BOOK REVIEW: The Spirit of Japanese Poetry by Yoné Noguchi

The Spirit of Japanese PoetryThe Spirit of Japanese Poetry by Yoné Noguchi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Free Online at Wikisource

This book-length essay, originally published in 1914, discusses the unique style and aesthetic of Japanese poetry. It’s written for an audience of English language readers and advances its objective not only by presenting illuminating translations of Japanese poetry, but also by comparing Japanese poetry to English language poetry.

Noguchi takes a no-holds-barred approach to literary criticism that is both the strength and weakness of the book, sometimes it feels as though the author’s boldness is granting deep insight into the subject, but other times it reads as though the author is tribally narrow-minded and curmudgeonly. By “tribally narrow-minded,” I mean that he takes the view that the Japanese aesthetic and approach to art is always and in everyway superior to non-Japanese art (in this case, English language poetry.) Interestingly, he frequently compliments specific artists, e.g. Walt Whitman, but doesn’t have anything nice to say about English language poetry in general. By “curmudgeonly,” I mean that he takes the popular — if biased –view that the world is going to shit, and – in the section on modern poetry – it is only after discussing how the art has fallen on hard times that he can discuss a few modern poets who’ve produced some poems worthy of adoration [and some worthy examples of the modern form (Shintaishi.)]

One might think this bigoted view would cripple his book (as bigoted views usually do,) but because what he’s promising is depth of insight into the Japanese poetic aesthetic, he is able to succeed just fine. [Also, to be fair, being highly opinionated and pretentious were hallmarks of critics of his era – just usually not so nationalistically.] Noguchi does a great job of selecting evocative examples, providing powerful translations, and illuminating the Japanese mindset as it pertains to art and poetry.

If you’re interested in Japanese poetry and the psychology that influences Japanese artistic tastes, this short book is highly recommended. [Just be prepared to be offended if you aren’t a hardcore Japanophile.]


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed. by Jay Rubin

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories by Jay Rubin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book contains 35 short stories by many of the most prominent Japanese writers (at least among authors whose works are translated into English,) including: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Haruki Murakami (who contributes the book’s Introduction as well as two stories.)

The stories are arranged into seven sections that are apropos for modern Japanese literature: “Japan and the West” (3 stories,) “Loyal Warriors” (2 stories,) “Men and Women” (6 stories,) “Nature and Memory” (5 stories), “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” (5 stories,) “Dread” (3 stories,) and “Disasters, Natural and Man-made” (11 stories.) This organization scheme, which might seem random applied to most literature, offers some insight into the Japanese mind and experience.

“Japan and the West” reflects a Japan in the vanguard among non-Western nations entering into developed nation status. For a time, Japan sat in the unique situation of being the only rich nation that wasn’t majority Caucasian, and the uneasy balancing act that many Japanese felt is reflected in these three stories. “Loyal Warriors” reflects the long shadow of the feudal samurai era, and – in particular – the custom of ritual suicide. It’s true that “Men and Women” has a certain universality to it, though the individual stories speak to the Japanese experience and history. The section entitled “Nature and Memory” is really more about the latter than the former, and the stories all reflect a concern about remembering, forgetting, and the imperfection of memory. “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” explores the modern corporate existence. “Dread” are the horror stories, a genre that has a lengthy history in Japan. “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made” reflects Japan’s experience with many devastating earthquakes and two atomic bombs.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll not describe or comment upon all the stories. Instead, I’ll pick out a few that I found particularly moving. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many gems among the others. But my intention is merely to give the reader a taste of what is in this volume.

– “The Story of Tomode and Matsunaga” by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro: A writer receives a letter from a woman whose husband has a history of pulling extended disappearing acts. She asks for the writer’s help because she believes he may know her husband. The writer makes a connection to an acquaintance he has frequently socialized with in bars. The writer notices the man’s appearance in town seems to line up with the dates the woman gave for her husband’s disappearances. It might seem like a mystery solved, but the two men look nothing alike.

– “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima: A junior military officer comes home and tells his wife that he has been put in the untenable position of having to arrest his comrades. Deciding that there is no honorable path, he decides to commit seppuku (ritual suicide,) and – given societal norms – this means his wife, too, will be expected to end her own life.

– “Smile of the Mountain Witch” by Ohba Minako: A mythical mountain witch is transposed into a modern urban setting.

– “Peaches” by Abe Akira: A man revisits a memory from his youth involving his mother and a cart of peaches, realizing that events couldn’t have happened as he remembers, he reconstructs events as he re-imagines his story.

– “Mr. English” by Keita Genji: We meet an office worker who seems like a bit of a jerk, but as we get to know his story, he is humanized.

– “Hell Screen” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A prima donna artist painting a hellish artwork for his Lord insists that he must have seen scenes to accurately depict them, and thus he is drawn into the hellishness of his work.

– “Filling Up with Sugar” by Suwanishi Yuten: A woman’s mother has a rare and incurable disease in which the body slowly turns into sugar.

– “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Ota Yoko: As the title suggests, this is a story of the devastation of Hiroshima by atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War.

– “Weather-Watching Hill” Saeki Kazumi: This description of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami reads a bit like a journalistic account.

– “Same as Always” by Sato Yuya: This is a chilling tale of a mother who uses the release of radiation as a result of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant melt-down as a pretext for murdering her baby in a way that won’t look like murder. It’s so wrong in so many ways, but extremely evocative.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. The stories are great, and I would highly recommend it for readers of short fiction – particularly if one enjoys the cultural insight that comes from reading translated literature.

View all my reviews