Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe The Woman in the Dunes The Woman in the Dunes [1962] – ★★★★★

In this deceptively simple tale, Kobo Abe paints a quietly disturbing picture of one man who finds himself in an unusual situation when he ventures to look for insects in sand dunes. The man, Niki Jumpei, misses his last bus home upon finishing his one day trip to the dunes, and some local villagers do him a favour and put him up for one night at one woman’s eccentric dwelling at the bottom of a sand pit (the only exit is by a long rope to reach the surface). Jumpei is an entomologist and a school-teacher, a man of science and reason, but nothing could prepare for him for what he is about to experience in his new strange dwelling (which has more complex arrangements that he has ever imagined). But, he will only be there for one night; right? or will he be? The man soon discovers that his innocent trip to the outskirts of one village is about to take a very absurd and horrific turn. The plot may be straightforward, but the merit of this novel still lies in the subtleties and (horrific) realisations – in the consequences which are revealed slowly to the reader (as well as to the character), enhancing the suspense and the final impact. The reader will suspend disbelief when the main character meets a woman and a community he never imagined existed, which prompts him to meditate on the meaning of life, relationships and the human nature. The Woman in the Dunes is Kobo Abe’s existentialist masterpiece.

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Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Shipwrecks Book Cover Shipwrecks [1982/1996] – ★★★★★

Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells a story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has a number of rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon OFune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or a curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative in nature as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one eerie desire. However, despite based almost entirely on observations, the novel is no less fascinating and is subtly powerful. It is a great read for anyone who likes unusual stories which uncover different ways of looking at life.  Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura”

Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet-Bean-Paste-cover Sweet Bean Paste [2013/2017] – ★★★★★

The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth” [Sukegawa/Watts, 2013: 33]. 

This book, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts (see also the movie trailer here), tells a story of Sentaro, a middle aged man who spends his time unenthusiastically selling dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste, to customers at the Doraharu shop, while consuming alcoholic drinks in his spare time. When an elderly woman Tokue approaches his shop and asks to work there, Sentaro first thinks it is a joke. However, Sentaro also tastes the bean paste cooked by Tokue and he is amazed by the flavours she can produce. What follows is a touching human story filled with the passion for food and the importance of appreciating small pleasures in life. Sweet Bean Paste is also so much more than a book about Japanese culinary delights and culture. It is a quietly beautiful book with the message of coming to terms with history, accepting people and recognising their talents no matter how small they may appear. Each person can contribute something to this world if others are willing to listen, learn and accept. 

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Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

The Decagon House Murders Cover The Decagon House Murders [1987/2015]★★1/2

This book, translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong, “was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement” [1987/2015: 228]. That movement was a revival of the traditional “logical reasoning” detective fiction in Japan that was prevalent in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s. The new movement was characterised by robot-like personages; game-like setting; and lacking literary context or significance, being purely about solving a whodunit mystery using logical reasoning. Heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939], The Decagon House Murders is about seven Japanese students who decide to stay on an isolated island not far from the main land in a mysterious Decagon House. Some months previously there occurred on the island the mysterious deaths of the owner of the property, his wife and their two servants. The students on the island are then start to be killed off in a fashion reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s famous novel. The book premise is exciting, but the book also reads like a videogame script with little character insight, context or emotion (which is intentional, but may not be for everyone), and the final solution is, arguably, too unbelievable and underwhelming. 

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Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

The Last Children of Tokyo CoverThe Last Children of Tokyo [2014] – ★★★★

Yoko Tawada sets her book in near-future Japan where the elderly regain their powers and live beyond one hundred years old, while the young become weak and sickly. Everyone is concerned in the story because, due to some catastrophe, “the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined” [Tawada, 2014: 14]. The central characters are an old man called Yoshiro and an orphaned boy named Mumei. While Yoshiro is the very definition of health and vigour at his age of one hundred plus, his great-grandson Mumei is feverish, vitamin-deficient, and in the course to face a slow death. This short dystopian novella, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is both beautiful and unsettling, and is a fascinating read, even though most of the time it reads like an essay on some highly imaginative dystopian future, rather than like a story with a linear plot.  Continue reading “Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada”