Monday, October 20, 2008

Japan Reading/Viewing List

Here's a bit on our background reading--and movie-viewing--for Japan. I've dispensed with dates because tracking down specific editions and translation dates seemed to be more trouble than it's worth; the links will fill you in,.

Nonfiction backgrounders:
  • R.H.P. Mason, J. G. Caiger, A History of Japan. Steady and informative overview; helpful on many issues, reviews suggest it may be the best general history in print.
  • Patrick Smith, Japan: A Reinterpretation. Some traces of journalistic facility and cute but on the whole, an engaging introduction to the issues and challenges of the Post-World War II World.
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji. The billing often says it is the world's first novel. That's a stretch, but not a grotesque stretch. We read a short version, translated and abridged by Edward G. Seidensticker; I think I may pack the full-length Penguin edition, translated by Royall Tyler to help me sleep keep me company on the plane. People get mesmerized by this book; I'm not there yet, but I can see that it is something distinctive and I think it deserves more patient attention.
  • Tales of the Heike. Loosely structured 13th-Century story cycle. We read an older translation by A.L. Sander. Conventionally ranked lower in the pantheon than Genji, supra but I found them more accessible; might be a guy thing. Ripping yarns, rippingly presented.
More modern fiction:
  • Natsume Soseki, Kokoro. A student-and-teacher story (I suppose I should say "student-and-sensei"), deftly told. I found it unsettling, not to say offputting, but fascinating insofar as it has been (apparently) so hugely and durably popular in Japan. Maybe I should have listed it under "classics"?
  • Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Mistress Oriku. Good-natured local-colorist nostalgia for the Meiji era, from a female narrator who is wise, warm-hearted and sexually available and who can quarrel with that? Slighter than I had expected, but good fun.
  • Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart. We chose this to give a hearing to an immensely popular contemporary novelist. It's readable, alright, but it is also off-puttingly chilly: if this is modern Japan, not sure how much of it I want. Of coufrse, I feel something similar about most contemporary American fictcion.
And now, a few movies:
  • Yasojiru Ozo, Tokyo Story. I wonder if this is perhaps the most accessible film of this remarkable director. I thought it respectful and sensitive; his patient, unblinking camera work is something I've never seen anywhere before. A Story of Floating Weeds isn't quite accessible; released in 1934, it has to cross barriers not only in space, but also in time. Early Spring is attentively shot, but not as daring as perhaps it seemed at first blush.
  • Kenji Mizoguchi, Sansho the Bailiff. There are people that say this is the greatest movie ever made. They might be right; it surely is one of the most compassionate. I'd like to watch it again, maybe a few more times, to take its full measure.
  • Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies. A cartoon about children, but certainly not a children's cartoon. I was curious to watch it because I had read about its hugely unfortunate joint release with Totoro, infra. Impressive insofar as it helps to explain Japan's self-understanding of World War II.
  • Hayao Myazaki, My Neighbor Totoro. This has got to be the most satisfying children's movie I ever saw. Roger Ebert has an instructive review where he explains all the ways in which it could have gone wrong, and didn't.
  • Sofia Copolla, Lost in Translation. Oh, what the hell. Culture shock. I still think he should have nailed her.
Mrs. B also read (but I did not) Kazuo Kasahara, A History of Japanese Religion. Sounds like authoritative stuff, but far more density than I want at this moment in my life. She speaks well of it, though.

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