book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

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THE PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami
★★★☆
Penguin Classics, 2018

 

I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I’m interested in exploring further.

Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there’s a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn’t understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn’t an anthology say something about its editor?

There were three main standouts for me:

(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor’s house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she’s unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she’s able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.

(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it’s easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn’t easily forgotten.

(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.

There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.

But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren’t the stories’ publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami’s introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.

Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.

Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.