Archive for January, 2020

This is probably my final read for this year’s edition of ‘January In Japan‘.

I Saw It‘ is Keiji Nakazawa’s memoir, about the time when he was a child when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima happened, and how he and his family survived it and what happened in the aftermath. It is said that this was the first (or probably one of the first) memoirs which described factual, historical events in comic form, and this led to other books like Art Spiegelman’sMaus‘. From that perspective, ‘I Saw It‘ broke new ground and was a pioneering work.

As Nakazawa’s book is a memoir, it is more about his family and how they survived this terrifying period in history. The atomic bombing is interwoven into the story of his family and their community. It is a heartbreaking book because it shows how horrific things like the atomic bombing, and war in general, impact normal people and change their lives beyond imagination. It is also a book which is beautiful in parts. The book is also a beautiful love letter to Nakazawa’s mother. It made me remember Romain Gary’s ode to his mother, ‘Promise at Dawn‘.

I loved ‘I Saw It‘. It is an important book and it is a must-read. Nakazawa used his memoir as inspiration to write a longer fictional manga series called ‘Barefoot Gen‘. I want to read that sometime.

I am sharing some pages from the book, to give you a feel for the story and the artwork. I have included a couple of pages depicting the bombing, but have avoided the pages depicting the more horrifying, heartbreaking scenes.

Have you read Keiji Nakazawa’sI Saw It‘? What do you think about it?

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I thought it was time to read some fairytales for ‘January In Japan’ 🙂

The Japanese fairytales book I have is written by Lafcadio Hearn. It is a slim book and it has eight stories. They are beautiful and fascinating stories and I haven’t read any of them before. I loved all the stories, but I loved some even more. My favourites were ‘Urashima‘, ‘Mother in the Mirror‘, ‘The Green Willow‘ and ‘The Boy Who Drew Cats‘. The first three were all poignant and had somewhat sad endings and maybe that is why I liked them more.

I am sharing the contents page and the first page of some of the stories so that you can experience their beauty yourself. This is a beautiful book to read on a spring afternoon, sitting in your garden sipping a hot cup of tea, listening to the birds chirping, while letting the stories take you on a journey to beautiful, imaginary lands.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Yoshida Kenko’s little gem, ‘A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees‘, for a long time. It contains selections from Kenko’s longer book ‘Essays in Idleness‘.

Yoshida Kenko was a Japanese Zen monk who lived between the late 1200s and the middle 1300s. In this book, in pieces ranging in length from a few lines to a few pages, Kenko shares his thoughts on anything and everything – about life, nature, the changing seasons, love, beauty, the pleasures of reading, the pleasures of drinking sake, the pleasures of idleness, the beauty of imperfection, following the Buddhist path and many other topics in between. Many of the pieces are like beautiful essays. Some of them are prescriptive, but still beautiful. The book featured these legendary lines, of course :

“It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.”

Which was exactly what I was doing while reading Kenko’s book.

There were also insightful passages like this :

“If our life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino’s graves or the drifting smoke from Toribe’s burning grounds, but lingered on for ever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that makes them wonderful.
Among all living creatures, it is man that lives longest. The brief dayfly dies before evening; summer’s cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. What a glorious luxury it is to taste life to the full for even a single year. If you constantly regret life’s passing, even a thousand long years will seem but the dream of a night.”

There were also beautiful stories which offered words of wisdom.

I had so many favourite lines and passages in the book, in nearly every page. I am so glad I read Kenko’s book. It is a beautiful, little gem. I want to read the longer version ‘Essays in Idleness‘ now.

Have you read Kenko’s book? What do you think about it?

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I first heard of ‘Death Note‘ by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata years back when I was discussing manga comics with a friend. My friend said that it was her favourite. Later, I discovered that it was a cult classic. One day in my book club, there was a long discussion on ‘Death Note‘ and I discovered that some of my book club members were huge ‘Death Note‘ fans. So I thought that one day I should read it. That day turned out to be today.

The story told in ‘Death Note‘ goes like this. Shinigami are a kind of supernatural beings who live in their own realm. One of them is important to us – his name is Ryuk. Ryuk has a notebook called ‘Death Note’. The thing about this notebook is that when a human being’s name is written on it with a date and time, that person will die at the appointed time. One day Ryuk accidentally drops the Death Note into the human world. And a high school teenager called Light Yagami finds it. The Death Note has instructions in it on how it can be used. Light reads it and he doesn’t believe it. He thinks it is all a prank. Does Light discover the true secret of the notebook? What does he do with it? What does Ryuk have to say about it? You have to read the book to find out.

I loved the first volume of ‘Death Note‘. I was expecting it to be dark and scary, and looking at the way Ryuk is represented, he does look extremely scary. But the book is anything but. It is cool and stylish, the story is fast-paced, and Ryuk belies his scary looks – he is actually cool and stylish and charming, speaks some wonderful lines, and he is one of my favourite characters from the story. How his character develops across the subsequent volumes, I have to wait and see. The story is mostly a cat-and-mouse game of two people trying to trap each other and it is quite gripping. The artwork is nice. I can’t wait to read the second part and find out what happens next.

Have you read ‘Death Note‘? What do you think about it?

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I watched my first Akira Kurosawa movie during my student days. It was ‘Rashomon‘. My college film club screened it. It was amazing. I have wanted to read Kurosawa’s memoir since then. I finally got a chance to read it.

In his autobiography, Kurosawa-San starts by describing his earliest memory. He goes on to tell us about his family, his favourite brother and sister (his family was big – he had seven siblings), his favourite aunt who looked like a person from the Meiji era, his childhood, his favourite teacher in school, his love for reading, how he got into writing and painting, some of the big events that impacted his life like the earthquake in Tokyo in 1923, how he was a left-leaning radical person for a few years and how he was part of the underground. All these form the first part of the book. In the second part, Kurosawa-San describes how he got into the film industry, and describes his time there. He describes events till the time his most famous film ‘Rashomon’ won the Golden Lion in the Venice Film Festival. The end of the book has an eight-page chapter in which Kurosawa-San shares his thoughts on filmmaking. It is an eight page education on the art of filmmaking and it is fascinating.

I loved the book very much. But I loved the first part more. Because in that part Kurosawa-San describes his family, his childhood, his teachers, and takes us to the Japan of that era. It is fascinating! Many readers would be more interested in the second part however, because of the insights it offers on filmmaking. Kurosawa-San’s prose is simple and spare. This enhances the impact of some of the moving scenes that he describes – the way his brother is protective towards him, how his favourite sister showers her love on him, the letter his favourite schoolteacher writes to him after he becomes a famous film director (I cried after I read that letter). Kurosawa-San is very frank and doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind on different things. He doesn’t hesitate to cast the same frank, critical eye on himself (In one place, while talking about his Luddite self, he says – “My son tells me that when I use the telephone it’s as if a chimpanzee were trying to place a call.” I laughed when I read that 🙂 ) It is very refreshing. One more thing I love about the book is that in many places Kurosawa-San talks about his favourite books or mentions writers in context. I discovered many Japanese writers through these passages. I am hoping to read some of them, especially Shiba Ryotaro, who has written many epic historical novels.

The book ends in 1950. Kurosawa-San made films till around 1995 – that is nearly 45 years after the events in the book end. I wish there was a second part of this book, which covers that period.

Reading the book gave me goosebumps. Here was a person, who was from a middle-class family, who didn’t go to college, who struggled with finances and who was drifting one way and then another till he was twenty-six, who learnt every aspect of filmmaking on the job – this person became one of the greatest film directors of alltime. It is such an amazing story and it is so hard to believe. Kurosawa-San tells how it all happened in his inimitable style.

I loved Kurosawa-San’s book. It will definitely be one of my favourite books of the year and one of my alltime favourite memoirs. It is a book I’ll be reading again.

Have you read Akira Kurosawa’sSomething Like an Autobiography‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Kenzaburō Ōe’sA Personal Matter‘ as a gift from one of my favourite friends a long time back. It looked a bit dark and so I thought I’ll wait for the right time to read it. It looked like the right time arrived a few days back 🙂

Bird works as a teacher in a cram-school. This is a kind of training institute where students are coached for entrance exams to university or taught English to improve their communication skills. Bird’s wife has given birth to a baby recently and both she and the baby are at the hospital. When Bird reaches the hospital, he discovers that his baby is not normal. It has something protruding out of its head, which looks like a smaller second head. The doctor says that they have to perform a surgery, but there is no guarantee that the baby will survive after the surgery and even if it does, there is no guarantee that it will grow up to be a normal person because there is a high probability that it will have to stay in bed for its whole life and would need constant care. Bird is very upset and depressed with this. He wants his baby to die but he feels guilty for wishing that. When Bird tries to take a break from this and distract himself, things start happening one after the other in rapid succession. First a few teenagers try beating him up. Then his father-in-law gives him a bottle of whisky, though he knows that Bird is a recovering alcoholic. Bird goes to an old friend’s place, gets drunk and stays over. He turns up with a hangover at work the next day and is later fired from his job. One misfortune after another happening in rapid succession – it was like watching Martin Scorsese’sAfter Hours‘. What happens after that and how the situation resolves itself forms the rest of the story.

I loved Kenzaburō Ōe’s prose. There were so many beautiful sentences sprinkled throughout the story. For example, there were sentences like this :

“Bird would have to answer questions honed on the whetstone of her curiosity and good will.”

And this :

“Either the woman was exhausted or she was signaling to Bird the approximate depth of the swamp of calamity he and his wife were mired in.”

And this :

“Like the dwarfs in illustrated books of fairy tales, he returned Bird’s gaze with a look of ancient prudence on his face…”

And this one :

“She too was heading for the north pole of disgruntlement.”

The prose was very different from that of other Japanese writers I have read. It almost felt like the book was written in English by a British or an Australian writer. I thought initially that this might be because of the translation. But then I read the translator’s note at the beginning of the book and it said this – “Oë’s style has been the subject of much controversy in Japan…There are critics in Japan who take offense. They cry that Oë’s prose “reeks of butter,” which is a way of saying that he has alloyed the purity of Japanese with constructions from Western languages.” I liked that explanation. So this is Oē’s style. So fascinating!

I liked ‘A Personal Matter‘. It is a complex book and so I am not able to say that I loved it. The main character Bird is a complex, flawed individual, but who also has a good, beautiful, adventurous side. It is hard to love him, it is hard to hate him. He does something interesting in the end, but I can’t tell you what he does, you have to read the story and find out. My favourite character in the book was Himiko. She is Bird’s best friend and sometimes doubles as his lover. She is a free spirit and a happy-go-lucky person and she is kind and wonderful and rebellious and unconventional. Such a fascinating character.

Kenzaburō Ōe has written many other novels and a nonfiction book about Hiroshima. I want to read that sometime.

Have you read Kenzaburō Ōe’sA Personal Matter‘? What do you think about it?

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ES : Eternal Sabbath‘ by Fuyumi Soryo was the first manga comic I ever got. I never got around to reading it. Today, finally, I did.

A nameless protagonist starts telling us the story. He is a young man. He tells us that he can get into other people’s minds, manipulate and change their thoughts, make them think that he is one of their friends. But he doesn’t do any harm. He is mostly indifferent to what is happening around. Sometimes he is curious. Very rarely, he intervenes in a situation to do something good. When he intervenes in a particular case, the affected person ends up in a hospital. As the case is strange it is investigated by the researchers in the medical university. Kujyou, who is a talented researcher is assigned this task. She discovers that our nameless narrator is involved in this. And she tracks him down. And sparks fly. You should read the book to find out what happens next.

ES‘ was a breezy read. The pages just flew, and before I knew, I had reached the last page. The artwork was beautiful, especially the pages depicting dreams and people’s minds and the feelings and desires inside them. The narrator and Kujyou were fascinating characters. There were some fascinating revelations in the end and there were also a few open ends which makes us want to read the next part.

Sharing some pictures from the book here.

Traditional book’s first page – this is one of my favourite pages from any manga comic, which asks us to stop.

First page of the story

Second page of the story


Have you read ‘ES‘? What do you think about it?

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I have read only two Haruki Murakami books, one nonfiction and one a collection of short stories. I thought it was time to read my first Murakami novel.

South of the Border, West of the Sun‘ is one of the early Murakami novels. It shows, because it is slim at around 190 pages. Murakami-San has moved on since, and these days he writes only chunksters. The story told in the book goes like this. Hajime, who is the narrator, talks about his life, from the time he was a kid. He talks about his beautiful friendship with Shimamoto in elementary school. They both are single children in their homes, which is very rare in the Japan of that time, and they bond very well together. But at some point they move to different schools and lose touch. Hajime describes his life in high school, his first girlfriend, his time in college, how he was stuck in a dead-end job, how he met a kind girl and fell in love with her and they got married and how his life changed significantly for the better after that. And one day, after twenty-five years, his childhood soulmate Shimamoto walks back into his life. The sudden, strange, unexpected changes that brings to his life, and the sudden long dormant feelings that spring up again in his heart and the crazy things he is ready to do and what happens after that and how it all ends – this is told in the rest of the book.

South of the Border, West of the Sun‘ is an interesting book. I thought the first chapter of the book was beautiful, exquisite, perfect. Somewhere after that the book slips and it is no longer perfect anymore. It is still interesting and I liked the story very much, and one of my favourite characters, Yukiko, makes her appearance in one of the subsequent chapters and stays there till the end, but that first chapter was perfect. It was like we were in the Garden of Eden, and then suddenly we were hurled into the real world which was complicated and messy. The story is engaging, we want to turn the pages and find out what happens next, there are beautiful passages throughout the book, the characters are beautifully sculpted, and they are beautiful, flawed and very human. The ending was interesting, even satisfying, with a perfect blend of unresolved mystery and good tying up of loose ends. I loved the cover of the book – it seems to be inspired by M.C.Escher’s famous series of paintings called ‘Circle Limit‘. Some birds in the picture appear to be smaller than the others. But in reality they are not. It is fascinating. Do google on Escher’s paintings to find out why.

I enjoyed reading ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun‘. It is a complex love story. I am the last person to read a Murakami novel, I think, but I am glad I read it.I won’t say that I have become a Murakami fan yet, because I think I love Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Ogawa and Sayaka Murata more, but I think this is a good start and I hope to read more Murakamis in the future and see where things go.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. And in case you are wondering, it is from the first chapter.

“Of all her father’s records, the one I liked best was a recording of the Liszt piano concertos : one concerto on each side. I liked it for two reasons. First of all, the record sleeve was beautiful. Second, no one I knew – with the exception of Shimamoto, of course – ever listened to Liszt’s piano concertos. The very idea excited me. I’d found a world that no one around me knew – a secret garden only I was allowed to enter. I felt elevated, lifted to another plane of existence.
And the music itself was wonderful. At first it struck me as exaggerated, artificial, even incomprehensible. Little by little, though, with repeated listenings, a vague image formed in my mind – an image that had meaning. When I closed my eyes and concentrated, the music came to me as a series of whirlpools. One whirlpool would form and out of it another would take shape. And the second whirlpool would connect up with a third. Those whirlpools, I realize now, had a conceptual, abstract quality to them. More than anything, I wanted to tell Shimamoto about them. But they were beyond ordinary language. An entirely different set of words was needed, but I had no idea what they were. What’s more, I didn’t know if what I was feeling was worth putting into words. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the pianist now. All I recall are the colourful, vivid record sleeve and the weight of the record itself. The record was hefty and thick in a mysterious way.”

Have you read ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Haruki Murakami book?

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I read Yukio Mishima’s ‘Thirst For Love‘ sometime back. I thought I should read my next Mishima now.

In ‘The Sound of Waves‘, there is a young man called Shinji who works in a fishing boat. He is from a poor family, he has a simple heart, and he works hard. His father died during the war. Shinji lives with his mother, who works as a diver during the diving season, and his younger brother, who is in school. Things are going nicely for Shinji, when one day he meets a beautiful girl who is helping out on another fishing boat. He discovers that she is the daughter of a rich man. He can’t stop thinking about her. Something like this has never happened to Shinji before. Soon, while he is on an errand helping out his mother, he meets this girl again, and this time they are alone. Sparks fly between them and one thing leads to another – well, you have to read the book to find out more.

In ‘The Sound of Waves‘, Yukio Mishima takes the classic love story – boy meets girl and they fall in love, girl’s father hates boy, girl gets a rich suitor etc. – puts it in a fishing village in Japan and lets the events unfold and gives us a fascinating front-seat view. It is as if one day Mishima-San got up on the right side of his bed and told himself –

Okay, I have written about a monk who burns down a temple. I have written about the woman who kills the man she loves. What about a simple story with a ray of sunshine? What about a story in which two young people meet and fall in love? Why not write that? St.Francis of Assisi said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light from a single candle.” Why not light that candle here and see whether it dispels some of the darkness?

And then Mishima-San went and locked himself inside his room and wrote this book in one breath and completed it in the wee hours of the morning, before he could change his mind. And that is how we got ‘The Sound of Waves‘. Atleast that is the story I tell myself. That is the story I want to believe.

The Sound of Waves‘ is a beautiful celebration of young love. It is so famous that it has been made into many movies. I have seen atleast one of those movies. It is very different from the regular dark, intense fare we expect from Mishima. I loved it.

Have you read ‘The Sound of Waves‘? What do you think about it?

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The story told in Genki Kawamura’sIf Cats Disappeared From The World‘ goes like this. The unnamed narrator is a young man. One day he discovers that he has brain tumour and his days are numbered. While he is in shock still trying to process this news, the Devil turns up at this young man’s house. The Devil looks exactly like this young man, but is more cool, more stylish. And the Devil tells this young man that he is going to die the next day, but he can extend his life by one more day, if he decides to make one thing disappear across the world. And so it all begins. To find out what happens next and how it all ends, you should read the book.

In this book, Genki Kawamura takes the Faustian fable, makes the Devil stylish, puts a cat in it, sets the events in contemporary times, and we get a story which is charming, cool, stylish and humorous, but at the same time poignant, sad, insightful and heartbreaking. The story looks deceptively simple on the surface, but there is more to it than meets the eye, because that surface contains hidden depths. Genki Kawamura’s prose is stylish and charming and grabs our attention from the first sentence and doesn’t let go till the last. There is not a single unnecessary sentence, there is no wasted word. I loved most of the characters in the book, including the narrator’s cat Cabbage, who is featured on the cover.

I loved ‘If Cats Disappeared From The World‘. I can’t wait to read more of Genki Kawamura’s books.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.

“In order to gain something you have to lose something.
Mom said it was just obvious. People are always trying to get something for nothing. But that’s just theft. If you’ve gained something it means that someone, somewhere, has lost something. Even happiness is built on someone else’s misfortune. Mom often told me this, she considered it one of the laws of the universe.”

“Cabbage existed in a world without time. No clocks, no schedules, and no being late. And no such thing as categorizing people according to age or what year they are in school. And no vacations because there’s nothing to have a vacation from in the first place. There’s just the changes brought about by natural phenomena, and our physical response – like when you’re hungry or sleepy.”

“Cats and humans have been partners for over ten thousand years. And what you realize when you’ve lived with a cat for a long time is that we may think we own them, but that’s not the way it is. They simply allow us the pleasure of their company.”

Have you read ‘If Cats Disappeared From The World‘? What do you think about it?

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