Almost a year ago now, I had a piece published over at A Personal Anthology, where Jonathan Gibbs has “writers, critics and others dream-edit a personal anthology of their favourite short stories”. Instead of picking my favourite stories, I went back to a post I had just written at the time on collections of short Japanese fiction and instead of focusing on the collections as a whole, chose one enjoyable piece from each of them. For this year’s January In Japan, then, and as a part of a long-term effort to rehouse all of my external pieces here at the blog, I’ve decided to publish those choices here (links, as always, are to my reviews). I hope my descriptions of the stories, and the collections, might inspire you to go off and hunt them down 🙂
Enchi, one of the most successful modern female writers, is well known for her interest in Japanese literary history, and ‘A Bond for Two Lifetimes – Gleanings’ uses Akinari Ueda’s Tales of Spring Rain, a series of supernatural tales, as the centre of its frame narrative. A widow of around thirty visits her former professor to transcribe his modern versions of Ueda’s tales, and we are privileged to hear the old man’s version of one of them (which is also the inspiration for Haruki Murakami’s novel Killing Commendatore). However, an erotic undercurrent pervades Enchi’s story, with the woman remembering life with her dead husband and passes the professor made at her in the past. Inevitably, then, on leaving the professor’s house, she encounters a man in the dark – but who could it be…
This recent collection contains ten stories by a younger generation of writers, making for a good introduction to contemporary Japanese literature, and Furukawa’s story starts the book off. On a small island near Tokyo, a disembodied presence observes a number of goats as they go about their business in their enclosure, and when the male goat is taken away on a container ship, the presence follows it. What seems slightly bizarre, and fairly quaint, turns nasty when the goat’s container is opened and the crew discover something very different to what they expected. Part philosophical musing, part wacky horror story (with an impressive body count), ‘Model T Frankenstein’ shows us a very different side to Tokyo in an allegorical tale looking at the anonymity of life in the big city, and at how the idea of a monster is a rather subjective one.
‘Lady of the Evening Faces’ by Yumie Hiraiwa, translated by Patricia Lyons
(included in The Mother of Dreams: Portrayals of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction, Kodansha International, 1986)
This interesting story follows a young woman after the death of her mother, the long-term lover of a wealthy married man, examining her relationship with someone connected to the man’s family. What appears at first to be a heart-warming tale of two people becoming closer instead turns sour as the woman realises that she’s misjudged her partner, especially when she learns of another potential love interest. As well as looking at extra-marital relationships, ‘Lady of the Evening Faces’ also focuses on the communication, or lack thereof, inside a marriage, with the protagonist learning too late that relying on unspoken courtesy is likely to lead to unhappiness.
‘What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker’ by Saikaku Ihara, translated by W. Theodore de Bary
(included in Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Grove Press, 1955)
Included in the first of the classic Donald Keene collections, Ihara’s story takes the reader back to the late seventeenth century, where a beautiful woman, the titular almanac maker’s wife, meddles in the burgeoning relationship between a maid and one of her husband’s workers. However, in an act typical for this bawdy tale, she somehow ends up sleeping with him herself, upon which the two flee the capital and fake their deaths. Alas, as you may have guessed, their love is unlikely to have a happy ending, and after various escapades, the couple are brought to (rather severe) justice. Ihara was well known for his risqué books, and this tale was actually one of five in a work named Five Women Who Loved Love (again translated by de Bary, released by Tuttle Publishing in 1956), featuring five women whose inability to control their desires ended up costing them dearly.
‘Nightingale’ by Einosuke Itō, translated by Geoffrey Sargent
(included in Modern Japanese Short Stories: Twenty-Five Stories by Japan’s Leading Writers, Tuttle Publishing, 2019)
Enigmatic, subtle and poignant are adjectives often used to describe Japanese writing, but you do occasionally find stories that are more raucous and chaotic, and Itō’s 1938 piece ‘Nightingale’ is a wonderful example of the type. We enter a rural police station one evening in the company of an elderly woman hoping for news of a foster daughter taken from her years before, and we stay there for a day (and forty pages) as the hard-working local police officers do their best to cope with a deluge of visitors, including a woman accused of being an illegal midwife, an adulterer and a chicken thief coming to blows, and a shady character who has been fleeced of his money by a man dressed as a woman. The story rarely stops for breath, and though all these anecdotes of poor people trying to scrape by, the story of the old woman runs in the background, in a tale that never outstays its welcome. It’s a portrait of human nature at its best, with petty squabbles forgotten when someone really needs help – and I haven’t even mentioned the nightingale. This collection was out of print for a while, but Tuttle recently rereleased it (with a new essay included), so you should be able to find a copy fairly easily.
‘Ugly Demons’ by Yumiko Kurahashi, translated by Lane Dunlop
(included in Autumn Wind and Other Stories, Tuttle Publishing, 1994)
A man looks back twenty years to the summer when he was seventeen, one spent on the beach (and in bed) with his girlfriend, M. Yet what sounds like a gentle, nostalgic tale is anything but, with the narrator spinning a story of gender struggles, domination and depression. The story twists the summer, imagining dangerous headlands, dead stars spinning just round the coast, as well as the discovery of a stranger, left for dead on the beach, whose dark skin comes to represent the blackness inside the narrator’s soul. A warning: the writer’s use in this 1965 story of a ‘negro’ character, real or invented, might offend modern readers, but the overall sense of allegory and symbolism works wonderfully.
That’s the first half-dozen suggestions – is there anything there that takes your fancy? Be sure to come back tomorrow to see another six great stories and J-Lit collections:)