Keeping to the Script: Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai


Osamu Dazai (author), Allison Markin Powell (translator), Schoolgirl, One Peace Books, 2012. 103 pgs.

Osamu Dazai’s 1939 novella is a young girl’s narration of a day in her life as she reflects on finding her place in the world. Schoolgirl is essentially a self-portrait of a student engulfed with adolescent angst and despite the roughly seventy-year gap between its original publication and its first English translation by Allison Markin Powell, is timelessly relatable and familiar to anyone who has ever wondered, at a tender age, about the individual within society.

As the unnamed girl takes the reader through her inner monologue of random musings and daydreaming across an ordinary day, she takes on a generally sad disposition and is voluntarily forthcoming of her unpleasant traits. “I really am a horrid girl,” she says, referring to how she hates lots of things, including her “pathetic” crippled pet dog. Over dinner, she looks cynically at her mother’s house guests the Imaidas, calling Mrs. Imaida “unrefined” for her excessive laughter. The girl’s loneliness mainly comes from missing her deceased father, yearning for her older sister who had already married and lives in Hokkaido, and having a mother who spends most of her time away from home or is busy entertaining friends and acquaintances. But beneath our schoolgirl’s cynicism and self-loathing is an acknowledgement of her weaknesses and shortcomings. With her father gone, the girl feels burdened at having to be her mother’s pillar, just as much as her father was, but is regretful for still being an immature daughter: “I only ever think of myself, I thought, I let myself be coddled by her to my heart’s content, and then take such a reckless attitude with her.”

Aside from her familial relations, the girl ponders about what it means to be a member of society. Unlike the typical soul-searching adolescent, she seems to already have a fair grasp of her identity. In fact, she’s reluctant at having to let herself go. Many times she challenges the need for conformity and the limits of living an authentic life. She desires to embrace her individuality but she is also aware of the pressures of needing to belong and having to comply with society’s standards. That is where the brunt of her frustration lies. “The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality, and I hope I always will, but fully embodying it is another matter.”

Whereas some teenagers who struggle with the same questions of personal identity turn to rebellion that manifests physically, the girl keeps it all to herself, bottled up but somehow exerting no real pressure. We never really get a sense of pent up, on-the-edge adolescent frustration that boils tantalizingly close to the surface. Our schoolgirl’s inner turmoil is somewhat controlled. No matter how subversive her thoughts become, she never lashes out, keeping herself in check. While serving dinner to her mother’s house guests:

“Despite my feelings, I forced myself to bow and smile and chat, saying how cute Yoshio was and giving him a pat on the head. Since I was the one lying outright and tricking them all, maybe the Imaidas were more pure and innocent than I was.”

She has enough maturity to act appropriately but she is equally aware of the superficiality of her actions. It bothers her that she has to put on the “happy face” that people around her expect to see because deep inside, she wants to act her own way. But her rebellion is all in her mind and never breaks surface mainly because our schoolgirl harbors sorrow more than anger. Several times over the course of the day, she wanted to cry but even her tears never fall. Arguably, the girl feels entrapped, claustrophobic not only within the society that she is part of but also within the person that she is or rather, the mask that she wears.

Her feelings are contradictory, in that as much as she dislikes acting superficially to meet accepted norms, she finds comfort in conformity. She regularly uses the word “obsequious” to describe herself and the people around her, revealing how she honestly sees society. As Shakespeare once wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” So our schoolgirl sticks to her script, acting accordingly to how she is expected to act around people, be it in school, while riding public transportation, or at home while entertaining guests.

The girl possesses a precocious, piercing, aggressive vision of the world around her—on society and nature. She gawks at passengers on the train going to school but on her way home, she takes a slow walk down the country road and lies down on a meadow, remembering her late father. Allowing the afternoon haze to embrace her while gazing at the blue sky, she becomes awestruck at the beauty of this scene and encounters a spiritual experience. “I want to live beautifully,” she says.

Later in the night before going to bed, she gives her mother a massage as they share a tender moment. She receives praise from her mother. “I was thrilled by the possibility of a new, calm me, one who had emerged after I had simply accepted my place,” says our schoolgirl. In the midst of her confusion and loneliness, she encounters hope.


Book Review – Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto


Book review originally published on August 29, 2016 in my Goodreads account. Also posted on September 1, 2016 in my first blog.

Is it logical for one to fall in love with a book that also broke one’s heart? Banana Yoshimoto’s masterpiece of Japanese fiction was a short, sentimental, and satisfying read for me. As someone who aspires to write short fiction but hampered by a lack of creativity or inspiration, I realized that with Kitchen, I ended up reading what I wanted to write. Not that I want to write something sad but I really admire Yoshimoto’s writing and delivery of a slice of life story driven more by characters rather than plot. I could see myself revisiting this exquisite work again and again.

Kitchen consists of two novellas (the eponymous story and a shorter one, Moonlight Shadow) that explore love and loss. Both novellas involve young characters in the midst of vulnerable times as they attempt to cope with deaths of people they become attached to, mending wounds created by the loss of loved ones. Kitchen has believable, relatable characters, each of them pitiful, tinged with depression of varying degrees but despite their vulnerability, there is still latent strength within them, evoking senses of hope and optimism. Its only weakness is that the tone sometimes turns a tad preachy, generating lines akin to Paulo Coelho quotes. But these flat points are few and far in between in an otherwise strong work. At times sharply sad, the book never becomes overly depressing, and room is left for a gentle mix of light humor along with the sentimentality. Add in a little magic realism, which offered a reassuring familiarity for Haruki Murakami fans like me, and this book has delightfully turned out to be my cup of tea.

The English translation by Megan Backus brought out Yoshimoto’s skilled writing and I’m confident that the original text in Japanese was superb. I took my time with this relatively thin volume of only 150 pages, savoring every word and sentence as if reading poetry; and Yoshimoto’s prose is quite poetic. She is very masterful in painting the scenes that surround her characters and I’m most impressed by how she makes gloomy winter scenery appear vivid and striking. Yoshimoto constantly uses the sky and the weather as image motifs across the two stories. The various details such as the bite of a cold wind, the blueness of the night sky, the falling snow, among others, are of close relation, almost reflections, of the characters that they surround. Her descriptions of scenery are easily my favorite parts of the book.

I discovered that Kitchen is the favorite book of one of my former college professors, as well as a fictional character’s in a Japanese television drama, so I’m glad I finally picked up a copy after I was left convinced. I’m also glad that it’s a widely acclaimed international bestseller, so there is legitimate hype surrounding the book. Considered a representative work of contemporary Japanese literature, I think it deserves its lofty reputation. Based on my literary tastes, Kitchen was a quintessential little book in numerous aspects of fiction, especially Yoshimoto’s prose and handling of characters. This was some fine contemporary slice of life fiction sprinkled with magic realism that made it dazzlingly alluring.

Book Review – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami


Book review originally published on January 24, 2016 in my first blog. Posted on my Goodreads account.

I’ve read the majority of Haruki Murakami’s English-translated bibliography and I could say that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is his saddest tale so far. Yes, I actually found this more emotionally piercing than Norwegian Wood. While the story primarily occurs during titular character Tsukuru Tazaki’s late thirties, it is in essence about a strong and innocent friendship between five teenagers, Tsukuru one of them, who met in high school and how something as pure and perfect as such succumbs to the relentlessness of time. The five young men and women form an unconditional bond with one another—a bond so intense that the friends seem to be, as one character surmises, caught in its perfection. But as young high school students, they’re certainly still oblivious to the insidious passing of time—that anything swept up against it, even something as pure as friendship among adolescents, is left powerless.

What unfolds is a pensively tragic story that has the capacity to pierce the reader at a personal level, tugging at one’s own memories of friendships formed and lost. It is nostalgic, and of course, melancholic. The book has emotional appeal with its storyline and it belongs close to the realistic end of the realism continuum of Murakami fiction.

On his sophomore year in college, Tsukuru was inexplicably exiled from his group of friends and was driven to depression for a few months thereafter. However, he overcame that yoke as he met a young man named Haida, who subsequently disappeared just as Tsukuru started to form a close friendship with him. Sixteen years after these events, Tsukuru is now in his late thirties and leads a lonesome straightforward life, almost like a reflection of his profession as an engineer of railway stations. He has a girlfriend, Sara, who notices that he still seems emotionally affected by his past, still carrying the scars of being exiled from a tight bunch of friends. She suggests (or implores) Tsukuru to revisit his former friends and confront not necessarily the “past” but rather “history” as Sara puts it. Tsukuru heeds her advice, albeit with a tinge of reluctance, and embarks on a classic Murakami-designed quest, shades of Sputnik Sweetheart, searching for answers to unanswered questions and explanations for the unexplained.

Colorless Tsukuru’s realism draws up to par with Norwegian Wood but the book also teeters into the surreal with its exploration of dreams and the human subconscious. In some ways, it draws similarities to After Dark, starting with the fact that both stories were written in the third person. While After Dark’s surrealist elements revolved around sleep, Colorless Tsukuru utilized dreaming to toe the line between real and unreal. Can dreams infiltrate reality? It’s a typical Murakami exploration into the surreal—the author’s niche—driving miles into psychological territory, delving into the human subconscious. Beneath all the superficiality of human relationships, Murakami ponders about the unseen and the intrinsic, experimenting with possibilities that deep down, in a whole different dimension, one’s subconscious can be connected and even interconnected with others’ own. Spread throughout the novel, Murakami’s metaphysical musings play around and dissect experimental conjecture, and it reminded me of his fellow contemporary Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe’s own speculative reveries in A Quiet Life, for example.

I stretched my reading time for this, even setting it aside for a couple of other page-turners, and it worked perfectly fine as I think the novel needed a calm, introspective pacing despite its relatively shorter length in Murakami standards. It’s an emotionally charged novel with interesting philosophical insights in between. Murakami explores the fragility of human relationships, the fleeting moments and episodes in one’s life, and the human longing for permanence, which is paradoxically unattainable. Time continues to tick and life goes on, waiting for nothing and no one.

Book Review – Confessions by Kanae Minato


Book review originally published on January 3, 2016 in my first blog. Also posted in my Goodreads account.

I was blown away when I saw the movie version of Confessions. It was only afterwards that I learned that it was based on a novel by Kanae Minato. I first came across Confessions on a list of horror movies a former professor of mine, a movie buff, made. Not to mislead anyone, Confessions is entirely unlike a typical ghosts-and-ghouls horror movie but it is psychologically horrifying. Anyway, back to the novel: Minato has crafted a very complex, layered psychological trail in this story. It’s a lean, mean thriller, pulling no punches for 230-plus pages. Despite having seen the movie first, the book still left me breathless as I crept towards the final page thanks to Minato’s brilliant unfolding of her plot. Without spoiling any details, I’ll just say that this book ended with its climax. If it had any denouement, it would be the last two sentences.

Minato dives into the psychology behind each character, perfectly capturing each voice, whether adult or adolescent, and she takes the reader in-depth around each of their own nuances and psychological complexes. And it’s quite a fun ride. Moriguchi is the novel’s central character, a middle school teacher, single mother, who lost her daughter Manami in an accident. She discovers that what appeared to be an accident had in fact been murder and she then decides to exact some vengeance. At least that’s as much as the book’s blurb reveals so buckle up for the rest of the story because Moriguchi’s revenge plot is pure evil and she has got to be the most cunning, cold-blooded middle school teacher you’ll ever encounter.

I think that Kanae Minato has written the novel quite concisely, in fact, I could wish for more pages. But at the same time, given the nature of the plot, anything more would have made the novel dragging and would have ruined the story’s pace. The novel’s length with respect to its plot was perfectly tailored, in my opinion.Confessions is some evil genius of a novel—carefully crafted, cut lean without any unnecessary rambling, delivered efficiently.

Just as a side note, I watched The Snow White Murder Case movie the other week, which was also based on one of Minato’s novels. Unfortunately, that novel has not been translated into English yet so I’m really looking forward to a translation of that or any of Minato’s other works. Or I might just have to learn reading in Japanese.

Book Review – Inside My Glass Doors by Natsume Soseki


Book review originally published on January 29, 2016 in my Goodreads account.

Inside My Glass Doors is the first of its kind that I’ve read. As a work of literary miscellany, it is a loose and eclectic collection of personal vignettes written by Natsume Soseki throughout a period not long before his passing. The essays touch on a variety of topics, ranging from Soseki’s existential reflections on life and death, his childhood memories, and brief episodes from his life during the period of this collection’s writing. This volume, the essays of which were serialized in a newspaper, would be an equivalent to personal blog entries today.

Soseki’s prose is honest and unexaggerated, his writing easy and casual, as if he were leisurely sharing his life, past and present, in snippets to the reader. His philosophical insights on life are born of his own thoughtful personal reflections. In one chapter, perhaps the one that left the strongest impression to me, he starts to acknowledge the state of his health and wonders how he continues to survive one illness after another, while in contrast, he learns of the deaths of people he used to know, some of them healthier and even younger than him. Soseki engages the mystery of human life in a satisfyingly concise yet profound existential rumination. One never really thinks about one’s own death as if living continually was natural—and it is at this point that humans start to ever slightly forget their mortality. Humans cling strongly to life and Soseki beautifully puts it together in the line, “Everybody is alive until his death.”

Natsume Soseki opens his life in this collection of personal essays and does so in a hospitable voice, warmly inviting the reader to have a look through the glass doors.

Book Review – Empress by Shan Sa


Book review originally published on December 27, 2015 in my first blog. Also posted in my Goodreads account.

In writing this review, I realized how rare it is for me to delve into historical fiction. Of all the books that I’ve read, I could only pull out of my memory Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain as being in the “historical fiction” genre.  That story was set in a Philippine jungle during WWII—actual historical events. But that novel’s characters were fictional Japanese soldiers and Filipino guerillas. That’s as far as I’ve ever gone in the historical fiction genre. So until I’ve read Empress, I have never before encountered a novel that featured actual historical figures as its characters. As a work of fiction, the novel reimagines the life and reign of China’s only woman Emperor, Wu Zetian, who ruled in the middle of the Tang dynasty by founding her own Zhou dynasty. As advertised, it’s a biographical novel—if it weren’t fiction, Empress could just as well work as a biography of Empress Wu, bolstered by an abundance of detail describing the ceremonies, rituals, parades, clothing, architecture, and lifestyle of Tang dynasty China—that’s why the novel at times reads like a history book.

The writing is artful, exquisite poetic prose. Shan Sa originally wrote the novel in French and I found Adriana Hunter’s English translation was beautifully and colorfully executed. Thanks to the narrative voice employed by the author, I felt like I could have been reading an actual memoir written by Empress Wu herself. Shan Sa uses the Empress’s own perspective, which reaches into spiritual levels, as seen in the novel’s opening where she narrates her own birth. The reader is then taken on a fascinating journey through the ups and downs of the Empress’s life amidst the milieu of Imperial China. The novel shines as it reaches its apogee with Empress Wu’s founding of her own dynasty and maintains its luster through its depiction of the Empress’s late-life struggles: Becoming torn in choosing an heir to her throne, as well as coming to terms with her own mortality, told in the Empress’s voice mixed with the denial, pain, and melancholy of a once glorious ruler confronting the sunset of her reign.

Shan Sa has written a highly ambitious novel and I admire the depth of the research she must have done to pull this off. Infusing fiction into actual historical events, especially a history as rich as China’s, is a daunting task and Empressdefinitely didn’t disappoint.

Book Review – Villain by Shuichi Yoshida


Book review originally published on December 27, 2015 in my first blog. Also posted on my Goodreads account.

Villain will go down as a representative work that captures my literary palate. First of all, it’s a Japanese novel. Every element of the story coalesces into the type of Japanese crime noir thriller that I’ve grown to love ever since my first adventure with a Japanese novel, Natsuo Kirino’s Out. With that, Villain felt nostalgic to me. Shuichi Yoshida writes a dark story revolving around a murder in the eerie Mitsuse Pass. More than anything, it’s the setting that truly made this novel attractive to me. I could almost feel the chill in the air as Yoshida takes us down the treacherous mountain road—just the perfect atmosphere for a crime thriller.

Somewhere along Mitsuse Pass in the middle of the night in early December, a young insurance saleswoman was murdered. A suspect had already been arrested in suspicion of being the murderer. Although the crime and suspect are immediately presented, the exact trail of events is still left unclear. After all, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. So the reader is left to unfurl the clues and piece together the chain of events, proving a hypothesis rather than solving a problem. Did the cops make the correct arrest? I feverishly turned the pages thinking that maybe the killer wasn’t actually the killer, keeping an eye out for any plot twist that might smack me right in the face and tell me that I’m wrong.

That makes Villain unlike your run-of-the-mill mystery novel that hunts down the killer. As a crime noir thriller, the mystery lies in the psychology behind the crime, a mystery driven by characters rather than plot. Going beyond the murder’s suspect and victim, Yoshida presents an intricate web of all possible characters connected to the crime in some accessory manner, each with their own stories and perspectives. The author brilliantly interweaves these perspectives in fleshing out the true nature of the murder and the characters of both the suspect and victim. The story is initially zoomed in at its heart before slowly zooming out to reveal the entire web, attaining a larger picture as the novel unfolds layer by layer. In its format, Villain may actually seem typical for a crime noir novel, nothing really new going on here. Yet it’s still a stunningly attractive piece for me, mainly due to my penchant for Japanese novels and fascination with dark crime thrillers. Or maybe it’s just that I’m allured by Mitsuse Pass in an uncanny way (note that I’ve never actually been there).

Looking at how Yoshida names the book’s five chapter titles, the reader is given a guide for tackling the novel’s central theme. Again, we go back to the crime at the story’s heart: A young woman is strangled to death by an assailant. We have one victim and one suspect. But who exactly is the villain here? What constitutes a villain is the thematic question that the story explores. That’s why back stories and peripheral characters were interwoven, each perspective taken into account. This compelling theme was what kept me thinking about the story even when I was busy with work and had to put the book down. At the same time, it’s what also slowed me down, making me want to relish the novel, to study each clue, each line, and the flow of events in order to thoroughly engage the theme. Who’s the villain? I kept asking myself even after I’ve long savored the last word.