesswoman named Sara, of whom he is quite enamored. Sara reciprocates Tsukuru’s affections, but she senses that something is holding him back from being in a fully committed relationship. She thus gives Tsukuru an ultimatum: Get rid of your emotional baggage, or I will never sleep with you again. Sara’s Lysistrata-like threat compels Tsukuru to embark on a pilgrimage that takes him across and beyond Japan to track down his friends from high school in order to figure out what happened between them and what went wrong.

Tsukuru’s friends are an interesting group, and each of them goes by a color-based nickname. Oumi Yoshio, or Ao (Blue), has an outgoing personality, and he was the captain of his rugby team in high school. As an adult, he works as a salesman at a Lexus dealership. Akamatsu Kei, or Aka (Red), is fiercely intelligent and analytical, and everyone thought he would become a university professor after he graduated from college. Instead he entered the corporate world and quickly dropped out in order to launch a consulting firm that holds management training seminars. Kurono Eri, or Kuro (Black), is quick-witted and clever and was known for her sarcastic sense humor in high school. Kuro became a potter and fell in love with a foreign student who had come to Japan to study pottery, and she now lives with him and their two daughters in Finland. Shire Yuzuki, or Shiro (White), looked like a model and had gorgeous long black hair, but she hated attention and found joy in playing piano. Unfortunately, she failed to become a concert pianist and so ended up as a private piano teacher, but her ultimate fate was even more tragic. The easygoing and unflaggingly polite Tsukuru acted as the “colorless” background against which these four could shine, and he was the invisible glue that held the group together.

The forward momentum of the first 150 pages of the novel is driven by the mystery of why Tsukuru got dumped by his friends. The first member of the former group that Tsukuru tracks down, Ao, reveals the bare facts of the answer, but this answer creates even more questions, since Tsukuru has no memory of what he was accused of doing. Moreover, what Tsukuru was accused of doing is extremely upsetting, not only to him and the other characters in the novel but to the reader as well. The accusation, as well as Tsukuru’s responsibility in the matter and the obligation his friends felt in responding to the situation, are heart-breaking and profound, and the practical and emotional complications are quite distressing. I’m sure that, when the novel is translated into English, Murakami is going to catch a lot of flak for writing such a scenario, but what he describes is extraordinarily relevant to contemporary societal debates, and the sensitivity with which his third-person narrator describes the fallout of what happened from multiple perspectives is one of the novel’s best features.

Another interesting component of the novel is the wealth of detail given to the description of each character and the interior spaces he or she occupies. The personality of each character is conveyed by his or her words, of course; but, since the narrator’s point of view is fairly limited to Tsukuru, the reader only knows what Tsukuru is doing or thinking at any given moment. The reader is thus encouraged to tease out the finer details of character through the narrator’s meticulous descriptions of clothing, hairstyle, accessories, and interior decoration. Tanaka Yasuo was strongly criticized for his endless litanies of product brand names in his novel Nantonaku, Crystal, and I imagine that it’s possible to levy the same sort of complaint against Tsukuru Tazaki, as the writing comes off as more than a bit Nantonaku-ish at times. That being said, Murakami’s method of character analysis through the intense reflection on taste and setting strikes me as less vapid and materialistic than it does as vaguely Homeric. How does the reader know that Achilles is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of his armor. How does the reader know that Aka is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of how he has set up his corporate office.

Aside from the brilliance of its characters, the novel also has some genuinely creepy moments to offer the reader. Many of these moments are encapsulated by Tsukuru’s relationship with his college friend Haida (whose name contains the character for “ash,” or “grey”). Haida tells Tsukuru a story about how his father once met a jazz musician named Midorigawa (whose name contains the word “green”) while working at an isolated inn in the mountains, and how Midorigawa possessed a strange ability that he may have passed on to Haida’s father. It’s a weird story, and Haida’s intentions in telling it to Tsukuru are unclear, but shortly thereafter Haida does something bizarre in an uncomfortable scene involving sleep paralysis before disappearing from Tsukuru’s life without a trace. Such scenes and stories-within-stories are not “softly haunting,” or “elegiac,” or anything fancy like that; they are genuinely creepy and upsetting. Furthermore, Haida is not the only source of surreal urban folklore in the novel – the story a subway station employee tells Tsukuru about something he found in one of the station’s bathrooms is particularly delightful.

As is the case with most Murakami novels, the deeper psychological and supernatural elements of the plot are never fully explained, but I found Tsukuru’s journey to be rewarding in and of itself, and I enjoyed reading the novel. Tsukuru Tazaki is evocative of the pains of youth and what it’s like to reconnect with people years after you’ve graduated from high school. In many ways, Murakami’s latest book feels like an answer to Norwegian Wood, the 1987 novel that first boosted the author into international literary stardom. Whereas Norwegian Wood is permeated by a nostalgic longing for the perceived potential for individual dignity made possible by a vanished youth in a vanished era, Tsukuru Tazaki is concerned with a more pragmatic strain of existentialism that seeks to justify the manner in which the passing years inevitably drain color from one’s life. If Tsukuru is indeed on a pilgrimage, it’s less of a pilgrimage to find his friends or to figure out the truth but rather an experiential process of recreating the story of his adolescence as a narrative that can properly function as a suitable prequel to a middle-aged adult life that is less of an anticlimactic ending and more of a canvas that is still waiting to be filled with color.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo

The Paradise Bird Tattoo

Title: The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, Attempted Double-Suicide)
Japanese Title: 赤目四十八瀧心中未遂 (Akame Shijūyataki shinjū misui)
Author: Kurumatani Chōkitsu (車谷長吉)
Translator: Kenneth J. Bryson
Publication Year: 2010 (America), 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 225

I’m not going to lie – the first twenty pages of this book didn’t make me want to continue reading. The narrator of The Paradise Bird Tattoo, Ikushima Yoichi, is a graduate of an elite university who dropped out of society for reasons unknown, and he has all the charm of a thirty-three year old Holden Caulfield, which is to say not very much charm at all. Life sucks, he can’t get his shit together, he has no money, he goes from train station to train station with no rhyme or reason, people are disgusting, nobody likes him, he wants to assault salesgirls with scissors, and he might as well jump off a cliff.

On page twenty-one, Ikushima sits down for coffee with the woman who has agreed to temporarily employ and house him at the request of one of the narrator’s old friends. This woman, whom Ikushima refers to as “Seiko Nēsan,” owns a pub called Igaya in the Higashi-Naniwachō district of Amagasaki, an industrial suburb of Osaka located west of the Yodo River. As Seiko Nēsan tells Ikushima about how she used to be a pan-pan girl during the American occupation, the story begins to shift away from the narrator’s existential crisis and outwards to the other people who occupy the seedy little neighborhood where Ikushima now lives in a cheap backstreet apartment building.

Down the hallway is a room for by a prostitute for couplings that are oddly accompanied by what sounds like religious chanting. Across the hallway is a gruff tattoo artist named Horimayu who occasionally bursts into Ikushima’s apartment. An elementary school aged boy named Shimpei wanders around mostly unsupervised and alternately befriends and bullies Ikushima. A woman named Yi Mun-hyong, who goes by Ayako, lives in an apartment on the first floor and attracts Ikushima’s attention before entering into sexually charged yet emotionally complicated relationship with him.

As a an employee of Seiko Nēsan, Ikushima’s job is to sit in his apartment all day and skewer raw offal meat to be served later in her pub. Ikushima does so without complaining or seeking any sort of meaningful connection to the world around him, but he still ends up unwittingly getting pulled into the lives of the other people in the apartment complex and becomes trapped in relationships that he doesn’t fully understand. Seiko Nēsan asks him to retrieve a large amount of cash from the phone book in a public telephone booth, Horimayu pressures him into holding onto a mysterious sealed box, and Ayako enters his apartment one evening to have her way with him. By the second half of the book, Ikushima is way over his head into affairs about which he knows nothing.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo is a slow burning novel fueled mainly by the grungy atmosphere of the greater Osaka area of the late seventies. Ikushima’s narration contains details about his life in Amagasaki that make the book a pleasure to read. There’s a small sundries store in the same alley as Ikushima’s apartment that he doesn’t shop at because it’s too creepy for him, and the lady who runs it always gives him the evil eye from inside the store when she sees him. A group of cab drivers who spend most of the day gambling park their cars in an alley, but a woman whose house fronts the alley calls the police and has them tow all of the cars. Shimpei finds a toad and keeps it as a pet in one of the apartment drainage pipes until it dies. Seiko Nēsan comes over on a rainy day to have a beer, and she sings old Osaka folk songs rife with double entendre.

Kenneth Bryson’s tone and word choice captures the grittiness of the narrator’s style and attitude:

All I did day after day was cut up beef and pork organs and stick them on skewers. Sooner or later they would wind up in someone’s mouth, be digested inside his organs, and vanish into the toilet as excrement. I wasn’t sure what happened after that, but I assumed the reside would eventually be washed out into the ocean. It was just the same with the glamorous goods lining the shelves in the department stores and supermarkets; someday they would all become rubbish or shit. This was the essence of all human activity; this was why I could tell Seiko Nēsan in all honesty that I had no need for pleasurable pursuits.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo is a walk through the lives of people who live on the margins of society in a neighborhood that is as dangerous and desperate as those who inhabit it. Although the narrator can be a bit of a bore sometimes, the mindset that has led to his decision to abandon a middle class life is fascinating, as are the experiences he describes to the reader in full dirty detail.

Rivalry

Title: Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale
Japanese: 腕くらべ (Ude kurabe)
Author: Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 1917 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 165

Nagai Kafū is a fascinating person and an incredible writer, but, without access to the resources of a university library, it’s almost impossible to find his work in translation. Thankfully, Columbia University Press has recently released a paperback edition of Stephen Synder’s excellent translation of one of the writer’s most popular novels. Rivalry is full of rich detail and beautifully drawn characters, as well as compelling melodrama that draws the characters and setting together into a highly entertaining story.

The narrative perspective of Rivalry is split between multiple characters, but the protagonist of the story is Komayo, an aging geisha (she’s 25 years old) who married and left Tokyo to live with her husband’s family in the country. When her husband dies three years into the marriage, Komayo finds herself increasingly alienated by his family and thus returns to Tokyo, where she resumes her life as a geisha. Komayo is beautiful and highly talented in a number of traditional arts, and her goal is to secure a patron, or danna, who will buy out her contract with the house that currently employs her and help support her as she begins a career as an artist and proprietor of her own establishment in the “flower and willow world” of professional entertainers.

At the beginning of the novel, the top candidate for Komayo’s danna is a wealthy “man of affairs” named Yoshioka, who had known Komayo in his student days. Yoshioka wants to rise in the world, and he sees his patronage of the highly desirable Komayo as a means to do so. Komayo enters into a financial and sexual relationship with Yoshioka but also falls in love with Segawa, a Kabuki actor specializing in female roles. When Yoshioka learns of this relationship, his pride is so affronted that he begins to scheme at how to get back at Komayo. Meanwhile, how long can Komayo’s relationship with a fellow performer actually last?

Oh, the drama!

Rivalry is like Gossip Girl with geisha, and it is immensely entertaining to watch these beautiful people fall in and out of love and squabble with each other. The trappings of the world they occupy are just as glamorous as they are, and the reader is often given the opportunity to pass judgment on characters based on their outfits. For example, this is Komayo at the beginning of the novel:

Her hair was done in a low shimada style with an openwork, silver-covered comb and a jade hairpin. She had changed into a kimono of light crepe with a fine stripe. The effect was quite refined, but perhaps fearing that it would seem too old for her, she had added a half collar with elaborate embroidery. Her obi was made of crepe in the old-fashioned Kaga style, lined with black satin, and it was held together with a sash of light blue crepe dyed in a bold pattern. The cord word over the obi was a deep celadon green decorated in front with a large pearl. (10-11)

Obviously, such an elegant and tasteful woman should hold our sympathies. Here is Segawa at the end of the novel:

He sat casually with his legs folded to one side, as a woman would, showing a bit of the material of his underkimono, a yellow brown fabric dyed with a pattern of wheels rolling through waves that could only be a specific order from the Erien. His obi, narrow in the old style and tightly bound, was made of satin decorated with a single stripe and marked at one end with the name of the maker embroidered in red. It was most likely the work of the Hiranoya in Hama-chō. On most men, this costume would have been terribly gaudy, but for an onnagata it seemed positively inspired. (136)

What a rake! But what woman wouldn’t fall for such a handsome devil?

Komayo and her relationship with Segawa take center stage, but other characters flit in and out of the story. One of my favorite of these characters is Kikuchiyo, a geisha who is more Western than Japanese. Her sensuality isn’t expressed by her art but directly connected to her concupiscent physicality. Interestingly enough, Kikuchiyo’s ambition is to become a stage actress in the new Western-style theater productions. Also amusing are Kurayama Nansō and Yamai Kaname. Both are writers; but, while Nansō writes Edo-style novels and lives in a beautiful old Japanese house with a traditional garden, Yamai writes modern confessional novels and lives like a vagrant. The two men are friends, and their commentary and ramblings through the glitzy Asakusa neighborhood help to create critical distance from the main story while establishing the world of professional entertainers in a wider context.

It’s difficult to separate any story of geisha from discussions of sexual slavery and sexual politics. I won’t give my own opinions here, but Rivalry itself has more than enough to say concerning the paid relations between women and men, which it views from both a male and a female perspective.

For a man, the patronage of a geisha is apparently about ownership and practicality. This is how Yoshioka sees Komayo in a particularly intimate moment:

He wanted to see every detail of her expression, every inch of her body as she writhed with pleasure. He wanted to see her beg him to stop. Among all his experiences, this was the richest; among all the postures and poses he had seen in erotic prints, these were the most exotic – and he wanted to study them with his eyes wide open. (22)

This is how Yoshioka justifies his dalliance with geisha in his student days:

Rather than suppress his sexual desire only to risk shaming himself by falling under the spell of a maid or some other amateur, it was far safer to spend the money to buy a woman properly when needed. To pay for a woman and have her without undue worry to relieve his sexual tension and then pass his examinations with high marks – this was combing duty with pleasure and, he though, killing two birds with one stone. For a young man of the modern age, in whom there was no trace of the Confucian values that had shaped earlier generations, the only thing that mattered was success, reaching his goal, and he’d had neither the inclination nor the leisure to question the means that got him there. (36)

For the geisha herself, relationships with men are mostly based on practicality and careful planning, and geisha understand what they must tolerate in order to become financially self-sufficient. Here, Komayo and Hanasuke (another geisha in Komayo’s house) discuss whether Komayo should take on another steady client:

Hanasuke’s attitude was that men were fine when things were going well, but once they had a change of heart, they could be terribly cruel. This sentiment fitted nicely with Komayo’s long-standing theory that men were fickle by nature, and from that time the two women began to compare notes more frequently. Ultimately, they decided that the best plan was to put away as much as they possibly could while they still had earning power and thereby accumulate the resources that would allow them to live comfortably, perhaps running a small business of some sort, and have nothing further to do with men. (52)

Having taken on this client, a physically imposing man from Yokohama who made his fortune in the import business, Komayo must then deal with him:

The sea monster was silent, his eyes, dim with saké, passing back and forth between the enticing scene of the bed and the melancholy figure of the woman seated with her back to the lamp. Like a gourmet before an array of delicacies, he seemed unsure where to begin; but he was in no hurry, choosing instead to study the prospects carefully, determined, when the time came, to lick the carcass down to the marrow, according to some private design of his own. For her part, Komayo recoiled from those piercing eyes, and yet she knew there was no use objecting at this point. As long as she was in no real danger, no matter what happened she would quickly close her eyes and try to bring things to a conclusion as quickly as possible. (60)

Although the novel gradually shifts to the perspective of its male characters as its female characters become more embittered against each other, the author never lets his readers forget that the women who operate within the confines of the glamorous world of geisha are real human beings who are just as rational and aware of their social and economic circumstances as the men who enter into relationships with them. There is also much more variety in the female characters of Rivalry than in the novel’s male characters, and Kafū uses the attitudes and behavior of these women to subtly illustrate generation gaps and shifts cultural ideology between various understandings of “traditional” and “modern.”

Rivalry is an accessible novel that rewards multiple readings. It’s exciting and scandalous and sexy enough to read for pleasure, but it’s also intricate and detailed enough to be used in a classroom. The themes of the novel are timeless and universal, but Kafū is also able to open a window onto a different time and place with his incredible prose.

Stephen Synder’s translation of Kafū’s novel is excellent. As the above passages detailing the clothing of Komayo and Segawa demonstrate, Synder is superbly skilled at rendering even the most Japanese of descriptions and settings into natural and readable English. The one word left in italics is danna, but the translator’s six-page introduction at the beginning of the novel explains the meaning and context of this term as it relates to the pleasure districts of Tokyo during the Taishō era. Synder’s translation is an enormous improvement over the translation by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich published by Tuttle, which is currently available on the Kindle store. Even though Columbia University Press’s physical publication of Snyder’s translation is gorgeous, I wish they would release a digital edition as well.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press

The Briefcase

Title: The Briefcase
Japanese Title: センセイの鞄 (Sensei no kaban)
Author: Kawami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 176

Kawakami Hiromi’s novel Manazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich and published in 2010 by Counterpoint, is a strange, dreamlike story told from the perspective of an otherworldly and unreliable narrator. Manazuru is about pain and bitterness, and broken hearts and broken families.

Kawakami’s newest novel in translation, The Briefcase, is a far cry from the atmospheric surrealism of Manazuru. Its narrator, Ōmachi Tsukiko, is a single woman in her late thirties who is firmly grounded in reality. The Briefcase is about her daily life and centers around her encounters with her former Classics teacher, Matsumoto Harutsuna, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Two decades after graduating from high school, Tsukiko meets Sensei by chance at a neighborhood bar, and the two strike up an easy friendship. Each of the ten-page chapters in The Briefcase details an episode in this friendship, such as a trip to an outdoor market or a mushroom hunting excursion with the owner of the bar Tsukiko and Sensei frequent. Seasons change, but not much else does. Nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected happens throughout the large majority of The Briefcase, and the novel’s close attention to detail provides much of its charm.

Although it doesn’t become apparent until a little more than halfway through the novel, Tsukiko gradually develops romantic feelings for Sensei. I would love to say something along the lines of “despite the significant age difference, the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei blossoms beautifully;” but, in reality, it’s quite awkward. Not only is the situation itself awkward, but both Tsukiko and Sensei are awkward people. They’re not charmingly awkward, or amusingly awkward, or so awkward that want to hug them – they’re just awkward. Still, the gentle progression of their relationship is entertaining in its earnestness, and Kawakami describes it from Tsukiko’s perspective with commensurate delicacy:

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a holf on this sense – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The quiet normalcy of The Briefcase is satisfying in and of itself, yet there are some disturbing undercurrents running through the novel. Why is Tsukiko alone? Why is Sensei alone? What happened to him? Why does he always carry around his briefcase? These uncertainties serve to make the story more intriguing, however, and don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis until the very end of the novel, when Tsukiko undergoes a startlingly surreal experience. During two of the final chapters of the novel, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei, as well as her fear of his rejection, are explored in a strange sequence titled “The Tidal Flat – Dream,” which may or may not have actually happen. This chapter is a unexpected break from the regular mundane atmosphere of The Briefcase, but it pulls the novel together thematically in a creative and unexpected way.

Allison Markin Powell, who also translated Dazai Osamu’s Schoolgirl, deftly conveys the lightness and humor occasional strangeness of Kawakami’s prose. Although Powell’s English is flawless (with the possible exception of a few out-of-place Britishisms), her style of translation leaves the reader with no doubt as to the Japanese setting of the novel. Passages like…

“Yes, today is a tomobiki day. But tomorrow is a red-letter day, a konoe-tora!”

…and…

Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen.

…are not uncommon. It’s an interesting style of translation that emphasizes the novel’s focus on peaceful daily life in a richly detailed environment, and it’s fun to read. The culturally specific words scattered throughout the text can be largely ignored if you’re not feeling up for a hyperlinked adventure on Google, though, so they shouldn’t be distracting for the reader.

The Briefcase is a gentle and quiet novel that’s enjoyable both for its story and for its atmosphere, and it’s much more accessible than Manazuru (which is not to say that Manazuru is bad, just very weird). It’s literature that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

Snow Country

Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 175

Snow Country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.

According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeatedly praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”

As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata prefecture, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality saké brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all of the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas such as Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate performances.

Snow Country is about a man named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a mountain tunnel into the open air:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.

This is one of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets such as Bashō and Issa.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.

Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and in his tracking shots.

If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where the geisha Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:

To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.

What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.

In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. It goes without saying that Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.

It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is unarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.

I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of auto-Orientalizing imagery is to do it a disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”

Fires on the Plain

Title: Fires on the Plain
Japanese Title: 野火 (Nobi)
Author: Ōoka Shōhei (大岡 昇平)
Translator: Ivan Morris
Publication Year: 1957 (America); 1951 (Japan)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 246

The Pacific War is an uncomfortable subject for me. I don’t like war, and I don’t like watching movies about war, and I don’t like reading about war – especially the Pacific War. I’m also not entirely comfortable recommending a book written about the Pacific War. However, a friend of mine recently confided in me that he’s working on a novel about a Japanese soldier on a small island in the Pacific. The novel would have swords, he told me, and survival, and brilliant military strategies, and cherry blossoms. At the end of his novel, everyone would die a glorious and noble death.

I told my friend to go read Fires on the Plain.

Fires on the Plain is about a soldier named Tamura who is stationed on Leyte, an island in the Philippines. Ōoka himself was drafted and sent to Leyte in 1944, so one can plausibly assume that the novel is somewhat based on the author’s experiences. What distinguishes Fires on the Plain from many other Japanese fictional accounts of the war, however, is that it is not written in the style of proletarian literature or the semi-autobiographical shishōsetsu (“I-novels). Before he was drafted, Ōoka worked at a Franco-Japanese translation agency while working on his own translations of French literature. Far from being preachy or moralistic, Fires on the Plain is a tightly structured psychological novel written in the style of nineteenth-century French novelists such as Stendhal, Ōoka’s favorite author.

Fires on the Plain focuses on the psychological and emotional struggles of Tamura as the soldier is kicked out of his unit, sets off on his own, later rejoins the scattered remnants of the Japanese army still on the island, and then struggles for survival in the company of two men who have turned to cannibalism in order to stay alive. During his time on Leyte, Tamura ponders the nature of humanity, the relationship between God and man, and the workings of free will in the face of an almost certain fate. His primary concern, and the primary concern of every character that appears in the novel, however, is hunger. How long can you live on a handful of potatoes? How can you procure food from the native islanders without getting killed? Where can you find salt? What do you do after all the food is gone? Aside from the ranting of one half-dead and half-crazed man who appears towards the end of the novel, the glory of the Emperor and the nation of Japan have no place in the consciousness of Tamura and his fellow soldiers.

Because the story is recounted by a starving, traumatized, and unreliable narrator, there is little thematic closure in the novel. That being said, there are some lovely descriptive passages reflecting the beautiful tropic setting of the island:

The sun gleamed on the river’s surface, and clouds scudded across the dazzling sky to disappear over the mountain peaks. On the sloping banks of the river bamboos grew luxuriantly, their green leaves wafted by the breeze. Driftwood, which remains from the floods of the rainy season, lay drying on the sand and pebbles of the river’s edge. Now and then the water would strike the banks capriciously, or form deep pools, or spread out into frothy rapids. In the evenings by the shadows of the pools I could hear the river deer cry as they came down to drink, and at dawn the turtledoves cooed high on the river bank.

There are also harrowing passages describing the horrors of war:

How could I have failed to notice the objects lying at the foot of those steps – objects that must have been in my field of vision for some time? My sense of perception must have already changed during the weeks since I had left my company. Clearly the link between my consciousness and the outer world was greatly attenuated. A solitary alien in an enemy land, I had by this time come to notice only objects that warned me of immediate danger, or, as in this case, objects on which I literally stumbled.

I thought of them as “objects” though some might call them “people.” In one sense, to be sure, they were people, but their bodies had already become dehumanized objects. What lay below those steps were corpses.

Having been corpses for some time, they had lost all the individual conformations of their past lives. Only their army trousers revealed some slight trace of the time when their owners had belonged to humankind; yet even these were so discolored by mud and carrion slime that they no longer seemed like human clothing and were, indeed, barely distinguishable from the surrounding earth.

In the end, though, having been abandoned on Leyte and left to fend for himself during the closing days of the Pacific War, and having witnessed death and killed people himself, and having starved and eaten the flesh of his fellow soldiers, Tamura is no closer to solving the great mysteries of life than he was when at the beginning of the novel. The confusion of the narrator becomes the confusion of the reader; and, despite its brilliant imagery and powerful symbolism, it is difficult to draw any clear philosophical message from the novel – besides the painfully obvious.

Anyone interested in the Pacific War in any capacity should read Fires on the Plain. Ōoka demonstrates that the reality of the war was anything but honorable and glorious, but he does so through the vehicle of a disturbing yet highly readable novel that feels no need to shove its “war is evil” message into the reader’s face.

Slum Online

Title: Slum Online
Japanese Title: スラムオンライン
Author: Sakurazawa Hiroshi (桜沢洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 210

Slum Online is a short novel about MMORPG gaming. I was skeptical of this concept at first, as I wondered how level grinding, ammunition collection, and/or interpersonal dialog along the lines of “omg n00b pwned” could be any less tedious in fiction than in real life (so to speak). Thankfully, the fictional game in question is a fighting game, and its setup and mechanics are both simple enough to be understood by a non-gamer and complex enough to not lose their freshness after two hundred pages.

I was also worried that, since the novel’s cover (which is a mirror of the original Japanese cover) sports a manga-style illustration, Slum Online would be nothing more than a light novelized plot worthy of an anime (whose plots and dialog tend to not work so well without the animation). Again, my worries were unfounded, since the story more or less eschews anime tropes and works fairly well as fiction that can be read by someone not familiar with the quirkiness of characters like Suzumiya Haruhi and Lina Inverse.

Slum Online follows an older teenager named Etsuro through his real and virtual life. In real life, he is a college student pursued by a classmate named Fumiko who is pursuing a blue cat through the streets of Shinjuku. In his virtual life, he is a karate fighter named Tetsuo who is pursuing a mysterious player known as Ganker Jack while being pursued by a ninja character named Hashimoto. The novel’s chapters alternate between Tetsuo’s real life and his virtual life, but there is little disconnect between the two; and, in the end, they come together quite nicely. It’s equally amusing for the reader to follow Etsuro through the backstreets and arcades of Shinjuku as it is to follow Tetsuo and Hashimoto through the alleyways and watering holes of the gaming world. Moreover, the cast of characters in either world is equally interesting, especially as they interact with each other across both worlds.

I wouldn’t call Slum Online science fiction, necessarily, and it doesn’t quite belong in the realm of cyberpunk, either. I found it quite realistic in its depiction of gaming technologies, their applications, and the cultures that surround them. Nobody is downloading anything directly into their brains or raving about the awesome theoretical potential of cyberspace. The characters go to school and go to work like anyone else, and the only men in black suits are the salary men on the commuter trains. Everyone knows what Google and Wikipedia and Playstation are. I personally found it refreshing to read a story about real kids playing video games. No one is a hacker, and there aren’t any cyber police; it’s just a kid and his game console and his online network.

There’s no nonsense in the book about not being able to tell the difference between the real world and the cyber world either, although Etsuro’s language occasionally betrays how his awareness of the real world is influenced by gaming. He describes hearing things in terms of “sound FX” and perceiving people’s faces in terms of polygons or anime-inspired designs. As he walks around Shinjuku, he remarks how convenient it is to not have to worry about running into invisible walls, and how in real life one can’t just approach someone and start a conversation as if he or she were an NPC. Despite (or more likely because of) his mild geekiness, Etsuro is an amusing and sympathetic narrator.

Slum Online should be a fun read for gamers, and I think it should even be a fun read for non-gamers, who won’t be alienated by any specialist vocabulary. The translation is smooth and readable, the narrative flows quickly and seamlessly, and the layout is professional and engaging. The only bad thing I might have to say about this book is that it tends to come off as male-dominated, but whatever – I enjoyed it anyway.

Hotel Iris

Title: Hotel Iris
Japanese Title: ホテルアイリス
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 164

Hotel Iris is the third work by Ogawa Yōko to appear in print in America, following The Housekeeper and the Professor and The Diving Pool. Having read several of her works now, I think I am starting to get a feel for her style of writing, which is beautifully conveyed by translator Stephen Snyder. Ogawa takes the everyday and imbues it with a sense of strangeness. Nothing overtly fantastic happens in her stories, but everything is always a little unsettling. Something is always a little bit off. There is always a sinister current running underneath the mundane. In Ogawa’s novels, the petty cruelty of human beings is on full display, but it is up to the reader to uncover the mystery of a deeper cruelty. The questions that aren’t answered are more upsetting than the questions that are.

In Hotel Iris, a seventeen-year-old young woman named Mari has been forced to drop out of high school by her mother, who needs her to work at the family’s seaside hotel. Since Mari’s father has died, Mari’s mother has taken on a kleptomaniac housekeeper, who not-so-secretly steals from Mari. When, one night, a prostitute flees from one of the rooms in the hotel, Mari finds herself attracted to the older man from whom the woman flees. This older man, who lives by himself on an offshore island, is a translator of Russian. He falls in love with Mari, who craves the sexual masochism he displays when the two are alone. The specter of the man’s dead wife, whom he is rumored to have killed, haunts their relationship, which is further strained when the translator’s tongueless, college-age nephew stays over for a few days.

These relationships develop over the course of this short novel, which is narrated by Mari, who hints at her desires, frustrations, and rich inner world through anecdotes and observations instead of through direct statements. The novel unflinching depicts all manner of sexual acts, but its eroticism and sensory imagery are focused not on the meeting of bodies but rather on the depictions of small, everyday things, like a stain on a scarf, the music of an amateur, or the dripping of pizza grease. The narrative tension created by the almost constant yet varied reiteration of certain themes, like the fear of something hidden being uncovered or the uncertainty of how far violence can go, prevents the reader from ever settling into complacency concerning Mari’s life and her relationships.

In the end, I think, this is a novel about growing up, and all the psychological baggage that goes along with the process. Ogawa warps many psychological tropes (like the Oedipus complex) through her protagonist, however, and Mari’s loss of innocence is neither celebratory nor unproblematic. In many ways, Hotel Iris is something of an antidote to feel-good chick lit novels like Yoshimoto Banana’s Goodbye Tsugumi. It’s dark and it’s disturbing. Its themes and imagery are understated; and, although it has quite a great deal of forward momentum, it is never driven by its plot, much of which is left vague. In my opinion, this is a perfectly constructed and beautifully written novel. Please buy this. Please read it. Please tell all your friends about it. Ogawa has numerous novels translated into various European languages, and we really need more of her work translated into English.

Parasite Eve

Title: Parasite Eve
Japanese Title: パラサイト・イヴ (Parasaito Ivu)
Author: Sena Hideaki (瀬名秀明)
Translator: Tyran Grillo
Publication Year: 1995 (Japan); 2005 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 314

Sometimes I know that I should not write a particular review. Sometimes I have nothing nice to say. Sometimes, however, it’s way too much fun to resist writing about a hilariously bad book. This has happened before with Outlet and xxxHOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC, and now it’s happening again with Sena Hideaki’s horror novel Parasite Eve, which is so bad that it’s almost good.

If nothing else, the premise of Parasite Eve is certainly original. A woman named Kiyomi has a problem with her mitochondria, which have collectively mutated into an intelligent being. These mitochondria gradually take over Kiyomi’s body, killing her and forcing her husband Toshiaki, a pharmaceutical researcher, to cultivate her liver cells. Since Kiyomi was an organ donor, one of her livers has found its way into a fourteen-year-old girl named Mariko, who begins to suffer from nightmares. As Toshiaki’s cell culture, which he has named “Eve 1,” grows, it (she) gains the ability to move around and make herself look like Toshiaki’s dead wife. Since Eve 1 cannot live for long on her own, she wants to create a half-human, half-mitochondria offspring, a project for which she needs Toshiaki’s sperm and Mariko’s womb. Although Eve 1 has a time limit for how long she can survive outside of a cell incubator, she can reshape herself at will and shoot fire. It goes without saying that Toshiaki must find a way stop her.

The narrative shifts between Toshiaki, Toshiaki’s research assistant, Mariko’s father, Mariko’s doctor, and Kiyomi. Eve 1 occasionally gets a few italicized paragraphs, too. Each of these characters is interesting in his or her own right; but, even though none of them are wooden or stereotypical, their characterization felt a bit half-hearted to me. The real focus of the first two-thirds of the book seems to be less on the characters and more on the surgery and scientific experiments they are involved in. Toshiaki’s research and Mariko’s organ transplant are described in loving detail, with all sorts of technical terms accompanied by explanations for the general reader. Even with all the non-fiction exegesis of science and medicine, the narrative progresses normally (if a bit slowly) for 175 pages. Even though there was a bit of Eve 1 shooting orgasms at people (I am not making this up) previously, this is the point at which things get ridiculous.

The next paragraph is filled with spoilers and sex. Consider yourself warned.

In the last third of the book, Eve 1 steps into the spotlight. I was especially struck by how Sena chose to portray her as intensely sexual. When Eve 1 first gains the ability to manipulate her shape while still in the cell culture incubator, she immediately gives herself a vagina and a finger and puts the two together. She then mouth-rapes Toshiaki’s student in order to gain control of her body for a few days before breaking free, at which point she turns herself into a giant vagina and rapes Toshiaki so as to procure his sperm. I kept thinking to myself, I bet Eve 1 is going to grow a penis and rape the fourteen-year-old next. So, when Eve 1 grew a penis and raped Mariko (after a short jaunt through the sewer), I actually laughed so hard that I cried a little bit. At the very end of the book, it turns out that Eve 1’s offspring cannot live (something about the male mitochondria in her body fighting the female mitochondria; don’t ask me). Instead of using her mitochondrial superpowers to generate a small-scale nuclear reaction and blow everything sky high (as I would have done in her situation), Eve 1’s daughter decides to fuse into the body of her father Toshiaki, and all of their cells have sex before they both die. Brilliant.

Body horror seems to be one of the major selling points of Parasite Eve, but body horror needs to be subtle in order to be truly effective. I believe that the body horror in this novel is unsubtle to an extreme, however, and the book has very few genuinely creepy moments. Also, by the end of the story, I really wanted Eve 1 to succeed in her mission of evolving an all-female race of mitochondria mutants, so I was a bit (okay, extremely) disappointed when both her and her daughter were defeated by the patriarchal power structures that pervade the narrative. Also, the idea that a female character needs to be either an innocent victim, a primordial mother, or a hyper-sexualized aggressor is getting a little stale. Seriously, is the dawn of a female race of X-Men with tentacles really too much to ask for?

To summarize, Parasite Eve is somewhat slow and boring for 175 pages, becomes progressively more gross and strange for the next 100 pages, and then ends in a 15 page orgy of fire and violence and slime. In other words, the pacing is a bit uneven, as is the distribution of action and explanation. Overall, reading Parasite Eve felt uncannily like reading a Michael Crichton novel, including the way that the science became increasingly more outlandish as the story progressed. If you’re a fan of Michael Crichton novels (or Dean Koontz novels), then you’ll probably be able to gloss over the flaws in the writing and enjoy Parasite Eve. Sena is working with very interesting material, after all, and his style is neither dry nor unliterary. The translation flows smoothly, and everything from dialog to the description of surgery has been rendered into natural, idiomatic English. If nothing else, it is worth reading through the first two thirds of the book in order to get to the ending. Especially if you’re into the sort of thing that happens during the ending – and, admit it, who isn’t?