Yesterday, I posted the first part of another January In Japan project, namely the rehousing of my contribution to Jonathan Gibbs’ project, A Personal Anthology, and today sees the second half of that submission (yes, the original post was *very* long!). Once again, we’ll be looking at six collections of Japanese writing, with one story selected to represent the group (again, the links are to my original review of the collection or anthology here on the blog). There are another excellent half-dozen pieces featured, so let’s get down to work and see which of these catches your eye. I’m hoping to persuade you all to give at least one of these collections a try some time soon 🙂
‘The Breast’ by Yuriko Miyamoto, translated by Heather Bowen-Struyk
(included in For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature, The University of Chicago Press, 2016)
This 1935 story is one of the better pieces in an intriguing collection of proletarian writing, mainly for the female slant it provides on the class struggle in Japan. In a highly autobiographical tale, a woman runs a childcare centre for local workers and visits her prison-bound husband whenever possible. Meanwhile, she liaises with activists trying to organise a strike, only to see that not everyone is pulling in the same direction – yet as a woman she’s powerless to help. The breast in question is her own, that of a woman who has never had children, and she represents a whole raft of women working hard to support the men plotting for better conditions, without really being able to have their say. She must put her trust in these men, even when she suspects that not all of them are who they say they are.
Ono’s two-part story, focusing on a man living with his young son in a small house at the edge of a strange wood, seems to be set in that uncanny place between dream and reality. In the first part, ‘A Breast’, the son brings an old woman wearing nothing but an old dressing gown back to the house from the wood, with the father puzzled as to where she could have come from. ‘The Pastry Shop at the Edge of the Wood’ then has the man taking his son to buy a birthday cake for the boy’s unborn sister – after a reminder from a pair of dwarves who pop by for a visit… Bizarre and compelling, ‘At the Edge of the Wood’ is enhanced, like all of the Keshiki chapbooks, by its excellent cover design, with this one opting for a sombre monochrome theme.
‘Spider Lilies’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
(included in Granta 127: Japan, Granta Books, 2014)
Oyamada’s story is another two-part work, starting with a young woman’s formal visit to her fiancé’s home before moving on to a hospital visit years later when her husband is recovering from a car crash. Throughout the piece it’s what isn’t said that intrigues the reader, with secrets kept from family members, and the narrator, Yuki, acting as our access into this world. The two parts are connected by the titular flowers, called shibitobana in Japanese (‘dead man’s flower’), and the rumours about the plant’s qualities go nicely with the stories Yuki hears. It’s up to her, and us, to decide how much of it all is true.
‘In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom’ by Ango Sakaguchi, translated by Jay Rubin
(included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 2010)
The Oxford collection is the one I’d recommend as the go-to anthology for anyone interested in Japanese literature, and ‘In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom’ is my favourite piece. It begins with a bandit ambushing a traveller and his wife in the mountains, with the villain killing the man on seeing how beautiful the wife is. Alas, her beauty hides unspeakable cruelty, and her arrival will change the man’s life immeasurably, setting in motion a train of events leading him to the capital and beyond. Musing on natural beauty and juxtaposing it with a penchant for decapitation, Sakaguchi’s supernatural story of a man getting far more than he bargained for is one you won’t forget in a hurry (and you’ll certainly never look at cherry blossoms in the same way again!).
‘Where Europe Begins’ by Yōko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
(included in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (Abridged), Columbia University Press, 2011)
In a dizzying, fragmented narrative consisting of extracts from a travel journal, stories and childhood memories, a woman describes her journey across Siberia, fulfilling a lifelong dream to see Moscow. However, rather than being a simple travel diary, ‘Where Europe Begins’ blends travelogue and myth, with the narrator exploring the concept of boundaries as she approaches a Europe whose borders nobody can agree on. Moscow becomes less a city than a promise of something unattainable, a pipe dream, so it’s little wonder that as the narrator gets closer to the Russian capital, barriers appear to prevent her from ever reaching it. Apart from being a mesmerising story, ‘Where Europe Begins’ is unique among my selections in that it wasn’t actually written in Japanese, with Tawada having composed this piece in German (as some of you may have surmised from the translator’s name…).
‘Time’ by Riichi Yokomitsu, translated by Donald Keene
(included in Modern Japanese Literature: From 1868 to the Present Day, Grove Press, 1956)
My final choice comes from the second of the Donald Keene collections, long a staple of Japanese Studies courses. When a troupe of penniless actors are abandoned by their manager at an inn, the remaining eight men and four women have no choice but to flee on a rainy night, choosing to take a dangerous coastal road in the hope of throwing off pursuit. What ensues is an entertaining tale in which the narrator’s philosophical recount of the arduous journey, describing the effects of cold, hunger and exhaustion, is interrupted by fights stemming from the jealousy the men feel towards the women (each of whom has had liaisons with several of the men). Cleverly, by the end of the piece, these petty affairs are forgotten, and it’s life itself and the cruel nature of time that are the main focus, as the narrator swings between the longing for a peaceful death and a desperate desire to keep on living.
And that’s your lot! Hopefully, if nothing else, you’ve all been made aware of twelve places you can go if you want to find out more about Japanese short fiction, and with a variety of eras and genres featured, I’m sure there’s plenty there for everyone to enjoy. Never fear, though – that’s not the end of January In Japan. Look out next week for a few more reviews and one more bonus post 😉