Upcoming books from / about Japan #TheHighlights

There’s a lot of great writing from and about Japan being published in the UK right now. Recent successes like Portobello Books’ excellent Hiromi Kawakami translations have proven that there’s life in popular Japanese fiction beyond the annual tradition of the big Murakami release (Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo has over 100 reviews on Amazon at time of writing).

The past few months have also seen a number of highlights such as Penguin shining a light on the works of Yuko Tsushima via Territory of Light (with Child of Fortune – released as part of their Modern Classics range – still to come later this year) as well as bringing older translations of Mishima and Endo under their wing in glossy new editions.

Below is a list of some of the most promising releases of the next few months, that you might just consider adding to your wish lists…

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories (Penguin Classics Hardcover)

(Edited by Murakami translator Jay Rubin, plus an introduction by Murakami himself, the kindle edition of this hefty 500+ page tome is currently on Amazon for only £3.49)

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Convenience Store Woman

(Winner of the Akutagawa Prize in Japan, and published by Portobello Books, the bright, colourful cover art is clearly aiming this one firmly at the quirky Kawakami crowd)

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Another Kyoto

(Not a novel, nor is it written by a Japanese author – but Kerr’s Lost Japan is one of my all time favourite books about the country, so the prospect of a new volume from him is always to be hotly anticipated)

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Killing Commendatore

(The big Daddy himself. Hitting the UK in October, the latest Murakami novel has received mixed reviews in Japan, but at over 600 pages long, this brick of a novel is sure to make for an interesting counterpoint to his last UK release – the brief, sprightly Men Without Women)

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If Cats Disappeared from the World

(The latest ‘Japanese cat book’ looking to cash in on the ever increasing list of previous successes. This one is from Picador, who in many ways started the trend with their translation of The Guest Cat)

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Go: A Coming of Age Novel

(previously released in Hardback in March, the Paperback finally hits shelves in August)

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The Emissary

(Portobello scored a decent hit with Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear during the 2017 Christmas season, so it’s nice to see another Tawada volume following so quickly, this time from WW Norton & Company)

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Child of Fortune (Penguin Modern Classics)

(Another sumptuous release from Penguin Modern Classics, who have really been putting in the effort on their Japanese releases recently. This follows swiftly on from their release of Tsushima’s similarly slight-but-powerful 120-pager Territory of Light as well as their taster volume Of Dogs And Walls)

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Salad Anniversary (Pushkin Blues)

(Originally published in 1987 in Japan, this volume of Tanka poetry has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Suffice to say, this classy Pushkin Press edition looks like a worthy addition to bookshelves)

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Shadow Child

(From GoodreadsA haunting and suspenseful literary tale set in 1970s New York City and World War II-era Japan, about three strong women, the dangerous ties of family and identity, and the long shadow our histories can cast.)

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Cult X

(From Goodreads: The magnum opus by Akutagawa Prize-winner Fuminori Nakamura, Cult X is a story that dives into the psychology of fringe religion, obsession, and social disaffection.)

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The Japanese ‘lifestyle’ books just keep coming…

If you thought the world was already full to bursting book on cute Hygge-style little hardback ‘lifestyle’ books, think again. I’ve taken a recent interest in the profusion of Japanese-centric volumes hitting the shelves recently and boy are there a lot of them. Boasting attractive cover art and lovely bindings, I spotted a number of these volumes collected together on the shelves of Foyles recently and felt an irresistible itch to partake.

Questions of content aside (do we really need *another* book on Ikigai…?) there’s something to be said about these books as a kind of ‘purchasable lifestyle add-on’ that I find rather interesting from a sociological and marketing standpoint. The idea of trends (and accompanying cover designs) in relation to the sale of books is something that’s always appealed to me, going right back to the host of red & black draped YA clones that flooded the shelves in the wake of the Twilight phenomenon.

The name of the game is finding happiness and health, ‘the Japanese way’. It’s not just a lifestyle, wisdom, or an art, but a ‘science’. All in search of a perfectly imperfect, essential, purposeful life. Now, it’s not just about Ikigai, Forest Bathing or Wabi Sabi, but a book offering all three in one! I kind of like how the last book on the list just drops the complexities and goes the distance with ‘How to live Japanese’.

The books highlighted below are just the tip of the iceberg – I’m sure we’ll see plenty more just like this jostling for position very soon… (let’s be honest, I’ve got an Amazon pre-order on all of these already… maybe…)

Kintsugi: Embrace your imperfections and find happiness – the Japanese way

 

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Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing

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Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life

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Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation

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The Little Book of Ikigai: The secret Japanese way to live a happy and long life

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Japonisme: Ikigai, Forest Bathing, Wabi-sabi and more

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Kakeibo: The Japanese Art of Saving Money

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A Little Book of Japanese Contentments: Ikigai, Forest Bathing, Wabi-Sabi, and More

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How to Live Japanese

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Ichiro Kishimi & Fumitake Koga – The Courage to be Disliked [Book Review]

The Courage To Be Disliked (Kirawa reru yūki) is in many ways a misleading title – oddly negative sounding – in relation to a book that, for the most part, is focused on encouraging a lifestyle of extreme positivity. When I saw this particular Japanese self-help tome was becoming popular in its recent English translation, I was intrigued – especially given the similar recent successes of books on Ikigai and the decluttering phenomenon.

But this is in many ways a very different kind of book. I generally divide self-help books into two broad camps. ‘Soft’ ones focusing on a kind of gentle, bolt-on attitude of helpful suggestions, backed up by anecdotal evidence of named real-life success figures. And secondly, ‘hard’ ones that advocate a kind of wholesale lifestyle change, and are backed up by deeper philosophical or psychological theories, to the extent that they almost become academic in tone.

The Courage to be Disliked is definitely in the second camp. In many ways, I remain a little skeptical about this kind of approach – while the need to offer ‘hard’ truths to shatter existing preconceptions and achieve real world change is understandable, I’ve always felt uneasy at how close the tone of such approaches comes to ‘red pill’-esque language about ‘the real way the world works’.

That said, it’s hard to argue with many of the core concepts laid down in the book:

Be self reliant
“I have the ability”
Self acceptance

Live in harmony with society
“People are my comrades”
Confidence in others
Contributions to others
Community feeling is object of life

In a way, one could argue that the distinctly ‘Japanese’ quality of the writing on offer here is a refreshing tonic to the pie-in-the-sky affirmations offered in many Western self-help books. There’s an exhaustive, almost clinical approach to the arguments here, which aptly take the form of a Plato-esque dialogue between a philosopher and a youth (a technique also put to good use in Nigel Mellor’s Buddhism#now).

At the heart of the book lie the theories of Freud-contemporary Alfed Adler – they were certainly new to me, although, as the book itself states, Adler’s ideas are almost so ‘obvious’ in their nature that they have been reproduced countless times over the past 50 years without attribution.

There are certainly frustrations with the book too – while it eschews the ‘celebrity’ angle so many Western self-help books, in awe to actors or silicon valley heroes that ‘won in life’, it’s certainly not without anecdote itself – and many feel incomplete or one-sided. Ultimately though – by the conclusion, I felt reasonably satisfied with its core premise and explanation, refreshingly salved by its more philosophical approach to the nature of a book of this kind.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 [Book Review]

I first encountered Fahrenheit 451 in audio format – the eternally popular dystopian tale of book-burning lovingly recreated as an audio drama on BBC Radio 4extra. At the time, I was a BA student, eagerly writing my final dissertation on Philip K Dick and Ursula Le Guin – as such, stumbling across another paragon of the very best the golden age of science fiction had to offer was like striking gold. I lapped it up, lulled in by Bradbury’s immensely beautiful turn of phrase and penchant for startling prescient observations.

And now, years later, reading it in book form for the first time, it’s the poetry of Bradbury’s words that strikes me most. The ideas in the book are so ahead of their time, and so enduring relevant to this day – in many ways they lose some of their effect; precisely because they have been copied and recycled in countless other media a million times and more.

But all these imitations and followers hold only a shadow of the particular tone of Bradbury’s original. His phrasing is pure classic sci-fi, descriptions stumbling and flowing into one-another in a breathless, never-ending jumble of adjectives and metaphor. Fahrenheit 451 is a river of a novel – nominally divided into three parts, but absolutely consumable in a single sitting. Not just science-fiction, but movie-esque full-octane thriller from beginning to end.

Indeed, its the novel’s ideas about wall-to-wall media saturation replacing the need for books that sticks with me most strongly now – how in many ways, the burning of the books becomes supplementary to the own ‘death of reading’ committed by the grey, normalised masses who are content with the ‘easy life’. This is the true horror of Bradbury’s novel – beneath the more overt, cinematic thrills of flame-throwers, bombs and mechanical hounds.

And so, we are presented a novel that is both pure action, and pure thought-experiment. Characters like Beatty – the malevolent fire-chief feel more like authorial devil’s advocate counterpoints than real characters, as Bradbury follows philosophical debates through to their logical conclusion. His novel veritably *explodes* in the mind, and you get the sense of the author letting his words spring from his fingers almost before he’s even had time to process them. The pure, exhilarating speed is part of the thrill here, and the clarity of this ‘think big’ science-fiction reminded me for the first time in a long time just why the material from this era of writing maintains such a distinct flavour.

Much like earlier ‘pulp’ writers like Lovecraft, Bradbury understands the fundamental truth that the true power of science-fiction is that the reader’s own mind is always able to conjure material more terrifying than the author himself – and so, Bradbury’s novel is the spark, the beginnings of our own descent into a future that is scary precisely because we align it with the fears of our own times. Just like Orwell’s 1984. Just like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. These tales remain timeless because as much as we might seek to run from it, the future remains – ceaselessly and unrelentingly – just around the corner.

Amor Towles – A Gentleman In Moscow [Book Review]

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel lovingly crafted to push the buttons of all fans of historical novels. An unforgettable central character, a busy cast of supporting characters, obsessive attention to period detail – and most importantly – a narrative that charts the course of a country’s evolution over several decades of the 20th century’s most iconic events.

The titular gentleman is an almost-Sherlock-esque caricature of idiosyncracities – all routines and over-the-top ‘performance’. A man that goes through life as if every public appearance is on the stage and every word from his mouth is Shakespearean in its depth of meaning. Confined to a Moscow hotel amidst the tumultuous events of early 20th century Russia, the gentleman does his best to entertain himself amidst the expansive building, eventually becoming head waiter – whilst outside, we see the decades roll by, finally ending in the 1950s and the construction of Russia’s first nuclear power plant.

A forthcoming TV adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh has been announced – which, to be honest, is pretty much perfect casting – exactly the kind of actor needed to portray the stateliness and gravity of a role like the count. And in many ways, having finished the book, I almost feel that A Gentleman in Moscow is the kind of story that would work better *as* a film. It almost feels as if the writer constructed the narrative more in a visual sense than a literary one – with its excessive description, it at times more feels like an attempt to capture every ounce of visual stimuli in a mind’s eye capture than the brisk clip of an entertaining thriller.

All the flamboyance and flair of the count – while entertaining on the page – feels like it could be conveyed with far more economy and effect with an on-screen treatment. My greatest fault with the book is its slavish addiction to the literary sin of ‘he did this, then this, and then that’. A Gentleman in Moscow is not an overly long book, but it sure feels like it, only emphasised by its static setting. Stick with it and it pays its dividends – particularly in a couple of incredible set-pieces that round off the ‘books’ the novel is comprised of; but these are precisely because they abandon – albeit briefly – the staid quality of the rest of the novel for a brief burst of intense action.

A Gentleman in Moscow feels like it was designed for a very particular kind of reading experience – one is which it is slowly consumed over a lengthy reading period; perhaps a few pages a time every evening. The Count is so central to proceedings – and while it is certainly not hard to warm to him as a character, it’s also questionable whether he is *quite* the figure the novel seems to believe he is. Dignified dandy and emblematic figure of fading ideals of gentry sure, but sometimes it really feels like the book is labouring in its efforts at casting him as a figure of great sympathy.

If the Gentleman in Moscow was a debut work, I’d put its faults down to inexperience, but it is in fact Amor Towles third effort. As such, it seems more a victim of over-ambition – reaching so greatly for the hefty classics of Russian literature it is so ready to evoke; trying to tell a tale for all ages – of a man stuck outside of time and place, watching the world change around him. And while there are echoes of this grandeur, like the Count and the hotel itself, it is a grandeur slowly tarnishing as the world evolves beyond it – leaving A Gentleman in Moscow at times feeling like imitation as opposed to the genuine article.

Coolness, suave sophistication. These are things in which all value evaporates if the effort made in achieving them becomes too overt – and for me, A Gentleman in Moscow so nearly succumbs to this.

Mizuki Koyama – Kareniwa Kanawanai

Originally released: 1985

What it sounds like: A raucous, playful anthem that reminds me at times of the OP for Yuyu Hakusho. With sprightly, festival-esque brass pumps and a youthful, irresistibly lively vocal from Mizuki herself – this is a real call-to-arms get up and let’s play number that’s pretty much the definition of good-time genki feels. Wonderfully energetic – and what’s more, the track features on the recent Tokyo Nights compilation too.

More info:

Discogs

Reddit

Kaoru Akimoto – Dress Down

Originally released: 1986

What it sounds like: If you’re looking for a slice of Japanese city pop with the real sass of a prime 80s era Madonna, Janet Jackson or Neneh Cherry, then Kaoru Akimoto’s Dress Down is the one. Riding a great percussive drum machine beat, this number screams style, a real hitting-the-town anthem packed full of feel-good factor.

More info:

Discogs

Toshiki Kadomatsu – If You Wanna Dance Tonight

Originally released: 1984

What it sounds like: Another one to file firmly next to Tatsuro Yamashita. If you fancy more male-vocal city pop, If You Wanna Dance is one of the best, with a breezy melody line that ranks up with some of Yamashita’s best. Kadomatsu’s style is sprightly and energetic, with a thrumming bass-line punctuating all the right moments. This up-tempo gem really has that ideal ‘sea breeze’ top down feel – definitely one to imagine slamming into the tape-deck on your dreamy 80s ride.

More info:

Discogs

Reddit

Wikipedia

Emmanuel Carrère – The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception [Book Review]

In a small village in the South of France, a man butchers his family. They had finally discovered the life they had been living for the past twenty years was a lie. That *he* was a lie. He wasn’t a highly paid doctor working for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. He was simply a fake – leaving the family home in the morning with a kiss and a smile, only to spend his days driving aimlessly around from cafe to cafe, reading – always reading – sinking deeper and deeper into his twisted fake life. Snowballing until – in his mind – the only logical escape is to end the lives of his wife and kids. If everything had gone to plan, he’d have taken his own life too – but after failing (either intentionally or otherwise) he ends up on trial, beginning a strange correspondence via mail with a renowned author who has taken a particular interest in the case.

Beginning The Adversary is a strange experience. Maybe it’s inherent in the original writing style, or a product of the translation, but this tale – essentially non-fiction told in a fiction-esque narrative style, has a particularly unique, almost unsettling cadence to it. The prose runs and runs, flowing along with scant moment to pause and reflect. Maybe its the quasi-reportage style, with dialogue kept to a minimum. Maybe it’s the emerging sense of unease as your realise this book is essentially the product of an ongoing communication between killer and writer. Or maybe it’s all of this combined – delivering a book that feels caught halfway between traditional crime-thriller and lengthy newspaper opinion piece.

This unique writing style lends itself to you sometimes forgetting that the horrific events of the novel *actually* happened – a danger, I feel, the author is all too aware of. The more you read, the more you realise that the book is not really about the killings themselves, but more about the mindset of the killer, the writer’s efforts to understand that mindset, and the remarkable web of lies the killer wove in order to dupe his family and friends.

Is the novel overly sympathetic to the killer? It’s another key issue the writer wrestles with in his attempts to get to the bottom of the killer’s brand of calm, composed madness. But really, with The Adversary, the devil is in the detail – we too are charmed by the novel’s depiction of sleepy French villages and bourgeois life in the glorious South of France. We too become obsessive in our understanding of the killer’s rhythms and habits as he consumes vast volumes of printed material – as he whiles away the hours when his family believe him to be at work. Or the unbelievable (and sad) trust his parents place in him and his silver-tongued lies regarding what he’s doing with their retirement fund.

The other scary thing about the Adversary is just how believable it is. It shows how distinctly ‘normal’ citizens can trip across a boundary into an abnormality that begins to rot away in the mind. A kind of spectrum of self-belief that fuels an ever more corrupted way of living. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves and others to maintain – at all cost – the image we have in our minds of ourselves. The lengths we’ll go to in order to maintain an ‘easy’ status quo, even if that status quo is utterly bizarre in its existence. It shows how – arguably – given the right circumstances, anyone can begin a long downhill trajectory into hell.

The Adversary asks us many times to cast judgement – in a story like this, it’s impossible not to – and by the end, even introduces a heavy religious element into the mix. But for me, this – like the killing itself – is just a sideshow to the deeper, interior story this book is trying to sketch. Half-formed and sometimes fragmentary, The Adversary itself is only half the story – at a scant 200 pages, quickly and easily consumed. But beyond the words on the page lies something far deeper, like an endless riddle, impossible to untangle; and unending, unceasing attempt to rationalise the mind of a killer.

 

Aru Takamura – I’m In Love

Originally released: 1985

What it sounds like: A throbbing, bass-heavy number, there’s something refreshingly earthy about I’m In Love. While the production is largely straight-up city pop fare, trading sax punches with classy electric piano, there’s a meaty delivery across both the instrumentation and Aru’s vocal that gives this number real staying power amidst a crowded market of similar material. When the trilling synth-riff kicks in at the middle-eight, it’s a dream.

More info:

Discogs

http://kayokyokuplus.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/aru-takamura-im-in-love.html

Reddit