Tag Archives: Japan

Book Review: Romaji Diary by Takuboku Ishikawa

27 Aug

“Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and-a-half-mat room.”

Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991), Rainy Evening at Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo, 1938

In the beginning of August I finally started reading a book which intrigued me immensely: “Romaji Diary and Sad Toys” by Takuboku Ishikawa. A single quote compelled me to read the book because it spoke to me: “How I wished to go somewhere. I walked on with this thought in mind. I wanted to ride a train. That was my thought. I wanted to ride somewhere, anywhere, with no destination in mind and to a place I have never been before.” Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) was a Japanese writer mostly remembered for his tanka and his free-style poems. He died in April 1912 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, tragically too soon, so we can’t know how his literary talents would flourish had he lived longer. The “Romaji Diary” is Ishikawa’s diary written in Japanese but in Latin script (in Japanese it’s called “romaji”) so his wife couldn’t understand it. Ishikawa continues the long literary tradition of keeping a diary which originated in the ninth century.

The diary starts on 7 April and ends on 16 June 1909. We are instantly in the mind of a young person in a big bustling city of Tokyo; a person who is alienated, brooding, slightly cynical, a tad melodramatic and completely honest with himself. Ishikawa’s thoughts and writing style made me think of both Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” which isn’t a diary but is written in the first person, and Kafka, whose letters I have read and enjoyed. Kafka in Japan; Kafka amongst cherry blossoms. Nothingness and loneliness, bring to mind the early days of Manic Street Preachers and I am sure that Richey Edwards, who appreciated Japanese literature and brooding heroes, would appreciate the Romaji Diary as well. One of the recurring topics throughout the diary is the topic of his responsibility towards his family which conflicts with his literary aspirations; I would of course chose the latter and so I can easily empathise and understand how the family and the sentimentality around it can drag an artist down. I also enjoyed that Ishikawa mentions Russian writers and characters from Russian novels because I love some of them too. But now, let me speak no more, here are the quotes which I enjoyed the most and they will show you the style of the diary and Ishikawa’s thoughts:

Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and- a-half-mat room.
What will I look like when, sleeping all alone in this narrow room, I am overcome by some indescribable exhaustion? The final discovery of man is that he is far from great. Such a long time in this narrow room, nursing a weary anxiety and a foolish desire to seek out, by force if necessary, something to interest me— more than two hundred days have come and gone. When will I be able to… No!
Lying in bed, I read Turgenev’s short stories.

Hiroshima Koho – Night View of Ohashi Bridge

When I clasp a warm hand and smell the powerfuI fragrance of a woman’s hair, I am not satisfied with that: I want to embrace a soft and warm and perfectly white body. Oh, the feeling of loneliness when I go back home without fulfilling that desire! It’s not merely a loneliness stemming from unfulfilled sexual desire; it’s a deep, terrible, despairing realization which forces me to see that I am unable to obtain anything I want.”

“I’m exhausted now. And I’m searching for freedom from care. That freedom from care, what’s it like? Where is it? I can’t, even in a hundred years, return to the innocent mind free from pain that I had long ago. Where is peace of mind?
“I want to be ill.”
(…) Oh, for a life of freedom, released from all responsibility! “I wish my family would die!” Even though I’ve desired that, no one dies. “I wish my friends would regard me as their enemy.” For that I wish too, but no one regards me seriously as their foe. All my friends pity me. God! Why am I loved by others? Why can’t I hate men with all my soul? To be loved is an unbearable insult! But I’m tired. I’m a weakling!”

“I ran my fingers over the strings of a samisen I found hanging on a wall, and the upshot was I took the instrument down and clowned around with it. Why had I done such a thing? Was I in high spirits? No! Somehow the feeling overwhelmed me that there wasn’t a place in the entire world for me. “I have a headache, so just for this one night I’ll enjoy myself.” These words weren’t true. So what was I searching for? A woman’s body? Saké? Probably neither. If not, what? I myself didn’t know. My self-consciousness made my mind sink even deeper. I didn’t want to fall into the terrible abyss. Nor did I want to return to my room: it was as if some disgusting thing were waiting for me there.”

Benkei Bridge – Tsuchiya Koitsu, early 20th century, Japan

“And though I can’t endure the pain of this life, I’m unable to do anything about that life. Everything is restraint, my responsibilities heavy. What am I to do? Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” But the question of death in today’s world has become much more complicated than in his time.”

I know now that I have no confidence, that I have no aim, that from morning till night I’m driven by vacillation and anxiety. I have no fixed point in me. What will become of me? A useless key that does not fit! That’s me! Wherever I bring myself, I can’t find the keyhole that fits me!
Dying for a smoke!”

“Everything changes according to the way you look at it,” Obara had said. “People think that day by day they are shortening the fifty or sixty years allotted to them, but I believe life means adding one more new day after each succeeding day, so the passing of time doesn’t pain me in the least.”
“When all is said and done, the happy person is someone like you. A person like you can feel assured deceiving himself in such a way,” I had replied.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

The Days and Nights – Short Stories by Fumiko Hayashi – Now in Paperback

20 Jun

“Obscured by the rain, Mount Fuji was not visible the entire day. But I knew that the moment the sky cleared, a massive mountain would appear before my eyes. As I looked out from the second floor, within the twilight mist a verdant, green cornfield stretched far into the distance.”

(Fumiko Hayashi, The Tryst)

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Evening Glow at Lake Sai, 1938

Last spring and this spring I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two short story collections, “The Downfall and Other Stories” and “The Days and Nights” by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951), translated by J.D.Wisgo. All the short stories were really beautiful and thoughtful, slightly tinged with melancholy, and the atmosphere conveyed in the stories lingers in your room long after you close the pages of the book. The author’s writing style is what really appeals to me, but the choice of motives is interesting as well. Hayashi writes about themes such as loneliness, fate, love, nostalgia and desolation in a way that is both simple and yet deep and thoughtful, the heaviness and lightness of life, the main theme of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, are beautifully combined in Hayashi’s short stories as well. The lives of the characters in her stories are often set in the urban post-war Japan and this gives not only an interesting historical portrait of the times but also a haunting background for the character’s lives; their unique troubles, sadnesses and indecisivness about love and life are set against universally tragical times. When you read those stories, it is easy to see why Fumiko Hayashi is considered one of the most important twentieth-century female Japanese authors. All the stories from the short story collections I talked about above are now united in a single paper-back edition, plus an additional short story called “The Tryst”. All together nine beautiful short stories and you can check them out here. Let me end this short post with a quote from the story “The Tryst”:

We wanted to lie together like this, even for a short while, resisting the fate that was trying to leave us behind. It felt like we were gripping tightly to each other, refusing to let go. I thought that at least for this moment, god would take pity on our honest, glittering souls. (…) We had no time to really decide anything; nor did we have a desire to trick the world and stay together. (…) Believing that a happy ending would never come to two people like us, I was also comforted by the fact we were beyond the age of worrying needlessly about a dark future. I can just feel it – happiness…

All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. (…) I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.

Book Review: The Days and Nights by Fumiko Hayashi

9 Mar

“I’m staying with you. Even if we try to break up, if we don’t wait until things get better with our lives, we’ll be haunting each other forever, like ghosts.”

(Fumiko Hayashi, The Days and Nights)

Utagawa Hiroshige, Cranes Flying Over Waves, 1858

Last spring I had the pleasure of reading Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi’s short stories for the first time and now, in the time of the year when the trees are starting to bloom and crocuses and snowdrops are making their appearance on the meadows, I read more of her wonderful short stories in a new English translation by J.D.Wisgo who, again, did a marvelous job! Translators are usually criminally underrated and I am happy to praise them for their good work and for bringing good literature to those of us who don’t speak the original language. As you know, I love Japanese literature so these stories are a real treasure for me, and it always happens that my interest in Japanese art and literature coincide with the arrival of spring.

Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) was a Japanese novelist and poet who produced her main works in the 1930s and 1940s. This short story collection is called “The Days and Nights” and consists of three short stories; “The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern”, “The Crane’s Flute” and “The Days and Nights”. “The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern” is a story about a man called Takayoshi who is trying to coming to terms with life after his wife’s death and his daughters’ growing up. Possibility of a new love is on the horizon, but, as it often is in Hayashi’s stories, hopes are heart-warming but never come true. The story line is filled with memories of the past, some that bring smile and some that bring bitter heartache because they can never be returned. “The Crane’s Flute” is a beautiful short story which almost feels like some old fairy tale because it has a positive message of the importance of generosity and working together, and it has the element of a flute which makes beautiful sounds: “The flute’s tone was so beautiful that the two cranes felt silly for having always worried about not having food. Bearing a grudge against the many cranes that had flown away without any regard for them, the two cranes had spent their days complaining. But once they obtained the flute, with its exceptionally beautiful tone, they became satisfied with what little food they had, and from then on only spoke about pleasant memories and how they wished good fortune for the cranes who had gone far away.

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Evening at Ushigoma

I read that in her work Hayashi often put an emphasis on free spirited female characters and troubled relationships, and after reading more of her stories I can vouch for that! In fact, the topic of my favourite of the three stories, “The Days and Nights”, is exactly that; a wistful story of two lonely individuals, husband Kakichi and his wife Nakako, unable to decide whether to part their ways after being married for four year and starting their lives anew, annoyed when together, lonely when apart. The reason why I love that story so much is because it’s very lyrical and feels real, that is, the feelings described feel genuine, as if Hayashi knows what she is writing about from her own experience. We find the characters in the ashes of their love, disillusioned and undecided, aware of how dysfunctional and unhappy they are together yet not knowing where to go in life separately.

The story also revolves around the store which Kakichi started with his late wife and the memory of Kakichi’s late wife whose ghost is often on Nakako’s mind, sometimes in an eerie: “But whenever Kakichi began talking about the store they left behind, Nakako was seized by an image of his late wife’s ashes flying through the sky, making an eerie rattling noise. A portion of her ashes had been sent to her hometown, where they now rested in a small urn on the household altar. Every time Nakako heard Kakichi belittle their old store, she grimaced at him, wondering if he too was thinking about his ex-wife’s ashes.” and sometimes in a comical way: “(….) when getting drunk at night she would always slip into bed and dramatically moan, “There’s a ghost! There’s a ghost! But she neither saw a real ghost, nor did her conscience conjure up an imaginary one as a form of punishment; she was simply just not comfortable drinking alcohol and saying, “Oh my, I feel terribly giddy,” in front of her husband, so she would instead yell, “There’s a ghost!”

Kotozuka Eiichi, Drooping Cherry Blossoms, 1950

I also loved how the story line skips from real events happening at the moment, such as a train ride or job-search, to memories, reminiscing, and a wave of nostalgia washes over the story in a most delightful way. Both Kakichi and Nakako are not old, being in their late thirties and late twenties, and yet they both feel old, as if a whole lifetime is behind them. You can really feel the heaviness of life and decisions, and details such as rain and peach blossoms add a lyrical touch to the otherwise grey reality of their lives. I love how the reader doesn’t know until the last page what their final decision will be. Here are some quotes to show you the beautiful way Hayashi portrays feelings of her characters:

“An inexplicable sense of desolation flashed through Kakichi’s mind: after bidding farewell to this store and to this woman, where was he supposed to go? Where was he supposed to live?”

“Kakichi was surprised to see the heavy rain and hid under the eaves of a gas station, but when he glanced at his black shadow stretching out onto the rain-soaked sidewalk, the stark hopelessness of his life struck him hard.”

“(…) the idea of separating from his wife and living on his own seemed unbearably lonely. He had literally nobody but himself, and while the idea of building a life seemed like a heroic thing when his wife had been around, as a man in his late 30s an unspeakably desolate feeling towered over him, saying this was all a futile display of power, and that emptiness gripped Kakichi’s heart with great force. How much easier it would be to simply die of starvation with his wife.”

“Kakichi absent-mindedly wished that this misery would be the first and the last time in his life. If he knew loneliness as intimately as his own hand, then it was like countless of the same gaunt hands were now grabbing at him from all directions. He was unbearably lonely.”

“(…) he felt a burning, decidedly unmanly sensation behind his eyelids. He hadn’t been able to express it in speech or writing, but after separating from Nakako, his love for her came cascading down like a waterfall, and an undefinable fear drifted through not a stream of difficulties with money or life, but through a torrent of love for a tiny woman, and the next moment Nakako’s name was on his lips, about to be spoken.”

All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog and Goodreads page. Also, here you see the book on Amazon.

Skeleton Lover

25 Dec

These dreamy photographs I recently discovered are exactly my cup of the tea. I have already written about the fascinating and macabre yet very popular motif in art, the Death and the Maiden, and these pictures seem to be continuing with the same theme. Something that always comes to mind in connection to young girl’s beauty and mortality is a short story “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” by Nathaniel Hawthorne where the beautiful young maiden Rose is faced with mortality for the first time and Hawthorne describes it very poetically:

She shuddered at the fantasy, that, in grasping the child’s cold fingers, her virgin hand had exchanged a first greeting with mortality, and could never lose the earthly taint. How many a greeting since! But as yet, she was a fair young girl, with the dewdrops of fresh feeling in her bosom; and instead of Rose, which seemed too mature a name for her half-opened beauty, her lover called her Rosebud.

The young, rosy-cheeked girl dressed in white and the skeleton lover who adores her; they are such a lovely couple, wouldn’t you concur? I must say that this skeleton looks more charming and … shall I say handsome than the ones painted by Hans Baldung Grien.

Pictures found here.

Review: Downfall and Other Stories by Fumiko Hayashi

3 May

This April I had the pleasure and honour of reading a short story collection written by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi and newly translated in English by J.D. Wisgo. The five stories in this collection were beautiful, unique gems that deserve a post of their own, and I simply couldn’t resist sharing some beautiful quotes here.

Childe Hassam, The Sonata, 1911

“Returning to Tokyo after a long summer break, Tanimura left his guest house on the outskirts of the city and moved to another one that he discovered on a backstreet near a school.

Gone were the days of opening a window in the morning and looking out at an oak forest, or listening to the piano played by a beautiful girl in the bungalow next door; now when he opened his window in the evening, the dim lights of the city sparkled and the autumn scenery of Tokyo was an utterly refreshing sight for his eyes, filling his chest with great pride in being able to live in such a metropolis.” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House)

It is no secret that I am a massive fan of Japanese literature, there is a certain indescribable sensibility of introspection and sadness, passion from within mingled with external silence, that lingers throughout different novels by different Japanese authors which I just adore! So, naturally, even before I started reading this short story collection, I knew it would be my cup of tea. Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) was a Japanese novelist and poet who produced her main works in the 1930s and 1940s. I read that in her work Hayashi often put an emphasis on free spirited female characters and troubled relationships. While I cannot state this with certainty because I haven’t read any of her other works, I can say that this quality shines though in some of these stories. I read these stories slowly, to truly savour them, and after I would read one I thought to myself “oh this one is my favourite”, and then I would proceed to read another one and would end up with the same thought. All five are so unique and beautiful and it’s difficult to chose.

Fumiko Hayashi, 1924

“The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House” is the first story and it has a mysterious mood which I loved. It’s about a young student Tanimura and his stay at the guest house, meeting a beautiful mysterious woman and falling in love for the first time. At times the story had a Kafkaesque mood of mystery, and at times Tanimura’s obsession with a hair strand and his reaction to things was rather amusing. I loved the contrast of Tanimura’s pleasant memories of days back home with the shining lights of the big city, both scary and promising. “Downfall” follows a young woman who moved from the countryside to Tokyo just after the end of the war to find employment, but instead of a secure job and success, she ends up in all sort of crazy situations.

Picture by @gill.hen on Instagram

“Employment” struck a chord with me in particular because the main character is a frail yet mischievous young girl called Sakiko whose idealist, naive view of the world is in contrast to that of her peers who are already planning their lives out; job, career, marriage. Even from the beginning, Sakiko is behaving in a carefree and childlike way, and I feel like that is her form of rebellion against the constricting world of adulthood:

She didn’t understand why she was so angry. Sitting upon the roots of a pine tree, Sakiko gathered pebbles from the ground and screamed out as she tossed them towards the ocean, throwing like a boy. The pebbles only went a short way before falling onto the nearby sand with a dull thud. On the winter seashore, strong gusts of wind blew in occasionally from the distance. Despite there being no clouds in sight, soft beams of light fell from the sky onto the beach, like scattered needles. Sakiko fell down abruptly onto the sandy ground, rolling around and kicking up bits of dry sand like a dog thrashing about. The sand came in contact with her hot body at her neckline, her sleeves, and the hem of her skirt. The sensation of sand accumulating on her sweaty body felt good. Eventually she thrust out her chest and poured dry sand all over it. The sand smelled of salty seawater.

Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943), The Sea at Sunrise, date unknown

I love the conversation between Sakiko and Ken’ichi which shows differences between their characters and I can really understand how Sakiko feels:

“Everyone is going to graduate college, get a job, find a wife without falling in love, have children, and live happily ever after, right?”
“Alright, that’s enough…Saki, inside your head you’re imagining all sorts of things, giving punishments and rewards to people as you desire…I think maybe that, in the end, the most natural way for us to spend our days is just living an ordinary life…You know, I think you’ve been reading far too many books. (…) But when you get irritated, everyone around you does too. Yesterday, you brought in all that sand, remember? I like the innocent Saki much better…and I think simply getting a job, getting married, and living out one’s days peacefully is more than enough…”
“Oh, how dreadful! I can’t stand close-minded young people like you with your dried-up adolescence…”

Dancers resting on the rooftop of the SKD Theatre Asakusa, Tokyo, 1949, Photo by Takeyoshi Tanuma.

“Consolation” had an air of sadness from start to finish and even though the theme of ruined post-war Tokyo and starving, lost, sad individuals was dreary, there were some quotes that stayed in my mind. “The beautiful city of Tokyo has gone through a series of shocking changes, the day-to-day activities of the dejected metropolis shattered into a million pieces, like myriad unfulfilled dreams. Stricken by the terrible memories of a long, hard war, wrinkles marred the faces of every person on the streets, even the younger folk, their vacant expressions a mixture of bitterness and disappointment.” It’s about a sad old man who spends his days finding food, reminiscing about old, better days, and just trying to survive the chaos all around him. I really loved this thought: “For me all that remains is simply living… After everything that’s happened, I have no desire to end my life. I don’t think I’m better off in the grave just because I’m lonely and alone. I’m terribly fortunate that I’ve never thought about anything like that. Spending our days doing nothing but eating steamed potatoes and sleeping like logs, it’s hard to believe us humans are the supreme beings of creation, don’t you agree?

More than themes of the stories, I enjoyed Hayashi’s writing style. It’s so beautiful yet cuts to the point. I felt like no sentence was unnecessary, and that she never wrote something to show off her writing and bring focus to her skill. Everything was very lyrical and very convincing, she really brought the character’s emotions, personality and struggles of the moment . Sometimes, a single sentence was so beautiful and conveyed so much, for example “It was a beautiful autumn night, the scent of the rain lingering in the air” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House), and “With cheerless facial features like those of a Kyoto doll, her pale skin had an oddly miserable appearance.” (Employment) All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog and Goodreads page.

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in Red Kimono

9 Mar

The same thing happens to me this time of the year when the winter is giving way to spring, the first white blooming trees are looming one the horizon in the pinkish but still chill dusk. A certain rare disease whose symptoms are hard to explain suddenly overwhelms my body and soul, leaving me fatigued, dreamy and unable to think of anything else. The disease is called madness for Japonism. My heart aches for cherry blossoms, zen gardens, mystic temples, lanterns, kimono, the vibrancy and the serenity. Unable to fully cure this madness, I can alleviate the symptoms and the only way to do so is to gaze at Ukiyo-e prints and admire their wonderful strangeness and exoticism, soak myself in Whistler’s serene paintings in white and grey and listen to Debussy’s sonata for flute, viola and harp which instantly transports me to an exotic gardens, fragrant and serene where under moonlight the cherry blossoms spill all their naughty secrets to my ears.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono, Geesje Kwak, 1893-95

Before we properly start with the post, I want us all to take a moment to fully appreciate the gorgeous red colour that Breitner used without shyness on all of these paintings, whether it’s the case of a bold glimmering red kimono with white flower print, or a grey-white kimono with tiny red flowers which look like exploding red stars, so vivacious and so powerful. The red colour on any canvas just transforms things for me, takes them on an entirely new level. It just has a mesmerising effect on me, especially when I think of the delightful contrast between the passionate bold red and the delicate soft pink-white of the newly sprung blossoms.

The main model for all these lovely paintings was a working class sixteen year old girl called Geesje Kwak who had the luck and privilege to be transformed, at least in the artist’s studio and on the canvas, to a beauty from the far east, dressed in fine soft silks and holding a Japanese doll in her hands. This series of Japonism paintings by a Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner is by far the most beautiful example of the portrayal of kimono in the nineteenth century western art. Breitner was nor the first nor the last painter who was inspired by Japanese art but he was a rare one who focused not exclusively on , but solely on kimono, the vibrancy and the patterns.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a kimono (Geesje Kwak) in Breitner’s studio on Lauriersgracht, Amsterdam, 1893

After Japan started trading with the West in 1854, almost over night the Western market was flooded with Japanese woodcut prints known as Ukiyo-e prints. These vibrant, strange and exotic woodcuts were something completely new to the western eyes and soon enough Japonism became all the rage in the artistic circles and this influence didn’t decrease as decades passed but only grew stronger and even influenced the early twentieth century art movements such as Art Nouveau. The Impressionists were the first group of artists to create works inspired by the far east. Artists such as Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Whistler, Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin were all inspired by some aspect of Ukiyo-e prints, whether it’s the perspective, the flatness or the motif.

Breitner, who was acquainted with Japonism during his visit to Paris in 1882, and then again in 1892 he visited the exhibition of Japanese art in the Hague, used a more obvious motif taken from the Japanese art: on more than a dozen canvases in this series he explored the kimono, something that all the ladies in the Ukiyo-e prints are seen wearing. The folds and the shimmer of the silk, the vibrant colours and wild prints all made the kimono an eye-catching and interesting motif to paint. Whistler painted his models in loose kimono-style garments and Monet bought a kimono for his young wife and painted her wearing it in 1876. After the wave of Japonism madness swept him too, Breitner bought a few folding screens and a few pretty kimonos. Now he only needed a delicate flower for a model to wear them and pose for him, and Geesje was in the right place at the right time.

George Hendrik Breitner Girl in Red Kimono Geesje Kwak, 1894

Geesje Kwak. Study for ‘The red kimono’, Photo by Breitner, 1893

George Hendrik Breitner, Sketch for ‘The red kimono’, 1893-95, picture found here.

Little is known about Geesje and we can assume that this mysterious girl would have been forgotten by history if she wasn’t posing for Breitner. She was born as Gezina Kwak in Zaandam on 17 April 1877 and moved to Amsterdam in 1893. She worked either as a seamstress or as a salesgirl in a hat shop. In a right place at a right time, Geesje moved to the street where Breitner’s studio was and soon started modelling for him regularly. Their relationship was strictly professional and Breitner noted down in his notebook the precise hours and duration of her sittings. Before Breitner’s Japanese phase, his passion was the portrayal of the underbelly, the poor and the miserable, and the fact that Geesje was a simple, working class girl appealed to his sense of social awareness. Geesje’s sister Anna also posed for Breitner and you can see her in resplendent red kimono down bellow, but Geesje was the main model.

Geesje would walk around the studio, as in a zen garden, or lounged on the divan, sit in front of the mirror, and Breitner sketched her and even photographed her. It’s a good thing he did because in 1895 Geesje and her sister moved to South Africa where Geesje died in 1899 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two. Beauty tinged with sadness is how I see all the gorgeous paintings. The blossoms of spring, cherry, plum or apple blossoms, are delicate and ephemeral, better gaze at them before they vanish, better paint them before they wither. And I feel the same could be said about Geesje, looking at her life in retrospective; it’s a great thing that Breitner painted her while she was alive and captured her delicate beauty in those gorgeous kimono.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono in Front of a Mirror, 1894

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a White Kimono, c 1894-95

George Hendrik Breitner, Anna (Girl in a Red Kimono), 1894

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a white kimono (Geesje Kwak), 1893

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono (Geesje Kwak), 1895−1896

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a White Kimono, 1894