Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

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Evil and the Mask

I created you to be a cancer on the world.

Fumihiro Kuki is the youngest son of the powerful Kuki family whose business sprawls and controls most of Japan. His father has revived the eccentric family tradition of breeding a son in old age to become a cancer, one with which to destroy everything that people hold dear. As part of his training, he has planned Fumihiro’s life in such a way that when he turns 14, he will experience hell. And this will be the catalyst which will turn Fumihiro into a harbinger of doom. But Fumihiro is smart and aware and tries to stay one step ahead of his hateful father. And there is Kaori, a young girl who is adopted from an orphanage to keep Fumihiro company. Both starved of love, they only have each other. And so begins Evil and the Mask, a dark, twisted tale by Fuminori Nakamura.

It’s one of those novel where the less you know, the more you will be surprised. Like Nakamura’s previous novel, The Thief, the translation is spot on and smooth, and you can’t help but fall into the story. I was expecting something a little more doomsday-ish like in the Japanese ultra-violent films so popular in the West. But Evil and the Mask is subtler, deeper and is more about the potential effect of evil on the human psyche. The fact that Fumihiro tries to fight against his destiny even going so far as to have plastic surgery, that he sacrifices his own happiness for another’s, that he has found some sort of purpose to his life because of the realisation that it isn’t about himself anymore is something to ponder upon. Like The Thief, Nakamura digs deep into our fears and makes us confront what it means to be human and what it takes to resist evil when it won’t let you go.

Although I’m a huge fan of Nakamura’s style and enjoyed reading Evil and the Mask, my only sticking point is that the novel feels slightly passive when you compare it to The Thief. There is a lot of reflection but not much action – it’s as though Fumihiro is the perpetual outsider, looking into what his life should have been like. It’s a wonderful novel on regret and what-ifs but it may fall a little short if you are looking for something more exciting.

I would like to thank Soho Press for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Strange Weather in Tokyo

I’m torn in my feelings for Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally titled Sensei no Kaban which translates to My Teacher’s Bag/Briefcase (The Briefcase in the US), Kawakami’s tale is of 38 year old Tsukiko who leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo, living alone, working in a nameless, nondescript job, whose one pleasure is to unwind after another day at work with a cup of sake and something seasonal to eat at a local izakaya. It’s probably an existence that is familiar to a large portion of the single working population in Japan and elsewhere. It’s boring and familiar and comforting but you feel your life slowly ebbing away, lost forever. It is at one of these drinking joints that she meets one of her high school teachers whose name she can never remember. And so begins an unlikely friendship with Sensei (Teacher), meeting once in a while to have a drink and a bite to eat. It’s never planned and they pay separately. But slowly, a chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the annual teachers’ ohanami (cherry blossom viewing picnic) forces Tsukiko to confront her feelings and she begins to realise the growing importance of Sensei in her life.

I loved the slow and leisurely way in which Kawakami peels back the evolving friendship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Their formal manner towards each other even though they often get very drunk together. The slow revelation of each other’s histories. The still moment when you just want to sit next to someone. And yet, there is always this nagging sensation of discomfort that wouldn’t vanish. Although I understood and sympathised with their friendship, I found it difficult to accept anything more. Is it their 30 year age gap? Did I put myself in Tsukiko’s shoes and wonder whether I could fall for a man so much older than myself? I don’t know. Although a common theme in Japanese literature and popular culture during the mid-Showa era, I couldn’t love this book completely because of this central issue which is so relevant to the book and which, I think, mirrored Tsukiko’s misgivings at the beginning. But the two seem so in tune with one another, as though there isn’t another person in the world who gets them, who understands their silences, their reticence, their solitude, that in some ways it seems inevitable.

It’s a deceptively quiet book with some wild emotions churning just below the surface. I was taken with Kawakami’s description of the nondescript existence of so many single people in Tokyo. It resonates, on the one hand, with the yearning for a simple life but also for something more to fill the gap. Although I found it troubling, there is something about Strange Weather in Tokyo that stubbornly remains in my thoughts long after I finished the last page.

I would like to thank Portobello Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Jap Lit 7

has started already. Go and check out Bellezza‘s wonderful review site with lots of reading suggestions.

This year I’m going to keep it simple. I’m aiming to finish Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 which I rushed out to buy when it first came out in hardback way back in 2010 and from which I quickly got distracted when carrying the behemoth tome around on my commute got painful. Should have really waited until the paperbacks were out but hey, you know me, no self control when it comes to new books.

I also purchased a copy of Jacob Ritari’s Taroko Gorge when I visited New York’s Strand Bookstore in spring and although Ritari is American, it’s all about Japanese high school kids on a school trip to Taiwan. Bellezza’s reading it too so I’m going to jump on the wagon.

I’m also tempted to try Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love about Japan in a dystopian present under attack from North Korea. Sounds fascinating, no?

And I might throw in another Shusaku Endo, possibly Scandal, a Yasunari Kawabata and a Yukio Mishima if I can stay focused. Fingers crossed, eh?

What about you? Will you be joining us during the next 6 months in reading some Japanese literature books?

Silence by Shusaku Endo

23 January, 2013

Silence


Lord, why are you silent?
Why are you always silent…..?

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is probably his most famous novel. Like The Samurai and The Volcano, it is a study of Christianity in early modern Japan and the terrible path it carved through the lives of its believers and those who tried to stamp it out.

It is almost 60 years after Francis Xavier’s successful mission to Southern Japan. But the Tokugawa Shogunate, fearing the growing popularity of Christianity amongst the country’s poor and the possible fomentation of anti-government sentiment, has closed Japan’s doors against outsiders, leading the country into self-imposed isolation and declaring a ban on Christianity. It is in this harsh period of forced apostasy and danger that the Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues and his companions set out from Portugal to discover the fate of their teacher, Christovão Ferreira, who has disappeared in Japan after rumours of his apostasy sent shock waves across the Christian world. Via Macao, they board a ship to a village near Nagasaki and there, their ideas and views on their vocation and the land they had dreamt of comes under increasing attack as they realise that the path they have chosen is harsher than anything they ever expected.

My reading of Silence as a non-Christian will probably differ from those who do believe, and yet, I feel that Endo successfully manages to get to the root of what he is trying to portray and shows the reader the real, honest and true anguish of someone who is trying to understand what it means to have faith and to live their life in a true and meaningful way.

I don’t think I have ever come across another novelist who has managed to do this in such a searing portrayal of a man struggling against fear and doubt and still trying to do justice to his vocation. Rodrigues is constantly treading water, at the edge of desperation, as he sees his flock captured, forced to step on fumie and apostatise, tortured and killed. He is perpetually caught between wanting to end the suffering of the Japanese Christians and staying true to his vocation, that he must continue his mission to spread and uphold his faith in Japan. It is a struggle from the beginning as most Christian converts are from the lower orders of the social hierarchy; many are peasants who are struggling with poverty and whose lives are hellish.

for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings.

You are there with Rodrigues as he jumps from one painful situation to the next, always shadowed by his Judas, the wretched, weak apostate Kichijiro, until he is finally captured himself. And there he comes face to face with the man he has come to Japan to find, his teacher Ferreira. And this is where his real struggle begins.

SPOILER ALERT (click and highlight to see text)

I was expecting Rodrigues to die at the end of the novel. But what Endo has done is something I hadn’t expected. Something much worse. And also something which really drives home and makes you think about what it must mean to have true faith. Does the fact that you have stepped on a fumie mean that you are an unbeliever? Can you really choose between stopping someone’s torture and keeping your own hands clean? And most importantly, Rodrigues finally believes that God had spoken to him and shown him the way, that by apostatising, he has become a true Christian and is saving his brethren from death. I may have gotten this all wrong but I found the ending to be truly painful but the fact that Rodrigues did not take his own life must mean that although he has no choice but to comply with his captors, he has found some kind of peace within himself and found meaning in his Christianity. But I’m not really sure.

END OF SPOILER

Endo’s portrayal of Rodrigues is that of a real blood, sweat and tears man. A man who is struggling with what he believes and what he thinks is the right thing to do. It’s a vital, anguished portrayal but one which really touched me. There are hardly any clean, beautiful characters in this novel. It’s raw and gritty and wretched. And yet it stays with you. The Samurai showed how Christianity lifted some of the burden from the lives of the poor peasants in feudal Japan but Silence shows how much the Japanese and their Portuguese priests had to give up in order to protect their faith.

There is a word in Japanese, shugyo (修行), which loosely translates as an apprenticeship or training with roots in Buddhism. It’s often used to denote a period of training that one must undergo in order to become stronger, to achieve success or some sort of enlightenment. Rodrigues’ ordeal is akin to this. He doesn’t shy away from it, knowing that he must get through it in order for there to be some meaning in his life, for there to be a link with his faith.

I finished reading Silence almost two weeks ago but Rodrigues’ struggle  still lingers in my mind as I try to understand whether he managed to come to terms with his choices. I am in awe of what Endo has accomplished here (together with William Johnston’s superb translation) and will definitely be seeking more of his novels to read as I hope some of you will too.

Do check out Bellezza and Tony‘s posts and Tanabata‘s discussion of Silence and Teresa has posted on a new translation of Kiku’s Prayer.

*Do also check out Teresa’s post on re-reading Silence.

I read this as part of Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 6, Tony‘s January in Japan and Ana and IrisLong Awaited Reads Month.

JLC6 #1 January in Japan LAR Button Final

One of my favourite reading challenges has commenced again. Although I am drawn to Japanese literature anyway, Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge always makes me focus on why I read Japanese literature and the connections it has with my other choices over the year. I’m also nosy about what others are reading which often leads to some exciting new discoveries.

So, this year, I am planning to read the following:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – Er, I’ve had this since it was published and have only dipped into the first chapter. What is wrong with me?

Silence by Shusaku Endo – I’ve read so much about this book and have finally got a copy of my own (well, I got my friend to buy it for me for my birthday last year, heh.) Endo is one of my favourite Japanese writers (both The Samurai and The Volcano are beautifully written) and I can’t wait to read this.

I also have a growing stack of fiction in Japanese. Apparently I have no problems buying and hoarding books in other languages even though I don’t read them. I may want to try one of them although most of them haven’t been translated into English. However, it’s good to know and keep an eye out for interesting authors that may get translated one day, right? I try to keep abreast with the literary world in Japan but like in the UK, there are SO many books being published every year. So what I normally do is look at the prize lists such as the Naoki and Akutagawa Awards and check out recommendations in the Japanese magazines I do read.

And then maybe I might also choose something from my perennial list of Mishima, Kawabata and Banana. What do you think? Should I branch out more? And more importantly, what are YOU going to read?

I have heard so much about this book ever since I started blogging and was eager to get my hands on it as it had my favourite combination of fiction with science, in this case mathematics. But as usual, I’m always about a year behind everyone else but someone has to keep the fire burning, right? I haven’t read anything else by Yoko Ogawa and wanted to start with this title because the subject matter seemed a little less extreme.

The Housekeeper and The Professor is a tale of two strangers who form a tenuous bond of friendship and love in what can only be described as difficult circumstances. The Professor who had trained at Cambridge and was once the shining beacon of the mathematical world now lives in a memory loop that lasts only 80 minutes after a devastating car crash. His glittering career in ruin, he is looked after by his sister-in-law who hires a housekeeper for his daily needs. And so the Housekeeper arrives. But something changes when the Professor meets her son, whom he names Root, and soon a bond forms between the three of them cemented by their love of baseball and numbers.

I know there’s a film adaptation in Japanese which I haven’t seen yet, but the book was just how I imagined it to be. Soft, gentle and poignant. It is reminiscent of a slower era, the frantic pace of life slowed right down so that you can focus on the minutiae of daily life. And these particular details themselves are like little droplets of life condensed. The food we eat, the daily rituals, the small celebrations. When it comes down to it, it is these things and the people we do them with that are important.

Although I was looking forward to the scientific bits in the novel, I surprisingly found it to be a little superfluous. I guess for a novel to work, the story needs to move forward without it being too bogged down by theory. Somehow I found myself skipping the mathematical bits to continue with the story. Ogawa is good at showing the importance of mathematics to the Professor who lives solely in his head until he meets the Housekeeper and her son, but the beauty of mathematics somehow surpassed me.

The Housekeeper and The Professor is a short, sweet snapshot of friendship and family that can be found in unexpected places and I enjoyed reading this tale.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5.