Author Focus: Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami, born in 1952 in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan, is an award-winning author whose work looks into contemporary Japanese society. A cult writer, his novels usually contain male protagonists who are involved in violence in some way or another. Some characters thrive off it, others are the victims of it. All of the characters are a product of a new Western-influenced Japanese society, which conflicts with the peaceful, Oriental image which many have about Japan – including older generation Japanese.

Author Ryu Murakami

Author Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami moved to Tokyo where he enrolled in Musashino Art University on a sculpture course. Whilst studying he wrote his debut novel, Almost Transparent Blue, which won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976. The novel looks at modern Japanese youth culture and the influence upon it of the United States – the protagonist, a young Japanese boy, even lives near a US naval base.

His books have often been turned into films. The most famous of which, Audition, was adapted for the screen by Takashi Miike and is known as being one of the best Japanese thrillers in the movie industry.

Scene from Audition

Scene from Takashi Miike’s Audition

Which Ryu Murakami books should you read? I recommend Audition. If you liked the movie, you will love the book. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should read the book anyway! It’s fast paced and the tension, which is subtle at first, builds up and up until it explodes. The book isn’t great towards women – in fact, non of Ryu Murakami’s books are – but for those who love thrillers, you will love Audition.

Another novella worth reading is In the Miso Soup. It’s violent, it’s grotesque, it’s everything you imagine Japanese cult literature to be. None of the violence is committed by a Japanese man, but by an American. A slight nod to whom East Asians believe to have changed Eastern society for the worse (Koreans and the Chinese also criticise American influence upon society), but it’s also a way for the Japanese to engross themselves in violence and be rest assured that there’s no way a Japanese man could have done it.

Ryu Murakami’s works might be the ideal ”man” novel, but for those who are interested in modern Japanese youth culture, how Japan has changed, pop culture, and indeed, political influences (Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love is about a North Korean invasion of Japan) then Ryu Murakami’s work ticks all those boxes.

from the fatherland, with love audition almost transparent bluein the miso soup

Zhang Tianyi: Mid-Autumn Festival

Zhang Tianyi’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a short story which presents critical and satirical observations of events to contribute towards the discussion of Chinese society in early 20th Century China.

Author Zhang Tianyi

Author Zhang Tianyi

The story centres around a family meal during the traditional mid-autumn festival, where protagonist Kui Daye interrogates characters and society who are of a lower social class to himself – including his relative, Third Uncle. The rants and ravings of Kui Daye turn this celebratory meal into a cruel, yet humorous, event.

The characters are caricatures: extremely exaggerated, along with the plot, narrative and descriptions with funny results. All of this highlights the social injustices which littered Chinese society at the time. Only the character of the Third Uncle is represented with gentility.

Kui Daye is a cruel landlord who constantly rants about the lower classes and his tenants through intentionally funny dialogue. Due to their entertaining nature, the audience neither agrees or disagrees with the character’s views, instead appreciate Zhang’s mocking of Chinese society.  As Kui mocks the lower classes, Zhang mocks Kui through the narrative, like the physical description of Kui’s appearance being compared to an upright, dwarfish jar.

Whilst the character of Third Uncle is portrayed with grace, patiently withstanding Kui’s cruel remarks for being a peasant, he is also portrayed as a coward – unable to stand up for himself or fellow peasants who come to pay their landlord respects during the festival. Zhang makes it clear that the character is clearly restricted by the then rigid structures of Chinese society – to honour family and those above him.

Through Mid-Autumn Festival, Zhang mocks society through juxtapositions of society’s social structures and their behaviour. For example, the expletives which litter Kui’s dialogue which contrast with his high social status. All of the narrative techniques combined create a politically driven short story which reflects the political leanings of the author and the need for social change, a change which occurred not long after in China. This short story is a must read for those interested in the political and social conflict of 1920s and ’30s China.

Mid-Autumn Festival by Zhang Tianyi can be found in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, published by Columbia University Press.

columbia anthology

[OKINAWA] Kijimunā and Tanmē Nakō

Here is a local Japanese tale for you all to enjoy. It is about a Kijimunā – a small child-like wood spirit – who is a trickster and often makes friends with humans. This relationship with people  often goes bad, much to the reader’s amusement!
For a taste of this Okinawan tale, you can read this English translation. It’s short and witty and will most likely brighten up your day!

Local Tales from Japan

I wonder if you know about Kijimunā…

In Okinawa, there is a story called ‘The Legend of Kijimunā’. If you were to say Kijimunā to any Okinawan person, they should know what you mean.

Kijimunā is a tree spirit who lives up in the Gajumaru Tree. He looks like a Kappa (a mythical water-dwelling creature) and appears in the form of a child with red skin all over his body.

Sometimes, when people pass under the Gajumaru tree, Kijimunā likes to play tricks. To stop him coming down from the tree, in places like elementary schools where there is an old Gajumaru tree, people will often stick nails (which he hates) in the tree. Kijimunā also has a torch which he carries with him when he walks at night. They say that if you touch his torch you won’t get burnt.

This is the story of that Kijimunā…

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Journey to the West

Journey to the West (also known as Monkey) by Wu Ch’eng-En is one of my favourite novels. Many will be familiar with the 1970s Japanese television programme Monkey. The TV show has a cult appeal, and the novel shows exactly why this is.

journey to the west

The original classical Chinese novel is incredibly long, made up of many stories and chapters. The English translation by Arthur Waley is a condensed version. He translated around 30 of the key stories into English to make the novel, as well as renaming the  central characters: Su Wukong became Monkey; Xuanzang, Tripitika; Zhu Bajie, Pigsy; and Sha Wujing, Sandy. Whilst this may be seen as ‘ruining’ the original novel, Waley has made Journey to the West accessible to English readers and was able to keep the original fun, witty and allegorical feel of the novel.

Journey to the West tells the story of Monkey, from the moment he was born from an egg, to when he caused Lao Tzu mischief up in heaven, to being rescued by Prince Tripitaka and the subsequent adventures when he, Pigsy, Sandy and Tripitaka embarked on a journey to collect Buddhist scriptures. On the journey the group helped those they met, fought demons and most importantly, learnt valuable lessons about religion, society and life.

Still from the 1970s TV show, Monkey Magic

Still from the 1970s TV show, Monkey

Many of the adventures will be familiar to those who watched the TV show. The novel was  witty and fun, and readers of all ages would enjoy it. It’s fast paced and an easy read. Yet, it is also deeply philosophical and gives insight into Buddhism and Taoism. There is a development of characters, the building of relationships and achieving enlightenment as the novel progresses.

Journey to the West, was ahead of its time, and Waley has ensured that it is still a great bit of classical literature. The writing is great, and the author has managed to tell a story with comedy, adventure, fantasy and philosophy and make it completely timeless. It contains messages of anti-violence and teaches the importance of solving situations with discussion, logic and intellect – ideas which are still encouraged and taught today.

For those who haven’t read any classical Chinese literature, I highly recommend Journey to the West as a starting point.

Out

Out is Natsuo Kirino’s first novel to be translated into English. Kirino isn’t your typical Japanese women’s writer. She doesn’t discuss themes of love and relationships – at least, not in the conventional sense. She uses a predominantly masculine genre (the crime novel) mixed with masculine writing techniques – like grotesque imagery and violence – to tell the story.

out

Like most crime novels, the plot is easy to follow. It is about four women (the leader Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie and Yayoi) who work in a demeaning, unsatisfying job – a factory – and who all have difficult home lives. When Yayoi’s drunk husband gambles away all their money, her anger leads her to strangling him. Scared, she enlists the help of Masako who convinces the other two to dismember the body and discard the parts all across Tokyo. A body part is discovered by the police, who soon believe a casino owner and criminal was to blame for the murder of Yayoi’s husband. The criminal begins hunting the women down one by one, and the women start disposing of bodies on a regular basis for extra income.

The characters are shallow. They lack depth and intellect. Despite them all leading difficult lives, I struggled to sympathise with any of them as they never try to take control of their situation. The only character who can really think for herself, Masako, is cold and distant. As a reader you can’t empathise with her.

Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino

Women, the role of women, the treatment of women, a woman’s position in Japanese culture and society is ultimately what the novel is about. On the outset, the women appear to be powerful and in control. They do the ultimate action which is associated with feminism and female empowerment: they kill a nasty man who abuses women. But the book isn’t feminist. The characters are stereotypical women: shallow and one-dimensional. They think they’re in control when actually they are far from in control. They still go to their demeaning job, they are being hunted down one-by-one by a man who proves to be successful.

The ending of the novel further enhances how it’s men who are still dominant and powerful. Masako is brutally raped and tortured, but she appears to begin to enjoy the situation and emotionally connects to her attacker, presumably because she has been given the attention which she has desired for so long. On the other hand, the ending could also be interpreted that Japanese women think rape is acceptable, that they prefer men to be in power, that it’s what women desire.

Out is anything but a simple crime novel. It shows who is still in control of Japanese society – men. I’m very undecided about the novel. A part of me loves it; it’s gritty, grotesque and violent and yet, there’s a deeper message underneath the gore about gender and society. The other part of me doesn’t like the novel: the characters, the ending… I am completely on the fence.