Friday, August 29, 2008

A Geisha's Journey

My second choice for the Japanese reading challenge - I was drawn to the lovely cover and the fact that the book itself is peppered with essays and multiple photos and illustrations.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Komomo was a 12-year-old school girl living with her expat parents in China when she stumbled over a web site run by a former geisha. Three years later, she left home to enter the exclusive world of a geisha in training. In 2006, she fulfilled her dream and became the Geisha Komomo.

This is the first book to follow photographically over a number of years the life of a young woman from normal teenager to the rarified world of the Kyoto geiko, as geisha are called in that city.

This is a very visual book, largely photographs with extended captions and a few longer essays. Over 130 photographs will illustrate her growth, from her pre-Kyoto days in Beijing onward. A few of the photographs have been published in the English-language edition of Katei Gaho (which turned out to be the magazine's largest selling issue), but most have them have been seen nowhere else.

I'm going to start delving into this tonight in bed.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Just when you think it can't get any worse ... it does. This novel is a great example of noir literature. It has the usual noir elements of darkness, despair, hopelessness and betrayal. Layered on top of this noir novel is a very black comedy of gender warfare.

A young mother, living in the Tokyo suburbs and working the night shift at a boxed lunch factory, wants out of her miserable marriage to a philandering and abusive husband. Her solution? Strangle him. Unfortunately, this solution creates a new problem ... a dead body that needs to disappear. Fortunately, this young mother has empathetic lady friends who are equally desperate to get "out" of their own miserable circumstances and are therefore willing to help dispose of the body.

Unfortunately for these ladies, they find that the nightmare has just begun and this one act has pulled them into the "violent underbelly of Japanese society." In usual noir-ish fashion, all does not end well and no solutions are offered to resolve the hostilities between the sexes.

This is not my favorite type of reading, but I thought the story was well done and was an excellent example of noir and black comedy. The translation, by Stephen Snyder, seemed extraordinarily good to me; I never once thought about the fact that I was reading the book in translation.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

I picked up this book to read thanks to Madeleine's review previously, and I'm glad I did.

Snakes and Earrings, although a short novel (the authors first), has become a Japanese cult classic.
The story follows a young girl who has left home and her exploration of pain and pleasure through body modifications and violent sexual activities.
At times painful to read, at times beautiful. This is definitely one to read for an glimpse of modern Japanese alternative culture.

This is my third book read for the technically I'm finished.
However, I still have a number of books I'd like to read on my list, so will keep on reading....!
Currently reading Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology by Hiroaki Sato. A collection of poems by women from the earliest folk songs to modern poets. Will review when read more of the poems.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out by Natsuo Kirino

I loved this book.

It's the story of four women who work in the suburbs of Tokyo on the night shift at a boxed lunch factory. They all have different backgrounds and stories, but they are all discontented with life...and all need to get 'out'.
Inevitably one of them snaps and strangles her abusive husband. The others then slowly become involved in disposing of the body...dismembering it and disposing of it in garbage bags around the city...
As the police investigate, suspicion falls on a local nightclub owner with a dark murderous past of his own. Released from jail he seeks revenge on the women he suspects of commiting the crime...

This book is not only gruesome and terrifying in places, but is also poignant and heartbreaking.
The lives of these women, trapped by circumstance and convention, is moving.

Highly recommended.

Thanks to Grenadine for reviewing Grotesque a result I ordered Out from the library and I'm waiting for Grotesque.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Strangers and When the Emperor was Divine

I finished my first two books for the challenge: Strangers by Taichi Yamada and When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

I don't think I could have loved When the Emperor was Divine any more. It tells the story of a nameless Japanese-American family that is sent to an internment camp during World War II, and it's a sad, subtle and very moving book. The writing is absolutely perfect. Julie Otsuka managed to convey powerful emotions while remaining gentle and restrained. You can read my full review here.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Strangers. A ghost story set in modern Tokyo, Strangers is very haunting and atmospheric. I loved it until the last few chapters, but I was somewhat taken aback by the twist at the end. My review can be found here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country is the story of Shimamura, a business man who visits a hot-spring resort in the snow covered mountains of North Japan
There he meets and becomes infatuated with the heroine Komako, a young geisha who falls in love with him.
Doomed to failure, the story tells of their initial relationship, and his return a few years later when she is older and things have changed.
There is sensuality and beauty in the story, but the reality is that nothing can really happen between them as he is married.

I've mixed feelings about this novel. Perhaps because I find it so depressing. While it's definitely beautifully written, the story leaves you feeling lonely. As lonely and isolated as the snow mountains themselves perhaps.

I'd love to hear other readers views on this novel.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Snakes and Earrings

An underground world.A murder.An international phenomenon.
Eighteen-year-old Liu runs away from home to live on the streets and answer to no one. She befriends Ama, a boy whose red mohawk, forked tongue, and multiple piercings seduce her, and Shiba, a tattoo artist whose cold eyes give no hint of the secrets he may be harboring. When their reckless behavior breeds dangerous consequences, Liu finds herself forced to choose between good and evil, life and death, love and hate.

I just started to read this novel, will comment on it when finished. Tanabata also read this book a while ago.

Monday, August 11, 2008

First book : Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Firstly, thank you to Bellezza for letting me join the challenge a couple of days too late. You're a star!

My first book and I'm about 100 pages in is Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino. I've read Out years before and finished it in a day, it was both very dark and thrilling and one of the first Japanese literature I've read so now I'm hooked.

Synopsis of Grotesque from goodreads:

Natsuo Kirino made a spectacular fiction debut on these shores with the publication of Edgar Award-nominated Out "Daring and disturbing . . . Prepared to push the limits of this world . . . Remarkable"--Los Angeles Times). Unanimously lauded for her unique, psychologically complex, darkly compelling vision and voice, she garnered a multitude of enthusiastic fans eager for more.

In her riveting new novel Grotesque, Kirino once again depicts a barely known Japan. This is the story of three Japanese women and the interconnectedness of beauty and cruelty, sex and violence, ugliness and ambition in their lives. Tokyo prostitutes Yuriko and Kazue have been brutally murdered, their deaths leaving a wake of unanswered questions about who they were, who their murderer is, and how their lives came to this end. As their stories unfurl in an ingeniously layered narrative, coolly mediated by Yuriko's older sister, we are taken back to their time in a prestigious girls' high school--where a strict social hierarchy decided their fates—and follow them through the years as they struggle against rigid societal conventions.

Shedding light on the most hidden precincts of Japanese society today, Grotesque is both a psychological investigation into the female psyche and a classic work of noir fiction. It is a stunning novel, a book that confirms Natsuo Kirino's electrifying gifts.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Kafka On The Shore by Huruki Murikami

From the inside front flap:

"This magnificent new novel has a similarly extraordinary scope and the same capacity to amaze, entertain, and bewitch the reader. A tour de force of metaphysical reality, it is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. Their odyssey, as mysterious to them as it is to us, is enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerizing events. Cats and people carry on conversations, a ghostlike pimp employs a Hegel-quoting prostitute, a forest harbors soldiers apparently unaged since World War Ii, and rainstorms of fish (and worse) fall from the sky. There is a brutal murder, with the identity of both victim and perpetrator a riddle-yet this, along with everything else is eventually answered, just as the entwined destinies of Kafka and Nakata are gradually revealed, with one escaping his fate entirely and the other given a fresh start on his own."

My review can be found here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Lizard, by Banana Yoshimoto

I finished Lizard, a collecton of six short stories, about a week ago, and have been trying to digest the contents ever since. My thoughts? Scrambled! If I thought I was going to sit down with a few cute, easily read stories, then I was mistaken. They were thought provoking; so much so, that I had to go back and re-read certain parts to clarify my thoughts as to the meanings of some things.

As I think back, I have read a couple of Japanese short stories before, and as I remember, they were mildly depressing. A lot of mention of unhappy childhoods, fears, loss, ghosts, bizarre sex lives, and pain. Certainly each story in the Lizard collection has some of that going on. Fortunately much of the unhappiness is in the past, and although some of the story pertains to the lasting pain & fear, the characters are able to resolve a good deal of their particular poison memories and fears by the end of the story.

Banana Yoshimoto adds a little 'postscript' at the end of the collection, explaining to the reader her inspirations and purpose in writing these stories. She ends by saying she hopes to continue writing interesting stories. And she does write interesting stories!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Twenty-Four Eyes

Twenty-Four Eyes, by Sakae Tsuboi, is a gentle book about a young teacher and her first group of students. The story spans 20 years, or "one generation," from 1927 to 1947 in a small village in Japan, and it is a tender view of the teacher and her students throughout that turbulent period of time.

The teacher, Mrs. Oishi, was a tiny woman with a huge heart, and her students loved her. In the beginning, however, she had to prove herself to the children and their parents, and struggled with all the issues facing a young teacher. You get to know about the lives of Mrs. Oishi and of each of the 12 children, and learn what happens to them over the course of those years, and of how the war impacts each of their lives.

This is an honest and nostalgic look at life during a period of great change. It is considered an anti-war book, but is not vociferous. It is a gentle story of joy and sadness, growth and change, and of the devastating effects of war on a small group of children and their teacher.

Being a teacher, I loved this book because it honestly portrayed the relationships a teacher has with her students. It touches the heart in a kind and gentle way, and leaves you feeling tenderhearted long after you finish the book.

This is my first book for Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Favorite Japanese Films

Many years ago, our local PBS station ran a "Japanese Film Festival" and showed a different Japanese film classic every Saturday night. My husband and I had never seen any of these films so it was an amazing experience for us and we became devoted fans of these old classics.

To mark the beginning of Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, and to celebrate all things Japanese, I thought I'd post a list of our favorite classic Japanese films, with the descriptions borrowed from Netflix. So perhaps along with your reading for this challenge, you might also enjoy some amazing Japanese films!

When a stoic government official in post-war Japan learns he has terminal cancer, he realizes he has squandered his life on meaningless red tape and has no close family or friendships to lean on. He resolves to use his remaining time to usher an insignificant but popular civic project, a children's playground, through the bureaucracy he knows so well. The acclaimed Akira Kurosawa directs.

With 16th century Japan's feudal wars as a backdrop, director Kenji Mizoguchi's lyrical masterpiece delivers a profound message about the ephemeral nature of human life. Despite the conflict raging around them, a potter (Masayuki Mori) and a farmer (Saka Ozawa) -- two peasants with visions of grandeur -- journey to the city seeking wealth and glory. But their blind ambition ultimately takes its toll … on the families they left behind.

Woman in the Dunes
Hiroshi Teshigahara's award-winning drama centers on a bug expert, (Eiji Okada) conducting research, who's captured by locals. Held captive in a sandpit with a young widow, he struggles with his imprisonment -- and his growing attraction to the woman (Kyôko Kishida). Based on Kobo Abe's novel, the provocatively erotic allegorical film earned the Cannes Special Jury Prize and two Oscar nominations.

The Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa's heroic tale of honor and duty begins with master samurai Kambei (Takashi Shimura) posing as a monk to save a kidnapped child. Impressed by his bravery, a group of farmers begs him to defend their village from encroaching bandits. Kambei agrees and assembles a group of six other samurai, and together they build a militia with the villagers while the bandits loom nearby. Soon the raids begin, culminating in a bloody battle.

Masterless samurai Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshirô Mifune) finds himself in a feud-torn Japanese village in legendary director Akira Kurosawa's darkly comic film. After pretending to work for merchants on both sides of the feud, Kuwabatake is imprisoned for treachery. He escapes in time to watch the two warring factions destroy each other, just as he had intended. Yojimbo served as the prototype for Clint Eastwood's A Fistful of Dollars.

Thone of Blood
Director Akira Kurosawa's magnificent rumination on Shakespeare's tragic "Macbeth" is a dark samurai drama set in feudal Japan. Two soldiers -- Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) find themselves lost in a dense forest during a powerful thunderstorm. There, they encounter a ghostly old woman who predicts that Washizu will soon rise to power. Indeed, Washizu embarks on a murderously ambitious path and quickly fulfills the prophecy.

Legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa retells Shakespeare's classic tragedy "King Lear" against a samurai backdrop. Tatsuya Nakadia is a warlord who transfers his kingdom to his eldest son. A power struggle ensues, incited by his two disinherited younger sons. Kurosawa is a master storyteller (almost on par with The Bard himself), and Ran ranks among the maestro's most compelling films.

Winner of the Cannes Special Jury Prize, Masaki Kobayashi's drama centers on samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai). A new political climate finds the once-powerful samurais wandering the country begging estate owners to allow them to commit suicide on their property, when what they really want is a handout. Hanshiro arrives at a lavish manor and asks to commit hara-kiri on the grounds, but the vengeful warrior is harboring a secret.

Hidden Fortress
A general and a princess must dodge enemy clans while smuggling the royal treasure out of hostile territory with two bumbling, conniving peasants at their sides; it's a spirited adventure that only Akira Kurosawa could create.

Picture Bride

(This film is not from the Japanese film festival, but is a beautiful film by Kayo Hatta and a sentimental favorite of ours because it is the story of the Japanese "picture brides" sent to Hawaii in the early 1900s -- my husband's grandmother was one of them!)

Following her parents' deaths, Riyo, a 16-year-old Japanese girl, becomes a "picture bride" for Matsuji, a Hawaiian sugarcane worker who, as is the custom, willingly enters into the arranged marriage. But after Riyo arrives in Hawaii, she discovers that her fiancé has deceived her with an old photo and that Matsuji is really 43. Despite the lie, and with few other options, she marries him -- but won't sleep with him.