The more J-Lit you read, the more addictive it becomes, and anyone with a serious passion for Japanese literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, is bound to want to expand their horizons at some point and explore what else is out there. For this reason, collections are a great help to the budding Japanophile, and last year I read my first, the excellent Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories. Today’s post looks at my second foray into the area of collected Japanese fiction – was it just as successful? You’ll just have to read on to find out…
Modern Japanese Literature, an anthology edited by Donald Keene, is a collection of Japanese writing covering the period from 1868 (the start of the Meiji Era, traditionally considered the beginning of ‘modern’ Japan) to the middle of the twentieth century. Unlike the Oxford collection, Keene’s book is not restricted to short stories – it also contains traditional and Western poetry, a couple of plays and extracts from classic novels. Running to 438 pages, there’s enough here to give any beginner a fair overview of the must-read writers of the period covered.
It would be impossible to cover all the works in detail, but I thought I would briefly touch on some of the ones I liked most from the various genres (concentrating on things I hadn’t read before). In terms of extracts from novels, Shimei Futabatei’s The Drifting Cloud, an incomplete work from the late-nineteenth century, is one that appealed, with its story of a bumbling civil servant trying to find love in Meiji Japan. I’m also tempted to splash out on Jun’ichiro Tanazaki’s novella Captain Shigemoto’s Mother and Yukio Mishima’s semi-autobiographical work Confessions of a Mask on the strength of the extracts given here.
There were several short stories I liked, and I wish there had been many more of them. Among the best were Ichiyo Higuchi’s Growing Up and Kafu Nagai’s The River Sumida, both of which are lengthy, historical, coming-of-age stories set in and around the red-light districts of Tokyo. Another favourite was Riichi Yokomitsu’s story Time, a beautifully-written tale of a troupe of actors on a dangerous night journey through the mountains (running away from an unpaid hotel bill…). Finally, I also enjoyed Osamu Dazai’s story Villon’s Wife, another of his tales of mistreated women and badly-behaved men in post-war Tokyo, similar in style to his novel The Setting Sun.
Of course, there was a lot to be savoured beyond my usual prose diet, but poetry is not really my preference, so to be honest none of it really stuck in the memory. However, of the two plays included, I did like Kikuchi Kan’s The Madman on the Roof, a short work on the subject of… well, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory really 😉 Kan’s play makes the reader look at the behaviour of both the sane and the insane and decide who the mad ones really are…
Despite its good points though, I wasn’t entirely happy with the anthology. One issue I had, the abundance of novel extracts, was my own fault as I really should know what the word ‘anthology’ means… However, there were some other problems as well. For one thing, the label ‘modern’ is a complete misnomer as the collection was released in 1956. Anyone looking for Murakami, Yoshimoto, Ogawa or Abe will be sadly disappointed, and Mishima and Dazai are included as examples of the young generation!