When I think of Japanese authors, the first name that comes to mind is Haruki Murakami. His surreal fiction is a big hit with western audiences and reading his stories opened a gateway for me to other Japanese writers. So, it’s appropriate that Murakami introduces The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. The collection covers traditional Japanese themes like bushido and bizarre situations like UFOS, sugar-filled vaginas and nightmarish paintings. But what unites all the stories is a genuine love of writing from each author.
A goodie bag of unique stories
In his introduction, Murakami brings up the custom of fukubukuro, which translates to ‘good luck bags.’ On New Year’s Day, fukubukuro are offered by retailers without any indication of what’s inside them. The bags are meant to by mysterious and entice shoppers to take them home. Murakami compares the collection to fukubukuro, a comparison I wholeheartedly agree with. Every story shines with unpredictability, from Abe Akira’s ‘Peaches’, to Ota Yoko’s ‘Hiroshima, City of Doom.’
The anthology is split into seven sections:
• Japan and the west
• Loyal warriors
• Men and women
• Nature and memory
• Modern life and other nonsense
• Disasters, natural and man-made
Readers are invited to explore the sections at their leisure, yet the first tale, ‘The Story of Tomodo and Matsunaga’ does an excellent job of setting a high standard. Written by Tanizaki Jun’Ichiro, the first story puts the focus on a character whose personality is split between East and West. It’s an apt commentary on the differences between Japan and the rest of the world.
Jun’Ichiro published the novella in 1926, the year the Taisho Emperor died, and the age changed from Taisho to Showa. It was a historical turning point that is felt in the raw absurdity of Jun’Ichiro’s writing.
The concept of bushido is explored in the ‘loyal warriors’ section, as detailed in Mori Ogai’s ‘The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon’ and Mishima Yukio’s ‘Patriotism.’ The latter features a visceral scene with a young officer committing ritual suicide. The level of description is incredible, making it one of the stand out stories in the anthology.
I found myself drawn to the stories that featured fantasy elements, such as Ohba Minako’s ‘The Smile of a Mountain Witch.’ The story is based on the mythological yamauba, female monsters that are meant to devour anyone foolish enough to wander into the mountains alone. Rather than being a story of monsters, ‘The Smile of a Mountain Witch’ is a celebration of feminism.
Another fantasy story that grabbed my attention was ‘Hell Screen’, written by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. His writing has a precise, sinister style that conjures horrific images of demons causing chaos. Then there’s Uchida Hyakken’s ‘Kudan’, a story that features a supernatural creature with a cow’s body and human face. It’s a bizarre concept that you can’t help but want more of.
Every author in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories brings something special to the table. You’re never left wondering why their story was chosen to be featured. Japan is revealed in many forms, its beauty and its uniqueness captured on the page. I urge any Japanophile to purchase the anthology because you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the short story.