There's a whole world out there! I'm an experienced, UK-based editor and a bit of an aesthetic dilettante. I'm making it my off-duty duty to bring to your attention books, films, artists, music and TV from all over the world. Reviews are SPOILER FREE. New posts every week. See Reviews by country for my reviews from each nation.
I went to see the much-praised Japanese film Drive My Car at my local, vaguely art house cinema. The movie is an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, directed by Japanese auteur Hamaguchi Ryusuke, and a long film at 179 minutes. The opening credits don’t roll until we’re 40 minutes in, and the story moves at a leisurely pace, but, to its credit, it is never boring. Sight and Sound have named this their third best film of 2021.
The plot seems straightforward enough. Kafuku Yusuke is an actor and theatre director who lives with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a former actor and screenwriter. They have a stylish, glamorous lifestyle, but a tragedy lies at the heart of their marriage: the loss of their only child, many years before. Oto copes with her sublimated grief by spinning elaborate and oblique erotic fairy tales in a sort of fugue state during sex with her husband (which I think a lot of people would find a bit off-putting!), and by sleeping around, though Kafuku keeps his knowledge of her affairs to himself, as he fears losing her.
After Oto’s sudden death, Kafuku travels to Hiroshima to direct a stage version of a Russian play, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Hiroshima, a place that was utterly destroyed and then rebuilt, is surely a symbolic choice of location. Kafuku casts one of Oto’s lovers in the play, bad-tempered celebrity rake Koji (Masaki Okada). Meanwhile, during his residency in Hiroshima Kafuku is allocated a driver to transport him to rehearsals and back each day in his glossy red Saab 900 – a tersely proficient young woman called Misaki (played by Toko Miura). Kafuku initially resents having a driver imposed on him, but over time he begins to open up to Misaki, who is also grieving, another complicated grief, after losing her mentally ill, abusive mother.
With themes of loss, betrayal and art, this film is Oscar catnip. Full of interesting ideas and arresting visuals, it is Japan’s official entry for the upcoming Academy Awards.
I took some time out from Japanese culture to read the Swedish novel A Moth to a Flame for Annabel’s month of Nordic FINDS. By the end of this very beautifully written, psychologically intense novel, however, I felt a bit sullied after spending so much time with such horrible people.
The book was first published in Sweden in 1948, and appeared in English in 1950 as The Burnt Child; it has been republished in English translation as part of the new Penguin European Writers series (2019). Dagerman was one of the most prominent Swedish authors in the period after the Second World War, and is still widely read there.
The novel opens with the funeral of a middle-aged woman, Alma, who leaves behind her husband Knut and her 20-year-old, sometime student son, Bergt. While Knut is superficially focused on what is beautiful, and seems unable to face those things in life that lack beauty (such as a dying wife, or a dead wife for that matter), Bergt initially inspires sympathy, as he weeps openly and describes his love for his mother simply and openly too:
He isn’t doing it [crying] because he’s been drinking. In fact, he never drinks. Almost never. He is doing it because he loved her. And, of course, you talk about the one you loved – if you talk at all. And he loved her because she loved him. And the one who has loved you should always receive your love in return. Otherwise you are a fool.
But this isn’t a straightforward novel, or a straightforward family. There’s an abundance of shame here: lowered shades, lies – to oneself and to others – and the covering of keyholes.
The father looks briefly into the son’s eyes. The funeral eyes. He think they are ugly, and he doesn’t like anything ugly. There is something about ugliness that he fears. Therefore it isn’t his son that he fears. It’s the ugliness inside him. And the ugliness inside him is so hideously similar to the dead wife that he immediately has to look at something else.
The characters’ interactions are often described in this distant, depersonalizing way, in terms of their familial role, rather than their names. All the major characters are majorly flawed, from violent, disturbed Bergt to his insipid girlfriend Berit, dissolute father Knut and his largely amoral lover, Gun.
Everything feels bleached-out and heavy. Bergt writes angry, circular letters to himself, drinks and takes his violent despair out on dogs. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with Gun, who quite literally wears his mother’s shoes, the angst ramps up and the novel begins to read more and more like a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Barbara Vine, with a sense of creeping dread, incipient violence and brooding intensity.
Sadly, Dagerman stopped writing in 1949, and killed himself at the age of 31.
As part of my monthly exploration of different countries, I’m trying to sample a menu from each country. In ‘Turkey month’ I cooked some Turkish meze, but frankly the idea of cooking up a Japanese feast during ‘Japanuary’ was too scary. We have two Japanese restaurants near by, but because I have a sesame allergy I felt it was a bit dicey to try them (so much Japanese cooking is heavily reliant on sesame).
I was really pleased then when I noticed that Yama Momo, 15 minutes walk from my house, has a detailed allergy menu online (although strangely not in the printed menu on tables). So I booked a table for 2 and headed off there with my husband.
The restaurant was very busy on a Saturday night, with a dubious 80s soundtrack playing all night (Beautiful South, anyone? OK, how about a bit of Steve Winwood’s Valerie?). There were tons of staff, slightly too many staff one might say, but at least that meant the service was good.
I had veggie sushi, noodles and lovely crunchy veg, plus tempura and a sort of seafood dumpling, while my husband added an order of truffle rib eye beef and eek, sesame rice for himself.
We had fun with the sake testing order, each trying three different sakes, as well as trying a Japanese-influenced cocktail and a digestif. This, combined with the two large G&Ts consumed at home meant we were nicely oiled by the time we left.
The food was amazing, fresh and light and delicious, and much better than I would have expected from the bland decor and terrible music!
I’ve made a minor incursion into South America during Japanuary! I don’t really know where to start with this very short book, which was definitely interesting, if not madly enjoyable.
Published in 1977, the year of Clarice Lispector’s death, Hour of the Star is a sort of story within a story, as a self-consciously very present (male) narrator/author, writing in the first person, effortfully crafts a story about a young woman’s failed romance.
The protagonist of that tale, Macabea, is a secretary living in Rio. She is poor, neglected, deliberately unremarkable in character, unintelligent, nondescript – but definitely horny, and a bit romantic. The writing is self-referential, often surreal, and shot through with a sort of dark and desperate humour.
The text must have been horrible to translate from the original Potuguese, as Lispector wields language rather than writes it, layering on adjectives, going off at tangents, and constantly the writer (or Lispector in the guise of the anonymous male writer) forces their way roughly into the text.
“I have to say that the girl isn’t aware of me, if she was she’d have someone to pray to and that would mean salvation. But I’m fully aware of her: through this young person I scream my horror of life. Of this life I love so much.“
We have the sense that Macabea’s tale will not have a happy ending, and the ending is sudden, brutal and ironic.
Looking around to see what others have made of this book I was amused to see that Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die basically gives up in its very patchy attempt to discuss this novel, announcing that “Lispector must be read, not written about”. (A cop-out, no, in a book about books?!)
Overall, I have to say that I found this book to be weirdly brilliant – but definitely not a relaxing diversion. And despite being only 77 pages in length, it took me an awfully long time to read!
This was a book that was flagged up by Cathy and Rebecca as a buddy read for literature in translation week during Novellas in November, but I ran out of time for it in the autumn. Instead I read it this month as part of my focus on Japanese culture during what I’m cunningly calling Japanuary, and as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza.
The story, published in the late 1970s, covers a year or so in the life of a young woman who has split from her husband, and who is living alone with their 2-year-old daughter. The woman finds a small flat at the top of an office building, works in a library, takes her child to daycare and struggles with loneliness and the difficulties of single parenthood.
I sympathised with the mother, but found myself feeling particularly sorry for the child, whose mother seemed to expect bizarrely advanced levels of maturity from a little girl that was barely more than a toddler.
The main glaring incompatibility with reality that kept hitting me was: how does this woman manage to oversleep in the morning when she has a 2-year-old?! While raising my three children I spent what felt like and probably was 10 years sleeping no later than 7am and often being forced – extremely loudly, by inconsolable, relentless wails – out of bed for the day in the pitch dark, long before 6am, before even the children’s programming had started on the TV and when I certainly wasn’t inclined to get the poster paints out. So I mainly thought, repeatedly, “HOW????”.
My biggest fear at that particular time was sleeping late. More often than I liked to remember, it had been well after ten when I came to. I’d received repeated warnings, both from my supervisor and from the [daycare] centre.
I also failed to relate to the protagonist when she lost her daughter in the (MASSIVE) park and seemed weirdly complacent about the whole experience. Then she is mortified by what seem like standard-issue toddler tantrums, and what on earth was the doctor prescribing the child?! Or maybe it was for the mum – fair enough – and I’ve misunderstood:
And then came these frenzies of rage, triggered by what seemed to me oddly trivial complaints. I took her to see a doctor, who gave me a prescription … I was sure my daughter couldn’t have had a tantrum at daycare yet or I’d have been told.
I got so bogged down in, preoccupied by and let’s face it a bit triggered by what seemed to me a frankly implausible experience of child-rearing that any appreciation or analysis of the actual writing was impossible for me! Having said that other people whose opinions I very much respect have written far less ranty and much more measured responses to this book, and have loved it.
The Memory Police (published in Japanese in 1994, and in English translation in 2019) was shortlisted for the always interesting Booker International in 2020. I’ve read it as part of my focus on Japanese culture in January 2022, and for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 hosted at Dolce Bellezza.
In the novel, a young, unnamed, female novelist is living on an island from which objects repeatedly disappear. As soon as an object vanishes – whether it be a bird, a rose, an emerald – all associations with that object disappear along with it, and then goes the memory of the forgetting. (As an aside, it always slightly amuses me how many authors write books in which their protagonist is an author, as if they can’t quite imagine themselves into a life in which someone might do something else.)
The disappearances are state-sanctioned and the populace are monitored for compliance with these wordless diktats. Those who retain disappeared objects, question the regime or fail to lose their memories and semantic associations are taken away by the terrifying and implacable Memory Police, who wear fierce green coats and aggressively shiny boots.
Loss of memory and the unquestioned imposition of control seems to be a recurring theme in what little Japanese fiction I have read to date, as do unexplained disappearances. Now-legendary writer Kazuo Ishiguro is a British citizen (with Japanese heritage, who spent his infancy in Japan) whose works repeatedly question issues around memory and a half-veiled understanding of the world in books from his most recent to those decades-old. Meanwhile, Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World springs immediately to mind as another (much less accomplished) Japanese book based around mysterious disappearances.
Our protagonist has lost both her parents to the Memory Police (her father was an ornithologist who died before the birds disappeared, her mother a sculptor). When she realises that her editor R is in danger, too, as his memories stubbornly refuse to fade, she determines to do whatever it takes to protect him and, with the help of a family friend (known only as ‘the Old Man’) she works to shelter R while dealing with the ongoing, progressively more alarming disappearances.
The book was menacing and enjoyable in an increasingly surreal, sometimes frustratingly obtuse kind of way, as the occupants of the unnamed island adapt again and again, and with resigned acceptance rather than despair, to an ever more limited environment. Perhaps this is what people do…
Born in 1929, Yayoi Kusama is probably Japan’s most famous living artist. My husband and I recently went to see two of her infinity room installations at the Tate Modern in London (see below).
Kusama’s well-off parents managed wholesale seed nurseries, which perhaps in part explains her fixation on plant forms in her work, as she drew budding flowers for long periods at their seed-harvesting grounds. As a schoolgirl she also worked to support the war effort by planting crops and by working at a textiles factory, making parachutes and military uniforms.
An anxious child, she also developed terrifying mental health problems and hallucinations at a young age, seeing “the pattern on a tablecloth bleeding into and beyond the surrounding room, for instance, or an endless sea of violets that ‘spoke’ to her” (Tate exhibition catalogue).
Despite parental disapproval, she was determined to work as an artist. She was taught the traditional Nihonga style of realist painting, before adopting a more abstract style in the late 1940s. As her art evolved over the years it became characterised by its strength of colour, its animation and its use of organic shapes suggesting “stellar, aquatic or subterranean worlds” (Tate).
She burnt most of her early Nihonga work before travelling to the USA in the late 1950s, to seek out artistic opportunities in New York (unusually for a woman from patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan). She was an adept self-publicist, and managed, with what seems bewildering speed, to insert herself into the New York avant-garde scene.
“Only Andy Warhol comes close to Kusama in his expansive and totalising practice, his disregard for distinctions between high and low art.” – Frances Morris, Tate exhibition catalogue
Between 1958 and 1968 she moved from painting to sculpture, collage and onto installations, films, performances and “happenings”, including political action and counter-cultural events. In 1961-65 she began her Sex Obsession series (dominated by phallus-like structures) and her Food Obsession series.
“I am terrified by just the thought of something long and ugly like a phallus entering me, and that is why I make so many of them. The thought of continually eating something like macaroni, spat out by machinery, fills me with fear and revulsion, so I make macaroni sculptures. I make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’.“
I find art covered in cocks childish and far from appealing, aesthetically, and a bizarre way of dealing with a kind of sex phobia. However, her relationship with sexuality was clearly ambiguous. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she embraced the hippie scene, and set up audio-visual-light performances with naked dancers, designed polka dot clothing with revealing cutaways and staged a gay wedding with an ‘orgy’ two-person wedding dress. Indeed, the text in catalogue from a Tate retrospective tells us:
By November 1969 Kusama’s name had become so synonymous with sex that her name was licensed to a pornographic tabloid, ‘Kusama’s Orgy’.
Meanwhile, photo series Walking Piece (1966), taken by Eiko Hosoe, initially seems to playfully celebrate and trade in on her outsider, “exotic” identity amid the very white New York art world, as she appears dressed in a bright pink, floral kimono, with long plaits studded with more flowers. However, later slides show her apparently wiping away tears dejectedly, suggesting an ambiguous relationship with the USA, too.
Her health began to suffer, and her depression to become unmanageable. Eventually, she returned to Japan in 1973, taking with her materials given to her by her late US pal Joseph Cornell (of shadow box fame), with whom she had had a relationship that was “passionately romantic, but platonic” (though he does appear to be strangling her in the picture below).
Since 1977 Kusama has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, and sees her art work as a psychological necessity. At first her the scale of her work was reduced, focusing on small works in ceramics and collage, before moving to large multi-panel installations and paintings.
In the 1980s she began to embrace Japanese pop culture and spectacle, and rather than continuing to be considered as controversial by the Japanese establishment, by the 1990s she was embraced as “a respected and revered grand dame of the avant garde”.
In her sixties, in 1992 came her first iconic pumpkin sculptures – her penises have morphed into gourds and tubers, and she has created a whole iconography of plants, flowers, animals and people, with misleadingly naive decorative elements.
From the late 1990s she focused on room-sized installations. These include mysterious and immersive mirror rooms, filled with light, and others filled with vinyl balloons in unusual forms, covered in polka dots, which “is a shorthand signifying her hallucinatory visions”.
My husband and I visited two of her installations at the Tate in November 2021. We saw Chandelier of Grief (created in her eighties) less than a month after a family bereavement, and it’s full of boundless sadness and absolute beauty, which can’t be captured in a photo, although I tried. The room creates the illusion of an infinite universe made up of rotating crystal chandeliers:
We also saw her 2011 infinity room Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life: a pool of shallow water covers part of the floor, and lights flicker on and off in an endlessly repeating cycle, perhaps mirroring the illumination and snuffing out of light in life and death. Kusama has spent decades trying to conjure a sense of infinite space – and I would say she’s succeeded. As the Tate guide says, these works invite “the viewer to suspend [their] sense of self and accompany Kusama on her ongoing journey of self-obliteration” – if only for a strictly timed three-minute period each, since these works are very popular.
“What would you sacrifice for an extra day of life?”
This novel has sold over 1 million copies in Japan, and has been made into a film. I spotted the book in a branch of Waterstones when I was visiting family, and was attracted by the title, and the cover design.
Don’t judge a book by its cover! I didn’t much enjoy it, but it was mercifully short.
The book is written from the perspective of a young man who discovers that he is dying from a brain tumour. He has few personal connections, and is estranged from his father following the death of his mother several years earlier. His closest companion is his cat Cabbage.
The unnamed protagonist is given the chance to make a kind of Mephistophelesian deal with the devil – amusingly dressed in dodgy Hawaiian shirts – who allows him to remove one thing from the world in return for an extra day of life. How far will our hero take it?
The book is an easy read, written with humour and a positive message about connecting with others and not wasting hours fiddling about on your phone.
However, the names of the protagonist’s pets were the most enjoyable part of the book for me. The rest seemed derivative and banal, with the narrator having lived his life without progressing beyond base-level self-awareness.
Convenience Store Woman (first published in 2016) is a quick and deceptively unchallenging read that reminded me of a Japanese Eleanor Oliphant. It has a straightforward, flowing style, which is very easy to engage with. I first read and reviewed this book in mid-2020, and I’m reposting as part of ‘Japanuary’ – my month of engagement with different aspects of Japanese culture.
Keiko, the narrator, is an outsider who has learnt to mask her true self (or lack of feeling of self) in order to fit in with society’s expectations. For almost two decades, since finishing her studies, she has worked part-time in a convenience store, mimicking the cadences and behaviour of other workers, fulfilling every stricture of the employees’ handbook and living according to a strict routine, heating food from the store for her evening meal.
“I couldn’t stop hearing the store telling me the way it wanted to be, what it needed. It was all flowing into me. It wasn’t me speaking. It was the store. I was just channelling its revelations from on high.”
Author Sayaka Murata was apparently inspired to write the novel by her own experience of working in a convenience store for many years. (I was surprised, in Keiko’s case, that she is described as working “part-time”, as she seems to be at work five days a week for many hours – but presumably average Japanese working hours are different to those here in the UK.)
Keiko perhaps has undiagnosed autism, although this is not made explicit. Despite being very socially awkward and having no real interest in other people, she has accumulated a few friends and acquaintances who she sees intermittently as part of a large group, and who begin to question her decision to work in the store without progressing for so long, and to show an uncomfortable interest in her permanent single status.
However, ultimately the story ends satisfactorily for Keiko, with an ending that celebrates, in a very non-polemical way, difference, being true to yourself and marching to the beat of your own drum.
Translated by E. Dale Saunders, with an introduction by David Mitchell
I’m spending the month on Japanese culture in general (books, film, music, art…), and major Japanese author Kobo Abe, born in Tokyo in 1924, was new to me. I read his novel The Woman in the Dunes for my ‘Japanuary’ and for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15, hosted by Dolce Bellezza.
Kobo Abe spent much of his childhood in Manchuria in China, which was invaded by Japanese troops when he was seven. The brutality he witnessed made him ashamed of his Japanese identity, and from childhood he despised nationalism, and held an internationalist outlook.
He studied at Tokyo University, dodging the draft with a forged medical exemption certificate, and (this is perhaps apocryphal) graduated from medical school on the proviso that he agreed never to practise medicine.
Initially he wrote, but lived in poverty. However, The Woman in the Dunes was published in 1962, and was an enormous success, being translated into around 20 languages, and winning the prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature. The book’s themes seem to have upset the Japanese Communist Party so much that Abe was kicked out. It inspired the Cannes-winning 1964 film of the same name, which can be watched in full on YouTube.
The early pages of the book open with teacher, ‘salaryman’ and amateur etymologist Niki Jumpei travelling to an area characterised by extensive sand dunes in search of a particular type of beetle, in the hope of making it big in new-species spotting. However, it gets dark and it becomes too late for Niki to travel home, so he takes up the offer of a bed for the night.
This bed is no luxe Air BnB though: he’s taken to a damp, stinky and, especially, sandy hut, occupied by an unsettling, submissive young woman. Most strange is the fact that the hut is accessible only by means of a rope ladder, situated as it is in a deep, funnel-like pit of sand.
Niki soon discovers that the woman is widowed, and worse still has lost her only child, both tragedies the result of a freak sand-related accident. She spends each night frantically shovelling sand to prevent her home from being subsumed. The sand is taken up out of the pit by villagers with buckets, and at the end of a gruelling night she is finally able to rest when the sun comes up. It’s not clear why she works this way round – presumably it is simply too hot to do it in the day under the relentless sun.
On waking in the morning, Niki realises to his horror that the rope ladder that would enable him to leave has disappeared. The woman is compared unfavourably with the insects that he researches: she spends her time frenetically, desperately burrowing, repeating the same seemingly pointless and irrational actions.
Niki is rational and scientific, but apparently powerless in the face of his situation and the needs of the young woman and the rest of the villagers to fight back the sand – without past, without future, existence is overtaken with essentially pointless busy-work, as the tiny grains of sand combine to create a life-threatening mass. The opening lines of the novel indicate that efforts at escape are futile:
“One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him. Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had both proved fruitless.”
As Niki assists the woman in her task, he increasingly loses any sense of agency. Thus, he joins her in digging endlessly the encroaching sand in order to prevent the whole house – and the wider village – from being submerged, in return for food, shelter, sake and tobacco. There is a horribly mechanical kind of sexual tension between the two characters, but their couplings are devoid of any kind of eroticism.
This is an absurdist, dystopian fable, written in straightforward, uncomplicated prose. Abe’s writing was influenced by surrealism as well as by the work of writers such as Kafka and Beckett. I found it to be an uncomfortably compelling read, and a bonus was the fact that my Penguin Modern Classic edition came laden with wonderful drawings by Machi Abe.