The Pleasures of Metamorphosis

Title: The Pleasures of Metamorphosis: Japanese and English Fairy Tale Transformations of “The Little Mermaid”
Author: Lucy Fraser
Publication Year: 2017
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Pages: 232

This guest review is by Annaleigh Marshall.

Lucy Fraser’s The Pleasures of Metamorphosis analyzes the idea of “pleasure” through the lens of mermaid stories, all of which branch from Hans Christian Anderson’s original “The Little Mermaid.” From a girl turning into sea foam to a man trying to have sex with a mermaid and then being eaten alive, Fraser uses the transformations present in the texts to show how different societies enjoy them and thus find pleasure in the tales. Through her feminist voice and academic knowledge of Japanese culture, Fraser reevaluates interpretations of both fairy tales and Japanese society.

The Pleasures of Metamorphosis is composed of six chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. Throughout her study, Fraser argues that the pleasure found in the idea of “The Little Mermaid” is achieved through the act of transformation. She discusses not only the legitimacy of being able to transform the fairy tale but also the ways in which this is done. Using concrete examples drawn from literature and film, Fraser shows how authors play with the ideas of Anderson’s original text.

Creators from both Western and Eastern backgrounds transform the figure of the mermaid, resisting the straightforward portrayal of an innocent girl becoming a male possession and transforming her into an adult woman on a journey to find herself within a society of gender norms and restrictive societal rules. The pleasure is in the journey of the characters, authors, and readers, and it exists within a conversation of laughter and societal critique that Fraser argues can only be created by a fairy tale. Fraser maintains a strong connection to the idea of transformation throughout the book, using evidence from multiples sources and disciplines.

Fraser makes it clear that she does not wish to compare the West to the East. Instead she wants to show the reader how fairy tales serve all of humanity as a safe way to critique our societies and experiment with concepts impossible to test in reality. The West and the East are in a cycle of constantly borrowing from one another, transforming and creating something new, sometimes to the extent that the original author does not recognize their own work’s influence. Fraser argues passionately for the idea of cross-cultural transformation, using “The Little Mermaid” as a case study and prime example. She also discusses other fairy tales, such as “The Snow Queen” and “Snow White,” but her primary focus is on the story of a youthful fish-girl going through a metamorphosis to enter the patriarchal world of adults.

Fraser’s writing style is detailed and specific, and she favors a system of presenting an idea and then illustrating this idea with lengthy examples. Often her detail-orientated perspective creates page-long discussions concerning minor details of a story. These extended explorations add strength to her argument that the pleasure of reading fairy tales lies in their transformations. Fraser shows how authors from Oscar Wilde to Japanese postfeminist writer Nonaka Hiiragi take Anderson’s original tale and use their own life experiences, national history, and personal beliefs to create unique retellings of “The Little Mermaid.” Sometimes these stories can act as methods to teach children proper social behavior, while sometimes they serve as a way to question our shared cultures and beliefs.

It should be noted the writing is not as accessible as it could be, as the author frequently uses academic jargon from Gender Studies, Folklore Studies, and Cultural Studies without sufficient explanation, expecting her reader to already understand her terms. The biggest problem lies in the author’s handling of Japanese-language expressions. Since she takes the time to explain these words, she seems not to take Japanese language proficiency for granted. Her explanations of these concepts can feel rushed, however, and she also refers to historical eras in Japanese history without providing a great deal of context, which can be alienating to readers unfamiliar with Japanese language or history.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Fraser’s informative study of the movement of fairy tales across national and cultural borders. By incorporating an interdisciplinary viewpoint, she is able to depict multiple perspectives on the transformative use of Anderson’s classic story as a means of understanding both society and individuals. As Fraser argues, we are all mermaids waiting for our metamorphosis, and the pleasure we find in mermaid stories exists in the potential for transformation.

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Annaleigh Marshall is a rising senior double majoring in English and Modern Languages at George Mason University. She has previously published an essay on Hawai’ian Pidgin in the George Mason Review (link), and you can find her full professional profile on LinkedIn (link). Annaleigh is passionate about linguistics and translation, and she aims to enter the field of video game localization when she graduates.

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.

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.”

Gold Rush

Title: Gold Rush
Japanese Title: ゴールドラッシュ (Gōrudo Rasshu)
Author: Yū Miri (柳 美里)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2002 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Pages: 286

I recently stumbled across an article titled Reading List: Books to Help You Understand Japan, which is a transcript of a conversation between NPR’s Neal Conan, the Brooklyn-based poet Kimiko Hahn, and Donald Keene, who recently retired from Columbia University in order to live in Japan. When Hahn and Keene were asked to list their top five works for understanding Japan in the wake of the recent disasters that have beset the country, they fired off titles like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness. This bothers me for three reasons.

The first reason is the blatant cultural essentialism, or the idea that one can understand everything about contemporary Japan by reading texts written in the Heian period, as if nothing has changed in the past thousand years. It’s like saying that one can understand everything about contemporary America by reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Japanese people live (and have always lived) in harmony with nature and posses (and have always possessed) an innate understanding of the beauty of impermanence – and Americans are all God-fearing Puritans who stifle their artistic creativity and capitalistic interests in order to serve their small agricultural communities.

The second reason is the academic elitism. The Tale of Genji is indeed a great monument of Japanese literature. It is also more than a thousand pages long, written in a style that is frustratingly elliptical, and set in a time period and society that are fairly alien to anything a contemporary American (or Japanese) reader would be familiar with. Reading The Tale of Genji is hard, and reading it without guidance is even harder. To assume that even a highly educated and intelligent reader could just pick it up and understand the unadulterated beauty of every word is somewhat presumptuous. Hahn’s recommendation of two literary anthologies is even more baffling. It’s like saying, hey, if you can’t crack open a 421-page anthology of medieval literature and read it in one sitting, there must be something wrong with you.

The final reason is the utterly bizarre assumption that, in order to understand the contemporary Japanese imagination of disaster, one need not read anything either written or set later than 1945. This is doubly strange to me, as Donald Keene recently published an excellent translation of Oda Makoto’s 1998 novel The Breaking Jewel (Gyokusai), which depicts a Japanese soldier’s harrowing experiences during the last few weeks of the Pacific War. Moreover, even if tales of firebombings and severe food shortages and suicide attacks and two atomic bombs and total defeat and occupation by a foreign power wouldn’t give us any insight into postwar and post-earthquake Japanese society, perhaps something like Murakami Haruki’s After the Quake, written in the wake of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, presumably would. To suggest that we can best understand Japanese anxieties regarding nuclear power by reading the poetic travel diaries of Bashō is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

I think Yū Miri’s novel Gold Rush is a perfect antidote to the sort of essentialist thinking demonstrated in the conversation on NPR. Gold Rush is set in Yokohama’s Kogane-chō neighborhood, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of neighborhood filled with small bars, cheap restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. When most people think of Yokohama, they probably picture the swanky and high-tech Minato Mirai waterfront area or the upscale Motomachi shopping and residential district that serves as the setting of several Tanizaki and Mishima novels. Kogane-chō, however, is a grungy, run-down pleasure quarter that has seen better days, as is the neighboring Isezaki-chō. The streets are dirty, the Ōoka River is dirty, the karaoke bars are dirty, the train station is dirty, the cheap hotels under the railway bridge are dirty, and I imagine that even the many soaplands that dot the area are dirty. Gold Rush begins when four middle school boys pick up a high school girl in this neighborhood. They get her drunk, have her come with them to one of their houses, and then rape her. To be more precise, three of them rape her, and one of them watches.

The one who watches is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kazuki, and abetting a rape is just the beginning for him. If trigger warnings were applied to mainstream fiction, Gold Rush would be slapped with all of the big ones. Rape, violence, child abuse, murder, more rape, more child abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, sexism, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, more child abuse, and then more rape. There is also a particularly nasty scene in which Kazuki kills a dog with a golf club. One might question the existence of a plot buried under all of these triggers, but the plot isn’t really the point of the novel. The reader is instead engrossed in following Kazuki’s slow psychological deterioration from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. Kazuki is like Holden Caulfield on crack, and the reader can’t help but identify with his adolescent frustration at the realization that his life and his destiny are not entirely his own, even if he continually takes his rage one step too far. The people who surround Kazuki aren’t much better than he is in terms of acting like decent human beings, and the world they all live in is a bitter, nasty place. In a way, though, Gold Rush is also a twisted sort of love letter to Kogane-chō and the low city charm that permeates it.

Reading Gold Rush is like reading a full-length Ionesco play like Rhinocéros (or a Bret Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho) in that it’s trenchant and biting and brilliantly absurd, but difficult to actually read for the very same reasons. It doesn’t help that Gold Rush is two hundred and fifty pages of ultraviolence unmitigated by chapter breaks. If there’s a reason the novel won the Akutagawa Prize, however, it’s because the writing is excellent. Perhaps it’s also because the physical and psychological spaces written by Yū Miri are more than a little familiar to Japanese readers. So yes, classics like The Tale of Genji are very Japanese, but so is Gold Rush, which is written by a zainichi Korean telling a story about juvenile delinquency in a decaying neighborhood of a seedy commuter city. Yū is a good writer, she tells a good story, and Gold Rush is good Japanese literature. It might even give the reader some small insight into contemporary Japan as well.

Kazuo Ishiguro and the Problem of “Japaneseness”

The Remains of the Day is a really, really good book. In fact, it’s an excellent book. This is not a review of The Remains of the Day, however. It is instead a meditation on the thorny problem of whether the work of Kazuo Ishiguro can be considered “Japanese” literature.

The essence of this problem is “Japaneseness.” What is it, who has it, and who doesn’t? Since I am an American, it’s useful for me to consider the related problem of “Americanness.” How does one become culturally American? Is such a feat accomplished by matriculating into high school, taking classes, going to football games on Friday nights, agonizing over whom to invite to the prom, and listening to My Chemical Romance while studying for the SAT? If so, what happens when experiences of high school are radically different? I am referring not merely to disparities in experience according to one’s rank in the imaginary jock/geek hierarchy, but rather to the diversity of the experiences of a student in a small rural school in the South, and a student in a rich private school in New York, and a student in a large suburban school in the Midwest, and a student in school with a large immigrant population in southern Arizona. There are many different types of Americanness, as any young hipster from Seattle or old Republican from Mississippi could tell you. For me personally, moving from Atlanta to Philadelphia was like moving to a different country.

Although Japan is smaller than America in terms of both population and land area, there is an enormous diversity of Japaneseness. Younger Japanese do not grow up in the same world as their parents, who in turn did not grow up in the same world as their parents. The rural/urban divide is fairly pronounced, as is the divide between geographical locations (such as between Tōhoku and Kantō, or between Tokyo and Osaka). There are also a number of ethnic minorities in Japan, such as the burakumin, the Okinawans, and any number of resident Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos. The people living on the Japanese archipelago speak many markedly different dialects of Japanese, and different groups of people were taught and believe in different versions of Japanese history. We group all of these people together and call them “Japanese,” but the nation of Japan is an imagined community just like any other, and the degrees to which individuals opt into (or opt out of) this community can vary significantly.

Even though there is really no such thing as “Japaneseness,” I believe there should be a place in a college curriculum for courses like “Introduction to Japanese Civilization.” In order to teach such a class, a professor has to make up a story, and it is often useful for that story to be told teleologically (chronologically from “beginning” to “end”) instead of thematically. Even though the professor knows that he or she is simplifying and omitting and thereby telling a story that isn’t necessarily true, it’s still important to have a story to tell. An outline of Japan colored with rough brushstrokes is better than an outline of Japan left blank, after all. A constructed story is useful not only as a teaching device but also as a cultural bridge; it is in many ways worthwhile to tell students just beginning to learn about Japan the same story that many Japanese tell themselves.

Therefore, when we talk about “Japanese” literature, we need to decide what counts as “Japanese.” This is more difficult than it initially seems. For example, take T.S. Eliot, who was born and raised in America but spent his adult life in Britain and considered himself British. Is Eliot an American poet, or is he a British poet? My high school textbook couldn’t decide. Vladimir Nabokov is another good example. Although he grew up in Russia and in many ways consciously retained his Russian heritage (by translating his own works from and into Russian, for example), he lived in America (and Berlin, and Switzerland) and wrote in English. Is Nabokov American or Russian or something else altogether? The blurb on the back of the Vintage editions of his books skillfully evades the matter. An even trickier example is Tawada Yōko, who lives in Germany and writes poems and stories in both German and Japanese about being a Japanese person in Germany. Two major contemporary Japanese writers, Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki, not only speak other languages besides Japanese but also frequently spend long stretches of time living outside Japan.

Assigning “Japaneseness” to any one person is therefore difficult; but, in the end, it is convenient to be able to draw a line somewhere, even if that line is in the faintest of pencil. In terms of literature, I think it’s reasonable to categorize anything written in the Japanese language(s) as Japanese literature. But what about texts not written in Japanese? Specifically, can we call the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, who grew up in England and writes in English about being English in England, Japanese literature?

I would like to argue that this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. First of all, assuming that someone is Japanese simply because of his name comes dangerously close to racism. If “racism” is too loaded a term, then perhaps “culturalism” might be better. Is there some ineffable quality about someone of Japanese descent that makes him irrevocably “Japanese”? If nothing else, to point to someone who has grown up in the same cultural background and call him different because of his name or the color of his skin or his parents’ country of origin is problematic, to say the least.

Second, including Ishiguro in a canon of modern Japanese authors feels somewhat ethnocentric to me. The Japanese themselves consider Ishiguro to be a foreign writer – his novels are translated into Japanese, and his name is written in katakana like the names of other foreign authors. Ishiguro’s relationship with Japan is complicated, but he himself has said in so many words that he doesn’t consider himself to be a Japanese writer. To ignore the claims of the author and the Japanese literary establishment and to insist that novels written by a British citizen in English about Britain are Japanese literature seems misguided at best and pigheaded at worst, as if the Japanese themselves cannot produce or canonize their own literary works. One might as well call Muriel Bradbury’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog a classic of Japanese literature simply because it features a Japanese character and a few amateurish haiku.

I started thinking about Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Japaneseness” when I was sent a list of 20 Essential Works of Japanese Literature from Bachelor’s Degree Online. I have many problems with this list (including, most obviously, the fact that The Woman in the Dunes was written by Abe Kōbō and not Teshigahara Hiroshi, who directed the film version), but the inclusion of a male writer who isn’t even “Japanese” at the expense of many fantastic female writers was like a kick in the gut, especially considering that the ratio of modern male authors to modern female authors is thirteen to one. Even if one wanted to make a case for a literature of diaspora, wouldn’t Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World be a better choice than The Remains of the Day?

In the end, though, who is to say what is Japanese and what isn’t? What I have stated is merely my opinion, and my opinion is that perhaps it makes more practical sense to keep Ishiguro on the list of The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945 instead of forcibly transplanting him onto a list that begins with the Kōkin Wakashū.

Japanese Literature for the Kindle

I am both a reader and a traveler. I read at least a dozen books every month, and I find myself on a plane at least once every two months. I love physical books, I really do; but, because I am a reader and a traveler, the physicality of books has started to become a burden, literally. I hate walking through airports with a bag full of books strapped to my back, and I am running out of shelf space in my apartment. So I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a Kindle. Having now spent the weekend playing with my new toy, I thought perhaps I should share what I have learned concerning the availability of Japanese literature on the Kindle.

To my complete and utter lack of surprise, everything Murakami Haruki has ever had published by Vintage is on the Kindle. The other Murakami, Murakami Ryū, has three short novels (Piercing, Audition, and Popular Hits of the Shōwa Era) available. The psychological crime fiction of Kirino Natsuo is also up and ready for download. All of this is as it should be, since Kirino and the two Murakamis are extraordinarily fun, engaging, and popular writers.

Some of the more classic authors of Japanese fiction, such as Ōe Kenzaburō, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō, have only one digital book apiece (The Changeling, The Old Capital, and Seven Japanese Tales, respectively). The real winner of the e-book contest for canonized classics seems to be Natsume Sōseki, who has everything from Kokoro to Kusamakura to Ten Nights of Dream available, thanks to Penguin.

Newer, less canonized fiction has not fared quite as well, however. Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Nonami Asa, Kanehara Hitomi, and Sakurai Ami, have absolutely nothing on the Kindle store. Vertical has none of its catalog listed, either (at least not to my knowledge). If you’re into science fiction, though, you’re in luck – Haikasoru has digital editions of a handful of its titles, such as Slum Online and The Lords of the Sands of Time, up on the Kindle store. Perhaps the best deal out of Haikasoru’s digital selection is Miyabe Miyuki’s Brave Story, which is a massive physical book being offered at a nice discount in its digital edition.

If you’re the sort of person who reads academic nonfiction as a hobby, there are much better places to go to obtain digital texts, but the Kindle store does have a few good titles available, like Christine Marran’s Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture (the list price for which is about $15). Routledge also offers a few tomes on Japanese literature for upwards of $85. One assumes they are doing this just to be funny, especially since they’ve posted their Companion to Critical Theory and Companion to Postmodernism for less than $20.

Finally, unless I am missing something very important, I don’t think there is a great deal of manga worth mentioning available on the Kindle. Again, this is probably as it should be. Although the text on the device is crisp and clear and beautiful, I don’t think the screen is big enough or has a high enough resolution to handle the sort of compact image formatting involved in most manga. If you want to read manga on your e-reader, it’s probably better to invest in a Nook, which is partnered with Digital Manga, or an iPad, which has apps for Yen Press, Viz Media, and other publishers. If you’re into scanlations (shame on you) and aren’t too picky about image quality, however, there is a lot of neat software floating around that will help you make the most of the Kindle. [EDIT: Digital Manga now has several titles available for the Kindle. One of my favorites is Kunieda Saika’s two-volume boys’ love title Future Lovers.]

The one thing I’m still not too terribly clear on is the relationship between the Kindle and Amazon.co.jp. Although the new Kindle 3G model can read and display Japanese, there don’t seem to be any digital texts available on the Japanese Amazon website. I know that Kodansha had entered into negotiation with Amazon half a year ago, but I’m not sure how that panned out. So far, it seems that it hasn’t. On the front of Japanese-language literature, then, it seems that perhaps the iPad is the place to be. The Japanese publishing market is a bit insular, to say the least, and I’m not sure how friendly said market is to digitization. Perhaps the iPad, which is neither an e-reader nor a computer but an entirely different beast altogether, is the most conducive platform for international digital textual exchange. If only it weren’t woefully beyond my budget, alas.

Audition

Title: Audition
Japanese Title: オーディション (Ōdishon)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 191

The first order of business in any review of Audition should be to spoil the plot. (If you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this review. Don’t look at the front cover of the book, either.) My justification for giving everything away is that the ending of this book lends such a delicious flavor to the rest of the story that trying to keep it a secret is pointless, and probably fairly cruel as well.

With that in mind, the premise of Audition is as follows: a middle-aged producer named Aoyama is looking to re-marry after his son mentions that Aoyama’s wife, Ryoko, died seven years ago and that it’s time for him to move on. Since Ryoko was such a wonderful woman, and since Aoyama is more or less satisfied with his current life, however, his standards in women are high. Aoyama’s friend and fellow producer Yoshikawa suggests that Aoyama interview prospective brides as part of a film audition tailored to his specifications. Aoyama reluctantly agrees and ends up meeting Yamasaki Asami, a beautiful 24-year-old woman who seems perfect in every way. Yoshikawa is suspicious of Asami, but Aoyama has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and will have no one else. It turns out that Yoshikawa has every reason to be suspicious, since Asami has a bad habit of drugging and torturing her boyfriends who cannot love only her. Does this include the sincere and good-intentioned Aoyama? You bet it does. The final thirty pages of Audition are a torture-fest graphic enough to test even the most strong-stomached of readers, even as they delightfully revel in the violence and subtle sexuality of the scene.

I generally find comparisons between books and movies to be boring and pointless, but director Miike Takashi’s 1999 adaptation of Audition is such a cult classic that I feel it should be mentioned. Is the novel different from the movie? Of course it is. It goes without saying that certain plot elements are different, but perhaps the most interesting difference is that, while the film focuses on the back story of Asami, the novel pays much more attention to Aoyama. Thus, the horrifically grotesque images associated with Asami’s apartment are missing from the novel. Instead, the reader is party to Aoyama’s absolute fixation with Asami in a brilliant parody of the genre of romance. For example, Murakami describes Aoyama seeing Asami in person for the first time as an amazing, magical moment:

Silhouetted against the off-white walls, she walked to the chair, bowed with modest grace, and sat down. That was all, but Aoyama had a very distinct sensation that something extraordinary was happening all around him. It was like being the millionth visitor to an amusement park, suddenly bathed in spotlights and a rain of balloons and surrounded by microphones and flashing cameras. As if luck, normally dispersed in billions of tiny, free-floating, gemlike particles, had suddenly coalesced in a single beatific vision – a vision that changed everything, forever.

Oh, Aoyama, if only you knew! The dramatic irony of passages like this is superb, and there are a lot of them to enjoy, each one more imaginatively written than the next. Also, since the written word does not have quite the visual power of the silver screen, Asami’s sexuality and sex appeal are presented differently as well, again from the perspective of Aoyama. We never get to see her in knee-high boots and a black rubber apron, but her “hard, tender nipples” and “lust-crazed pussy” are mentioned more than a few times as the book approaches its climax, so to speak. In the end, though, the novel is infinitely less gut-wrenchingly visceral than the film. I think both the film and the novel are brilliant texts, but the novel is much more accessible to a broader audience.

(By the way, I am not kidding about how hideously upsetting the film is. If you have not seen Audition, don’t see Audition. I’m serious. It’s traumatizing. Read the book instead.)

Before I end this review, I’d like to briefly address the issue of the book’s sexism. Although the story may seem to reference the female revenge scenario, the fact that Asami is certifiably insane, as well as her presentation as utterly inhuman and her complete lack of interiority, cancel out any sort of argument for female agency or empowerment. The real case against patriarchal privilege is made through Aoyama. Although Aoyama seems like a decent guy in many ways, the underlying current of his thinking is undeniably sexist. Precisely because Aoyama comes off as such a nice guy, the critique of his sexism and the broad societal sexism that informs it is much more effective. In the book’s closing lines, Asami calls Aoyama a liar, and she is right, even if her words are unintelligible save when voiced by Aoyama’s son. Make no mistake, Audition is written from a completely male perspective, but the light it sheds on how sexism is tied to contemporary Japanese masculinity is interesting and invaluable.