Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Introduction to Modern Japanese Literature Part IV: Short Stories

This is the ­­­fourth and last in a series of blog posts introducing Japanese fiction to English speaking readers in the hopes that we become more aware of Japan's place on the international literature stage. Previous posts here: 1, 2, 3.

If you're thinking of trying out foreign literature but aren't sure whether you'll like it or not, I suggest trying a few short stories by foreign authors. In modern Japanese fiction, many authors tackle both the novel and short story formats of writing and have wonderful pieces in both.

In fact, the most successful authors in the Japanese literature scene tend to vary the lengths and genres of their works. They write novels, but depending on the author, some also write short stories, novellas, nonfiction, and essays. To put this idea into an American context, one may consider Ernest Hemmingway, who wrote both fiction and nonfiction, and long and short stories very successfully.

From a reader's point of view, the charm of short stories is that they take less time to read than novels, so they're a good way to read casually and start reading an author you're unfamiliar with. Readers who are already fans of an author's novels can enjoy the same author's short stories too; reading short stories can be an entirely different experience for both readers and authors. Haruki Murakami, in his preface to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, wrote about what he experiences when writing different types of stories:
"To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden."
Thus, the way he goes about writing short stories is different than his approach and attitude towards his novels, which creates a different atmosphere and experience for his readers as well. Personally, I find reading his novels akin to eating a full-course dinner, and his short stories like drinking a relaxing afternoon tea. They're both satisfying in their own way. The following are a few of my personal recommendations for Japanese short stories:

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami (compilation)

The six stories in this collection are set at the time of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake. An electronics salesman who has been abruptly deserted by his wife agrees to deliver an enigmatic package—and is rewarded with a glimpse of his true nature. A man who has been raised to view himself as the son of God pursues a stranger who may or may not be his human father. A mild-mannered collection agent receives a visit from a giant talking frog who enlists his help in saving Tokyo from destruction.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami (compilation)

Here are animated crows, a criminal monkey, and an iceman, as well as the dreams that shape us and the things we might wish for. Whether during a chance reunion in Italy, a romantic exile in Greece, a holiday in Hawaii, or in the grip of everyday life, Murakami’s characters confront grievous loss, sexuality, the glow of a firefly, and the impossible distances between those who ought to be closest of all.

Lizard, by Banana Yoshimoto (compilation)

This book is the first collection of short stories written by popular Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto on the topics of love and family. Easily read, but producing deep themes and concepts, Yoshimoto's stories are realistically surreal and darkly hopeful.

Rashomon and Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (compilation)

This collection of short stories by Nobel Literature prize winning writer Akutagawa includes "In a Grove", a psychologically sophisticated tale about murder, rape, and suicide; "Rashomon", the story of a thief scared into honesty by an encounter with a ghoul; and "Kesa and Morito", the story of man driven to kill someone he doesn't hate by a lover whom he doesn't love.


This concludes my introduction to modern Japanese literature blog post series. If you're still interested in foreign literature, I suggest checking out the website Words Without Borders. They review and promote literature from all around the world.

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