TagJanuary in Japan

"It is not, exactly, that I want to go, it is simply that I go"

Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

KawakamiLet’s say that my relationship with Hiromi Kawakami’s work is evolving. I first read her back in 2013, when The Briefcase was the group read for the first January in Japan. I was going to join in, but – well, I just didn’t get it. Looking back, and to be more accurate, I simply couldn’t see what I was reading. The Briefcase was listed for the IFFP last year (under its UK title, Strange Weather in Tokyo), and I re-read it as part of the shadow judging. This time, I noticed a ritualistic quality to the relationship between the protagonists; that made me feel closer to unlocking the novel, but I still didn’t quite find the key to it.

So, when I saw that an earlier Kawakami novel was lined up as one of this year’s January in Japan group reads, I was a little apprehensive. I needn’t have been, because I really liked Manazuru – to the point that I think I’ll have to revisit The Briefcase some time.

We first meet Kawakami’s narrator, Kei, on a visit to the seaside town of Manazuru; it’s a quiet place, with its own rhythm of life – two hours from Tokyo, but it could just as well be a world away. Something keeps drawing Kei back here: it may have to do with the disappearance of her husband Rei twelve years earlier; maybe Kei could find out, if only she could grasp what seems to be hovering on the fringes of her memory.

Manazuru is a disconcerting combination of the precise and the hazy. Its structure is fragmented, sliding easily between past and present, between reality, memory and fantasy (Kei is followed by a woman-figure who may be some sort of spirit – or even a version of Kei herself – but often seems as real as any of the protagonist’s human interlocutors). But, even as those categories start to blur, the emotional detail remains pin-sharp and striking (a delicate balance achieved by Michael Emmerich in his translation).

Here, for example, is Kei describing how her mother felt about Rei:

She never tried to look at him, at Rei, the man I was married to, except through a sort of fish-eye lens. I don’t mean she saw him from a prejudiced perspective. She was unwilling to regard him as a man with a form. She preferred to peer through her lens at his distorted, bulging toes, or at his ballooning head. Nothing else. She didn’t dislike him enough to look away. She didn’t hate him enough to stare. She chose to keep him indistinct. (p. 46)

Images of bodily form and perception of others recur throughout Manazuru. Kei tells how she always used to feel the edges of her body blurring, until she started her affair with Seiji, a married man (“I don’t blur with Seiji. My shape is always the same, contained,” p. 71); Kei’s relationship with Seiji is constricting and distant in some ways, but it fulfils a need. Kei may have felt close to Rei when they were together; but, reading his diary now, she realises that there was a side of him she didn’t know; looking at old photographs of herself and Rei, their relationship suddenly starts to seem real to Kei, as though it somehow wasn’t previously. Kei comments that her daughter Momo can hurt her more deeply than others can (“she presses, unconcerned, into the softest places,” p. 30) because, knowing that Momo came from her body, Kei is unable to erect her emotional defences. But it doesn’t necessarily work both ways, as Kei finds that the teenage Momo can be distant and inscrutable. So the novel continues, with these nuanced, shifting patterns of emotion.

Kei’s perception of reality is fluid as well: for example, she has a vivid memory of following Rei and seeing him meet another woman – but apparently it’s a false one. In the end, Manazuru is a portrait of a woman lost between the elusive past and the seemingly unreachable future – and whether or she finds her way is open to interpretation.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.

"Romance has no place in documentaries"

Ryu Murakami, Audition (1997)
Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy (2009)

AuditionI first read the ‘two Murakamis’ a couple of years ago. No doubt I’ll be trying Haruki once more at some point; but Ryu’s book was the one I preferred, so he was the author I was keen to read again sooner. Piercing, my first Ryu Murakami, was a welcome surprise: a novel smart and subtle enough to evade the pitfalls inherent in its premise. Audition promises to be something similar – both are short novels built around a violent confrontation between two damaged individuals. However, although it’s the later book of the two, Audition seems to fall into traps that Piercing managed to avoid.

Murakami’s protagonist is Aoyama, who built his fortune making documentaries, but is still haunted by the death of his wife Ryoko seven years previously. In the time since, Aoyama has been able to realise a professional dream of bringing a celebrated German musician to Japan, and made sure to spend quality time with his son Shige; but he’s given no thought to his romantic life – until Shige encourages him to find a new wife.

How to go about it, though? An old work colleague, Yoshikawa, has an idea: hold an audition. Yoshikawa invites potential actresses to audition for a film project (ostensibly based on one of Aoyama’s documentaries, giving him a pretext for being on the interview panel); the film probably won’t get made, but the lucky winner can always be let down gently on that score – and the real prized will, of course, be Aoyama’s hand in marriage. One woman in particular stands out to Aoyama in this process: the beautiful and mysterious Yamasaki Asami – but she may not be quite as innocent as she appears.

Audition spends a good deal of time foreshadowing what is to come, sometimes in very direct terms – for example: “[Aoyama] had no way of knowing the unspeakable horrors that awaited him.” (p. 26). The characterisation is similarly straightforward: Aoyama is fixated on his ideal image of Ryoko, which leads him to become similarly fixated on the vision of perfection that he perceives Asami to be; Asami, for her part, has a troubled past, which leads her to… well, that would be telling. The trouble is that Ralph McCarthy’s translation feels too plain-speaking for this directness to work; there’s not enough of the subtlety which would create the sense of foreboding that the novel is telling us to experience.

Well, okay, let’s leave the build-up to one side. I have no problem in principle with everything hinging on the novel’s final confrontation, as long as that works. It worked in Piercing, but the confrontation there was longer (better able to create tension), and more importantly felt like a contest of equals – two characters who both had the capacity (and the desperation) to do the worst to each other, and no way of guessing who would win out. In those circumstances, it would be quite all right for the characters to appear from thin air, because watching them interact in the moment was powerful enough in its own right.

Audition falls between two stools in this regard: its climactic sequence is too short to generate much momentum on its own, and the characters don’t have enough emotional grounding from what has gone previously in order to substitute for that. Inevitably, there remains a certain amount of interest in finding out exactly how Aoyama’s story will resolve, and a wry ending which points up how absurd the situation has actually become (though it didn’t seem so to the characters involved). But it’s weak sauce, really – especially when I’ve seen much better from Murakami before.

Moving beyond the central narrative, there are some interesting observations elsewhere in Audition; for example, Aoyama watches a marathon, and reflects that his society seems to have become more atomised:

People were infected with the concept that happiness was something outside themselves, and a new and powerful loneliness was born. Mix loneliness with stress and enervation, and all sorts of madness can occur. Anxiety increases, and in order to obliterate the anxiety people turn to extreme sex, violence and even murder. Watching marathon runners on TV back in the day, you got the sense that everyone shared certain fundamental aspirations, but things were different now; it went without saying that each person was running for his or her own private reasons (p. 10).

Passages like this are of course feeding into the novel’s main themes; but they seem too few – and too under-explored – to give Audition the texture that they might. They end up as more of that heavy-handed foreshadowing – reminders of the book Audition could have been.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.

My January in Japan 2015 index

jj

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping for a year of interesting and exciting books.

To kick things off, I’m joining in with January in Japan, the annual blog event hosted by Tony of Tony’s Reading List. I took part in this a couple of years ago, borrowed a load of Japanese books from the library, and didn’t get around to nearly as many as I’d hoped. Last year I was finding my feet more generally with translated fiction; but I’m back for this January, hopefully with more realistic plans. I’ve picked out a few Japanese books from my shelves, which I should get the chance to read and blog (along with the two January in Japan group reads).

I’ll be using this post as an index for my January in Japan blogging. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear about your favourite Japanese books and writers in the comments.

***

1. Audition by Ryu Murakami

2. Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami

January in Japan: Yoko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996/2010)
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Seventeen-year-old Mari is working at her mother’s hotel when a middle-aged man and a prostitute are thrown out for rowing and disturbing the other guests. Mari is drawn to the man, and starts to see him regularly; he tells her that he’s a Russian translator – the heroine of the novel he’s working on is even named Marie. The two enter into an intimate, masochistic relationship – which, naturally enough, can’t last forever.

Hotel Iris is a quiet book, and all the more powerful and disturbing for it. So thoroughly does Ogawa create the viewpoint of Mari as she’s drawn into the translator’s orbit, it’s a real jolt to be reminded that this man’s intentions are questionable at the very least. But what makes the novel particularly challenging to consider is that Ogawa is clear on the affair’s positive consequences for Mari, as well as the negative ones: it gives her an escape from being put-upon by her mother, however dangerous it might turn out to be. Hotel Iris is an uncomfortable read, in the best possible way.

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (2008/12)
Translated by Rebecca Copeland

The latest title in the Canongate Myths series is inspired by the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi – which isn’t a story I know, so inevitably I’m going to miss out on something here. But the intriguing thing for me is that The Goddess Chronicle is written by Natsuo Kirino, and at first glance seems quite different from a gritty urban novel like Out. But look closer, and similarities emerge: both books focus on female characters who try to escape a system designed to hold and define them.

Our narrator is Namima, whom we first meet as a servant of the goddess Izanami in the Realm of the Dead; Kirino’s novel is the story of how she got there. Namima is born on a tiny island, granddaughter of its spiritual leader, the Oracle. It’s a hereditary position, though Namima’s older sister Kamikuu is destined to become the next Oracle – and it’s not until Kamikuu takes over that Namima learns her preordained role as the Oracle’s sister: to watch over the island’s graveyard for the rest of her life, with no human contact. Namima tries to escape the island with the boy she loves – but tragedy strikes, and she finds herself in Izanami’s realm.

A number of stories overlap in The Goddess Chronicle. There’s Namima’s childhood on the island, which has a measured clarity tempered with a touch of strangeness. There is Namima’s sojourn in the world of the living as a wasp, a fine ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale. And there is the story of Izanami and her brother/lover/enemy Izanagi, which now has Namima as a witness. Their story provides a point of comparison and contrast with Namima’s own. All is wrapped up in clean prose that gives this engaging novel a mythic feel of its very own.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Click here for the index of my posts.

January in Japan: Project Itoh

Project Itoh, Harmony (2008/10)
Translated by Alexander O. Smith

I couldn’t take part in a theme month like January in Japan and not investigate some speculative fiction. The book I’m looking at today comes from Haikasoru, an imprint specialising in English translations of Japanese science fiction and fantasy.

First, in case the author is unfamiliar, some background: Project Itoh (real name Satoshi Ito) was a web designer and writer who died from cancer in 2009 at the age of 34, after many years of battling the diseade. He was working on Harmony whilst being treated in hospital, and questions about health and medical treatment are central to the novel.

After a cataclysmic event that devastated the world’s population, human life has come to be seen as the ultimate resource – so much so that traditonal governmental structures have largely been replaced by ‘admedistrations’, and most adults are injected with WatchMe, a nanotechnology which monitors the body and repairs all damage and illness. To abuse one’s health is, in effect, to vandalise public property.

But children don’t yet have WatchMe, and Tuan Kirie, its inventor’s daughter, has a friend who’s keen to take advantage of that. Miach Mihie wants to rebel, to retain soverignty over her own body – and the ultimate expression of that wish for Miach is to take her own life. She persuades Tuan and another friend to enter into a suicide pact – but only Miach succeeds.

As an adult, Tuan works for the Helix Inspection Agency (“the elite soldiers of lifeism,” p. 41), policing the good health of the world. But she’s partial to the odd cigar or other indulgence, and has a fake WatchMe that lets her get away with it. She can’t remain in glorious isolation forever, though, and invstigating a mass suicide leads Tuan to confront realities that cut uncomfortably close to home.

The great strength of Harmony is its capacity to dramatise questions of personal responsibility versus the common good (and who gets to decide what those terms mean), authoritarian intervention versus individual choice – and ultimately, perhaps, the question of what a life’s purpose should be. Every ‘side’ in the novel has a point, but each view also has its limitations – and the charachters’ actions may subtly turn them into the opposite of what they profess to want.

In some ways, the plot of Harmony may come across as overly simplistic, serving mainly as a vehicle for characters to meet and discuss the novel’s key issues. But it could also be seen as a sign of how deeply Itoh’s characters are enmeshed in a wider system, that what they do runs along these broadly generic lines that they can’t perceive. There’s also an equivalent of HTML for emotions peppered throughout the text (a chunk of narration might be bookended with and , for example. This is a further indication that, however much they may talk of determining their own destinies, Harmony‘s characters are trapped in even deeper ways than they can imagine.

More than any other book I’ve read since… New Model Army, actually, Harmony gave me the grand thrill of contemplating challenging ideas. It has stayed with me since I finished it, and I’m sure I will return to it in future. I’m also sure that I’ll want to read more by Project Itoh.

See also:
Adam Roberts’s review of Harmony for Strange Horizons, which also reflects on the place of medicine in modern science fiction.
The index of my January in Japan posts.

January in Japan: Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino

Ryu Murakami, Piercing (1994/2007)
Natsuo Kirino, Out (1997/2004)

Kawashima Masayuki, the protagonist of Ryu Murakami’s Piercing (translated by Ralph McCarthy), stands over his baby daughter’s crib with an ice pick, testing his resolve not to use it. The full darkness beneath Kawashima’s outwardly happy family life is soon revealed, as we learn that he once stabbed a woman with an ice pick, and he’s afraid he’ll do so again to the baby. He convinces himself that the only way to deal with these feelings is to stab a stranger instead. So he checks into a hotel, calls for a prostitute, and waits.

The young woman who arrives is Sanada Chiaki, who has had her own demons to face in life, and is perhaps more than anything just looking to feel once again. What follows, in a chapter taking up fully half of this short novel, is a tense and fascinating game of power-plays. Our perspective shifts back and forth between Kawashima and Chiaki, as does the upper hand in a battle they don’t (at first) even know they are fighting. Both characters have their strengths and weaknesses, their resources and defences, and one can never be sure how this game will end. Piercing is deeply uncomfortable reading, certainly; but, as a portrait of two deeply damaged individuals, it’s also compelling.

Where Piercing is short and tight, Natsuo Kirino’s Out (translated by Stephen Snyder) is long and (relatively) roomy, but it shares a focus on individuals at extremes of behaviour. Four women work nights on the production lines of a boxed-lunch factory. In the heat of the moment, one kills her husband, driven to her wit’s end by his abuse. One of her colleagues, Masako Katori, takes charge of disposing of the body, gradually drawing the other women into the secret. Then the pressure is on to keep the killing hidden, from the police and other prying eyes.

For me, the character of Masako is the great strength of Kirino’s novel: psychologically, she’s quite ‘blank’ – even she doesn’t really understand what drives her to do what she does – which gives the book a similar sense of uncertainty to that Murakami achieves in Piercing by coming from the opposite direction (his protagonists are ‘known quantities’, but he creates uncertainty by bringing them together). As a thriller, Out has the same narrative momentum, and is perhaps even more dynamic as it shows greater change in its characters’ lives. But I find myself leaning towards Piercing as the more intense reading experience, with a study of character that bit sharper.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List.

January in Japan

jj

So here is the first blogosphere event I’m taking part in this year. I’m not very familiar with Japanese literature, but I’ve wanted to read more for some time; so when I heard about this themed month being hosted by Tony’s Reading List, it seemed an ideal pretext. I’ve scoured the local library and my own shelves for some reading material, and I’ll be linking to all of my posts from here as and when they appear. (If you want a sneak preview, keep an eye on the new ‘Read in 2013’ page above.)

1. Piercing by Ryu Murakami & Out by Natsuo Kirino

2. Harmony by Project Itoh

3. Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa & The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

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