After having passed myself off as an expert in the field, it was a little disconcerting to realise that the thirty-something Japanese books gathering dust on the allotted shelves in my study were written by a mere seven different writers - seven! While I realise that this may be one or two (or seven) more than a lot of bloggers, it does undermine my authority a little and needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Which is where today's book came in very handy...
The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories is a wonderful collection which I first spotted in the campus bookshop a while back. Being reluctant to spend over $30 on it, however, I trotted off back to my desk and my trusty PC, where I quickly found it for about $14 on the Book Depository. A click of my
The book contains thirty-five short stories by thirty-five of the best Japanese writers of the past century, increasing my source of potential classics by 500% in a matter of 440 pages. There were stories from some of my old favourites (Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Kobo Abe), from famous writers I'd heard of but never encountered in print before (Yasunari Kawabata, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Shusaku Endo), and from writers I never knew existed (Naoya Shiga, Ango Sakaguchi, Masahiko Shimada). The book is edited, and introduced by, Theodore 'Ted' Goossen (a famous scholar and translator of Japanese literature), and his excellent introduction, giving an overview of 'five generations' of modern Japanese writers and 'five legacies' (or areas) of Japanese short-story writing, is just as valuable for the reader as the stories themselves.
It would be impossible to review all of the stories in one, easily-digestible post, so I have decided to choose my top five stories, deliberately excluding any by writers whose works I have already read. This list is, of course, highly subjective, and by excluding all of the female writers featured, I may be letting myself in for a little criticism; nevertheless, these were my favourites :)
5 - The Bears of Nametoko by Kenji Miyazawa
A story of a hunter living in the mountains and making a living by shooting bears and selling their pelts in the village below. Far from being a merciless slaughterer, he and his dog appear to live in near harmony with the bears, as shown by the melancholy ending.
4 - In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom by Ango Sakaguchi
One of the most chilling and supernatural stories in the book, this story about a bandit who kills a man and takes his wife to be his own is both tense and grotesque. One thing's for sure - you'll never think the same way about cherry-blossom viewing again...
3 - Prize Stock by Kenzaburo Oe
By far the longest story of the collection, this forty-page tale, seen through the eyes of a child, recounts the events which unfold when a small Japanese village captures an American airman. A well-crafted tale of humanity, and a lack of it.
2 - The Izu Dancer by Yasunari Kawabata
The first of Japan's two Nobel laureates in literature (Oe was the second), Kawabata evokes everything that foreigners love about this country's writing in a sumptuous, twenty-page walk through mountainous terrain and small villages in the company of a student from Tokyo and a family group of wandering entertainers.
1 - In a Grove - Ryunosuke Akutagawa
An absolute classic of Japanese writing. A murder, seven accounts, seven conflicting stories - one amazing piece of writing. This story was adapted by Akira Kurosawa for the big-screen (Rashomon).
Have you guessed yet that I love this book? This is a must-have item for anyone interested in Japanese literature: for novices, it provides a useful starting point, from which you can follow your interests and tastes; for readers (like me) who have already tried a variety of writers, it helps you to widen your view a little and decide which author to look at next. And yes, that's exactly what happened - I am currently waiting for a book by Kenzaburo Oe to arrive, and I have two new Kawabata editions on advance purchase (which will be late Christmas presents by the time they land on my doorstep!).
Unfortunately, that's where I'll have to leave you for the moment - while you go off and get your credit card details ready, I need to go and look at getting some new, double-reinforced bookshelves. There's always a downside...