all sorts form the theme of these
excellent new reads.
Well, I suppose literature always explores relationships of some sort but there is a great variety of relationships on show in the various novels bought or borrowed over the last few months that I’m about to describe, in my first post of the Reiwa period.
Two of these are by Natsume Soseki followed by a few more novels of a different nature by modern era novelists. I bought the Soseki novels in that pre-Christmas online shopping spree I’ve previously mentioned as I really wanted them for my own library but I got the rest of them from the public library system. I can’t say it enough but public libraries are great.
I had to skip the introduction of Sanshiro as it annoyed me. I’m not overly fond of introductions to novels anyway but after a couple of pages of this one, I stopped short and skipped to the main text. I find that introductions tend to spoon feed readers, influencing their perception of the novel before they’ve even turned to page one and spoiling the book for them in some cases. What made this more annoying was the person was also going on about how he was too cool back in college to read such a novel (with his jazz interests, blah blah blah, yeah that’s right, a well known author we all know – skip to the text!).
I enjoyed the book itself, exploring the relationships young, inexperienced country boy Sanshiro has with his more mature, erudite contemporaries on starting university in Tokyo, as well as his first relationship with a woman.
Kokoro is about a relationship between a young man, and an older man he befriends. It’s a really interesting look at the Japan of the time, undergoing a transitional period, and the generational difference between the two men. The older man, who never really encourages the relationship that much, is somewhat of a depressive character with an interesting backstory which we eventually hear.
For a bit of a change from Natsume’s era, and wanting to read a bit more from the crime genre after enjoying Keigo Higashino’s quintet, I turned to a couple of more crime writers who take a deep look at Japanese society in their novels – Seicho Matsumoto and Hideo Yokoyama.
The first one I read was by Seicho Matsumoto and is called A Quiet Place (in Japanese: kikanakatta basho). It’s just excellent. I felt it was such a pity it had to end! One of those books you know? The main character is a fairly ordinary government employee, obsessed with his job and appearances, who finds that his wife had been having an affair before her sudden death. The man finds out who the lover boy was, finds him and confronts him. Covering up his impulsive action leads him to dig a very big hole for himself which he thinks he has managed to drag himself out of until, believe it or not, a good old Japanese sense of courtesy brings him down in an almost comedic way. Seicho Matsumoto, a very successful crime writer in Japan, who died in 1992, published this in 1975. The translation I have is from 2016 and I think it’s the first into English (correct me if I’m wrong).
The second book, Seventeen (Kuraimazu hai – Climber’s High – in Japanese), is also fiction but is based loosely on the author Yokoyama’s own background as an investigative reporter and then desk editor at a regional newspaper at the time of an actual Japan Airlines crash back in 1985. It looks at how one particular fictional news editor, Yuuki, at a regional newspaper decides on coverage of the crash which occurred in the newspaper’s prefecture, how he handles his politicking colleagues and superiors at the newspaper, and also his own complicated family relationships and the loss of someone important to him. It’s hard to put down. It’s interesting to see how the media might deal with a tragic event like an air crash and its aftermath (this being very much in the news over the last year). Some of the opinions shared among the news staff and company owners might shock you.
Right after finishing Seventeen, I reserved another of Yokoyama’s novels 64 (six-four not sixty-four) and was able to get hold of it pretty quickly. We get another good look at the press in Japan again but in this case in terms of its relationship with the police force in Japan, and the police force’s relationship with the public. This is all seen through the eyes of Mikami, a one-time detective from the crime investigations department who’s transferred to the position of head of the police department’s press office, fourteen years on from an unsolved kidnapping/murder case which rears its ugly head again. The six-four of the title refers to the 64th and last year of the Showa period. The police code for the kidnapping/murder case, supposedly only known to the unit dealing with it, is 6-4 for this reason. His own daughter also happens to be missing at this point in time, having run away from home, so he and his wife are also trying to deal with that. What he finds out about the handling of the 6-4 case is pretty shocking but there’s a great twist in the story. I highly recommend it. Mikami in this has to deal with a lot of politicking bullshit in his job both from his police superiors and colleagues, as well as from journalists, as Yuuki had to in Seventeen from his newspaper superiors and colleagues but they handle it pretty well I think. All this politicking did slow 6-4 down a bit for me but it did explain how things were so messed up, saving face, keeping up appearances and so on, so it played its part. The obsession with appearances (physical as well as keeping up appearances) is also evident in the issue between Mikami and his missing daughter.
Japanese society is explored very deeply in the works by both Yokoyama and Matsumoto and I highly recommend both authors. 64 has been adapted into a two part mini-series apparently so I might see if I can find it.
Moving on to another commendable author, Soji Shimada, I reserved two of his books from the library and picked them up just before coming to the end of Six Four. I still gave the reading a break before starting the first of Shimada’s. Ok, I was somewhat distracted by a Chinese drama as well but, that aside, a break never does anyone any harm. This first book was The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. The second is Murder in a Crooked House which I only started a couple of nights ago. Both are locked room murder mystery cases with a main character called Kiyoshi Mitarai, a somewhat eccentric sleuth working to solve each case. In TZM, we have a case from the 1930s (a cold case involving 3 separate crimes, one very gruesome) and Crooked House is a case occurring in his own time (around the 1970s). Both books challenge you to try to solve the mystery yourself. In fact, in Tokyo Zodiac Murders, there are even a couple of ‘messages from the author’, Shimada, a quirky addition I’d never seen before. I haven’t come to one yet in Crooked House but there probably will be one.
I’m so glad it’s Friday so I can dig into this novel. The weather doesn’t look like it will be that great so I should have an excuse to lock myself away, so to speak, and read it. I do read during the week too, after work (and most nights a bit of streamed drama!), but I find I have more time at the weekend to really get into a book.
I’ll follow up in a couple of days with a tv and film post, which will include a look at that Chinese drama which has a ridiculously handsome male lead. There will be a bit of Korea and even Taiwan*. Oh and let’s not forget Japan : P
[*Speaking of Taiwan, I think congratulations are in order after its announcement today that it would legalise gay marriage, the very first country in Asia to do so. Taiwan seems like a pretty cool, self-confident place to me in many ways, and yet does not need to broadcast it, and this is just another example of that. I wonder will Japan follow suit anytime soon?]
I mentioned the Showa period above. Well the 1st of May this year brought the first day of the Reiwa period, Reiwa meaning harmony. The emperor Akihito abdicated on the 30th of April to make way for his son Naruhito (unfortunately the ceremony seemed to be a men only affair with Empress Michiko not being permitted, according to custom, to attend – some things will never change). Anyway, I hope the Reiwa period brings positive changes and harmony to Japan’s relationship with her East Asian neighbours but from the looks of it, that will take a while yet.