The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

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Entries in Japan (13)


Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

First published in Japan in 2013 (in a literary journal) and in 2014 (as part of a novel); published in translation by Pushkin Press on January 23, 2018

Ms. Ice Sandwich is the name bestowed upon a sandwich seller with large eyes and a damaged face by the novel’s young narrator. The narrator is fascinated by Ms. Ice Sandwich; he has a crush or the first experience of love from afar. He sketches her endlessly but never speaks to her except to order a sandwich.

Other kids, and some adults, view Ms. Ice Sandwich as a monster or a freak. She is apparently a victim of surgical malpractice, but whatever the cause of her unusual appearance, the young narrator feels saddened by the meanness that surrounds her. At the same time, when other kids question his obsession with the woman, he stops seeing her, a solution that saddens him until his new friend Tutti gives him some worldly advice that she figured out in the first grade. I won’t spoil the advice, but it is the kind of wisdom that is easily forgotten and from which everyone would benefit.

The novella offers the narrator’s amusing insights into his fourth-grade life as he reacts to a world he is trying to comprehend. His grandmother is dying. He isn’t sure what to make of concepts like aging and death. Girls and adults are mysterious, but Ms. Ice Sandwich is the most mysterious of all.

The story is obviously about growing up, but it is also about friendship. The narrator’s blossoming friendship with Tutti contrasts with the infatuation he feels for Ms. Ice Sandwich. Part of growing up is learning the value of genuine friendship, as is learning that physical appearance is not the standard that should be used to select friends — a lesson that comes late in life to many, if it comes at all.

Ms Ice Sandwich brilliantly captures the wonder and puzzlement of childhood, the burning desire to figure things out and the sense of loss when reality replaces imagination. Learning to say goodbye and coping with loss, real and imagined, is another important part of growing up, one that Mieko Kawakami illustrates in a variety of contexts. But for every loss there is a gain; for every goodbye, there is a hello. That’s another lesson that comes as we experience life, and one that the narrator’s experience will eventually cause him to recognize.

Ms Ice Sandwich is a story of emotions and feelings more than events. The novel’s limitations are also its strengths. The novella uses no more words than it needs. It does not pretend to be epic. Its focus is narrow, but the small world that the narrator inhabits is rich with the kind of details that children notice and that adults take for granted, like the sensation of falling snowflakes. The story is small but the novella’s lessons are large. That’s quite an achievement.



Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa

Published in Japan in 2003; published in translation by Pushkin Press on June 6, 2017

Slow Boat is a novella-length story of three loves, told by a man who recalls his past. Each love represents (at least in his mind) a failed attempt to leave Tokyo, either physically or metaphorically.

Slow Boat is almost existential in its depiction of a man who feels hopeless, powerless, and trapped in a heartless Tokyo. Three times, he has tried and failed to leave Tokyo. The first time he was in grade school, chasing after his girlfriend, whose parents were taking her away. The second time he was planning to join his new girlfriend at the airport. Both attempts ended violently. The third time he decided to leave metaphorically, leading to another new girlfriend and another disaster.

I’m not sure what to make of Slow Boat. It’s sort of a commentary on Japan over the course of the last few decades, but it’s also personal, a commentary on Japan as seen from the standpoint of a man (or boy) at various stages of his life, looking for a way out. Not a way out of Japan, necessarily, but a way out of the life for which he seems destined. Perhaps the narrator is simply coming to terms with his life, coming to accept that he is on a slow boat to nowhere. Or perhaps he is about to challenge fate. Part of the novel suggests that simply doing the best we can with what we have toward the people we love will have positive if unforseeable consequences, even if we do not stay with those people forever.

Fortunately, Hideo Furakawa includes an explanation of the book, which he calls a remix of Haruki Murakami’s story, “Slow Boat to China.” Familiarity with that story might help a reader appreciate Hideo Furakawa’s remix, but I haven’t read it so I can’t comment on that. I did appreciate the explanation of the novel’s surrealistic nature, which I found interesting but puzzling. Readers with a greater background in Japanese literature might get more out of Slow Boat than I did, but I liked it well enough to recommend it to readers who are up for a challenge.



Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino

First published in Japan in 1999; published in translation by Minotaur Books on November 8, 2016

Under the Midnight Sun begins in the early 1970s and covers a span of two decades. It jumps forward in increments, each early chapter beginning a few years after the last one ends. Some chapters feature relationship drama while others focus on crime or shady business dealings. Each early chapter reads like a separate story, although they intertwine. The relationship of some characters to others only becomes clear as the novel enters its second half. Characters come and go, but two characters, Ryo Kirihara and Yukiho Karasawa, bind the others together.

Ryo is ten when the novel begins. His father, a pawnshop owner, is stabbed to death. Detective Sasagaki develops suspects — Ryo’s mother might or might not be having an affair with a pawnshop employee — but the cops cannot find enough evidence to make an arrest. They aren’t even sure they know the motive for the murder, although Ryo’s father had withdrawn a large amount of cash shortly before he was killed.

The story resumes four years later. After her impoverished mother died, Yukiho was adopted into a middle-class life. She seems to be a sweet, gentle, and friendly, a perfect example of Japanese femininity. Her delicate beauty attracts the attention of undesirable admirers, and eventually of men who have some family wealth. She is thte novel’s most intriguing character.

Another plotline involves bored housewives who pay to hook up for sexual adventures with high school boys. One of the boys is Tomohiko Sonomura, who eventually regards Ryo as his best friend. Still another plot thread involves Yukiho’s friend, a girl named Eriko, who transforms from a duckling to a sexy swan with the help (and money) of Kazunari Shinozuka. Eriko and Kazumari later return to the story at different times and in different ways.

Parts of the story amount to a police procedural as Sasagaki methodically pursues leads, conducts surveillance, interviews witnesses, and develops suspects in the murder of Ryo’s father. Parts of the story touch on organized crime as the yakuza take an interest in criminal schemes that some of the novel’s characters perpetrate. Some of the story features dark domestic drama as characters pay a heavy price for caring about — or betraying — other characters.

Keigo Higashino’s non-criminal characters tend to be introspective. Most of them are relatively dissatisfied with life. Readers who feel a need to identify with or like a main character might be unhappy with Under the Midnight Sun, as there are few characters a reader might care to know. I don’t view that as a flaw in a plot-centered crime novel, given that the darkly realistic characters have at least a modest amount of depth.

The plot takes time to develop, but interest never wanes thanks to the mini-dramas that shape each chapter on the way to laying out the larger story. Fans of fast action might be bored by Under the Midnight Sun, as the intricate story includes no shootouts or fistfights. Killings and assaults generally occur offstage. Fans of a good mystery should enjoy it. Much of the ending is foreshadowed, but the final pages hold some surprises.

It’s always interesting to read a Japanese crime novel, if only to take note of cultural differences in the story’s background. Udon (noodle) shops, funeral rituals, and tatami mats are among the details that establish the story’s setting. The background, the carefully constructed plot, and the mysterious nature of the key characters makes Under the Midnight Sun an excellent example of Japanese crime fiction.



The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura

First published in Japan in 2003; published in translation by Soho Crime on January 5, 2016

Fuminori Nakamura’s crime novels are built on psychological suspense rather than action, but they move at a brisk pace, thanks to a writing style that wastes no words. The Gun, Nakamura’s first novel, doesn’t have the depth of The Thief. It nevertheless creates a reasonable amount of dramatic tension as the reader wonders about the fate of the central character.

Walking along a street on a rainy night, Nishikawa feels a deep sense of satisfaction, even elation, when he discovers a gun near a dead man’s body. The gun gives him a sense of fulfillment; he knows he cannot part with it. When he picks up a girl and has sex with her, he realizes the next day that she did not compare to the pleasure he receives from handling the gun.

Soon, just knowing that he has the gun is not enough. Nishikawa begins to carry it around, savoring the tension he feels. Of course, he has fantasies about shooting the gun and, of course, those fantasies become darker. Nishikawa is consumed and controlled by the gun. Decisions are made by the demanding gun, not by Nishikawa.

Nishikawa is emotionally stunted, a characteristic Nakamura develops through Nishikawa’s distracted relationships with women. Nishikawa lives inside his head but seems incapable of understanding his feelings and motivations. He has a problem with impulse control, while the impulses he manages to resist turn into obsessions and plans. Nishikawa’s half-hearted attempts to analyze his urges provide no insights that might help him to control them.

Whether and how Nishikawa will use the gun are the questions that keep the pages turning. The speed with which the story moves is due in part to its focus on Nishikawa. Other characters make brief appearances, but we learn little about them. Instead, we learn much about Nishikawa’s life and how that life changes as the result of a chance encounter with a gun.

The abrupt ending comes as something of a surprise despite its inevitability. While The Gun lacks the richness of The Thief, its noir sensibility showcases Nakamura’s ability to delve into tormented minds.



Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe

Published in Japan in 2009; published in translation by Grove Atlantic on October 6, 2015

Most of Death by Water is comprised of conversations among artistic intellectuals. Reading it is like pulling a sled up a snow-covered hill, exalting at reaching the top, enjoying the speedy ride down the other side, wandering for a while, and then trudging up the next hill. There are times when the novel is fun and times when it is rewarding, but most of it is tough sledding.

At the novel’s center is the novelist Kogito Choko, the alter ego of Kenzaburo Oe, but Choko is the least intellectual (or perhaps the least chatty) of the characters. His sister and other admirers spend most of their time dissecting Choko’s work or, more often, his life. My impression was that the characters love hearing themselves talk, even when they don’t have much to say -- which I suppose makes the characters realistic, if not particularly interesting.

The novel begins with Choko’s preparation to write the story of his father’s drowning. Since Choko cannot rely on his own memory, which he has either suppressed or is unable to distinguish from his dreams, he needs access to a red leather trunk that, he believes, contains the story of his father’s life. His mother has instructed Choko’s sister Asa to give Choko the trunk ten years after his mother’s death. His mother lives to the age of 95, making Choko a senior citizen before he can claim the trunk. Returning to his childhood home to do so, he consents to being interviewed by The Caveman Group, an acting troupe that wants to incorporate the interviews into stage adaptations of Choko’s work. That setup enables many of the conversations with Choko that drive the novel.

The core of the story is promising. Choko plans to write about his father through the prism of the “Death by Water” section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” As Choko discusses his past and his writing with members of The Caveman Group, we learn about Choko as both a person and an artist. We also learn about the process of making art from the perspective of a craftsman who uses art to reflect himself.

The best segments of Death by Water involve Choko’s attempt to understand his recurring dream about his father’s disappearance in a small boat. According to Asa, Choko’s dim memories of his father and of the flood in which he drowned have been conflated with Choko’s childhood fantasies, which include an imaginary friend named Kogii who is young Choko’s exact duplicate. Choko also wants to view his father as brave and heroic, although he portrayed his father in quite a different way in one of his novels. Choko is unprepared for the reality of his father’s political extremism -- a reality from which Choko’s mother wanted to shelter him. Unfortunately, anticipation of learning the truth about Choko’s father’s death builds and then wanes as the story gets sidetracked by endless conversations concerning the details of Choko’s life, including his inability to make a connection with his developmentally disabled son.

I had difficulty developing the same keen interest in Choko's life that the characters have. No incident in Choko's life and no sentence in his writing seems too trivial to dissect at length. I also had difficulty caring about the acting troupe’s artistic achievements, which mainly consist of having audience members throw stuffed dogs at actors who are performing dramatic readings of Choko’s work.

Key themes in Death by Water include folklore and myth in world and Japanese history, the nationalist movement in post-World War II Japan, the relationship between aging and attachment to (or detachment from) an era, and whether an aging writer (or any other artist) whose best works are thought to be behind him might still be capable of producing something memorable. Rebirth might be the most important theme, as explored through the discussions of folklore and of Japan and as applied to the life of Choko. At least to me, those themes are more intellectually interesting than emotionally engaging.

The novel might be more meaningful to someone with greater interest in Japan’s uneven transition from “traditional/imperial” to “modern/democratic.” It may be more enjoyable to someone who has more patience than I possess. It is a serious novel, to be sure, but I found it to be more self-important than elevating. If Oe wonders why Japanese readers are turning to modern writers instead of, well, to novels like this one, perhaps it is because they do not want to undertake all the uphill climbs that Oe, despite his sincerity and perceptive analysis of modern Japan, forces them to endure.