After the Quake – Haruki Murakami

November 5, 2013

After the Quake: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami wrote After the Quake in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  In his characteristically unconventional memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he states that the short story collection was a turning point in his fiction, when his writing become less introspective and more outward-looking.  His new perspective is evident in the greater range and depth of his characters, the third person narratives, and the more mature themes which he explores.

It deals with the earthquake very indirectly.  Rather than exploiting the tragedy for drama, he explores it as a psychological phenomenon. In most of the stories, it is ancillary to the main story, but pivotal.

Still present are all the things I love about the writer – the championing of mundane courage, the conversational prose, the off-beat sensibility.  My personal favourites in the collection are the last two stories, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie.  In the latter, the main character, also an author, ends on a note that I suspect is autobiographical:

‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far, Junpei thought: I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’

From now on, I’ll be reading Mr Murakami’s later works with this in mind.

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The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice

June 28, 2013

Ochazuke no aji poster.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Yasujiro Ozu was a contemporary of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, but is much less famous in the West because instead of making epic, stereotype-enforcing samurai movies, he focused on more low-key, domestic stories.  The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no Aji) is a great example of the one of his early comedies that provides an intimate insight Japanese society.  It’s a cute story about a wife, Taeko, and husband, Mokichi, who don’t seem to get on.  She is a shrewish snob who lies to get her way, he is a complacent bumpkin who likes the simple things in life.

It’s set in the post war period, a time of great social upheaval in Japan which informs much of the inter-generational conflict in Ozu’s movies.  The couple’s niece, Setsuko, seeing how unhappy they seem together, refuses to follow in their footsteps and enter into an arranged marriage.  But as the story progresses, the layers are peeled away from the Taeko and Mokichi and it becomes clear that the way they feel towards each other is a lot more complicated than it appears from the outside.  The movie culminates in an incredibly sweet domestic scene that makes this one of the most original love stories I’ve seen in years.

Funny and wise, The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is well worth chasing down online or at your local library.  Recommended.


Confessions of a Yakuza – Junichi Saga

January 29, 2012

Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan's…

Describe it

A well-written biography of an old-school Yakuza, providing an unvarnished account of the underworld and the underclass in early 20th century Japan.

What I loved

A lot of history focuses on leaders or the elite, whose names are committed to the ages by circumstance, ability or privilege.   Confessions of a Yakuza provides a window into the lives of the other half: the poor, the outcasts and the criminals, who inhabit a world where the importance of guts and luck are less veiled, and where it is harder to hold illusions about human nature.

It is the biography of Ichiji Eiji, as told to a country doctor, Junichi Saga.  Eiji is not an overly complicated character: he is tough, amoral and self-serving.  He upholds a sense of yakuza honour, but mostly out of self-interest.  At the age he recounts his tale, he is unconflicted about his past and given to only occasional reflection.  He also has a weakness for woman, which, throughout his storied career, causes him to lop off a few fingers in penance, as per the yakuza code. Read the rest of this entry »


Colonel Santa and the Red and White Song Battle, or My New Year’s in Japan

January 20, 2012

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Yoyogi Park

25 December 2011

On the Narita Express (N’Ex!) to Tokyo.  It’s a clear winter day.  Bare trees raise their feathery branches towards the sky.  Rice paddy fields, their harvest exhausted for the year, give way to neat little houses, then uniform apartment blocks that crowd either side of the tracks, so that when we cross a bridge we are surprised by the sudden horizon, the clouds, a river, and a wheat-coloured baseball field where kids are doing early morning sprints.

M asks if I thought it was ugly the first time I saw it.  I say I don’t remember.  It’s not ugly now.  I’m comfortably numb from the wear of the flight.  There aren’t many people in the streets and the traffic still eases along.

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Tokyo from Aoyama-I-Chome

26 December 2011

You’re never alone on the streets of Tokyo.  Even on the latest drunken stumble home, you always happen upon someone on their own night errands.  Now, I’m sitting in the sun on another clear winter day, at a cafe on a side-street t-junction, watching the steady stream of people.  They speak in quiet, regular tones, moving around each other and the slow intermittent cars.  They are impeccably dressed.  There are many beautiful looking people.  In groups, the women laugh and chat in high clear voices.  The men are mostly alone, but even in groups they barely talk. Read the rest of this entry »