Rivers of blood flow from the first page of this slim volume, most appropriate matching its title of Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide, but it’s not the gore that left me unsatisfied with the reading. Indeed, while I naively believed that seppuku was a ritual way of committing suicide, I learned that it became over time a way to order someone else to disappear — a mandatory suicide, in a way. The most fascinating but morbid chapter of the book describes the elaborate, exacting, perverse ritual to be observed exactly: how to position oneself, where to place the screen to shield the spectators, and how to handle the basket that contains the head of the deceased (obligingly severed by a friend since gut-cutting hurts and splatters but does not kill, at least not quickly). But after a few descriptions of deaths, this reader became both disgusted and maybe even bored by the carnage.
Tag Archives: Japan
Just a couple of months ago, I announced a new rating system for the blog that ranges from no stars to three — but today I’m using four because 1Q84 is not just the best book of the year for me, but probably the best book I’ve read this decade. Since I’m leery of creating overblown expectations that would leave you disappointed after you read the book, I will start with a laundry list of problems with the book. Think of them as warnings:
- a gimmicky title (1Q84 stands for 1984, the year in which it takes place, with the Q replacing the 9 since the protagonists find themselves in a parallel universe)
- it’s 900 pages long! (weighing a hefty 1.3 kg)
- it’s translated (from the Japanese), which is not the best way to read any book
- the plot relies heavily on fantasy (the parallel universe mentioned above, with little aliens running around), and I don’t care for fantasy
- the story mixes a nefarious religious cult, child abuse, child abandonment, and a serial killer and could be a parody of a really bad newspaper
- there are copious references to English and French literature as well as classical music pieces, all of which can easily fall into precious self-consciousness
- it has a cliched ending (I don’t want to give it away, but let’s just say that 90% of love stories end that way)
And yet, I was taken, I was amazed by the story. Props to the translators (both of whose names appear on the front pages of the book, appropriately) for what must have been an enormously difficult enterprise, with myriads of cultural references and the shadowy parallel world to recreate. It’s always hard to evaluate the language of a book that’s translated, but the story in English is written in very simple language, mostly short, declarative sentences, but with it the author creates a world that’s so vivid that it leaves the reader breathless as the heroine sets off to kill the cult leader, or when the hero prepares to meet her. The characters are finely detailed, so much so that we do, absolutely, believe that the big bad child rapist can also be a wise and loving man. The literature and musical references are never obnoxious and always somehow perfectly relevant. And I did root for that ending, very much, and it was not mushy and ridiculous, moon gazing and all.
So when you have many hours available to read this monster, do it. You get a free biceps workout to boot!
I don’t get horrified easily. But the “friendship” this time is between an aging writer (so far so good) and a teenager (why not) that quickly turns into a vicious sadomasochistic relationship (yikes!), with the female teenager as the brutally abused partner. No amount of atmospheric descriptions of the lovely Japanese seaside resort or sugary love letters the writer sends her could overcome my puzzlement as why she would ever seek out that man, or my disgust at the abuse she is made to endure.
And there’s a dumb mother in the book, too, who seems completely blind to the relationship while oppressing the daughter into quasi slave labor. Another reason for me to hate the book.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a short Japanese novel that describes the unlikely, arms-length friendship between a math professor with Alzheimer’s and his housekeeper and her son. It made me think of The Elegance of the Hedgehog but perhaps that’s a surface resemblance, both of them featuring mysterious Japanese men befriending women in apparently menial jobs.
In any case, the professor spends much time expounding about mathematical concepts such as perfect numbers and amicable numbers (not the part of math I have much respect for but it doesn’t go on too long) as well as… baseball, although having lost his memory 30 years ago makes for awkward discussions with the boy, who delicately tries to avoid confronting the professor with reality.
The layers of the relationship that goes much deeper than housekeeping are delicately told for a wonderful book with a bittersweet ending
I very much like Amelie Nothomb’s novels, although they get somewhat repetitive (how many “young Belgian woman in Japan” adventures can we take?) but I found this memoir, or pseudo-memoir, of, naturally, a young Belgian woman in Japan, tedious.
Tokyo Fiancéeflows nicely (I read it in English translation, so cannot really comment on the original) and contains the usual funny comments about Japanese customs (the Swiss fondue set in a suitcase is particularly hilarious) but I was rooting for the unlucky, exploited Japanese boyfriend all the way. He is really sweet, Swiss fondue set and all, but he gets exploited as a (Japanese) language teacher, travel guide, and banker from the get go, when he generously pays for interviewing Amelie as his prospective French teacher. Amelie takes care of number 1 throughout the story, banishing the boyfriend when her sister visits and never removing the misunderstanding once he comes to believe that she will marry him. Shame on her!
This must be my week to read about self-centered mean people.
The Commoner tells the story of Empress Michiko of Japan, a commoner (actually called Haruko) who married into the imperial family after WWII agaisnt the advice of her parents, and had to endure a most rigid life and a hateful mother-in-law before starting the cycle all over again with her own daughter-in-law.
The book reminded me of the American Girl series: a competently-written book chronicling past events of a woman’s life told with great care but still showing indisputable contemporary biases. I found it forced and pre-ordained. For instance, there’s heavy emphasis on how she, a girl, beats the Crown Prince, a boy, at tennis, to the dismay and shock of her parents. Of how she’s supposed to always walk behind her husband. Of how her mother-in-law thinks she can direct her life in its smallest details. These incidents may seem unacceptable to the modern mind but compared to the lot of ordinary Japanese women (and other women!) at that time they may not be quite so shocking.
The part I liked best was the description of the French Catholic school attended by Haruko (who may have been a commoner but who was born in a rich family that spared no effort to give her a good education) and how that education was useful to submit to the intricate rituals of the imperial household. Indeed, Catholic schools appear positively lax in comparison!
Do you like David Sedaris? Then you will enjoy When you are Engulfed in Flames, his latest collection of essays that, as usual, mixes old and new, hilarious and embarrassing, and many countries including France (again) and Japan (new and funny.)
I found the first few essays so-so, which is why you may want to try another book if it’s your first attempt at David Sedaris (I would heartily recommend Me Talk Pretty one Day, recounting his efforts to learn French; in this book he attempts Japanese with considerably less success) although the overall effect is, as usual, funny and tender. He talks at length about his relationship with his partner, Hugh. I particularly liked the essay in which he describes his exasperation at Hugh’s touring habits, leaving him lost and frustrated in the Sydney zoo, contemplating a divorce, then recalling all the comforts that Hugh brings to him and how he could not really live without him. He comes back to this theme in other essays, exposing both his own ineptitude at practical life and the complicated ways of long-time relationships.
There are lots of absurd situations, as always, including a skeleton hanging in the bedroom, a pet spider which needs feeding, the perils of being friendly with child molesters, and sitting in a hospital waiting room wearing only underwear. Only his reading of the pieces would make them funnier.
My Year of Meats has a unique, loopy premise: the Japanese Beef Board, in an attempt to increase meat consumption, sponsors a series of TV documentaries on “average” US housewives who, in the course of a thirty-minute episode, will cook a meat-centered meal for their family. The first episode focuses on an apparently standard Midwest family the wife of which cooks an all-American rump roast with Coke (really!) but then the husband reveals — on the air — that he’s having an affair. Things get much stranger from then on, to include a lamb-chop cooking family (not good for the beef board) and a lesbian-headed, vegetarian-only family (definitely not acceptable for the producer, on either count.) Great fun is had by the reader as well as, we are told, by the enthusiastic Japanese audience. In this happy state, the reader easily ignores the boring sex life of the Japanese-American female filmmaker (is there a new rule that every woman-written novel must include detailed descriptions?) and appreciates the sweetly sad sub-story of the the Japanese producer’s abused wife.
Then, unfortunately, the author moves into crusader mode as the documentary lands in a Colorado feedlot where hormones are used freely, little girls grow breasts, and much questionable beef is produced, and the story gets stuck in self-righteous tirades, an avenging mother, and multiple firings. Why ruin such an off-the-wall novel with a lecture?
I suppose you could try to stop reading 60 pages from the end…