Tag Archives: Japan

On Gail Tsukiyama’s “The Samurai’s Garden”

7 Oct
The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama explores the lives of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo–three old friends sharing a tragic past–through the eyes of  a young Chinese man named Stephen.

I’m back, bitches! Two-month reading hiatus, be damned. Thank God for book club for keeping me honest and keeping me reading, because I was going to a dark, book-less place that consisted only of mind-numbing white collar work and mind-numbing Skyriming. Needless to say, I won’t be making my goal of reading 70 books this year (unless I decide to start working my way through the 52-book Magic Tree House series), but I will be finishing the year on a strong note, starting with Gail Tsukiyama’s brief but impactful novel The Samurai’s Garden.

The Samurai’s Garden is told from the diary of a young man from Hong Kong in the late 1930s. Stephen returns home from school to recuperate from tuberculosis, only to find the dense Chinese city of his childhood suffocating and alien. He leaves for his family’s summer home in the Japanese coastal city of Tarumi, and in the solitude and peacefulness of the village, Stephen begins to heal in more ways than one. He sets out to bond with the summer home’s long time groundskeeper, Matsu, and begins a journey of discovering the heartbreaking and mysterious past of the gardener and his two childhood friends. As Stephen pieces together the story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo, the Japanese Imperial Army marches its way through China, leaving in its wake havoc and death. Tsukiyama’s characters all find solace in their elaborate gardens of blossoms and stone–extensions of life beyond the tragedies that shape their lives.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

As Stephen regains his vigor for life under Matsu’s quiet, unassuming care, he returns also to his true passion: painting. Stephen speaks and writes like a painter–describing the garden and Tarumi life in a palette of colors and reflected light and subtle lines. Tsukiyama’s prose is a lovely portrayal of both Stephen’s painterly observations and the delicate tranquility of the characters’ lives. Hidden in that same prose, though, is the deep sadness of Matsu’s and Sachi’s stories, and the volatile elements of war and pestilence. Side by side with the growing garden and peace of Tarumi are the lingering illness Stephen battles, the growing unrest in Japan, and the affliction that Sachi and her fellow villagers endure.

In the mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu's hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In Yamaguchi, the hidden mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu’s hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In a story about uncovering mysteries, TSG certainly presented some heartbreaking revelations. Tsukiyama’s understated style helps deliver the blows of Matsu’s tragic past in what feels like a distinctly Japanese way. I couldn’t help but think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose: a steady wash of waves that carries with it torrents of emotion. But as the book drew to a close, the shocking revelations kept coming, one after another. The blows felt tedious, and because they were tedious, they felt contrived. Other than this slight bit of melodrama, it’s difficult to find fault with Tsukiyama’s obvious knack for storytelling and her evil gift for making me want to cry-read for 100+ pages.

Read this book if … you enjoy gut-wrenching, World War II-era fiction. The Imperial Army’s invasion of China is a mere backdrop to the story unfolding in Tarumi, but the historical context is firmly set, adding to the beautiful but tenuous peace of Stephen’s retreat.

Don’t read this book if … your version of tragic romance requires Atonement-style sexy times and beautiful young people. TSG is a story of lost opportunity and youth, but tragic and romantic all the same.

This book is like … Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a similar story of lives full of regret, of youth and opportunity lost, of the intense sorrow of unrequited love. TSG also strongly reminded me of the film (I haven’t read the book yet) The Painted Veil because of the era, the quasi-romance fraught with regret, and element of tragic illness.

Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama has written several successful novels, all within a similar context as TSG, which is considered her finest work.

 

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On Jesse Ball’s “Silence Once Begun”

21 Feb
Silence Once Begun is Jesse Ball's eighth book. He is a poet, novelist, and apparently a napkin doodler.

Silence Once Begun is Jesse Ball’s eighth book. He is a poet, novelist, and apparently a proficient napkin doodler.

To keep from feeling too sorry for myself on my lonely Valentine’s Day, I went out to The Elliott Bay Book Company and treated myself to a couple of new books and a fresh pack of Moleskine journals. There is no greater therapy. I had in mind to buy a newly released book for which I hadn’t read any reviews, and the result was Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun. I should pat myself on the back (patting now, actually), because this is one of my most successful impulse purchases. Jesse Ball is an accomplished poet, artist, and novelist, but wasn’t on my radar until now–and, boy, he’s a nice, shiny, big blip on my radar now.

In Silence Once Begun, a reporter named Jesse Ball searches for the reason for silence. His marriage dissolved when his beloved wife suddenly stops speaking to him, and in his quest to find the meaning of her refusal to communicate, Mr. Ball comes across the curious incident of Oda Sotatsu, a man who was convicted of and executed for kidnapping eleven people in an event known as the Narito Disappearances. Sotatsu mysteriously signs a confession to the kidnappings, but refuses to speak a word while imprisoned, on trial, and approaching his execution date. He is reviled by the media and public opinion. Even his family turns their collective back. His only comfort is the equally mysterious Jito Joo, a young woman who stayed as close to Sotatsu as she could, right up to his hanging.

From strikes to monastic vows, intentional silence is a powerful, strategic move. But does Sotatsu's silence indicate guilt or innocence? Victory or defeat? (Image from frontpagemagazine.com)

From strikes to monastic vows, intentional silence is a powerful, strategic move. But does Sotatsu’s silence indicate guilt or innocence? Victory or defeat? (Image from frontpagemagazine.com)

The first half of the novel is a combination of transcribed interviews with Sotatsu’s family, and the poetic musings of a confused, lonely narrator–desperate to find answers, convinced the answers lie in Sotatsu’s strange case. The readers are, of course, reminded that Jesse Ball the narrator is not quite the same as Jesse Ball the author, and in any case, both of them are unreliable. At one point, the narrator says, “While this may have predisposed me to liking him, I assure you, I have tried at all times to be as objective as possible.” The moment someone tells you they’re not a liar, doubt is cast on everything said, and this novel is no different. Ball sets the tone and sets every word written, even the transcribed interviews, in the stark light of one simple fact: this is a narrative being curated by a biased mind. Part of the huge entertainment factor of SOB is the game of differentiating lies from truth, and there are as many versions of the truth as there are characters in the story.

In the second half of the book, the narrative bursts into lyricism. Gone is the laconic structure of the first half, replaced by a display of the author’s poetic roots, and by this new cadence we are carried through Stotatsu’s life again–this time through the heartbreaking words of Jito Joo, Sotatsu’s lover until the end. With her intense, oftentimes metaphorical, descriptiveness, Joo tells the story of Sotatsu’s silence with a stream of words.

“I am a great traveler like Marco Polo,” Joo says to Sotatsu, “who visits an interior land.” For Sotatsu, Joo is the only one who can and would traverse his silence, and who saw his silence not as a void of communication but as a new language and a new territory.

I loved the way Ball allows for wonder in his prose. He makes the novel feel full with Sotatsu’s silence, and mysterious with Joo’s long monologue. I loved the duplicity of Sotatsu’s situation. SOB “No way, a hunger strike imposed by the guards on a prisoner who won’t break would look identical to a hunger strike staged by a prisoner as a protest. No one could tell the difference.” In the same way, Sotatsu’s guilt looks exactly the same as his innocence. The interviewer’s wife is the same after and before her silence began. What changes? Perspective. The observer. Only the interviewer changes. Only the ones perceiving hunger, guilt, silence. It is the reader who changes as the silence drags on, and the reader who evolves to understand silence as a story.

For me, and I'm sure a lot of readers, when I think of "literature" and "Japan" I also think of "Murakami." This reference to the well on Jesse Ball's Website may be coincidental, but connection to Murakami in my mind is now unbreakable.

For me, and I’m sure a lot of readers, when I think of “literature” and “Japan” I also think of “Murakami.” This reference to the well on Jesse Ball’s Website may be coincidental, but connection to Murakami in my mind is now unbreakable.

But here’s where it ALL GOES DOWNHILL. The format of the book is more like a play or movie script. It’s a one hundred page novella with extra wide margins, erroneous section breaks, and a 20-page photo montage to stretch it to novel length. Yeah, I know that’s a ridiculous criticism, but basically it’s my only solid complaint, and I thought I had to put something negative about this book in this review. Otherwise, I just feel too prejudiced. I wracked my brain trying to think of something more valid–a reason not to give this book I randomly picked up–five stars on Goodreads. This is all I came up with. So despite committing the cardinal sin of  using extra wide margins and stuff, Jesse Ball has earned my respect. I’m looking forward to reading his earlier novels and excited to see what he does next.

On Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes”

7 Feb
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The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe begins quietly, and its decent into madness is so subtle you may not even notice you’re losing your sanity, too, right along with Niki Junpei, while trapped at the bottom of a sandpit.

Not many writers can convey claustrophobia and desperation the way Kobo Abe can. In his iconic The Woman in the Dunes, Abe paints a nightmarish picture: a teacher with a bug-collecting hobby goes looking for a rare beetle in the sand dunes of the ocean shore, and finds himself trapped in a pit like the prey of an ant-lion. His only means of survival is to dig through the night to keep from being buried alive by the sand storms during the day. With him is a solitary, unnamed woman who has lived in a shack at the bottom of the pit her whole life and knows nothing but the endless labor of shoveling sand. Neither man nor woman can escape their Sisyphean task. They can barely survive. They cling to fragments of their shattered sanity. Welcome to the freaky, freaky mind of Kobo Abe.

Written in a close third-person perspective, The Woman in the Dunes gives readers a peak in the mind of the teacher, Niki Junpei. He is the only character who receives a name. He is a man who falls from a life in which he obsesses over beetles to a life in which he obsesses over escape. Junpei’s best means of escape is entreating the villagers who live on the surface of the sand, controlling supplies of water and food to Junpei, the woman, and dozens of others trapped in various pits along the shore. Junpei’s communication with the villagers waffles between threats for illegally detaining him and quiet, apparent submission. His refusal to dig the sand is met by the villagers withholding food and water, and all attempts to escape fail. Slowly Junpei’s will dissolves, under the constant gaze of the villagers and rotted away by the constantly shifting sands around him.

“More than iron doors, more than walls, it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

I find the book difficult to describe, because it’s like trying to retell a bizarre dream you had. No one can understand the feeling of surreal eeriness, the unexpected and unbelievable scenarios of one’s own dream. Likewise, Junpei refuses to accept the nature of his enslavement for much of the story because of how unlikely it all is.

Eiji Okada

The 1964 film adaptation of The Woman in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, was nominated for best director and best foreign language film by the Academy. Eiji Okada played the frantic, desperate Niki Junpei.

The Woman in the Dunes is suspenseful and frightening, but it goes beyond a simple horror story. Amid the fear and claustrophobia that Junpei experiences, Abe embeds scenes of absolute sensuality. The sand, a character in and of itself, is pervasive. It’s in the man’s and woman’s hair and mouths and eyes. It sneaks into the food they eat. It collects in the folds of their clothing, and slowly rots the wood of their shack. It chafes the skin and grinds on the tongue. With his senses constantly assaulted by the sand, it’s no wonder Junpei and the nameless woman become entangled in a dangerous, violent relationship. These are Abe’s talents: displaying horror on multiple levels, taking normal activities and transforming them into mortal dangers, making you feel desperation along with his characters. This is no light read, but I encourage everyone to check it out. Just be prepared for The Woman in the Dunes to take you to a dark place and leave you there with no ladder out.

“Assuming that man has a soul, it must, in all likelihood, be housed in the skin.”

If for any reason, read the novel to see the illustrations of Machi Abe.

If for any reason, read the novel to see the illustrations of Machi Abe.

On Haruki Murakami’s “Underground”

12 Sep
Murakami doesn't delve into non-fiction very often, so take the opportunity to check it out!

Murakami doesn’t delve into non-fiction very often, so take the opportunity to check it out!

Early on the morning of March 20, 1995, a small group of religious terrorists destroyed the tranquility and self-assurance of life in Japan with a deadly attack on the Tokyo Subway. Five members of Aum Shinrikyo, at the urging of their leader Shoko Asahara, punctured bags of liquid sarin in passenger cars during the morning commute. The result among the passengers was panic, loss of vision, seizures, thousands injured, and thirteen dead. These were Japanese citizens killing Japanese citizens in the worst attack on the country’s soil since World War II. The author Haruki Murakami, already famous, returned to Japan after years living in Europe and America to investigate the aftermath of the Tokyo Gas Attack, to learn who the Japanese are, and to find out what went wrong. The result is Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, a collection of lengthy interviews with sarin victims, remaining family members, and members of the notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult.

Murakami’s fiction style tends to be fantastical, fabulistic, highly symbolic–filled with images of dark spaces and disappearing characters. His voice is noticeably toned down in Underground, letting the victims weave a narrative without his influence. After an interview with a victim’s widow, Murakami laments the shortcomings of his words:

“My parting words were pretty lame–‘Please be healthy and happy’ or something like that–I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they’re all I have.”

The interviewees consist of members of every part of Japanese society–retail workers, company men, doctors–but the story remains: the gas attacks from that day in March made a lasting affect on everyone. It changed the ways people think. It changed the ways people travel (some victims won’t step on the subway again; I know I wouldn’t). One victim lost her memory and ability to speak. After something so horrific, recovery is a long road.

With five different points of origin, the sarin attacks  caused confusion all over Tokyo. First responders were swamped. The city's systems were overwhelmed.

With five different points of origin, the sarin attacks caused confusion all over Tokyo. First responders were swamped. The city’s systems were overwhelmed.

Then there is the prevailing question we’re left with: why? Why did Aum Shinrikyo attack innocent citizens? Why did Aum even exist? Why did this particular attack have such lasting, devastating affects on society? Murakami finishes Part One of the book with musings on just that:  “The Aum ‘phenomenom’ disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen.” The members of Aum who participated in the Gas Attack weren’t foreigners waging war. They were Japanese. They existed in the same system as the people they killed and injured. But Murakami sees them as darker reflections of what is considered the moral or positive side of Japanese culture. On one hand, you have a culture based on financial success, familial stability, upward career mobility. On the other hand, you have the renunciates of Aum, who reject materialism, and ultimately rejected themselves in favor of the stronger ideals of their leader, Shoko Asahara.

The Aum cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was described by his followers as being powerful, charismatic, even prophetic. After the attacks, Asahara was arrested and sentenced to death. He is still awaiting his execution today. (Image from The Telegraph)

The Aum cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was described by his followers as being powerful, charismatic, even prophetic. After the attacks, Asahara was arrested and sentenced to death. He is still awaiting his execution today. (In Asahara, I see where Murakami drew his inspiration for his cult leader in the 2009 novel 1Q84.) (Image from The Telegraph)

In Part Two of Underground, Murakami interviews both active and former members of the cult. Many of them grew up feeling alienated from their peers or were drifters even in adulthood, and were drawn in by the confidence instilled in them by this new, powerful movement. People lacking proper egos or who have no egos, Murakami explains, give themselves over to the narratives of strong storytellers. The members of Aum found Asahara. Suddenly, Underground becomes almost a cautionary tale: how not to get sucked in by a cult. It makes you rethink your role as a member of your own society–who you have ostracized, who you push to extremes. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of family left behind or the trauma felt by the victims. Murakami spent months interviewing people and even he is left with a sense of wonder. The Tokyo Gas Attack is a break in narrative, in my book, and it is beyond my understanding, and that’s what makes this event and Murakami’s Underground, so tragic and so terrifying.

“Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. … And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. … It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.”