Category Archives: Japanese Literature

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Title: Abandon the Old in Tokyo
Author: Yoshihiro Tatsumi 
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly 
ISBN: 978-1770460775
Genre: Comics, Short Stories, Graphic Short Stories 
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

So, I have just finished reading, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo” by Yohishiro Tatsumi – the father of “gekiga” (he coined the term, and its literal meaning is dramatic pictures), aimed at adult audiences with more mature themes. This collection of comics is just that. Eight stories with themes dealing with existentialism or morbidity that stuns you.

These comics explore the murky side of humans, of the society we live in, and constantly through the use of allegory or metaphor bring that to fore. What I found most remarkable was how it was all achieved through the medium of minimal words in the comic panels, relying heavily only on the power of art.

The collection delves deep into the underbelly of Tokyo and the life of its residents in the 60s and the 70s. Most stories deal with economic hardship, loneliness, longing to better their circumstances, and estranged relationships. Everything is played out not-so-neatly – the twists and the turns are immense, and somehow to me they also seemed subtle. For instance, “Unpaid” for me was the darkest story of them all – of how a bankrupt businessman deals with life by connecting with a dog (you will understand the twist when you read it). Another favourite was the title story, about the relationship between a young man and his mother, and what happens when he wants to start living on his own.

Tatsumi’s characters are ordinary. They lead ordinary lives, and perhaps aspire for a little more than what life has offered. He symbolises or at least tries to symbolise the mass – the everyone, and how drama is played out in their lives, sometimes much against their wish. Even though the stories are set in a different time, and even written in a different time, they make their presence felt through crowds, manholes, buses, trains, restaurants, and the ordinary that still exist and will continue to. His art and the words that accompany them complement each other throughout. Your emotions are tested – since some of the vignettes aren’t easy to handle. Yet, you must read Tatsumi. Start with this. Get introduced to a softer version of the gekiga. Highly recommend it.

Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa by Kenji Miyazawa. Translated from the Japanese by John Bester.

Once and Forever Title: Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa
Author: Kenji Miyazawa
Translated from the Japanese by John Bester
Publisher: New York Review Books Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372600
Genre: Mythology, Folktales, Folklore
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The month of May is also a slow one. A slow reading month. But this one was worth the time spent on it. Two dozen tales of joy, innocence, whimsical, sometimes tragic – but all deeply rooted to Japanese folklore and connected to the flora and fauna of the land.

Miyazawa takes you through a range of emotions with these tales. Whether it is the cautionary tale of “The Restaurant of Many Orders” to the heartlessness of “The Spider, the Slug, and the Raccoon”, Miyazawa had me enthralled and wanting more with every turn of the page.

I don’t think I’ve read something like these tales before. It isn’t about them being magical. But it is about holding your own as well in the face of the traditional ways of life. Most tales are also drawn from Buddhism which I loved. For instance, “A Stem of Lillies” which does incorporate the many images from the Lotus Sutra.

Once and Forever is a book that will stay for me for a long time. It is so underrated and I’m glad that New York Review Books decided to publish these tales. Read it. Lay your hands on it.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko OgawaTitle: The Memory Police
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846559495
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations,
Pages: 288
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

This book was on my TBR since the time it was published. I just took a while to get to it, thanks to the International Booker 2020 Longlist, whose shadow panel I am a part of. This book definitely is in my top 5 books from that list and I will tell you why.

The book is set on an unnamed island, where people and objects are disappearing at the hands of an authoritarian force known as The Memory Police. Things you do not seem to remember or know anymore. A rose. A book. A chair. More. It is not about the utility as it is about memory. In all this, is the unnamed protagonist, a writer who is close to her editor, and what happens after.

The Memory Police is  a meditation on loss, insanity when it consumes you, a comment on love, friendship, and what it takes to survive in a totalitarian regime. Memory of course plays a major role, but what hit home was the idea of nostalgia and what it does to you as a person. What you choose to remember, what you forget, and what you have to hide. Ogawa’s writing is subtle, graceful, and full of melancholy – of lost spaces, places, and the role of community when it comes to memories. This book is unlike anything I have read before.

Snyder’s translation to me was pitch perfect. I never felt at any point that some thing was getting lost in the translation or that I needed to know more. With translations that’s always the thing – the need to either know more or not. The Memory Police hits that raw never while reading, also providing that comfort at times (rarely), and making you see the world where you must do what it takes to maintain your sanity, humanity and remember.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802128256
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The comfort in the constant. That’s how I have preferred to live life, to be honest. It never happens this way. Not all the time. Not ever, come to think of it. Yet, I have also learned how to turn the change into being constant over a period of time. Isn’t that what it is really? The humdrum of the sameness. The monotony of the constant. The familiar is utmost reassuring if nothing else. But that’s just for me, and rereading “Convenience Store Woman” got all those feelings to the fore, emerging one by one from the shadows, overwhelming me to the point of tears.

I shall try not to get the personal involved in this review. I try, but I do not guarantee. Anyway, back to the book. Sayaka Murata has written close to ten novels (I think) and this is the first time one of her books is translated to English. I read this book for the first time last year. There were too many emotions I was dealing with after finishing it. Most of them were a product of the read. The loneliness, the making peace with it, the awareness of using the familiar as a crutch, the times I had ideas or thoughts I shouldn’t have had – all of these were in sync with the protagonist Keiko Furukura’s way of being. I related so strongly with her (most of her, not all) that I was almost scared of reviewing this book.

August is the month of women in translation. This is my first read of the month and a reread that I enjoyed and loved. So here goes: As the title suggests, the book is about a Convenience Store and a person who works there. Keiko considered herself reborn once she joined the store. Her life is divided almost into two parts – before and after joining the store. She is awkward, she is clueless about how to fit in the world, and she struggles with day-to-day interactions. Yet, beneath the surface there is the Keiko that wants to blend in, wants to feel included, and live life according to the manual – get married, have kids, and get people off your back. Keiko has been made to feel like “damaged goods” throughout her life – by her parents, friends, baby sister, and colleagues. The idea of “change” or “cure” oneself runs deep in the book. It is in a way the plot-point through which Murata mocks the society we inhabit.

The book deals with so many broad questions that people face every single day. I will get to that in a bit. Though the book is set in Japan, it is universal in its approach. Murata touches on loneliness, middle-age, the way we see ourselves against the parameters set by society (marriage, child-birth, job satisfaction, what job you do, whether you fit in or not, and the gender stereotypes set for us from the time we are born), and above all of this the need to belong at a very basic level – that of acceptance.

Keiko and Shiraha (A part-time worker at the store. That’s all I can reveal about him) are so different and of course similar on all counts. Murata’s characters are constantly on the edge, on the brink of falling apart or coming together to save what they can of themselves, and more than anything they are about life being lived in the mundane with pragmatism and ironically hope at the same time.

The translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is nuanced in every single way, and like I said would appeal to every single reader, in any part of the world. Ginny transports us to the store, and Keiko’s world with a sudden rush as it should be and before you know it, as a reader you don’t want to leave the world created by Murata. For every translation, it must be so difficult to get the exact phrase, the nature of the dream, aspirations, and thoughts of characters down to pat the way the author intended it. The translator also then is nothing but a co-writer of the book in the truest sense of the word.

Convenience Store Woman’s title when read in Japanese is Convenience Store Human or Person and that to me makes more sense. It somehow adds that layer of making it common – of the tonality it deserves even if it is also in the title. But that is something that can be overlooked in a jiffy only because the book is par excellence. It touches all the notes – the awkward ones, the peculiar, the bitingly familiar, the hauntingly real, the one that sets you apart, and achingly wants to be a part of the world at large. This August, it being Women in Translation, please do read this book. You must.

 

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami. Translated by Lucy North.

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Author: Hiromi Kawakami
Translated from the Japanese by Lucy North
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1782272717
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella, Short Stories, Japanese Novellas
Pages: 156
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Record of a Night Too Brief” is a weird book and that I say in a good way. It took me some time to wind my head around it, but it proved to be a very satisfying read, nonetheless. This book is a collection of three fantastical short stories and on the surface, while they all seem to be rather easy and direct, they are anything but that.

In the first titular story, there are dream sequences (reminded me a lot of Murakami when that happened), talking animals, shrinking girls, mathematics, and a night-sky that you should only experience while reading this story.

The second one titled, “Missing” is about a sister mourning for her missing brother, while her entire family is rejoicing the fact of his would-be-wife entering the household. This is my favourite story in the book and you will know why when you read it.

The last story is called “A Snake Stepped On” where a woman accidentally steps on a snake, the snake is transformed to a girl and follows her home, thus living with the woman and her family.

You might think it to be super strange but like I said before, while these stories are strange, they are entertaining and profound to a large extent. These stories are about three women, trying to make their way in this world, surrounded by strange circumstances. In this way then, all these stories are sure inter-linked.

The writing cannot be bracketed in any genre. It is refreshing, haunting and almost new (Like I said, it did remind me of Murakami to some extent). I’ve read Kawakami’s books earlier and I must say that this happens to be her best, according to me. She has truly evolved as a writer in this one.

Lucy North has translated this book to perfection, because I didn’t feel anything lacking in it. If you want to start with contemporary Japanese literature and understand its people and way of life, I would most certainly urge you to read this collection.