Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tales of Moonlight and Rain

First published in 1776, the nine gothic tales in this collection are Japan's finest and most celebrated examples of the literature of the occult. They subtly merge the world of reason with the realm of the uncanny and exemplify the period's fascination with the strange and the grotesque... 

The title Ugetsu monogatari (literally "rain-moon tales") alludes to the belief that mysterious beings appear on cloudy, rainy nights and in mornings with a lingering moon.
--Columbia University Press

Tales of Moonlight and Rain, by Ueda Akinari, is a great book to read on a dark and stormy night during Halloween week, or if you are just in the mood for ghost stories.

This book is a scholarly work, so each story comes after quite a bit of historical background and cultural explanations. I decided to read the stories first and then read the background information, which worked well for me.

Of the nine stories in the book, my favorites was "The Reed Choked House" which is the story of man who leaves his wife behind when he goes to the city in hopes of making lots of money. He tells her to wait for him, that he will return in the Fall. Circumstances prevent his return for seven years! When he finally does arrive home, he finds the house overgrown and choked in reeds and in decay. He is astonished to find his wife waiting for him there. However, by the light of morning, the sad truth is revealed.

This story was also combined with another in the book and made into the 1953 award-winning movie "Ugetsu," which is a beautifully haunting classic film by director, Kenji Mizoguchi.

Read two other excellent reviews of this book were written by Dolce Bellezza and by Moo.


by Natsuo Kirino
Translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland
Fiction/Crime, 2003 (Japan), 2007 (English translation)
Vintage UK, trade pb, 466 p.
WINNER - Izumi Kyoka Literary Award, 2003
Two prostitutes are murdered in Tokyo.
Twenty years previously both women were educated at the same elite school for young ladies, and had seemingly promising futures ahead of them.
But in a world of dark desire and vicious ambition, for both women, prostitution meant power. Grotesque is a masterful and haunting thriller, a chilling exploration of women’s secret lives in modern day Japan.
It felt like it took me forever to read this! Thank goodness for the Read-a-thon or who knows, it may have taken me the whole month! I really enjoyed her first book to be translated into English, Out, so I had high hopes for this, her second work to appear in English. Unfortunately, for me, it just doesn’t compare. I simply found the pace too slow and the narrative a bit long-winded. It did pick up a bit when the narration changed for awhile part-way through, but it slowed down again once it returned to the main narrator. The majority of the story revolves around her remembering years past when she went to school with both of the women who later became the two prostitutes that were murdered. There is a hint of a mystery but the murders are really just the context for the reminiscing and the framework for analysing the role of women in modern-day Japan.
Professor Kijima wrote about the intensification of the individual’s sense of self and the changes in the shape of life-forms and such, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Mitsuru and Yuriko and Kazue didn’t mutate; they simply decayed. A biology professor certainly ought to be able to recognize the signs of fermentation and decay. Isn’t he the one who taught us all about these processes in organisms? In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water. (p. 318)
I also never came to like any of the characters, which isn’t a requirement for me to enjoy a book, but I also didn’t care enough for there to be any sense of drama about their lives or demise either. The reasons, or perhaps the social pressures that led them to follow the paths they chose, are real enough but oh so depressing. A week after finishing it and the characters are haunting me a little, but thinking about them just leaves me feeling blue. I realise Kirino seems to be making a statement about the inequality of the social hierarchy in Japan but it didn’t make for a very thrilling or enjoyable read.

As for the translation of Grotesque, there were a few times, due to the way she chose to describe something, that I was very aware that I was reading a translation but overall it wasn't too bad. The copyright page says “Originally published in a somewhat different form in Japan…” though which makes me wonder how and why it was changed and whether that has contributed to my lukewarm enjoyment of the novel.

I’m still curious about her most recent book to be translated, Real World, and perhaps I’ll like it more since I know not to expect much suspense next time. And there seems to be a fourth book that has been translated, What Remains, and that was supposed to be released this year but doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. The topic is pretty dark and disturbing, about a kidnapped child held captive for a year, but it sounds intriguing too. Like something Joyce Carol Oates would write about. I hope it reappears at some point. I also found that Kirino has apparently written an installment for the Canongate Myth Series, to come out next year, which I’d be interested in reading. So even though I wasn’t crazy about this one, I do want to try again. Out really was that good!

Author's website
Review in The New York Times
Review at Mystery Ink

My Rating: 2.5/5
*originally posted at In Spring it is the Dawn

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Geisha, A Life

Written by Mineko Iwasaki, Geisha, A Life is a detail-filled account of one woman's journey from girlhood into young womanhood as a geisha, or, geiko. I found it interesting, but sad. Interesting because it was all true - what this young girl experienced! She was introduced to her future life as a geisha at the age of three; quite literally she was 'chosen' to be a Very Important Person in the world of 'geisha-dom.' For 26 years Mineko Iwasaki lived a life of beauty, entertainment, and non-stop excitement, as well as a life of (at times) feeling isolated and depressed. (That's the sad part that I mentioned earlier.)
I actually read this book a couple of months ago, but had not been able to wrap my brain around what this young girl went through mentally as well as physically enough to write a review. I still can't. Yes, she led a glamorous life, and made a lot of money. But she basically lost her childhood as a result.
I understand that in Japanese culture it is an honor to be so revered and admired. What I don't understand is the willingness for her family to give her up at such an early age, and that she just accepted it and resigned herself to the geisha life. But, then again, I am not Japanese!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Knit Kimono

KnitKimono, by Vicki Square, is an unusual book for me to review on my blog, but I love to knit and recently discovered this book in the knitting section of the bookstore. I stood there transfixed by the gorgeous photographs and projects in this book, and had the overwhelming urge to head straight to the knitting store to buy some yarn. I haven't gone there yet, but I bought the book and have been enjoying it in the evenings when I'm too tired to actually knit. It's not a matter of self-control that kept me from heading straight to the knitting store, but my indecision over which of these absolutely beautiful projects to choose first!

The book has the instructions for 18 different designs/kimono, but it's more than a pattern book. I am fascinated by the background of the kimono as described by the author.
In a traditional sense, the particular color, cut, and design of a kimono conveys social messages: gender, life/death, season, age, formality or occasion, or propriety.
She explains kimono basics: Kimono are generally constructed from rectangular pieces of fabric in standard widths. A bolt of cloth, called a tan, is cut into seven straight pieces: two long body panels, two sleeves, two overlaps, and a neckband.

And she also includes a brief, but very interesting, history of the kimono that describes changes during different periods of time from ancient Japan to the present.

All of this makes this a very interesting read, but it's the creativity and artistry of the author/designer that deserve accolades. This is a beautiful book, full of beautifully designed projects! And it was very nice addition to the books I've read for Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

Published in 1924, Naomi is one of Junichiro Tanizaki's earliest novels. I picked this book for my first blog post on this group because in my past reading experience, Tanizaki has been a constant winner - I can't recommend enough books such as Quicksand, The Gourmet Club, and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.

Tanizaki's fiction is known for its sensuality and dreaminess, both drawn in terms that evoke simultaneously the sublime and the seedy underbelly of excessive and improper desire. Beautiful and disturbing (but not in the "loud" and sensationalist vein of Ryu Murakami or even, it could be argued, Yukio Mishima), Tanizaki always treads one step away from the complete destruction of the recognizably human. Indeed, even as his characters engage in dissipation of all kinds, they usually remain sympathetic to some degree because they remain comprehensible and familiar-seeming.

I have to say that, unfortunately, the fine edge of Tanizaki's pen was not yet so finely honed when we wrote Naomi. The sensuality and depravity are certainly present in his story of Joji (an upstanding salary man in his late 20s) and his obsession with Naomi (a 15-year old of dubious background whom he meets and rescues from working in a cafe of sorts).

Joji's obsession is intense and masochistic...but somehow neither terrifying, compelling, nor (as the back cover copy suggests) hilarious - at least not to me. I found the characters to be rather more in the realm of caricature and Joji's submission to Naomi just plain pathetic and therefore intensely irritating. This is likely because I found his need for Naomi neither believable nor his reasons for it comprehensible, and so felt that I was wasting my time reading about it.

In spite of all this, I don't believe that my negative response to this book should put anyone off Tanizaki or even Naomi. Rather, I think Tanizaki is an author who really should be read chronologically. Starting with his most brilliant works can only invite negative comparisons to less mature efforts such as this one.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

All She Was Worth

Title: All She Was Worth
Author: Miyuki Miyabe
Publisher: Mariner
Number of pages: 296
Genre: Crime Fiction/Mystery
Awards: Best Novel of the Year and Best Mystery for 1992 in Japan
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

When police inspector, Honma, is asked by his nephew (Jun) to investigate the disappearance of Jun's fiance, he has no idea that he will be enmeshed in an enormous tangle of deception and woe.

Apparently, the fiance has had her identity stolen by a beautiful girl who must escape a life of desperation which is brought upon her by enormous financial distress.

I found it terribly ironic to read such a novel considering the economic struggles America is currently suffering:

"Honma could well imagine the vicious circle the Shinjo family had been caught up in. A small down payment and a large loan. Then, when things got tight, a second loan, for a smaller amount, this time from a loan shark. That set the pinball rolling, picking up speed, than going too fast for anybody to stop. Finally, they came up against one of those operations that charge ten percent interest every ten days, a front for the yakuza-all the debts had fallen into their hands, apparently." (p. 231)

Every country has people who want the best, and want it now, regardless of their ability to pay for it. Credit card debt, mortgages much higher than the property is worth given to families who cannot afford them...these very issues are raised in this novel which not only examines a murder mystery but Japan's contemporary life. Which is not so very different from America's.

With this important exception: in Japan, the creditors hunt you down. Until the hunted become the hunters as they are in this crime thriller.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters

When I picked up this book, after reading several synopses of it, I expected a collection of stories about mother-children relationships in postwar Japan. True, there were several of them, but I wouldn't say that this is what the book is "about." In the stories about fathers and in the absence of children, I tried to find that thread of thinking; I tried to look for the "hidden" meaning of a mother-child relationship. In some cases, it was completely absent.

Instead, I believe this collection is more a meditation on the effects of Westernization in Japan on those who remember what it was like before rationing, before the bombs dropped, and before their children came home with candies given to them by soldiers. It's about waking up and realizing how old you are, how much you've lived through, and seeing before you all the changes in the world since your birth. It's about recognizing clearly the differences between Japan then and Japan now, and not necessarily appreciating those changes.

The characters have all lost something, whether it be family, traditions, land, food, friendships, or sanity. What they haven't lost is the memory of the war and how it caused these things to be taken from them. They also haven't lost love; these characters understand that an unbreakable bond comes with love, even past death and pain. Though some marriages were arranged, as they were in the "old days," there is still a kind of love between partners, who sometimes feel as though they are worlds away from one another. There is also evidence that they haven't lost life, or the will to live. In all of these stories, something beautiful comes out of loss, whether it be an old man's lasting understanding of his wife, a son's outward love for his father, or the memory of a child who entertained a group of soldiers. The stories are sad, yet they remind us of something a character says: "Isn't life a resilient force, turning the worst of its disasters into something like this."

Each story is a photograph of a life, with some threads commonly running through (a TV show that explains health issues, old religions dying out in favor of Western ones), but all of which describe moments based in the structure of relationships. A mother whose favorite daughter dies, who instead of turning that favor to her second daughter, finds more beauty in her granddaughter. A son who, as he's growing older, loves his father more and more, but doesn't know what to say as the old man is dying. A daughter who never finds a husband but wants nothing more than children in her life. And in all cases, they always feel the pressure of the war, whether the war ended yesterday or twenty years ago.

These graceful tales pave the way through a culture of men, women, and children who have felt devastating results of World War II in Japan. It is a beautifully written, touching meditation on human spirit and familial relations. Enter the thoughts of eleven Japanese people and learn just what the laws of evening are.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Winners Announced For The Basho Book Contest

These are the lovely haiku submitted for the chance to win "Basho: The Complete Haiku" sent to me by Kodansha International:

violent downpour
quickly replaced by the sun
rain in the desert
~Terri B

leaves gently falling
a crisp coolness to the air
fall is here again

the nights are cooler
the leaves have lost their lustre
autumn is coming


chilly autumn rain
curled up with a good book
adventure beckons

letters on a door
two hearts forever entwined
by cobwebs and dust

Because I am entranced by each I have decided to award each submission a prize. By random drawing, the copy of Basho goes to...

Terri B!

A magnetic poetry kit goes to...


Two cranes that I folded, because they are an international symbol of peace and love, go to...

Robin and...


So, ladies, please send me your addresses at bellezza.mjs@gmail.com, and I will send you your prizes. Thanks for playing!