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Japanese Literature Challenge: A Retrospective

I recently finished a self-imposed Japanese literature challenge (consisting of After the Banquet, Snow Country, I am a Cat, Naomi, and Ugetsu Monogatari).


Though I have previous read many other Japanese works, it is obviously not enough to draw conclusions about an entire country’s literature.  However there were certain themes I noticed;

- The meeting of and conflict between separate and disparate ideologies, two main themes being Traditional vs Modern and Western vs Japanese.

  • In I am a Cat many new, Western ideas and conveniences are largely embraced and the characters see nothing wrong with adopting many non-Japanese cultural aspects (yay modern plumbing!).  The main human character is even an English teacher.
  • The decades before and after WWII change the attitude; there is a national resurgence of interest in traditional culture along with increasing exposure to the West.  Some felt industrialization/modernization/Westernization had gone too far while others wanted to fully embrace it and felt Japanese culture to be too restricting.  Tanizaki especially loved this theme; his characters are always struggling to assimilate the two ideologies.  Too much of the “new” fractures relationships within families (The Makioka Sisters) or between spouses (Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi), but too much of the “old ways” repressed emotions and individuality.  Post-war Mishima’s scathing portrayal of Japanese politics in After the Banquet is a complaint against the imported democratic political system.  Kawabata also writes of incompatible Traditional and Western, but in a different way; he separates new (city life, ballet, etc.) from old (the Snow Country, traditional geisha) completely by giving them different locations in which to dwell.  I’ll stop before I write an entire thesis.
  • The Western theme is largely absent from Ugetsu Monogatari (written before 1853), however many of the stories still contain the Past vs Present theme- the past is glorified and treated with nostalgia, and many would prefer it to their grim and war-torn present.

- Loneliness and isolation.  So many of the characters feel separated, isolated, and unable to connect.

  • This is a big theme for Kawabata.  Snow Country is separate, only reached after a long train journey.  Komako, a geisha, is desperate to connect; she is often alone, or wandering in search of clients, or drunk at parties.  Shimamura, her frequent client, deliberately keeps a distance from everyone.  In Thousand Cranes each person is trying to connect with another character (mainly through affairs and tea ceremonies) because they want to remember someone else.
  • A more modern approach- Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.  Although more fractured than all of the other novels I read the characters exhibit the same isolation.  Toru spends most of his time alone in his apartment, his wife (and even the cat) have left, and his one main outside contact being May, herself a lonely teen.

Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Natural World.

  • In Snow Country the weather and mountainous countryside location are elevated to almost becoming characters in the novel.  In fact, all Kawabata works are heavy on aesthetics and beauty, focused by his succinct and lyrical phrasing.  Thousand Cranes continually comes back to the traditional tea ceremony; where every movement and object has meaning, and where a chipped cup can be more aesthetically pleasing than a perfect one because it symbolizes the impermanence of life.
  • Many characters take time to appreciate nature, and to enjoy the beauty of the world around them.  Kazu is most content in her garden, and walks in it every morning.  The four Makioka sisters have a tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms together every spring- it is a special event not only for the beauty of it, but also to be together despite their differences.
  • Ugetsu Monogatari tells several tales where elementsof the natural world play a role- including ghosts, oni, and the unexplainable, often intersecting with humankind.
  • I remember these themes being a large part of Genji; classic Heian culture according to Murasaki Shikibu was a lot of poetry writing, arranging flowers and clothing (so that color and pattern would be not just ascetically pleasing but also have hidden meaning), and rigorously observing ceremonies.

So- yes I did enjoy my literature challenge!  I would like to do it again, focusing on another part of the world; perhaps one I haven’t read anything from before.

*Further note: Part of me feels it is a bit arrogant to assume I can parse out the elements of an entire literary tradition based only upon books that have been translated from their original language.  Conclusion: I don’t know, but I will have to work with what I’ve got!

After the Banquet

After the Banquet is the last book in my self-declared “Japanese Literature challenge”.  I have read Mishima before, but it was ten years ago.  Also, it is sometimes difficult to read very famous authors with very famous deaths without having the author’s personality in the back of your mind as you read.  And Mishima is a very interesting character to have bouncing about in your head…

(FYI: Yukio Mishima was one of Japan’s most famous and beloved writer, artist, actor, director – basically a premiere artist.  He lived the flashy, full life of the avant-garde artist until he, with a small conservative political group, attempted a coup d’etat to restore the Japanese emperor to real (instead of symbolic) power.  When it failed he committed seppuku).

Moving on to the actual story- the story begins as Kazu, the middle-aged owner of a restaurant is walking in her garden.  Kazu is successful because she works hard, is friendly and gregarious, and has made her own way in the world without assistance.  She is charming and, from the first, I liked her.  Kazu holds a small banquet at her restaurant for some retired ambassadors – it is here that she meets Noguchi.

The courtship between  Kazu and Noguchi is awkward, but sincere.  These two are so unalike that I was at first unsure why an attraction ever developed.  Kazu’s vivaciousness is countered by Noguchi’s reserve and more “old-fashioned” ways.  There is no question of a passionate love- Kazu and Noguchi are no longer young and inexperienced- the attraction is a combination of extreme loneliness and a genuine regard brought about by admiring someone completely opposite to yourself.

Once she was married to Noguchi, Kazu at first attempts to keep her restaurant open, but finds it too difficult to be both a proprietress and a wife.  However, Kazu was too energetic to do nothing- soon she funnels all of her energy into a political campaign for Noguchi.  Noguchi loses the election, but not before Mishima gives a scathing description of the various campaign tricks and back-handed manipulations involved in Japanese political campaigns.

Mishima displays very well the collision course of two disparate personalities.  Noguchi’s loss proves a catalyst for the dissolution of his and Kazu’s marriage.  Kazu, who for a time lost herself to her husband’s wishes and aspirations, breaks free.  She decides that being lonely is not enough of an excuse for denying her true self.  The catharsis she felt at the end of the novel, as she is rebuilding her business and once again walking through her garden, was also felt by myself as I read it.

After the Banquet is excellent.  This book connected with me far more than one of those novels that really try too hard by giving the characters some roller-coaster ride of emotion.  I connected to Kazu.  She is charming, but constantly worrying and over thinking.  She is successful because of her own hard work.  She sometimes shows too much enthusiasm or passion, but she is sincere and never lets anyone else make her feel like she is lesser for it.  I felt a sinking in my stomach as I read of Kazu repressing her nature for her husband.  I thought that the end was inevitable- but Kazu surprised me with her refusal to be put into a box.

This novel can be read just for the excellent character of Kazu alone.  The salacious description of Japanese politics and the sad portrait of a marriage is just a bonus.

japanese painting -garden