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Archive for the ‘Japanese literature’ Category

I wanted to read a Yukio Mishima book today, and I decided to read his ‘Five Modern Nō Plays‘.

In this book, Mishima has taken five classic Nō plays and put them in a contemporary setting, and adapted and reshaped them for a modern audience. ‘Sotoba Komachi‘ is inspired by the legend of Ono no Komachi, a real poet and one of Japan’s foremost women poets, who lived during the Heian era, around a thousand years back. ‘The Damask Drum‘ is about an old janitor who loves a beautiful young woman and sends her a love letter everyday. This woman is quiet for most of the play, but towards the end, she speaks and reveals unsuspected hidden depths which amazes us. As they say, still waters run deep. ‘Kantan‘ is about a young man who meets his governess after many years and the fascinating things that happen after that. The first half of the play was wonderful, then there was a dreamy surreal part which was a commentary on politics and world happenings which was okay but not really my favourite, and then the play ended the way it started in a beautiful way. ‘The Lady Aoi‘ is a beautiful love story filled with some psychological horror and fantasy. It had some of my favourite passages from the book, and it was probably my favourite play from the book. ‘Hanjo‘ is a triangle love story, in which a older woman and a young man love a young woman. It must have been unusual for the times in which Mishima wrote it, and it is beautiful.

This book has a beautiful introduction by Donald Keene, that lover and translator of Japanese literature, who has also translated this collection.

I loved this collection of Nō plays by Mishima. Very entertaining and very fascinating. Mishima seems to have written other plays too and I want to read them now.

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

From ‘Sotoba Komachi

Poet (teasing her) : “Oh! And tell me, old lady, what is your reason for living?”

Old Woman : “My reason? Don’t be ridiculous! Isn’t the very fact of existing a reason in itself? I’m not a horse that runs because it wants a carrot. Horses, anyway, run because that’s the way they’re made.”

From ‘Kantan

“It’s simple enough to become a hero. Any man can become one, provided he has no desires. You can get more power and profit through indifference than through greed. Just imagine – in times like these a mere stripling can take over the country, just because he acts indifferent and claims – apparently in sincerity – not to need money, women, or fame.”

From ‘The Lady Aoi

“The night is not like the day, it’s free. All things, people and inanimate objects alike, sleep. This wall, the chest of drawers, the window panes, the door – all of them are asleep. And while they sleep they’re full of cracks and crevices – it’s no problem to pass through them. When you pass through a wall not even the wall is aware of it. What do you suppose night is? Night is when all things are in harmony. By day light and shadow war, but with nightfall the night inside the house holds hands with the night outside the house. They are the same thing. The night air is party to the conspiracy. Hate and love, pain and joy : everything and anything join hands in the night air.”

From ‘Hanjo

“I have only known Hanako since she lost her mind. That has made her supremely beautiful. The commonplace dreams she had when she was sane have now been completely purified and have become precious, strange jewels that lie beyond your comprehension.”

From ‘The Lady Aoi

Mrs. Rokujō : “What’s the matter? You’re not saying a word.”

Hikaru (gently) : “There’s no need to say anything.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “It’s medicine to me to hear you talk that way, a medicine that cures all my wounds in an instant, a marvelous medicine. But I know the kind of person you are – you give the medicine first and only afterward inflict the wound. You never do it the other way. First the medicine, after the medicine the wound, and after the wound no more medicine… I understand well enough. I’m already an old woman. Once I get wounded I won’t recover quickly like a girl. I tremble with fright whenever you say anything affectionate. I wonder what horrible wound awaits me after so efficacious a medicine. Of late, the less affectionate you talk the happier it makes me.”

Hikaru : “You seem convinced that you’re going to suffer.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “Pain comes, as night follows the day, sooner or later.”

Hikaru : “I can’t believe I have the strength to cause anybody pain.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “That’s because you’re young. One of these days you will wake up in the morning with nothing on your mind, and while you are out walking with your dog, perhaps, you will suddenly become aware that dozens of women somewhere, unseen by you, are suffering, and you will understand that the very fact you are alive is in itself a cause of suffering to many women. Even though you can’t see them, they can see you, and it is useless for you to turn your eyes away, for you are as plainly visible as a castle that rises on a height over a city.”

Have you read this collection of plays by Mishima? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Akira Yoshimura’sShipwrecks‘ for a while. I finally got to read it today.

The story is set in medieval Japan. Isaku lives in a coastal village with his family. The village is mostly cut off from the outside world. So the people in the village are mostly fishermen and get most of the things they want from the sea. For clothes, they get bark from the trees in the forest, and get the fibre from it and use it to make yarn and weave clothes. Life is hard, it involves work throughout the year, and whether life is manageable or filled with suffering, depends on nature, the vagaries of the seasons and the bounties from the sea. When things get too hard, parents sell their kids to a labour contractor in the neighbouring village as indentured labour, for many years. Sometimes, parents sell themselves, if they don’t want to inflict it on their kids. At the beginning of the story Isaku’s father sells himself and goes away for three years. What happens during this period, when nine year old Isaku has to learn the skills required to survive and take care of his family with his mother’s help, and how he has to bypass childhood and quickly become an adult at this young age, is depicted in the rest of the book.

One of the things which the book describes is the gifts bestowed by the sea. One of the gifts bestowed is a ship which is wrecked when it dashes against the reefs. This happens once in many years. When this happens, the people in the village are happy, because the supplies and provisions in the ship and the parts of the ship itself will alleviate their poverty for a few years and they don’t need to send anyone on indentured labour for a while. So the inhabitants of the village pray for a shipwreck. This, of course, leads to a moral conundrum – not for the villagers, but for us readers. A shipwreck helps the villagers, but it definitely doesn’t help the ship’s crew. So are we going to rejoice because the villagers have a windfall because of a shipwreck, or are we going to be critical of them for praying for a disaster which will afflict sailors and for doing questionable things when it happens? Or are we going to contemplate on what David Mitchell says in his introduction to the book – “That we are here at all in the twenty-first century, reading about Isaku’s life, is due to our own forefathers – and foremothers – taking whatever measures they had to take to survive”? It is a fascinating moral dilemma to ponder on.

The story is mostly about how life is a struggle, but it is not all doom and gloom though. There are some beautiful scenes, for example when Isaku’s mother takes the bark he brings and weaves fabric out of it, and when Isaku himself after multiple failed attempts, finally catches a saury fish, and we cheer for him. These and other small beautiful victories in everyday life, bring a ray of sunlight to the story.

I loved ‘Shipwrecks‘. Most of it is stark and bleak, of course, but it is realistic, it takes us across time to medieval Japan, where a small people in a tiny village, fight everyday against the odds to survive, and inspite of all the disasters that the world and nature throws at them, they are still standing at the end. It is stirring stuff.

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

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I’ve wanted to read Yuko Tsushima’s slim gem ‘Territory of Light‘, for a while now. I finally got around to reading it today.

The narrator of the story is a single mom who has recently separated from her husband. She moves into a new apartment. The rest of the story depicts her life during the course of a year, during which she struggles with the challenges of being a single mom, tries to love her young daughter and care for her in the best way she can, while handling social pressure and her own need for companionship and friendship.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. It is beautiful, realistic, sometimes filled with travails for our narrator, sometimes filled with joy. The relationship between the narrator and the people in her life is very beautifully depicted. I loved the way her relationship with her daughter evolves over time, culminating in a beautiful scene at the end of the book. There is also a beautiful friendship between the narrator and a college student, a friendship which is hard to classify or describe but which is beautiful nevertheless, that is depicted so beautifully in the book. It was one of my favourite parts of the book.

The blurb says this about the book – “In this short, powerful novel lurk the joy and guilt of single parents everywhere.” It is a perfect description of the book. I couldn’t have put it any better.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. I’m glad I read it. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“To my daughter, flowers were a beautiful and strange life-form that, with each plucking, sprang up in greater abundance. She ran about like mad inside this life-form, and on walks with her I too found their profusion overwhelming. The cherries were blossoming, as were the azaleas; the spiraeas were snowy with flowers. My daughter would gather the cherry blossom petals that lay at her feet, and more would flutter down as she did so, alighting in her hair and on her body.”

Have you read ‘Territory of Light‘? What do you think about it?

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