Tag Archives: Japan

Book Review: Summer of Strangers (and Other Stories) by Masao Yamakawa

4 Jul

“The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.
The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?”

(Masao Yamakawa, The Gift of Loneliness)

Georges Lacombe, Blue Seascape, Wave Effect, 1893

We are starting this July on the blog with my little review of the short story collection called “Summer of Strangers (And Other Stories)” by the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa which was recently translated by J.D.Wisgo. I have already written a few book reviews for short stories “The Days and Nights” and “Downfall and Other Stories” by Fumiko Hayashi, both translated by the same translator.

The author of these short stories is the Japanese writer Masao Yamakawa who was born in 1930 in Tokyo. He wrote his university thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre and worked as the editor of the literary magazine “Mita Bungaku” which is interesting because that magazine published famous Japanese authors such as Tanizaki Junichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke; I enjoyed the works of both of these writers immensely. Yamakawa’s short story “The Summer Procession” is one of his most well-known. Sadly, Yamakawa died at the age of thirty-four as a result of a traffic accident, but his work is popular in Japan even today. The book contrains seven stories; “The Gift of Loneliness”, “You in a Box”, “Summer of Strangers”, “The Distorted Window”, “The Summer Procession”, “No More Summers”, and “Fireworks of the Day”. Each story is presented both in the English translation and in the original form, that is, in Japanese. I think this would be very fun and useful for someone who was studying Japanese language. It was interesting for me too, I will admit it.

Photo by Mervyn O’Gorman, 1913

As you can see, each story has a title that is delicious and alluring and I found it hard to chose which one to read first! What struck me with these stories is how different they are to each other, how uniquely crafted and individualistic, not following a certain plot-formula or having repetitive, recurring motives. And also, how the stories often take a surprising turn. When I would start reading each story, I always finished reading it and feeling surprised: “whoa, I did not expect that!” That was literally my reaction and that made reading all the more fun. The first story I read was “Summer of Strangers” because the title was very inviting and I love how it contained a story within a story: the main character who lives in a coastal, touristy town is swimming one night and meets a mysterious woman and, fearing that she might intend to commit suicide by drowning, he tells her a tale that his father would tell him. This tale, although affirming the individual’s right to decide whether to live or die, ends up saving the woman’s life and changing her perspective on things.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

The second story I read was “The Gift of Loneliness” because, again, the title made me curious. The story starts with a man and a woman sitting on the beach. We find out they are a husband and a wife, but they are emotionally distant from each other… Winter time is approaching in the story and the cold, raging sea seems to mirror the coldness and turmoils that the couple is experiencing. This image of two people, joint together by love and/or marriage, but feeling distanced from one another instantly brought to mind the famous painting by Edvard Munch called “The Lonely Ones” from 1895. In the painting the man and a woman are standing on the beach, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals…? The mood of the story, at least in the beginning, feels similar and quickly we find out the reason behind the mood: a month ago their four-year old son Hiroshi had died, drowned in that very same sea. Here is a passage from the beginning:

It seems like Hiroshi was everything to you,” the man says, forcing a smile. “But Ryoko, you were my wife to begin with…even before you became Hiroshi’s mother.”

The man seems to be calling out to her, but the wind makes his voice difficult to hear.

The woman does not turn around. Far out in the indigo sea, a faint mist hangs in the air.

The sea churns. Surely Hiroshi has already dissolved into the ocean. A month has already passed since the waves carried off his tiny, four-year-old body. Why did we ever go to the beach in September in the first place…
(…)
The man is calling me again. My husband must be worried.

Husband? Is that really my husband? He’s like a stranger to me, a man I’ve never seen before.

Suddenly the sea screams. A powerful roar. It engulfs her.

The woman sees herself in the sea. She calls out to that other self.

The sea took you from us, Hiroshi. Then you became one with it…I wonder, if I throw myself into the sea, will I become one with you?

“Let’s head back to the hotel soon.”

The man’s hand holds her shoulder tightly. Gazing at her from the side with a cautious look in his eyes, the man’s stiff cheeks force a smile. Silly man. You actually think I would jump from here.

“I’m ok. Let go of me,” the woman says. “If I wanted to die, I would have been dead long ago.”

Through the characters’ conversations and visual imagery, the story beautifully captures the sadness of loosing a child, and, as the title suggests, it brings a thought-pondering idea about loneliness being a gift, giving someone some time and space out of love as a gift.

Tanigami Konan (1879-1928), Dahlia, 1917

First and last pictures here by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel”

(The Cure, Pictures of You)

The story that especially surprised me the way it turned out to be is “You in a Box” because at first we are presented with a shy, withdrawn, slightly socially awkward woman whose coyness reaches such levels that she cannot even look a man in the eye, but as the story unfolds we discover that her shy, frightened demeanour hides an entirely different nature; twisted passions and a distrust, a fear of any relationship with people, with men in particular. The story begins with her strolling around park, meeting a stranger – a tourist and taking his picture, but this innocent start mustn’t fool you because things turn deadly very quickly…

I especially found this inner monologue of hers chilling: “Darling, I’m really sorry about killing you…but just deal with it, ok? You see, I’m scared of the living. I can’t predict what they’ll do, and people who are alive will never truly become mine. In this form, you’re very obedient and will never betray me. Now there’s no reason for us to hide things from each other. I’m sure that you aren’t lonely either. Let’s live together like this forever, happily ever after…” While I was reading the story my perception of who is the predator and who I should hate and fear changed almost instantly as the events in the story unfolded.

Even though the story is very short, the character of the woman in it is very psychologically complex and the story left me feeling haunted for days. At first she struck me as a creepy horror film character, but as this sensation subsided, I came to see the woman as a deeply lonely individual and the story shows how intense loneliness, isolation, and distrust of people can lead to harrowing acts of aggresion. In a way, the woman in the story reminded me of the character Etsuko from Yukio Mishima’s novel “Thirst for Love”; she is also a shy, private person but her calm exterior hides rage and an obsessive love which turns deadly.

I enjoyed all the stories in the book, but this post would be too long to mention them all so I just mentioned the ones that struck me the most. 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.

This book is available here on Amazon.

Uemura Shoen – Flames

21 May

“You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

Uemura Shoen, Flames, 1918

The title of Uemura Shoen’s painting, “Flames”, is somewhat in a discord with the painting’s gentle, subdued appearance.The title “Flames” inplies the flames of jealousy and the woman portrayed here is Lady Rokujo; the heroine of Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari). The motives of leaves and delicate spider webs speak of the tranquility of nature, but the feelings rising in Lady Rokujo’s soul are all but tranquil. The lady’s pale skin hides a scarlet coloured rage, but still waters run deep and Rokujo’s feelings are deep and passionate. She is biting the strand of her long, long black hair and this gesture speaks of the tormenting state that this lady has found herself in. The pose that she is in; stylised and contorted also adds to the tense, anguished mood that she is in. The lady’s elegance and her porcelain pale skin makes her look like a doll and that is something we see often in Shoen’s paintings of women.

Shoen specialised in the genre called bijin-ga; a genre of pictures that show beautiful women, especially popular in the Ukiyo-e prints. Often times these beautiful women were prostitutes, but that is not always the case and it is certainly not the case with Shoen’s paintings such as this one. Shoen was born in 1875 and in those times it was very unusual for a woman to be a professional painter. Women who could paint well were viewed as cultured, but it was something only to be done as a hobby, behind closed doors, not something a woman could do as a career. Shoen was born two months after the death of her father and luckily she had a supportive mother who encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. Shoen was sent to Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was twelve years old and there she found a great tutor alled Suzuki Shonen who was the painter of Chinese-style landscapes. He gave her freedom to paint whatever she wanted, even painting human figures which was something that was allowed only in later years of training. Indeed, painting female figures was something that Shoen loved best and this painting proves just how skilled she was at portraying the psychology of the character. Shonen also gave Shoen the first kanji “sho” to use in her name. Shoen’s original birth name was Uemura Tsune.

The topic of jealousy instantly made me think of this passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” where the dark and brooding Mr Rochester tells this to Jane:

You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base. But I tell you — and you may mark my words — you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current — as I am now.

Kasamatsu Shiro – Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain and The Ginza on a Spring Night

3 Apr

“That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.”

(L.M.Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea)

Kasamatsu Shiro, Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain, 1935

These two woodblock prints by the Japanese print maker and engraver Kasatasu Shiro (1898-1991), “Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” and “The Ginza on a Spring Night” are very similar and contrasting at the same time. Both prints portray the scene of a spring rain and night; motives that seem to be recurring in the art of Kasamatsu Shiro, and both prints show a scene with architecture and people. Still, the moods of these prints are very different. In “Yushim Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” the scene of the Tenjin shrine in spring rain is seen through a greyish-blue mist. We, the viewers, are observing the scene from a porch, safely hidden under a roof while the rain is drizzling. The pigeons have also found their safe haven under that same roof. The figures in the distance are all holding umbrellas. The bare tree branches, a pigeon in its flight, the puddles of rain on the ground; little details such as these help to convey the mood of tranquility and perhaps even a touch of melancholy. Here and there we can see the warm yellow light of the lanterns. The horizontal shape of the print adds to the calm, serene mood of the scene and the visual space is nicely broken up into different parts with the wooden columns on the porch; this is a detail typical for Japanese art. In contrast, the print “The Ginza on a Spring Night” shows a scene from a bustling city of Tokyo. Shiro depicts a busy street scene and the vertical format of the print really fits the mood, in the same way the horizontal format fits the meditative mood of the previous print. Women wearing kimono and dresses, men in their suits, everyone is walking down the street on a spring night. Where are they all going, I can’t help but wonder? The blueness of the night is mingling with the yellow light of the streelamps. A thin tree with blossoming branches is stretching itself towards the sky, as if it is thirsty to soak in the silvery light of the moon. It is interesting how the passersby in the foreground are drawn more in detail while the ones in the background are drawn merely as dark shadows. These two prints both depict the motif of a spring night and rain but they are full of contrasts; spiritual versus secular (one print showing the shrine and the other a city scene), tranquility versus liveliness, nature versus city, meditation versus frivolity and fun.

Kasamatsu Shiro, The Ginza on a Spring Night (Haru no yo, Ginza), 1934

Camellia: the most deceitful of all flowers (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

15 Mar

My go-to book for the late winter and early spring days is Natsume Soseki’s novel “The Three-Cornered World”; it is soothing, meditative, lyrical and inspiring. 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 novel is filled with the narrator’s observations on nature, art and life. Every time I read the novel, something new catches my attention and this time it was this passage on the topic of the camellia flower so I decided to share it today. The narrator talks about the shape, the red colour of the camellia flower, the way it withers, how seductive it is… I never spend much time thinking about camellias, but now I cannot get them out of my mind! Still, there is another reference to camellias in the novel “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas fils so we can conclude that camellia is a naughty flower. Enjoy the passage bellow from the novel!

Cao Jianlou, Camellia, 1981, ink and colour on paper scroll, 95.2 x 44 cm

“I was now standing beneath the spreading branches of a large tree, and suddenly felt cold. Over on the far bank camellia bushes bloomed among the shadows. Camellia leaves are too deep a green, and have no air of lightheartedness even when seen in bright sunlight. These particular bushes were in a silent huddle, set back five or six yards in an angle between the rocks, and had it not been for the blossoms I should not have known that there was anything there at all. Those blossoms! I could not of course have counted them all if I had spent the whole day at it; yet somehow their brilliance made me want to try.

The trouble with camellia blossoms is that although they are brilliant they are in no way cheerful. You find that in spite of yourself your attention is attracted by the violent blaze of colour, but once you look at them they give you an uncanny feeling. They are the most deceitful of all flowers. Whenever I see a wild camellia growing in the heart of the mountains, I am reminded of a beautiful enchantress who lures men on with her dark eyes, and then in a flash injects her smiling venom into their veins. By the time they realise that they have been tricked it is too late.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858), Camellia and Bullfinch, c 1833

No sooner had I caught sight of the camellias opposite than I wished I had not done so. Theirs was no ordinary red. It was a colour of eye-searing intensity, which contained some indefinable quality. Pear blossoms drooping despondently in the rain only arouse in me a feeling of pity, and the cool aronia bathed in pale moonlight strikes the chords of love. The quality of camellia blossoms, however, is altogether different. It speaks of darkness and evil, and is something to be feared. It is, moreover apparent in every gaudy petal. These blossoms do not give the impression that they are flattering you, nor do they show that they are deliberately trying to entice you. They will live in perfect serenity for hundreds of years far from the eyes of man in the shadow of the mountains, flaring into bloom and falling to earth with equal suddenness. But let a man glance at them even for an instant, and for him it is the end. He will never be able to break free from the spell of the enchantress. No, theirs is no ordinary red. It is the red of an executed criminal’s blood which automatically attracts men’s gaze and fills their hearts with sorrow.

As I stood watching, a red flower hit the water, providing the only movement in the stillness of spring. After a while it was followed by another. Camellia flowers never drift down petal by petal, but drop from the branch intact. Although this in itself is not particularity unpleasant since it merely suggests an indifference to parting, the way in which they remain whole even when they have landed is both gross and offensive to the eye. If they continue like this, I thought, they will stain the whole pond red.

Already the water in the immediate vicinity of the peacefully floating blossoms seemed to have a reddish tint. Yet another flower dropped and remained as motionless as if it had come to rest on the bank. There goes another. I wondered whether this one would sink. Perhaps over the years millions of camellia blossoms would steep in the water and, having surrendered their colour, would rot and eventually turn to mud on the bottom. If that should happen, then they might imperceptibly build up the bed of this old stagnating pond until in thousands of years time the whole area would return to the plain it had been originally. Now a large bloom plunged downwards like a blood-smeared phantom. Another fell, and another, striking the water like a shower of pattering raindrops.”

Raphael Kirchner: Geisha, Mikado, Santoy

23 Feb

“Blossoms at night

And the faces of people

Moved by music.”

(Kobayashi Issa)

Raphael Kirchner, Santoy, 1900

Earlier this month I wrote a post about the elements of Japonisme in Raphael Kirchner’s postcard-illustrations and today I am returning to the topic of Kirchner’s postcards but this time the motif of Japan is even more directly explored. In the postcards featured in my previous post the elements of Japonisme could be seen in many different compositional formats, in the flat surface, the stylised figures and vibrant colour, but in these postcard-illustrations we still have all those stylistic elements taken from Japanese Ukiyo-e prints but now the motives themselves are Japanese with pretty geisha-inspired girls with flowers in their hair, fans, parasols, and the motif of lanterns to set the Oriental tone.

Raphael Kirchner was born in Vienna on 5th May 1875. He took music lessons, attended Conservatoire in Vienna and from 1890 to 1894 he was a student at the Vienna school of Art. He began his art career by painting portraits but quickly switched to making illustrations for magazines and newspapers. In 1897 he started drawing illustrations for a woman’s magazine “Wiener Illustrirte”. In 1900 he moved to Paris, settled in Montmartre and it was during this time that he created the most beautiful, most vibrant and captivating artworks. These illustrations were in fact postcards printed in different series with different motifs; for example the “Perfume” series features pretty La Belle Epoque ladies as allegories for different perfume smells such as patchouli or white rose.

Kirchner made three Japanese inspired series in 1900 called “Geisha”, “Mikado” and “Santoy”. These series of postcards were inspired by the plays of the same name. “The Geisha, a story of a tea house” was an Edwardian musical comedy in two acts which opened in 1896 in Daly’s Theatre in London. “The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu” was a comic opera in two acts which openend on 14 March 1885 in London at the Savoy Theatre. “San Toy, or the Emperor’s Own” is a musical comedy in two acts first performed on 21 October 1899 at the Daly’s Theatre in London. All three comedies were inspired by the dreams of the distant Orient and were immensely popular with the audiences at the time. Probably my favourite illustration is the one above, from the Santoy series, because it is just so vibrant and exciting! The composition is interesting; it feels as if we are in the middle of the path and on both sides the cascade of pretty faces of pretty girls dressed in colourful printed dresses are gazing at us, smiling, holding their bright yellow lanterns. It brings to mind the joy of warm summer nights with fireflies as the only light and the rich fragrance of roses and jasmine that fills the air. I love the colours used; red, yellow purple; really pleasing to my eyes. Also, in all of these postcards you will notice the ornamental letters “Mikado” or “Geisha” shaped in a way that it looks Oriental and exciting to our Western eyes. The illustration has that festival mood and I found an appropriate little haiku poem that matches its mood, so here it is, by Isabel Caves, found on her wordpress site here:

“Spring lanterns –

colourful reincarnations

of the moon”

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.