Tag Archives: Japanese literature

Gensen: Selected Stories in Modern Japanese Literature (Translated by J.D.Wisgo)

17 Feb

“Hisako nodded teary-eyed and started playing that part over from the beginning. A melody flowed from the strings like the soft weeping of a homesick gypsy.”

(“The Uncharted Road” by Sakunosuke Oda)

Berthe Morisot, Julie Playing a Violin, 1893

Once again I have had the pleasure of reading the freshly translated short stories by various authors in the book “Gensen: Selected Stories in Modern Japanese Literature” published last summer and translated by J.D.Wisgo. I have already written about his translations of works of Fumiko Hayashi, “Downfall and Other Stories” and “Days and Nights“, which I have enjoyed tremendously and also Masao Yamakawa’s “The Summer of Strangers“, which have both left a profound impact on me. If you enjoy short stories, if you are curious to discover new, perhaps not so popular writers, and especially if you have a passion for Japanese literature, then I am sure you will enjoy this little selection of short stories as much as I have.

This collection of short stories includes five stories all by different authors; “The Uncharted Road” by Sakunosuke Oda, “The Dream Egg” by Oshio Toyoshima, “Musical Clock” by Murou Saisei, “Space Prisoner Number One” by Juza Unno, and “The Mysterious Telescope” by Kyusaku Yumeno. This is a sampling of sorts, a delicious box of different flavoured chocolates, where each story comes with a different flavour, something for everyone. As the translator noted in the introduction, the word “gensen” means “specially selected”. All of these authors were completely new to me, and I am guessing will be to most of you as well, and that is why I think it was particularly lovely and useful that before each story there was a brief introduction to the author, his life and the themes of his literary work. Also, the first half of the book contains these short stories in English while the second part of the book has these same stories in parallel English/Japanese which would be very useful, I believe, for anyone learning or trying to learn Japanese.

The stories were all different in style and in themes, and I was most surprised with the story “The Dream Egg” because of its Indian theme and setting. Whilst reading it I had images of Warwick Goble and Edmund Dulac floating in my mind. My favourite story, if I had to chose one, would have to be “The Uncharted Road” by Sakunosuke Oda (1913-1947), an author born in Osaka who primarily wrote novels, essays, and radio dramas. Interestingly, Oda was a close friend with Osamu Dazai whose famous novel “No Longer Human” I have enjoyed rereading these past few weeks. This sort of felt like a continuation of the sorts and I was especially intrigued to read a short story written by an author whose work was banned at times, as the brief introduction states. The short story is about a nine year old girl called Hisako and her father who is a strict violin teacher and who is forcing her to play day and night until she gets it right. Violin is one of my favourite instruments and it instantly made me think of this painting by Berthe Morisot, a portrait of her daughter playing violin. The mood of the story was so well conjured through words; Hisako’s suffering, her persistance and final success in a way, her father who “acted like a lunac whenever it came to the violin”, truly he seems like the most horrible music teacher in the world and reading the story I really felt sympathies for poor Hisako. Here is a short passage from the story about her playing:

Hisako wanted to burst out crying. Yet perhaps due to her inborn, strong-minded spirit, she held back the tears. However, for some reason a terrible coldness dwelled in Hisako’s
eyes, and even her father Shonosuke could feel a chill from that light in her eyes. Those almond-shaped eyes were like the eyes of a mask, filled with an imposing, pale light that spoke of emptiness. Even if you tried to describe those mysterious eyes with everyday words such as “clever”, “unyielding”, or “an arrogance beyond her years,” there was something hard to put your finger on. But as she played the Bach fugue over and over, as if possessed, her eyes began to grow red to the point of being painfully bloodshot. To make matters worse, as night deepened, countless mosquitoes mercilessly bit into Hisako’s arms, hands, and neck.
“Poor thing…

Kaburagi Kiyokata, Morning Dew — あさ露, 1903

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.

Sei Shonagon: Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

4 Feb

Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. Her most famous literary work is a collection of short texts and poems called “Pillowbook” which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep, hence the name “Pillowbook”. Perhaps she even kept it under her pillow, who knows. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often witty and a tad sarcastic as well. The book was written in 990s and there something so poignant to me in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo plants. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!

Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring the moonlight and the stillness of the lakes and the gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me. Today I wanted to share a fragment of the book titled “Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past”.

Sakai Hoitsu, Lilies and Hydrangeas; Hollyhocks, 1801

Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

Sei Shonagon: Things that make one’s heart beat faster…

2 Feb

Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. Her most famous literary work is a collection of short texts and poems called “Pillowbook” which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep, hence the name “Pillowbook”. Perhaps she even kept it under her pillow, who knows. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often witty and a tad sarcastic as well. The book was written in 990s and there is something so poignant to me in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!

Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring the moonlight and the stillness of the lakes and the gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me. Today I wanted to share a fragment of the book titled “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster”.

Shōson Ohara (Japan, 1877-1945), Sparrows and Plum Blossoms, 1925

Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster:
Sparrows feeding their young.
To pass a place where babies are playing.
To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure. It is night and one is expecting a visitor.
Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shutters.

(Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book (枕草子, Makura no Sōshi), Translated by Ivan Morris)

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.

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.”

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.

Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human: Cherry Blossoms in April

4 Apr

Hiroshi Yoshida, Hayase, 1933

In March I was rereading one of my favourite books ever: Osamu Dazai’s novel “No Longer Human” and this passage about cherry trees, blossoms scattered in the sea, struck me as particularly dreamy and visual so I thought I’d share it when April comes… and now is that time:

“On the shore, at a point so close to the ocean one might imagine it was there that the waves broke stood a row of over twenty fairly tall cherry trees with coal-black trunks. Every April when the new school year was about to begin these trees would display their dazzling blossoms and their moist brown leaves against the blue of the sea. Soon a snowstorm of blossoms would scatter innumerable petals into the water, flecking the surface with points of white which the waves carried back to the shore. The beach strewn with cherry blossoms served as the playground of the high school I attended. Stylized cherry blossoms flowered even on the badge of the regulation school cap and on the button of our uniforms….”

The rest of the book is much darker than this passage but I still recommend it as a great book; it’s written in the first person by Oba Yozo, a young man who finds it hard to adapt into normal society and finds it almost impossible to communicate with other people and even be himself in front of anyone. His true self is hidden and the only thing the world sees is a mask. Since the book was published in 1948 and set a few decades earlier I wanted to find an Ukiyo-e print which was more modern, not something from the early nineteenth century, and I think this one by Hiroshi Yoshida is quite lovely because it shows not only cherry blossoms but the water as well, though not the sea in this case but a river.

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.