Friday, August 22, 2008

On "Contemporary Japanese Literature: An Anthology of Fiction, Film, and Other Writing since 1945" edited by Howard Hibbett ***

This anthology from the 1970s provides a good selection of post-World War II authors. Many of these authors I wasn't familiar with, but others--given the time that this anthology was published--I was rather surprised to see in the anthology. That is, the editor seemed to have a good grasp on which authors would have staying power. Mostly, however, I chose to read the anthology, amid all the other reading of Japanese literature I'm doing because I wanted exposure to authors I hadn't already read or didn't know about. A few of them stood out, but the ones who tended to stand out the most, interestingly, were those whose work I was already familiar with. Call it a bias of familiarity, I suppose, but there might also be something in the quality of the material that suggests why their work has gone on to be more familiar than some of the other authors included here. The book included these selections:

Yoshikichi Furui, "Wedlock" (story)
Taeko Kono, "Bone Meat" (story)
Kobo Abe, Friends (play)
Shotaro Yasuoka, "Prized Possessions" (story)
Nobuo Kojima, "The American School" (story)
Akira Kurosawa, Ikuru (screenplay)
Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo Story (screenplay)
Taijun Takeda, "To Build a Bridge" (story)
Yumiko Kurahashi, "To Die at the Estuary" (story)
Yukio Mishima, "The Boy Who Wrote Poetry" (story)
Yasunari Kawabata, "The Pomegranate," "The Camellia," "The Plum," "The Jay," "Summer and Winter," "The Bamboo Leaves," and "The Cereus" (stories)
Mitsuhara Kaneko, "Song of Loneliness," "The Sun," and "The Receiver" (poems)
Hiroshi Sekine, "Abe Sada," "The Golden Pavilion," and "Dream Island" (poems)
Ryuichi Tamura, "The Man with a Green Face" and "Human House" (poems)
Minoru Yoshioka, "Still Life" (1), "Still Life" (2), "Paul Klee's Dining Table," and "Nude Woman" (poems)
Mieko Kanai, "The House of Madam Juju" (poem)
Akira Abe, "Peaches" (story)
Junichiro Tanizaki, "The Bridge of Dreams" (story)
Tatsuo Nagai, "Brief Encounter" (story)
Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, "In Akiko's Room" (story)
Kenzaburo Oe, "Aghwee the Sky Monster" (story)
Akiyuki Nosaka, "American Hijiki" (story)

Highlights of the anthology included the first piece, by Furui, which was about a fairly young couple living in an apartment building among young rowdy workers. The couple's male half, who typically spends his days at work, gets sick, so he gets to spend time learning what his wife's life is like during the day.

Another interesting one was Kobo Abe's play Friends. The situation essentially involves a family that decides that its duty is to help out people who live alone, people who must obviously be lonely. The way to do this is to move in with the single person and make him part of your family. (Never mind that in this case, the man had a fiancée.) So this family comes and takes over his apartment, and the man is unable to get rid of them. They live off all that he earns, eat all that he brings home for food. The play is rather absurd, as many plays are, but enjoyable. It reminded me in a way of a Japanese film I did not like called Audition, in which a woman "auditions" to be a man's girlfriend (he poses as a director in order to find a girlfriend, auditioning each one); the situation soon becomes disturbing as she proves to be psychotic. (In the play's rather absurd premise it also reminds me of a great Japanese film that I loved called After Death, but I won't go into that here.) Friends is a pleasant and light play; Audition is not pleasant or light--it is horrifying. But they both share that same dubiousness regarding connection and family and duty, all of which I would guess carry much heavier feelings of obligation than they do in the West. Hence, by the end of the play, when the man is literally caged, like an animal, to teach him a lesson (if only he'd appreciated the family that had moved in with him, he could have just enjoyed the experience rather than being so miserable and having to be punished), one gets a sense the author is drawing some sort of parallel to the idea of family within the culture as a whole.

Akira Kurosawa's screenplay was also really good--and, I think, more concisely written than Abe's play. I've only Kurosawa's Ran. It's these stories of traditional Japan for which he seems most famous here in the States, but the editor of the anthology notes that Kurosawa actually prefers his films about contemporary Japan. For my taste, if most of them are like this screenplay, I can see why. I was not a huge fan of Ran, but I really liked Ikuru. The film is about a man who works for a bureaucratic section of the government. The job of government employees seems to be mainly to avoid letting people get help--each employee just passes customers to the next employee and on it goes down the line. One of these bureaucrats, however, learns he's dying of cancer and doesn't have long to live. So the rest of the film, he's questioning his purpose in life. And by the end, he has found it--fighting the bureaucracy of which he is a member. It was a pretty upbeat movie, with a share of funny moments.

Of the poetry, Mieko Kanai's "The House of Madam Juju" stood out the most to me--an exploration of Japanese beauty, as it has been commercialized for women.

Akira Abe's story "Peaches" is about memory--one memory. The character thinks about a time when his mother and he pushed a stroller of peaches down a hill, and it was a cold winter night, and his mom put her shawl around him. But then he deconstructs the memory, noting that the events could not have happened as he remembered them. There would not be peaches in winter. So which part of the memory is he making up? He circles round and round, trying to sort out all the various events that may have led to this one memory. In the end, he never does figure it out. Sometimes, I think keeping a diary could be of use for precisely this. I know that one time I was recounting something I'd done, and then I went back and checked a diary I had kept of the events and realized I'd merged several days of events into one day. But I don't generally keep a diary. I wonder how many other events have gotten merged and messed up in my head over the years. "Peaches" was an interesting exploration of how our minds trick us.

Perhaps the best short story in the book was by Kenzaburo Oe. I say this with some surprise, having read Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids a few years ago and not having been that moved by it. It was fine, but nothing that made me want to read more of his stuff. But "Aghwee the Sky Monster" is a piece I think I will remember for a while. It's about a man hired to take care of a musician who has supposedly gone insane--the musician has a baby in the sky who comes to visit him from time to time; conversations ensue, which, of course, embarrass the young caretaker. But there's a big back story that readers slowly discover, which makes the intriguing and ridiculous situation even more interesting. I'll have to give another Oe novel a read.

The last story, "American Hajiki," is a humorous piece that echoes some of the themes of Friends, but puts those themes in a political context. It's about a man who lived during World War II whose wife has invited some Americans to take a Japanese vacation at their home. The wife had previously visited them in America and has been a pen pal for some time. The husband is none too pleased by the wife's offer. The lead-up to the visit and eventual visit are mixed with the man's memories of the early postwar days. The man comes to wonder why it is that, in the end, who always ends up "serving" his American masters--and so wanting to serve them, despite the fact that they killed his father. There's quite a bit of humor amid the various cultural misunderstandings that go on.

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