[Book Review] The Easy Life In Kamusari by Shion Miura

The great irony of Shion Miura’s The Easy Life In Kamusari is that life, of course, initially appears anything but ‘easy’. For young Yuki Hirano, fresh out of high school and enrolled by his parents in a forestry training program up in a remote rural mountainside village, all of the creature comforts of urban living are light-years away from his new reality. No phone, no internet – his village doesn’t even have a post office.

Originally published in Japan in 2009 as Kamusari Naanaa Nichijo, the book begins as a typical fish out of water narrative, as Yuki is forced to get to grips with both his new job and his new home – can he really cut it amongst both the insular locals and with a job where the slightest slip up could see him crushed by falling timber? What follows is a learning process spelled out in glorious, fully-fleshed-out detail – a book that delights in ‘teaching’ both its protagonist, and by extension the reader, what it is like to work in the lumber industry in rural Japan. In much the same manner as Miura’s 2011 mega-seller The Great Passage – which was adapted into both a film and anime series – and its ruminations on a team of individuals going about the ‘making of’ a dictionary, the pleasure and purpose of The Easy Life In Kamusari is to be found singularly in the ‘process’. We learn about how long trees need to grow before they are turned into timber, what kind of trees are used, how to trim them in the right place to promote growth, how to safely transport the lumber once it’s been cut, and how all this figures in terms of business profitability… the list goes on and on. You could even go so far as to call the book a kind of utilisation of fictional narrative as a linking medium by which to best present a pedagogical presentation of non-fictional subject matter.

In this respect, it stands as a stellar example of the shigoto shosetsu or ‘work novel’ form – something which the most obvious mainstream parallel I can immediately think of in the Anglophone literature market is police procedural novels. Of course, the ‘work’ aspect there is slightly obscured by the nature of the popular whodunnit ‘thriller’ as an immensely successful genre in its own right, but if we drill down into the textual conveyance of the day in day out flow of work, there is much in common. In Japan, the work novel even appears in imaginative cross-genre incarnations such as the science-fiction effort Orbital Cloud.

Plunged into this strange rural world, Yuki swiftly discovers that learning the ropes of his new job only gets him so far. Though the villagers are initially welcoming to Yuki, we are reminded at times of the dark isolationism that comes from remoteness too. The village operates a local radio network that broadcasts announcements reminding the locals to lock up their doors when strange cars pass through. When a young kid disappears, the villagers turn inward, showcasing a bluntness previously unseen by Yuki. As the villagers send out a search party, the womenfolk weep, and Yuki is reminded disconcertingly of soldiers being sent off to war. The natural environment is not without its own hazards too; from forest fires to numerous encounters with creepy crawlies, Yuki’s suffering at the hands of pesky bites from leeches and ticks is conveyed with disgusting gross-out realism.

It’s worth noting here that in Japan, The Easy Life In Kamusari was adapted into a film version in 2014 (where it was given the amazingly pun-tastic title ‘WOOD JOB!’) and indeed, in so many ways the novel feels particularly attuned to the episodic rhythms and set pieces of a sit-com. Your mileage will likely vary in terms of the book’s attempts at humour, but if it succeeds at anything, it’s the continued sense of wide-eyed wonder we experience as a reader seeing the world through young Yuki’s eyes. There is a boyish, hormone-charged novelty to everything – most female characters in the story are introduced primarily in terms of their attractiveness and physical features, to the extent that we might start to wonder if he has something of a one-track mind. This is no Light Novel, but at times it reads like one – full of the kinds of tropes, wisecracks and PG-rated rom-com flavours that will be familiar to fans of anime, manga and popular Japanese TV dramas.

There are also some interesting experiments in translating local rural dialect going on here. This is always a tricky matter in terms of that holy grail of translation ‘staying true to the original’ – go too much one way and the result is invariably everyone sounding like they’ve walked straight out of the deep American South or an olde English farm. Too much the other way and readers complain all sense of subtlety and character are erased in service of a ‘clean’ flavourless text. Thankfully, Juliet Winters Carpenter’s efforts on this front find a good balance that feels distinct, but rarely overpowering.

Though much of the book is light-hearted or slapstick in nature, there’s a more serious side for those willing to look for it – most notably in its approach to forestry and its role in relation to nature as a powerful case study in working toward a more nuanced, clued up kind of environmentalism. Time and time again Yuki’s knee jerk, emotion-led feelings toward the natural environment are overturned by the wisdom of the villagers who have been doing this stuff for years. Early on, he is memorably scolded by his superiors for mourning the cutting of weeds, when to the villagers, this is a fundamental stage in cultivating the landscape. This ‘that’s how it really is’ explicatory aspect is not so much didactic as it is a sobering ode to common sense – decisions ruled by the accumulation of years of lived experience on the part of the locals, as opposed to gut reaction. Ultimately the reader must confront head-on the position of forestry and the cutting down of trees as a form of labour and industry, in direct contrast to an age of carbon offsets and planting more trees. Yuki too, poses this question directly, and the fact the book is able to offer a satisfyingly considered answer stands as a powerful tonic to simplified, ‘dumbed down’ versions of environmentalism often presented in popular media narratives.

On finishing the book, I was reminded of the popular cross media franchise Silver Spoon (originating from a 2011 manga series by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame), which essentially did for the farming industry what The Easy Life In Kamusari does for forestry. I’m always left wondering how much works like these are the author’s genuine interest, and how much they – however inadvertently – start to become a weird kind of domestic ‘soft power’ career drive promotion in the process? Isn’t forestry/farming exciting?! Now you can give it a try too! Of course, examples of this aren’t limited to Japan, and many will recall the notorious example of early 2000s video game America’s Army which was utilised as an entirely overt, direct example of the above to drum up recruitment to the US armed forces.

The Easy Life In Kamusari, of course, doesn’t go this far – but the more I read of the novel, the more I started to ponder the role and nature of work. In the UK, in the midst of the double-threat of both COVID and Brexit, we were bombarded with countless media stories about how British workers had lost the appetite for ‘rural’ jobs like fruit picking. Would an equivalent kind of novel from a big mainstream author here in the UK suddenly drum up floods of applications from job seekers here? Stranger things have happened – lest we forget, Harry Potter led to a boom in applications to the Magic Circle, while the Hunger Games prompted interest in archery classes amongst kids. I wonder…

Over the past year we’ve heard a lot about work life balance, and working from home. But what if work was your life, and your home office was in fact countless acres of verdant woodland in the middle of nowhere? Recently, I saw a set of modern new flats marketed with the key selling point that they’d be just a speedy 30 minute commute away from central London. The ad proclaimed how its invisoned clients longed to, cried out for (‘All we want!’) downing tools and clocking off at 5pm, back home with ‘feet up’ (presumably with Netflix on) by 5.30pm. The ‘easy life’ that Yuki finds in Kamusari is a world away from this, a world where work is truly a vocation.

Ultimately, for those looking for a fascinating insight into what it might be like to work in a rural village in Japan, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction than The Easy Life In Kamusari. The book’s calm, methodical pacing certainly won’t be for everyone, but it also holds the secret to finding that very same ‘easy life’, for the more we immerse ourselves in the lives of these villagers, the more it all comes to resemble a distinct kind of relaxatory experience of its own. In a world without the internet, the simple laws of humans and nature living in sync, attuned to the natural rhythms of each-other, offers a simplicity that quickly becomes addictive. The Easy Life In Kamusari is the map – the instruction manual, even – by which to start down the path.

Many thanks to the publisher, Amazon Crossing, for supplying a review copy.

[Book Review] Light Rains Sometimes Fall – Lev Parikian

During the past year or so of lockdown-enforced ‘time spent at home’, I’ve become more and more conscious of not only the volume of my reading (some two-hundred-plus books per year) but also the quality of it – how the veritable texture of the reading experience itself has taken on the feel of a conscious ‘unwinding’ strategy. A way to both connect and disconnect with the world, but most crucially, to engage the mind in a particular way of being that has much in common with the much discussed ‘flow state’.

Nature writing is prime fodder for this, and I was particularly impressed by the new Lev Parikian book Light Rains Sometimes Fall – which not only nails this kind of gently soothing observance of the natural world, but also plays to my interest in all things Japan-related via an interesting tangent that deserves wider attention; the traditional Japanese calendar sub-divided into seventy-two seasons.

Here, we don’t just get the arbitrary Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, but a charming specificity that ranges from First Reeds Sprout (20-24 April) to Plums Turn Yellow (16-20 June). To agricultural workers of old-time Japan, you can imagine how these observances would come to define the fabric of the year, marking the passage of time, and Parikian’s very British spin on the model – eg. ‘Lavender assumes massive proportions’ – is at once both playful and well attuned to the realities of this kind of locale-to-locale transposition.

Following on from previous volumes from Parikian, including Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? (2018) and the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing-longlisted Into The Tangled Bank (2020), this latest release is opportunely timed. As anyone who’s looked into the average Waterstones lately could tell you – nature writing is booming, with lushly curated displays of gorgeous book covers acting as a thrilling raison d’etre to convince of the enduring merits of owning books in their physical format.

From his day job as a conductor (impacted via the sudden onset of the Covid pandemic in the book’s early chapters) to his clear fervour as a birdwatcher, Parikian’s approach via this melding of Japan and Britain is defined by categorisation and compartmentalisation – a book of seventy-two chapters, each segmenting the year into a chunk of time encapsulated by what nature brings to it. In this sense, this book is a thing of many parts – nature diary, Covid diary, life diary. All encroach on each other, but are given order through the unceasing march of time. Why do we find such joy in sorting? As someone who took up genealogy and the mapping of their family tree during the past year, perhaps there’s something to be said about ‘lockdown hobbies’ as a way of imposing order on an increasingly chaotic world.

This is, fundamentally, without a doubt, a book about nature, but it’s also a book about playing with language. Birds and beasts are given personalities, not in the manner of lazy, cliched anthropomorphism, but in the sense that their behaviours and bodily tics become understandable, relatable. The point of this book, if anything, is to realise that even in a city like London, we possess countless ‘neighbours’ – a heartwarming counter to mass-media tales of urban loneliness.

If the thought of a great tit’s tune or a goldfinch’s tinkling melody sends you into rapturous, blissful joy, this is the book for you. This is a book for nature lovers through and through, but perhaps even more so, it is a book that guides you – in an often delightfully unassuming manner – to realise that the wonder of nature is so utterly simple to access. It requires no tools or special knowledge other than one’s eyes, ears and a heart open to the fertility of a little imagination. The unashamed geekiness present in every page is ultimately part of the charm.

On this front, Parikian’s text is clever, verbose in its delivery; often doubling back and massaging itself into shape as it forms its observations of nature into a train of thought – each chapter becoming a kind of postulation on a given theme. One moment, it’s all elliptical wordsmithery, the next, conversational to-the-point straight talking. The voice of the everyman poet – both romantic and elegiac (in the classic sense), and yet utterly modern. Lengthy, ruminating passages followed by one line paragraphs. The rhythm begins to click into place, warming into a kind of gentle familiarity that comes to define the book’s three-hundred or so pages.

If we’re sticking to the Japanese theme, we might compare this rhythm to the ‘cutting’ words in haiku, those moments that provide a space for clarity and condensation of what comes before and after. Is it any surprise that in a book all about a quasi-taxonomist approach to the seasons that a textual formula like this works so easily? I was reminded of Alex Kerr’s recent treatise on Buddhism’s heart sutra and Polly Barton’s Japanese onomatopoeia themed Fifty Sounds, which both attempted a very similar thing – breaking down something complex into many mini chunks, and then building back up from there through a combination of close analysis and lived life experience. The very best exemplars of this form, which can trace its lineage through classic operators like Sebald to modern masterpieces like Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey have become totem like constructs, doing much to popularise a genre of non-fiction that stands as an embodied manifestation of the adage: the journey is more important than the destination.

And while Light Rains Sometimes Fall never veers into the chilling existential uber-darkness that Macfarlane’s writing sometimes tends toward, Parikian’s book is certainly not afraid to ‘go there’ in pointedly facing the reader up to the contemporary climate crisis, or the littering of discarded face masks, for example. Elsewhere, he notes the guilt felt in having the privilege of a garden during the Covid lockdown when so many are forced to do without, but how this guilt also hardens his resolve to appreciate it all the more. These moments feel cautious in not descending into outright politicism, but they are there, and that presence is worth noting, and respecting for their inclusion.

There are moments of humour too – the tone is convivial throughout, the author as a veritable connoisseur of creatures great, small and smaller – I don’t think I’ve read something as equally fascinating and yet terror inducing as his mention of the existence of ‘micro-moths’ and that those that study moths are called moth-ers. This enthusiasm for the ‘stuff’ of life is catching.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, there is a warmth and comfort to the regularity of the proceedings at play in the diary format that works its way into the reader’s soul. I too, took up diary writing during the pandemic, after a lengthy break, and found it a powerful tonic. A way to mark time, and counteract the unease of the weeks blurring into formlessness. Parikian’s book goes further than merely a diary though, each chapter a veritable conjuring act of textual pleasure from the sights and sounds seen and heard, the magic in the everyday surrounds of a South London suburb.

On first seeing this book, I had to confess I had some degree of doubt – was this another vaguely self-help orientated rumination dressing up in the guise of ‘Japan’ in order to sell more copies…? The book even candidly addresses the likes of hygge and ikigai as trend-seeking marketing angles appropriated from other cultures and taking hold on the British psyche. Instead, however, on finding it to be an intelligent, serious piece of nature writing, I was pleasantly surprised. And though it must be said that the ‘Japan’ angle is more a hook to hang the book’s wider format on as opposed to it being a book specifically ‘about’ Japan, I found that it actually does a rather good job at explaining often complicated or abstract Japanese concepts in a fresh, easy to understand manner.

The real gift of this book though (and indeed, with its delightful cover art, it really does feel like it’d make an excellent present to book-loving friends and family) is its capacity as a tool to enable the reader to see the natural world around them anew. It opens our eyes to the possibilities, to build something tangible from what we so often overlook. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that to look for possibility is to stay buoyant. Light rains sometimes fall, but the possibility of brighter weather is always just around the corner.

Many thanks to the publisher, Elliott & Thompson, for supplying a review copy.

[Book Review] Japanese Foreign Intelligence And Grand Strategy – Brad Williams

For many countries, not least the UK and their fabled MI6, the very concept of secret intelligence services conjures up images of Bond-esque espionage antics and high-octane international wheeling and dealing. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, these shadowy organisations have thrilled and intrigued us, operating in a mysterious borderline between fact and fiction. And yet, now more than ever, their role as part of global real-politic ensures that we must consider them as fundamental assets in a nation’s wider toolkit of ‘power’ (whether that be in the more traditional, militaristic sense, or – as is so often in the case of Japan – the on-trend ‘soft power’ of popular culture).

City University of Hong Kong Associate Professor Brad Williams opens his account with candid recognition of this rather curious aspect of ‘name recognition’ in relation to the perceived power packed by intelligence services such as Israel’s Mossad and the former Soviet Union’s KGB – before leading us to consider the case of Japan. A major league power by most accounts, but curiously non-normal when it comes to intelligence. With an intelligence community disproportionately small compared to the nation’s scale and role on the world stage, to what extent can we probe deeper than standard ninhonjinron arguments about Japan’s cultural ‘uniqueness’ and get to the real heart of the circumstances regarding the country’s utilisation of intelligence as part of a wider scope of grand strategy?

In order to do this, Williams’ book sets out to ‘probe the Japanese government’s hidden dimensions’ in a comprehensive and thought-provoking account that seeks constantly to pivot the meaning of grand strategy away from purely a military sense to one in which all a nation’s resources are potential means to achieve security. This is framed, of course, against Japan’s historic post-war rejection of military force as part of the famed Article 9 of their constitution, but is wise to the political nuances and loopholes this discourse has increasingly been framed against – in particular when considering Japan’s bilateral partner on the world stage; the USA.

Thus, the book’s approach is to be celebrated in that it strives to go beyond the largely descriptive and partial treatments of the Japanese intelligence community offered in the past, to offer a more holistic study of interlocking parts. At times, this plays out as ‘big’ history. At other moments, it zooms in on key players, or offers up handy organisational charts by which to decode the labyrinthine structures of Japanese bureaucracy and acronym-dom – do you know your Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office (CIRO) from your Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA)?

After a highly readable introduction which seeks to somewhat ‘normalise’ and de-mystify the Japanese intelligence community via a clear, diagram-aided mapping out of its component parts, we then move to Chapter 1 and the embedded ‘norms’ of Japanese grand strategy. Building convincingly on discourse put forward by scholars Chris Hughes and Hugo Dobson regarding the so called ‘Abe Doctrine’ and its reinforcement of Japan ‘as a great contemporary power’ by way of ‘values-orientated diplomacy’, this chapter also throws two other valuable concepts into the mix: Japan’s aforementioned antimilitarism, but also the notion of technonationalism (nation-building through technological development).

All this gives us the foundational stones of discourse, so to speak, before then stepping the real intelligence ‘meat’ of the argument up a notch in Chapter 2 – now, situating us more precisely in the immediate post-war period and the particular role of US covert action in Japan in order to better foster a pro-US mood in the nation. This chapter is full of shady political puppet-string pulling, and offers up tight mini-portraits of key figures to the post-war narrative, including highly-controversial former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke. Chapter 3 expands on many of these strands, with a particular focus on Japan’s intelligence cooperation with the US during the Cold War – this included not only information sharing, but also support in the form of training and equipment. For civil servants looking to gain foreign experience, this would entail not only language training via secondment to diplomatic missions, for example, but also a vast range of programmes such as short courses at CIA headquarters in Langley.

Chapter 4 sticks with the Cold War theme, but turns from a political to an economic tilt. We learn of the important public-private cooperative role offered by JETRO (The Japan External Trade Organization) – whose ‘overseas network of offices is believed to have surpassed that of the Japanese mass media’. There is also the account, here, of the notorious 1980s ‘IBM spy case’.

Chapter 5 returns us to the theme of antimilitarism, as well as fears in both the government and media around a relative retreat from democracy in Japan, before we finish up in Chapter 6 with further focus on how the ‘Abe Doctrine’ has resulted in a noted shift in Japan’s actions as a world power. Here, we are offered plenty of food for thought on an impressive variety of pressing contemporary issues ranging from Japan’s role in space, spy satellites and biotech.

Beyond these specific questions and themes, the book also ultimately presents a conundrum of approach – would a purely chronological approach to its structure, as opposed to a more thematic one, have led to a very different kind of narrative? This is no deal-breaker, but it does necessitate some degree of temporal gymnastics on the part of the reader, as well as a flipping between micro and macro levels of focus. Likewise, while the work on intelligence and grand strategy are both impressive in their own right – are there ways in which they could have been more comprehensively sewed together? All told though, this is a masterfully comprehensive primer on many of the most important aspects of Japan’s global role from the standpoint of international relations. Immediately engaging where it needs to be, but also doggedly specific and detail orientated in conveying the bewilderingly detailed structures of Japanese governmental doctrine and structure, the book for the most part pulls off numerous balancing acts with consummate ease.

As the book teases in its very final paragraph, the most exciting developments in the story of Japanese intelligence arguably exist just around the corner, yet to be told. Will – as the Japanese government seems to be considering – we ever see the so called ‘holy grail’ of international intelligence in the form of a ‘Japanese CIA’. The prospect is tantalising, but opens up controversial questions around grey zones of operability – how would such an agency be used, and to what effect? Arriving at a point of potential change, and with this guide in hand, we are well armed to anticipate and speculate on the nation’s next move as it moves toward a new readiness to ‘wear the cloak’ of enhanced intelligence capability on the global stage.

Many thanks to the publisher, Georgetown University Press, for supplying a review copy.

[Book Review / Analysis] Keiichiro Hirano – At The End of the Matinee

Imagine love at first sight. Imagine a force of love so powerful it alters the entire trajectories of the lives in which it entangles, so much so that they will drop almost everything and change course. This is the story of initial encounters and a fate which seems destined to bring two people together, only to then keep them apart. But it is also a piece of tone, feeling and – above all – an exploration of the way art intersects with life and romance to create something of meaning.

Makino is a successful classical guitarist, wonderfully talented – a confirmed bachelor with a reputation for charming the ladies. Yoko is a half-Japanese, half-Croatian journalist serving in Baghdad for the French news agency RFP. She studied literature at Oxford, went to Columbia for graduate school, and speaks multiple languages fluently. She is, as one character describes, with amazement, ‘super elite’. She is also, as the book is at great pains to tell us, achingly beautiful, with hair that is repeatedly described as ‘sleek’ and ‘lustrous’. Following their initial encounter after one of Makino’s shows, in which the sparks of romance are initially laid, the two stay in touch while Yoko returns to her work in Iraq – the companionship they maintain over the internet acting as solace for both of them during their own personal and professional struggles. Once Yoko finishes up her assignment in Iraq, narrowly escaping a bomb blast which ultimately goes on to afflict her with an onset of PTSD, the two meet again for a dinner date in Paris. In a chapter which lasts nearly 40 pages, the novel moves inexorably toward the inevitable declaration of love; the romantic tension and poise of this scene depicted in exquisite detail and, for me, acts as the most masterful expression of what At The End of the Matinee is trying to do as a novel.

In this scene, which oozes sophistication and glamour, we essentially experience the romance of the dynamic couple ‘by proxy’. We enjoy the distinct pleasure of spending time in the company of attractive people making sparkling, intelligent conversation with each other – as they discuss not only classical music, but also niche Yugoslavian partisan films, the works of Goethe and Rilke, all the while enjoying a delightful filet mignon. This is, evidently, what ‘super elite’ people do with each other when they meet and become lovers. This scene is a kind of bottled, aspirational sophistication so intense that you can practically taste the distilled class spilling off the pages. No wonder the book was made into an incredibly successful film incarnation in 2019, which only propelled the book on to even higher sales. More than anything, this scene ‘sells’ the novel as a kind of written equivalent to the auditory ASMR channels that are so popular on YouTube these days where an actor will role-play somebody: a nurse, a waiter, a passenger on a train, talking softly in your ear. It’s a massage to the senses, and to understood this is to understand the scope of popularity a book like At The End of the Matinee can achieve.

After this compelling, edge-of-the-seat ‘first date’ play-by-play, the novel moves its other key pieces into play. With Makino’s declaration of love hanging in the air, Yoko decides to call off her current engagement with the American economist to whom she was engaged. Her local friend and colleague from Baghdad, Jalila, is forced to come to Paris and is put up by Yoko in her flat. We learn more about Makino’s meddlesome, jealous manager Mitani – whose impulsive decision to disrupt the budding romance between the novel’s two protagonists ultimately serves as the central crux around which the book’s narrative pivots. Expect jaw-dropping ‘Nooooo! I can’t believe she just did that!’ moments that hit like a punch to the guts.

If this were just a straight up romance novel, there might be less to dig into here. Yet Hirano’s style veers interestingly at times into a kind of dispassionate, almost news-media reportage style accounting of the respective character histories that not only chimes with Yoko’s job as a journalist, but also achieves an effect to that deployed in the similarly music themed Daisy Jones & The Six. Fact and fiction blur – what is reality (the novel casts its plot against real world events such as the French election of Sarkozy, the Lehman Brothers shock, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster) but also paints conjured-up personae and media into full bodied existence: chiefly, Yoko’s famous Croatian film-director father Jerko Solich, whose cinematic output is described so convincingly you might as well think they’re real (see also the invented Death In Venice Syndrome, named after the Thomas Mann novel). At other times, At The End of the Matinee opts for full on melodrama. This is a romance after all, and it waxes loquaciously in a way that is sometimes hard to take seriously:

He wanted to talk to Yoko… Wanted more than anything to hear her voice. To spend more time with her, alone next time, utterly at ease while enjoying the intellectual stimulation of her company and, above all, her ceaseless smile. There was no one like her.

Am I overidealizing that evening? But oh, if she were to die at forty in Iraq…

The novel’s blurb compares it to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. The McEwan comparison, to me, felt spot on – much like Hirano delights in doing here, McEwan has made a career out of depicting sophisticated, middle-aged people going about their (love) lives in a sophisticated, middle-aged way. This, of course, has also seen him become a divisive author, his works perhaps now out of touch in an age defined by consciousness of privilege. And yet, returning to Hirano himself, and my reading of At The End of the Matinee, what compelled me to keep turning the pages with relentless pace was not only the plot itself, but the feeling that what it contained was an insight into what contemporary Japanese audiences ‘wanted’ to see reflected back at them in a piece of mega-selling fiction.

That said, in finishing the novel, I have to admit, after the dramatic highs of its first half and the sheer ‘bite’ of the narrative ploy (ie. ‘The Other Woman’) it throws into the works at its midpoint, that the second half was something of a comedown for me. A working through the motions, if you will, as numerous devices are employed to keep Yoko and Makino apart and their lives become increasingly introspective. They grow older, go through various stages of relationships with other people, all in aid of a plot that from the very beginning has been moving them back toward that pivotal scene – like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name – of the moment of recognition, of meeting, once again. There is a resolution, of sorts, but also – in a somehow very Japanese way, also a complete lack of resolution, and I suspect this will rankle with many readers coming to this translation.

There are other moments that may confound or frustrate Anglophone audiences too, and a review on Goodreads does well to identify and comment on some of these; from the way the female Iraqi refugee / asylum seeker is ‘saved’ by the Japanese protagonists when she flees to Paris, to the very overt way the novel – written by a man – portrays women. However, as said review also comments – there is certainly merit to be found too in the marked ‘internationalism’ of the book and the way is strives to capture a setting and world-view that is far from the Japan-centricism that is naturally usually found in the kinds of Japanese literature that is usually translated into English.

Ultimately, while there is ample scope to find a number of faults with the novel, and I certainly feel it could have worked harder in its second half to maintain the perfection of tone offered in its earlier moments, At The End of the Matinee remains an incredibly accomplished piece of both romance literature, and popular writing in general. For me, it feels like – and I very much hope this is the case – a harbinger for a new wave of translations of genuinely populist Japanese fiction; ie. the kinds of authors popular in Japan, not just those that win the Akutagawa prize. Top talent such as Maha Harada, for so long known only to audiences in Japan, was recently translated into English by Louise Heal Kawai on Granta’s website – boding well for the prospect of translation of her immensely popular ‘art novels’, which, in a manner similar to the works of Tracy Chevalier, and like Hirano’s writing too, succeed precisely because they allow mainstream audiences to access and feel sophisticated about high culture.

If the gods of English translation and publishing are looking for a successor to the world-altering success of Haruki Murakami, then the likes of Hirano – a perfect intermediary between popular and literary writing – feels a prime candidate to take up the mantle. While avoiding some of the more intense sexual excesses of Murakami’s recent work, Hirano speaks with a similar sophistication and ease of voice, a classiness that lures the reader in with measured manners, before slipping in a bonus payload of intellectualism.

It remains to be seen whether the publishing strategy behind Hirano’s translated works pays long term dividends. Released through Amazon’s ‘Amazon Crossing’ initiative, where novels – often those with movie tie ins – are invariably released first through cheaply priced Kindle versions, and then a paperback printed and sold directly via Amazon itself, as opposed to bricks and mortar stores, all this seems to fly in the face of the current resurgence of physical bookshops. Of course, Amazon’s pushing power is a strength all of its own – and it certainly didn’t harm Hirano’s previous release – ‘A Man’ – which has gone on to over 2500 starred ratings on Amazon. The 2017 release of Shion Miura’s The Great Passage – like At The End of the Matinee, another Juliet Winters Carpenter translation, and boasting an Amazon Prime release of its anime adaptation – was also a notable Amazon Crossing success.


Ps. It is, of course, completely unrelated to the novel and its themes – but ever since I first heard it’s title in English translation, I couldn’t help but recollect a certain song by indie band Franz Ferdinand and its near perpetual play on British radio back in 2004.

[Book Review / Analysis] Genzaburo Yoshino – How Do You Live?

In late 2017 and throughout 2018, when it was confirmed by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki that author Genzaburo Yoshino’s (1899-1981) novel How Do You Live? (1937) would form the basis of Miyazaki’s next film, you literally couldn’t move in Tokyo for seeing the timely release of the manga version (2017) of the story (and its Harry Potter-esque cover art hero) peering out at you from every bookstore, station news kiosk or convenience store. It was *everywhere*. This manga version went on to become Japan’s biggest selling book of 2018. Of course, 2018 is already a good few years into the past now, and judging by recent news that the film version is still only half finished, it seems like we’re still a long way off being able to see the fruits of Miyazaki’s labours.

Ultimately though, Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki stand as the singular reason that an English translation of the original How Do You Live? novel now exists. To call the book a novel though, is in many ways to obscure what it really is – as the blurb and informative end-note from translator Bruno Navasky instructs us, it is in fact the final instalment in a 16-book series called A Library for Young Japanese Nationals, of which Yoshino was appointed editor-in-chief. In the UK, we might picture something similar to the much-adored sequence of Ladybird Books which have charmed and informed children down through the ages. The framework and prose style of How Do You Live is certainly novel-esque in nature – which, going by both the age of its protagonists, and the depth/complexity of the text, is aimed at those in their early teens – but we are never allowed to forget that the core function here is learning.

In a very brief, but intelligent introduction from none other than Neil Gaiman himself – who, lest we forget, worked on the English language script for Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke – we are given the keen observation that books can, of course, be a thing of many parts. Gaiman offers up the example of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, and discusses how the combinatory, compendium-like nature of that book’s mixing of both plot and essays ultimately all serves toward the central theme of the ‘whale’. As he notes: ‘Some people like one part of the story, and some like the other’. It is, though – Gaiman says – in the strangeness and wisdom of books like this and How Do You Live?, that we find their value, that we ‘learn to think about things’.

As How Do You Live? opens, we’re presented with an almost documentary-like present tense as we are introduced to the novel’s protagonist – Copper (as in, the astronomer Copernicus – the resonance of which we are told in the subsequent first core chapter). The description zooms in, lens-like, to give us his vital specs:

‘In baseball, he’s considered the class athlete. It’s charming to see little Copper with his big glove, guarding second base. Small as he is, he’s no power hitter, but he knows how to bunt, so he’s always picked to bat second in the lineup.’

You can almost hear the David Attenborough-esque narration, can’t you? This book belongs to an older order, a world of pluck and courage, a Boy’s Own/Boy Scouts-tinted vision of the past, as seen through the eyes of a youth living through Japan’s immediate pre-war period. After this initial, atmospheric scene-setting, the book then proceeds with its central task – a series of illustrative chapters detailing incidents from Copper’s school-life, generally focusing on his friends and their efforts standing up against bullies. Each chapter is then typically book-ended with a salutary, sober report from ‘Uncle’s Notebook’:

On Ways of Looking at Things

On True Experience

On Human Relationships and the Nature of Real Discoveries

On Poverty and Humanity

What Makes a Great Person: On the Life of Napoleon

On Human Troubles, Mistakes and Greatness

While Copper is undoubtedly the hero of this narrative, for me, his nameless, beloved Uncle comes to be the glue that ties this book together, the overriding force that – if anything – makes How Do You Live? worth reading. The Uncle’s Notebook interjections, presented in a different typeface from the rest of the book, function very much in the Socratic method of ‘asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions’ – an approach also highly favoured in a certain strand of recently successful Japanese self-help books. The intense didacticism of this kind of material may bristle with some adult readers, but if we are to see a book like How Do You Live? not – in fact – as a novel, but instead as a kind of narrative self-help in the vein of Who Moved My Cheese or Fish!, then I think, perhaps, its function as a piece of instructional writing becomes a lot clearer.

With this in mind, it’s worth saying that the Uncle’s Notebook sections don’t shy away from heavy hitting material – the sections on Poverty and Napoleon in particular are like mini-masterpieces of philosophical thought in their own right, throwing in the likes of Goethe and Pascal as if it were second nature, before touching on elements of the Producer/Consumer dynamic and the theory of relations of production (Copper works through a simple but engaging exercise in which he writes down all the people involved at each stage in bringing the milk from a cow to his breakfast table). Lest we think the book’s original 1937 publication – in the immediate run up to Japan’s involvement in World War 2 – and the rather nationalistic overtones of its parent series’ title mean this book is rooted in the atmosphere of militarism that engulfed that era of the nation’s history, the translator’s note also informs us how author Yoshino was in fact arrested and imprisoned for eighteen months due to his attendance of socialist political meetings. Indeed, Yoshino’s political thinking and the ideals of socialism are present in many ways as a constant undercurrent to the kind of philosophising so evident in the passages discussed above (the ‘relations of production’ theory comes from Marx/Engels).

The edifying, intensely educational feel of these Uncle’s Notebook segments – presented as they are as a kind of ‘response’ to each chapter of Copper’s boyhood adventures has a quaintly episodic ‘Well kids, let’s have a look at what we learned today, shall we?’ feel reminiscent of the UK’s much beloved Programmes for Schools TV strand or Japan’s own NHK E (education) channel. To encounter such a feel, so perfectly rendered in book form, serves as an immense dose of nostalgia, and one can easily imagine why this has ensured the book’s cross-generational longevity in Japan. If any book so wonderfully captures the rawest essence of youthful innocence and the power of learning – then it’s this one. Though I have to admit, I’m glad the British edition of the text – published by Penguin imprint Rider – goes for a more minimalist, adult-feel cover art, as opposed to the intensely anime-esque one on the US edition brought out by Algonquin Young Readers.

The novel moves toward its emotional pinnacle as Copper watches on as his friends are beaten up by the school bullies, but fails to intervene. Later, wracked by his cowardice and guilt, he writes his friends an apologetic letter, and the plot then serves out a comforting resolution. At heart, How Do You Live? is a book about instilling not only a curiosity for a broad, well-rounded appetite for learning how the world works, but as its title makes plain, *how* to go about living a respectable life in it. Civic duty and morality are its backbone, and we might imagine it almost – in hindsight – as a kind of junior edition of Harvard Professor Michael J Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, a book which – no surprises – has been monumentally successful in its Japanese translation.

All that said, it’s worth remembering that How Do You Live? is older, even, than George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a book representative, perhaps, in its similar reading-age, parable-like qualities and the scale of its success in its native country. Like Animal Farm, a book like How Do You Live? still manages to speak to us, because it is fundamentally a product of the modern condition, albeit a modernity tempered by the passage of some 80 years. It feels old, certainly, and its often staid, dense, pedagogical style will no doubt prove an insurmountable hurdle to many readers. But at the same time, this all forms part of its beauty, its charm – one thing that can be said in earnest is that How Do You Live? exists as an especially unique kind of reading experience, and as Gaiman points out, neither quite like one thing or another.

Its morals, one would hope, are universal – and it is easy to see why a figure like Miyazaki would cherish this book, both as a product of his own youth, but as a kind of treasured collection of human knowledge to pass on to the next generation. In a post-COVID age where the ravages of the pandemic have caused humanity to look deeply at itself and question whether it likes what it sees in the mirror, a book like this has a certain kind of necessary-ness to it, now more than ever. That compelling need, likewise all too human in nature, to seek answers to the big questions in times of doubt.

[Book Review] Polly Barton – Fifty Sounds

Ostensibly a compendium of fifty sounds, drawn from the Japanese system of quasi onomatopoeia / sound symbolism (eg. kira-kira etc.), the reality is that this fascinating new standalone effort from Polly Barton – who will be familiar to many as a translator of Japanese literature – is far more identifiably a memoir, for which the sounds of the Japanese language instead function as a well-conceived framework or pedagogical device, a springboard even, by which to hang fifty shots of emotional nuance that come to sum up an individual’s relationship with the country they end up inhabiting both physically and mentally.

We follow Barton’s almost haphazard progression from university and initial encounters with Japanese by way of amusing phrasebooks of dirty talk, into teaching English to schoolchildren on a small, rural island off the Japanese coast as part of the government administered JET programme. Her resultant learning of the Japanese language from scratch – by which so much of this memoir hinges around – leads to other concerns; budding romance, deep philosophical diversions into the work of Wittgenstein, thorny questions of xenophobia and otherness. While the theme of language serves as the cornerstone around which this book is built, and will no doubt hold immense value for those with a particular interest in everything relating to the nuances or linguistics and translation studies, for example, for me, the emotional heart of the book is what lies beneath the language elements – the messy, very human ramifications that spill out from that initial translocation from one side of the planet to another.

For readers already deeply familiar with Japan, Barton’s memories of these years from early twenty-something-dom to a somewhat more worldlywise thirtyhood will contain a special wisdom – a catalogue of ‘Yes, that! I felt that too!’ moments too many to list here. For those for whom Japan is simply an intrigue, a passion still to be fostered in earnest, one hopes that by virtue of fitting neatly alongside other great Fitzcarraldo Editions works of the ‘self’, such as Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak, or the works of Annie Ernaux, this account will still serve as a moving, arresting piece. Most of all though – and this is what it served chiefly for me as – it delivers a deeply intellectual ‘conveying’ of thoughts and themes I have long pondered about Japan myself – but always seemed on the tip of my tongue in terms of nailing them down into words. Barton does that here, with great aplomb – if I’d been reading this with a book of sticky notes to hand, I’m certain they would have run-dry by the end, such were the number of ‘That!’ moments to be had.

But Fifty Sounds, crucially, is more than just another book ‘about’ Japan – it is also a book about the interiority of its author’s mind, their development into full adulthood, and the state that ‘adult’ comes to take in a strange, transitory state that seems to exist between two languages. There are moments of great personal doubt – both emotional, sensual and linguistic in sense; coming to define, almost, the entirety of self-hood. These moments are bruising, crushing almost – and we feel Barton’s feelings at these times with deep intensity. Friendships and lovers are won and lost. The learning of the language, of Japanese customs, becomes a process of ‘never quite enough’. It is this sense of the ‘unfinished’ – an emotional void in desperate need of filling, that ultimately make Fifty Sounds such a compelling page-turner. It is a book in constant search of a resolution, a space that, ironically, seems to gape ever wider the more Barton comes to know of Japan and its language. As the rhythms and systems – the whole ‘way of being’ of Japan and Japanese-ness – comes to take over more and more of Barton’s life, we are turned loose on a white-knuckle ride in which personal happiness and contentment seems forever just out of reach; the nation embracing her, just as it simultaneously pushes away.

While there are many perfectly good expat accounts of time spent in Japan – it’s almost a genre unto itself these days – I’ve always felt that many of them remain firmly fixed on the observational angle; everything that is fresh and new and different about Japan. They are there – and sometimes quite rightly – ‘explaining’ Japan, ‘introducing’ it. But what about the imprint that Japan leaves on the observer themselves? The sense that, the longer one spends there, the more you start to fundamentally change as a human being. That there is a danger, even, that you eventually change to such a degree that there is no going back – that the nation you once called home, even, becomes a different place not because it has changed in the intervening years, but because *you* have changed.

This, I felt, is what Barton’s account does with an eloquence and detail I’ve rarely seen before. In a particularly telling sequence, she talks about the bewildering sense of struggling to engage with British friends and family back home, the impulsion toward and resulting bafflement as she starts almost every sentence with ‘In Japan…’ and they are driven to boredom – these are the moments in Fifty Sounds that bite hardest, and will no doubt linger longest in the memory of those that have felt this too.

At other times, the tone treads a glorious line between self-effacement and wryly dark humour, but crucially never straying into arrogance, and very rarely into outright judgement. Fifty Sounds is not afraid to laugh at the peculiarities that exist in the nebulous world that surrounds Japan and those from other nations and cultures drawn (enticed?) into its sphere of influence. There was a particular account about the typologies of people that tend to develop an interest in Japan (anime fandom > a Japanese wife > a career in academia) that so resembled my own circumstances that I had to read the passage three times over (Barton, of course, is absolutely right here).

I wonder, perhaps, of the legacy this book will have – my overwhelming drive, on finishing the book, was that this was a kind of new road map for intersections with Japan. I wanted to rush out and give a copy of it to everyone thinking of dipping their toe in anything resembling more than a one-off tourist trip to Japan, to implore them: “this has all you’ll ever need to know in it, and then some!” But to do so, of course, would be to deprive them of the journey themselves – and if Barton’s memoir-esque account has any great moral to it beyond its ruminations on language, it’s that the journey can be an infinitely complex, twisting one, but that it will – hopefully – turn alright in the end.

[Book Review / Analysis] – Kotaro Isaka – Bullet Train

By way of an anatomy of a hit thriller…

Genre fiction lives and dies by its adherence to and deconstruction of popular tropes. It is how it both achieves familiarity and subverts expectations. Striking a balance between the two is how works that often thrive off a number of pre-set formulae manage to stay fresh within a market that can essentially see hundreds of variations on the same core themes published within a year.

I’ve often considered crime fiction as the veritable ‘fast food’ of the publishing industry – it is there to ‘fill you up’ on a quick, compulsively satisfying cocktail of adrenaline rush cum page-turning impulse. Sometimes it makes you think, too, but always in service to fiddling around with the core parameters that define the genre: Whodunnit? Whydunnit? Will they get caught? Will they die by the end? Who will kill them? Will ‘justice’ be served?

I was fascinated when I heard that big-bucks publisher Penguin would be releasing – under their Harvill Secker imprint – the thriller Bullet Train [Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle) (マリアビートル) in its original Japanese publication from Kodansha in 2010] in early 2021. With the book now released, I eagerly ploughed through it, and wanted to share some of my thoughts on a novel that is interesting both from the point of view of its status as an exquisite example of genre tropes, but also as a case study in bringing non-Anglophone IP (intellectual property) to wider audiences.

How to review a genre thriller? As the books I usually review on my blog these days are either non-fiction works, or literary fiction where you can really go to town on the aesthetic feel of the ‘pleasures of the text’, this gave me pause for thought. It’d be like sitting down and banging out 1000 words on the careful minutiae of the latest Lee Child or Ian Rankin. Not that this inherently bothers me – as someone who used to write about pop music for a living, I hold a continuing fascination in treating the popular medium as a kind of ‘art’ in its own right, so I mused about what it was that struck me so deeply about Bullet Train, and that marked it out within both the wider spheres of thriller writing, and Japanese literature in translation.


I’ve long been a fan of the website TV Tropes and how it sorts and assigns everything from film to television to a set of common archetypes that are re-used time and time again. Bullet Train is no exception, and its engagement with many of these is what makes it such a joy to consume:

Stuck on a train

Need we say more? The central narrative conceit of a bunch of characters and action playing out within the confined space of a moving vehicle will never grow old. Murder on the Orient Express, Train to Busan, Speed, Air Force One, and (this will amuse those that have finished Bullet Train and will understand the reference), Snakes on a Plane. All variations on a theme and formula that delivers again and again.

Comedy duo

Swiftly into the book’s narrative, we are introduced to a kind of comedy ‘double act’ – a two-person criminal team called variously ‘The Fruit’ or the ‘fruit twins’. Their names are humorously given as Lemon and Tangerine. Lemon, in a typically outre character quirk for this kind of ‘a baddie, but also a goodie’ individual, is a manic fan of Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends (we’re sticking with the train theme here). He takes every opportunity to insert references to the show into dialogue, and even defines events and relationships by how the relate to the show. For readers who know their Gordons from their Percys, these references will thrill to the extreme. And then there’s Tangerine, with a die-hard love for serious literature, who quotes from Dostoyevsky and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. This duo essentially become the beating ‘heart’ of this novel, and are by far and away the most empathetic characters in the book.

Ensemble cast

It goes beyond the above double act. Bullet Train is defined by its chapters, each of which is told from a different character viewpoint (even going so far as to head each chapter up with their name as a kind of sub-heading, along with a handy diagram showing which carriages of the train the action is currently taking place in). These individual character arcs flow and overlap, but not always necessarily in synchronous order – sometimes we flash back or rewind, seeing the same events from two different perspectives. I’ll mention Tarantino again in this review, but for all those that adore Pulp Fiction to this day, Bullet Train is as about as close as you can get to this feel in the written format.

Mystery voice on the phone

Remember Phonebooth? Remember how a mysterious voice on the phone relaying instructions always feels exciting? Bullet Train has that too.

Rules and restrictions

Thrillers are driven forward by their careful, measured negotiation of a series of rules, restrictions and milestones. Like a novelistic equivalent of a Gantt chart, various progress bars will be ticking away, held back and delayed by restrictions. If the hero could shoot the villain in the first chapter and be done with things, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? So instead, there’s a clear reason why he can’t kill the villain until X point in the story – we are held, gripped, ‘waiting’ for this point to arrive. Thus, by finessing the way in which – like a rubber band – these plot points are held back until at breaking point, and then snapped into place with a band, our nerves and adrenaline are played to a pretty tune in tandem.


With all the above interlocking and intersecting, it took me a little while to get into the workings of the book – it’s like looking at a fancy Swiss watch, the outside looks nice and shiny, but it’s only when you comprehend the delicacy of the inner workings that you realise the true marvel of what has been constructed. My initial impressions, as the set up was laid and the key characters were introduced, that this was in many ways a kind of ‘levelled up’ Light Novel (the Japanese equivalent of Young Adult fiction); essentially a procedural, narrative and dialogue led play-by-play, but with added swearing and violence. But then, around 100 pages in, comes the kicker.

Here, in a masterwork of a chapter, we are finally given insight into the novel’s central villain; a diabolical, psychopathically minded teen boy named Satoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji. With shades of the classic manga Death Note, this individual goads us into the age old dilemma, what if a kid – who from all outward appearances is perfect, handsome, innocent – was evil, pure evil? We’re given unique access to his thought processes and emotional development as we are told how his interest in death and the manipulation of people was driven by a school project in which he decided to focus on the Rwandan Genocide. This interweaving of real world history and fictional character development is a deeply unsettling, weirdly academic exercise in grounding his motivations in a kind of ‘authentic’ source, and while the character himself may feel like a kind of larger than life comic-book cliche at times, the novel’s persistence in ‘going there’ with some of its more shocking moral explications is compelling in the extreme.

A word of warning to the squeamish – there are some incredibly violent, gruesome scenes throughout Bullet Train. But more than that, the moral vacuum around said scenes creates a feeling that will only add to the unsettling feel of a chaotic world gone quite literally ‘off the rails’. The tone is very much that of a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie flick, where violence operates within a weird zone of almost operatic dark humour, in which the extremes of the human condition are pushed to the limit or life and death, both physically and emotionally. This is a book that is not afraid to make the reader confront intense moral dilemmas, most notably: ‘Why is it wrong to kill people?’ – posing these as koan-esque conundrums to befuddle the reader, and then dazzle them with logical, clinically detailed exposes.

The translation, by Yale PhD grad Sam Malissa, is an effortless exercise in what I call ‘seamless translation’ – namely, something very much operating within the Haruki Murakami school of, short of proper nouns (place names, character names), leaving not a single word untranslated. I think I could count the number of italicised untranslated Japanese words on a single hand. This style has both its fans and detractors, and seems to fall in and out of fashion depending on the publisher and current trends in translation discourse, but for me it pays due dividends in that crucial factor; widening audience. Bullet Train is, at heart, a populist novel – the equivalent of a pulp airport read you’d find in any Tesco or WH Smith buy-one-get-one-half-price aisle, so in my mind, it should read like one in English too.


But, there is more to this book than the book itself. Because, of course, a movie adaptation is on its way, starring none other than Brad Pitt. Those interested in the wider story of Bullet Train‘s route to translation and associated movie tie-in owe it to themselves to read the story direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, in a long-form, highly engaging interview from The Hollywood Reporter with Yuma Terada and Ryosuke Saegusa; co-founders of artist management company CTB, who are responsible for setting all this into motion.

To summarise briefly some of the key points, they highlight, in fascinating detail – the difference between Hollywood-centric and Japanese-centric models of IP law and licensing (in Japan, authors typically retain copyright, and are published by multiple publishers, making global rights negotiation often a tricky matter). They focus on the importance of a killer ‘treatment’ for film negotiations, and also the thorny issue of localisation. They cannily raise the case of Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow – adapted from a Japanese Light Novel and famous amongst anime/manga fans as one of the select few Anglophone adaptations of Japanese IP to do a half-decent job (as opposed to controversial stinkers like the live-action Ghost in the Shell).

For those interested in the transnational interworkings of media properties and the businesses and key players behind them – essentially, the ‘reason’ why your favourite book or comic from another country ends up getting ‘big’ and ending up on Netflix / your local multiplex and X/Y other title doesn’t – this kind of candid transparency is gold dust. It shows joined-up, ‘bigger’ thinking – of media titles as specifically ‘planned’ entities with a designated road-map to global roll-out. Each and every title where this works effectively lays the groundwork for others, and is a rallying flag in the sand by which to counter the countless trail of ‘development hell‘ corpses that have littered the history of American live action attempts on Japanese IP over the past few decades.

It’s worth noting here briefly that one of Isaka’s previous works – Remote Control (original Japanese title: Golden Slumber) – was previously translated into English by Stephen Snyder (of Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police translation fame) and released by Kodansha USA back in 2011. Kodansha’s US operations have recently undergone a major re-branding, bringing all the non-domestic efforts, including their manga output and sub-labels like Vertical – under a single banner. Could this see a return to the kind of concerted publication effort fans of Japanese literature have long hoped for? Kodansha USA has been largely dormant as a publisher of ‘serious’, non manga/Light Novel works for a while now, so to see a return to this kind of model is something to be seriously aspired toward.

Bullet Train stands, then, as a fascinating case study in what ‘can’ be done when the stars align and the international licensing Gods get their act together and push toward a goal of bonafide ‘mainstream’ success. Time, of course, will tell – in a Post-COVID world, when exactly the promised movie version comes out, and if the book is a success before/after said movie tie-in. But as far as putting all the pieces into play, and attempting to ‘engineer’ both a stellar narrative and the meta-narrative that goes around its release, they don’t come much better than Bullet Train.

PS. It’s worth noting that Bullet Train is actually the second novel in Isaka’s ‘Killer‘ series of novels that features a number of characters in common – sandwiched between Book 1 – Grasshopper – and Book 3 – AX. This brings to mind other Japanese thriller writers such as Keigo Higashino, whose English translations have not always followed the same order as their original Japanese series.

[Book Review] Keiko – The Power Wish

In Japan, fortune telling is big business. I’ve been fascinated in the topic since writing about it in a paper for my Masters degree in Japanese Studies, but it’s worth reiterating that the Japanese industry for uranai (divination) books, magazines and other assorted paraphernalia is a sizeable market segment, with some estimates stating the equivalent of over $600,000,000 spent on divination in Japan every year. For many of us here in the UK, whose closest encounter with anything even resembling fortune telling is a quick read over the horoscope pages in the newspaper on the morning commute, all this might seem a world away. Hence why I was at first astounded but increasingly intrigued to see that a bonafide Japanese uranai hon was being translated into English and released by an imprint of mega-publishers Penguin.

Keiko’s The Power Wish is that book – or to give it its full Japanese title – Shingetsu Mangetsu No Power Wish: Keiko Teki Uchuu Ni Ekohiiki Sareru Negai No Kakikata. The author, Keiko, is a million-copy bestseller in Japan, where the book was released back in 2017 by Kodansha, and as the book’s initial premise quickly lays out, holds the key in showing eager readers how the moon might help them convey their everlasting wishes for success to the universe.

Partly a kind of affirmation, but also very much a means of planting ‘seeds of possibility’, the method itself centres around the concept that when we wish for success, we usually fail because we don’t do so using the correct vocabulary. By instead focusing those wishes around the New Moon and Full Moon, and writing them using a very particular framework – which the book accessibly outlines with lots of examples – those wishes are far more likely to come true. New Moon wishes typically focus on the use of ‘I intend’, laying out a brief plan of action of sorts, and are then mirrored with Full Moon wishes which are written as if the wish has already come true, using ‘I am grateful’. In both instances, lots of emphasis is included about said wishes being in alignment with the will and guidance of the universe itself. There are even detailed chapters for each Zodiac sign (eg. Virgo, Leo etc.) and how each sign’s area of expertise might best be harnessed in conjunction with the Power Wish method.

Your belief in the efficacy of the Power Wish method may vary (and yes, there’s even a segment at the end about ‘How to use Moon Water to boost your Power Wish), but what I wanted to focus on in my review of this book – which in many ways I heartily enjoyed – is how, as in so much to do with fortune telling and divination, there is a fundamentally commercial or consumer-driven aspect at play in the writing here. As with all market forces, supply and demand lie at the heart of the uranai industry in Japan, and ultimately, as with self help books here in the UK too, the basic premise is that by exchanging money for a book like this, you create a kind of causal linkage with the belief that its contents will in some way improve your life. You, in essence, are the crucial link in a self-fulfilling cycle that dictates that it must, hopefully, work, because otherwise why would you have spent money on it in the first place…

And what kinds of life improvements are at play here? This, for me, was the real joy of the book – an unfettered look at what Japanese readers/consumers saw as their idea of a ‘successful’ life (or rather, what the fortune telling industry wanted them to believe was a ‘successful’ life). It must be said from the off that this is a heavily gendered book – clearly aimed at a largely female audience (a bias that studies have identified in other forms of divination in Japan). We best catch a glimpse of this in some of the many examples of effective Power Wishes outlined in the book:

‘I intend to meet my ideal partner who makes me a better person and to start a happy, cheerful family with him.’

‘I intend to join the same gym as Fumito so that I can talk to him more often, winning his heart and getting into better shape at the same time.’

‘I am building a strong relationship of trust with Takehito and supporting him as we share our lives together. I am truly happy now. Thank you so much.’

‘I succeeded in losing five pounds for the audition in September. I couldn’t feel more confident! Thank you so much.’

‘I intend for twenty thousand dollars to consistently flow into my bank account every month.’

‘I intend to earn more than enough money to fully enjoy all the pleasures of life.’

‘I intend to meet an attractive partner at my new job and for us to become the perfect married couple that everyone envies.’

The more examples I read, the more I became obsessed with the world the book seemed to portray. What was this magical dreamland in which super-fit gym bunnies walked into hot partners at work and earned $20k a month? Having gone through the last twelve months in a UK plagued by the twin ills of COVID-enforced lockdown and continuing economic malaise, the sheer, unadulterated ambitiousness and aspiration became a weirdly addictive tonic that promised a place where life was wealthy, pleasurable and full of candidly open peer-pressure drives where envy was almost something to be cherished.

A core part of supply and demand is, of course, the perpetuation and amplification of demand. We want what we want, often, because we’ve been told to want it. But while the cynical amongst us might look on this and feel with intense unease the pressures of modern day capitalism, The Power Wish often seems to offer up all the pleasures of consumer society as life’s single greatest raison d’être. If we can’t be rich, good-looking and toting a ‘supportive’ partner, what is even the point? This, of course, is the dynamic that all best-selling self-help books thrive off, but to see it expressed this openly felt weirdly refreshing. It’s full-throated encouragement to go for it, follow your dreams, have hope, for something better. Or as the book’s pull-quote endorsement from none other than Marie Kondo herself has it: ‘Keiko’s method can help people make their dreams a reality’.

Let’s place things in a bit of a wider perspective. In another review, back in November last year, I talked about how the interest in attractively presented books covering the nuances of the Japanese heart, mind and spirit seemed to be continuing unabated. Keiko’s The Power Wish is the latest manifestation of that. However, looking ahead to release schedules, while some specialist publishers such as Tuttle are carrying on full steam ahead with titles such as The Magic of Japan: Secret Places and Life-changing Experiences, there is also perhaps a sense that elsewhere, the wind is going out of the sails a bit.

I wonder, perhaps, if we’ve reached ‘peak’ Marie Kondo? Quite in spite of the earlier discussion about full-on, no holds bared ambition, in an age where COVID-19 has forced us to completely re-evaluate our lives, often trading in disciplined minimalism for houses stuffed full of back-up toilet rolls and hand soap refills, does the future instead hold a very different outlook for the models of chic, aesthetic aspirationalism we thought we knew so well? Even Kondo’s outlook seems to have shifted, with the unfortunately timed release of her latest book Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life in April 2020 – coming just as COVID ripped its way through established working practices – leading to a rather muted impact in comparison with her previous titles. Her focus now seems far more directed to the selection of goods available on her online store, and her certified consultancy business which trains aficionados to become Avon-esque ambassadors.

What ultimately fascinated me most about Keiko’s The Power Wish is that, for the first time since Kondo’s original The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying in 2014, I got the sense of that very particular sense of calm, aesthetic Japaneseness as translated into English – a sense that the reading of the text itself, quite apart from the knowledge it instilled, might impart some sense of order to my life. I’ve always envisaged self help books of this nature as the kind of literary equivalent to a fancy, multi-course tasting menu – you don’t go for it necessarily because it’s designed to fill you up, but because the experience itself generates a kind of consumptory pleasure peppered through with intrigue and wonder. When you come away from a book having read the phrase ‘Thank you so much!’ dozens upon dozens of times, it’s hard not to start feeling a little more thankful about your own life too – and I think, to draw a point of obvious comparison, that is what so many readers found utterly charming in Kondo’s approach to ‘thanking’ objects before discarding them too. To be thankful, even for a moment, is to force yourself to let a little happiness into your life – and sometimes it really is just as simple as that.

From my perspective as a continuing Japan-watcher and someone with an expressed interest in hoping that this release is simply one amongst many future translations of uranai hon, I continue to believe that the systems of transactional consumer behaviour which have created the fortune-telling industry in Japan hold immense lessons for other countries in terms of how we might approach the concept of bringing meaning to uncertain lives in uncertain times. Are we simply content to offer ourselves up to en-masse Netflix viewership as a kind of pacifying salve to societal worries, or are there other commercial manifestations that we might – in time – come to learn to appreciate as a means by which to negotiate life’s difficult questions?

Keiko’s The Power Wish – through its English translation – affords us a look at how, in Japan, one potential answer to these questions looks. One theme that continues to fascinate me about Japan is how its approaches to what we might term variously religion, fantasy or even the ‘occult’ seep into everyday practice – and how we might, here in the West, perhaps normalise elements of these in our society too. So many self help books speak to targeting a specific want or desire – maybe more money, a better job, a less stressful life, or a more effective diet – but I think what is so compelling about The Power Wish and the method it outlines is that it effectively asks us to imagine ourselves as if these things had already come true for us. Often, I’ve found, that is precisely the answer – by simply opening our eyes to the possibility of something other than what we have now, we are already halfway there…

Keiko – The Power Wish – Japanese moon astrology and the secrets to finding success, happiness and the favour of the universe is out now from Rider.

[Book Review] Alex Kerr – Finding The Heart Sutra

‘Powerful, mystical and concise, the Heart Sutra is believed to contain the condensed essence of all Buddhist wisdom. Only 56 lines long, this brief poem on emptiness has exerted immense influence throughout Asia since the seventh century and is woven into the fabric of daily life. Yet even though it rivals the teachings of Laozi and Confucius in importance, this ancient Buddhist scripture remains little known in the West.’

The inside flap blurb of Alex Kerr’s latest Japan-centric compendium sets up an interesting diametric. How to encapsulate depth in such face value brevity? Kerr, of course, will be familiar to many longtime Japan-watchers through works like Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons and Another Kyoto. Indeed, Lost Japan remains to this day one of the finest travelogues devoted to the country, managing the rare feat of not only setting the template for countless other accounts from those who have visited and lived in the country over the past two decades, but also remaining unrivalled in its sensitivity of observation and tone. Kerr’s style has always been an intoxicating blend of old-school philosophising mixed with equal measures chummy camaraderie and worldly-wiseness. He has seen things you could only dream of, or so his writing constantly suggests.

As such, he makes for the perfect interlocutor by which to approach an iconic component of Japanese spirituality. For those who have been to Japan and fallen prey to the notorious ‘temple fatigue’, Kerr’s book offers a refreshing tonic. The early portions of his account act as a powerful hook as he feels off a list of famed personas the Heart Sutra has inadvertently brought him into contact with, such as Kabuki actor Tamasaburo and French author Marguerite Yourcenar. There is much mention of his art collector mentor David Kidd and his ‘palace’, which – in an iconic scene – his circle of friends are asked to dismantle with mallets. Another fascinating anecdote recalls a meeting with Gore Vidal. At the time, Kerr always carried ink, brush and paper with him, and on hearing of his interest in the Heart Sutra, Vidal uses these to pen a pithy observation: ‘Nothing is no thing’. Kerr’s is a charmed life, but this, in a way, is central to the magic of what he is trying to do here:

‘On my part, I ended up weaving a piece of cloth in which the ideas of commentators over the centuries are the warp, the threads that run from top to bottom. My friends and our memories are the weft woven across it. I picked up a piece of string from here, a ribbon from there, and slipped them into the weave as I went along.’

There’s something wonderfully logical, almost scientific, to the way Kerr lays out his approach in the twenty page introduction. While he readily acknowledges that he is neither a Buddhist monk or scholar, the parameters of close reading by which he approaches the text feel like an exercise in a very classical form of deduction, teasing out multitudes of meaning from a mere fifty six lines. For the most part, the tone is a keenly witty intellectualism. But there are moments of remarkable poignancy too – most specifically when the book touches on aging and death. Kerr draws allusions between the sutra’s handling of these matters with Andrew Marvell’s famous lines ‘Had we but world enough and time’. What do we do with our lives, faced with the prospect of oncoming nothingness?

It would be tempting to view the bulk of this book as a kind of poetry, taking the line-by-line, character-by-character breakdown of the Heart Sutra as a kind of re-figured, re-mixed interpretation of the original. But in reality, the style ends up closer to Sebald, or perhaps Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, if we are to look for a more recent example. This is a literary form that revels in the utter pleasures of language, but at its heart remains instructional and informative in its purpose. Likewise, the brevity of each segment suggests a certain snackability to the contents – is this a little pocket guide you dip in and out of for instant shots of ancient wisdom? Some segments are eye-opening in their simple distillation of what lies right in front of our eyes. Noting how Kannon calls out twice to Shariputra in the text, we are reminded that the sutra is ‘not an essay written down on paper, but words spoken from one person to another’. Elsewhere, a parallel is drawn between the concept of impermanence and Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ famous statement: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’ These gentle nudges toward deeper understanding are part of the joy of working slowly and methodically through the text at this level of granularity.

Other parts, such as where Kerr tells us of a pianist with the power to stop rain, go out on such strange tangents that they almost command immediate re-reading, just to ensure you really ‘got the point’. Like the Heart Sutra itself, Kerr’s anecdotes inevitably open themselves up to a kind of close analysis all of their own, turning the text into an infinitely refracting mirror of interpretation. Is this a kind of translation studies workbook or academic close reading primer? It’s perhaps telling that it is only in the closing pages that the book addresses one of its most potentially challenging aspects: ‘treating the mantra as an engine of magical power’. Here, we’re presented with a neat way of rationalising its more mystical qualities with the realities of the modern world – it becomes less a ‘magic charm’ but more a ‘daily affirmation’. This term, so couched now in the language of self help guides, seems strangely apt.

Kerr’s writing has always felt like it has challenged the reader to bring their most intelligent self to bear, to push themselves just outside of their comfort zone and follow him along on a wild ride into the unknown – this book is no exception. The text is unapologetic about its inclusion of the original Japanese kanji (both in printed format and visually arresting calligraphy done by Kerr himself), and for those that can read both languages, these will no doubt provide a useful and fascinating resource to allow for comparison between the two. It could be argued that this, in itself, further identifies this as a ‘specialist’ text, going far beyond the broader entry level feel of Kerr’s earlier Lost Japan, but in many ways this makes it all the more admirable of Allen Lane as publisher for championing what to many will be a highly abstract field of discourse. 

That this release comes now speaks to two important points. First, that the current interest in attractively presented books covering the nuances of the Japanese heart, mind and spirit continues unabated. What sparked into being with Marie Kondo and Ikigai has blossomed into a self-contained publishing cache that, as the existence of Kerr’s book makes plain, still has plenty of scope to mine more deeply beneath the face-value concept of those of us in the global West looking to invest our lives with more meaning. Secondly, and perhaps most crucially, Kerr’s book comes as part of a small but growing oeuvre in books that help unpack some of the more confusing aspects of Japan’s religions to a non-specialist audience. The remarkable success of 2018’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright has shown that the demand for seriously researched yet approachable guides to this vast field is absolutely out there, and in that sense, it is exciting to see as entertaining and knowledgeable a voice as Kerr’s joining this steady stream of output.

Like many of my generation, initially wooed into an interest in all things Japanese through the country’s compelling pop cultural output, a fascination in the many faceted sides of Japanese religion was something that came later – a yearning to understand the deep, enigmatic resonance that underpinned many of Japan’s most compelling narratives and artworks. For those embarking on the same voyage of discovery, Kerr’s book on the Heart Sutra is without doubt a heartily recommended guidebook by which to navigate that journey.

[Book Review] Christopher Harding – The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

“The greatest attention is paid… to exemplary lives: ideas and ideals not merely thrown around, but embodied and tested”.

For Christopher Harding, acclaimed author of 2019’s Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present, the story of Japan remains fundamentally bound up in its people; the sense that the very essence of ‘Japaneseness’ – if there is one – is to be found in the lives of some of its most remarkable icons. In his follow-up volume, The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives, he returns to the format of accessible, vignette-esque history that puts the top-level historical facts on equal footing with smaller scale, personable narratives. Those familiar with Harding’s voice on BBC Radio 3 and 4 – where he is a regular – will know he has a knack for clear, compelling stories, and for all the weightiness of this new tome, that same clarity of thought makes for an addictive page-turner.

Divided as it is between twenty individual character studies – each lasting around twenty pages – some chapters are inevitably stronger than others. The very first, focused on the legendary Shaman Queen Himiko (circa 170-248 AD) – perhaps due to the natural paucity of material dating from Japan’s deepest past – is more a broad introduction to early life in Japan than a revelatory expose of Himiko herself. Much remains shrouded in mystery – and yet, as is so often the case in this book, the focus is far more about evoking the ‘feel’ of the time, place and presence of the persona in question, as opposed to a concrete This-Is-Your-Life style playback.

Thus, in the chapter on iconic Heian-era author and courtier Murasaki Shikibu, we are swiftly immersed in rich evocations of the beauty of Japanese antiquity. It sounds like a cliche in relation to this kind of historical work, but Harding’s book really does go the extra mile in terms of making these long departed personas feel like real people. Without coming across as facile, these worlds are made ingeniously accessible – arcane or complex Japanese concepts are always explained with ease, and relatable parallels are smartly drawn. As the Sunday Times rather deftly puts it, there is always that ‘telling quote that makes these distant presences tangible’. In a memorable early example, we hear of how ancient Kyoto’s elite men spent their leisure time on kemari ‘a sort of communal keepy-uppy, played by a team of eight men using a deerskin ball’.

Later in the same chapter, we are presented a scene where statesman Fujiwara no Michinaga passes his judgement on Murasaki via a hastily scribbled poem;

“She is known for her tartness

So I am sure that no one seeing her

Could pass without a taste”

Building on the success of the Murasaki chapter, the lives of powerful women remain a dominant theme throughout Harding’s book. The other core theme weaving its way through the work is a palpable and energetic focus on religion’s significance to the Japanese populace throughout history. Harding has previously published a number of academic tomes on Japanese religion, a topic that is often hard to convey to a lay audience with any degree of clarity. To this date, for example, there remains a relative lack of easy-to-understand books in English dealing with Japan’s native religion Shinto. That Harding can write convincingly on the topic is testament both to the many stories that lie as yet untold to broader audiences regarding Japan’s interlocking religious spheres, but also in his skill in teasing out these narratives from the often bewildering lore that surrounds them. Harding’s useful analogy of drawing a comparison between 12th century Japanese monk Shinran and German priest Martin Luther is a particularly clear example of how clever framing can often ‘unlock’ ostensibly complex material.

To those well versed in Japan, many of the stories here will be familiar. That said, for these famed figures, much of the power represented by their remarkable life stories is in the charm of accumulated re-telling, and Harding’s writing carries itself with enough style to ensure these tales don’t overstay their welcome, even to those who’ve heard them many times before. Many of the most successful chapters – such as that on Oda Nobunaga – are rich with anecdote and popular sayings. About Japan’s three great unifiers, we are told:

“‘What to do… with a cuckoo that refuses to sing?’ Hideyoshi, clever and charismatic, would find some way to persuade it. Ieyasu, canny and wise, would watch and wait while it found its voice. And what of Nobunaga? The bird, naturally, would have to die.”

As we move into modern times, with the full later half of the book taking in the 1800s onward, we are greeted with an increasingly diverse cast of characters. The details on the life of MSG inventor Ikeda Kikunae and how he inadvertently stumbled upon the concept of umami – the so called ‘tasty taste’ – are symbolic of the kinds of innovation that were going on in Japan at the dawn of the 20th century. The chapter, like many of the others, is wide-ranging in its scope, simultaneously touching on developments in film and popular music, but centering this around Kikunae’s work in taste as prime examples of ‘the power of commerce and culture to influence people’s preferences in this era’.

One of the most powerfully emotive segments is the chapter on singer Misora Hibari. A child at the time of the Second World War, she would quickly become swept up in Japan’s subsequent rejuvenation efforts and aims to ‘go forwards with culture’. Caught in a moment between youth and adulthood, her precociousness and energy would in many ways mark a kind of end of innocence for the nation. Her characterisation in the chapter’s title – as ‘starlet / harlot’ – prods not only at the immense cultural changes ushered into being in post-War Japan, but perhaps more importantly, how its brightest stars would invariably be packaged up as commodities to be offered ready-made to the populace at large.

Part of the joy of Harding’s earlier book Japan Story was how utterly readable it was as a history of the nation. While prior histories of Japan are ten-a-penny in academia, Harding’s take felt like something you could eagerly press into the hands of anyone with even the vaguest interest in the country. If anything, his latest effort is even more accessible – the segmented format, devoting one chapter to each persona, is a masterstroke, and allows each one to be consumed as a bite-sized confection whilst simultaneously forming part of a broader narrative.

Harding’s choice to conclude the book with a chapter on current Empress Masako is an immensely exciting one, though to those aware of the long-running tensions encapsulating her difficult transition from a high-flying diplomatic career and ‘sassy’ business suits to intense scrutiny under the media lens, it is also an obvious one. For those addicted to Netflix’s The Crown, this final chapter lays out a powerful case that the drama existing just below the surface of Japan’s royal family is every bit as fascinating as our own here in the UK. Indeed, for the Oxford, Harvard and Tokyo University educated Masako, the role of Empress is characterised as a double-edged sword, giving as much as it takes. Yet, for all the inherent sadness captured in Harding’s telling of her tale, there is optimism too – and indeed, as he notes, it is still far too early to fully envision what the future may hold for this most internationally-minded of Empresses.

Ultimately, the title of Harding’s history proves to be the telling factor – as useful as this book is as a history of Japan, it is first and foremost a story of a select number of its people. And perhaps, in giving it this direction and focus, it really does get closer to that enigmatic ‘Japaneseness’. While some may disagree with the choice of individuals featured here (a task that without a doubt would never please everyone) the collage of lives presented speaks to a broader message: that the past continues, maybe now more than ever, to have ramifications in the present day and on into the future. It is down to us to learn how to make best use of it.