Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

This is a rich study of an artist. As with other Kazuo Ishiguro novels, the narrator is unreliable. The action here is in trying to figure out what the narrator believes, what’s artifice, and so how far he is lying to us and himself in the presentation of his thoughts.

This was enjoyable for me because even though the artist–a Japanese painter who served as a propagandist for World War II–technically claims that what he did was morally wrong, you feel that he cannot quite accept that. He is a stubborn, proud man. At the end, the narrator reflects tranquilly on the path his life has taken, like Mr. Stevens at the end of Remains of the Day, but here this is sinister.

“Fisherman” by Yamamoto Kanae 1904

Without fully owning up to what he did, and the consequences of what he did, as well as being cast off by a progressing society that would rather pretend those years didn’t exist, his summing up and self-satisfaction represents an revocation of responsibility. It is an revocation of responsibility, demanded by the rhythms of life, that allows for the sins of the past to be conveniently forgotten.

Book Review: 8.5/10: Ishiguro’s historical novel: Is a man a player in history or does history play him?

Here’s a good piece on the aesthetics in the book and how it is when the artist becomes political does his art degrade:


Book Review: the Moon over the Mountain

Both Atsushi Nakajima and Haruki Murakami are taught in Japanese high schools. Nakajima is the kind of author that is loved in Japan, but not praised by the Western press and are often ignored outside of Japan if translated at all. You may think it’s because of the subject matter. Instead of liberal protagonists living in post-War Japan, Nakajima goes back to historic and mythic China.

While the text in Japanese is in an elaborate masculine style with an extensive use of Chinese characters, in translation the text is more accessible. Despite the intricate style, Nakajima does not presume a cultural background, but sits at a juncture between East and West. This intertextuality is evident when critters in a bizarre short story promulgate Western philosophies. But this is true also with Nakajima’s orientation: Nakajima is concerned with elemental existential questions and doesn’t seem to operate solely within his cultural milieu nor see his culture as a box or barrier in his quest.

The Moon over the Mountain
The most famous work “Sangetsuki,” or “The Moon over the Mountain,” is a strange tale of a government official who wants to be a poet. His desire, so intense, turns him into a tiger that stalks the mountain country. Some tales with the excessive listing of battles, provinces, leader names, war stratagems, court drama, and battles course with the martial vigor. When he turned historical, Nakajima paid closer attention to facts, but the emotion of his work reflects the time it was written, which is during the brutality of the Japanese occupation of a fractured China during World War II. While this may bear scrutiny of complicity, his best work is when he focuses on the human relationships or individuals trying to make sense of the world and themselves.

The best story is “The Disciple,” a historical tale about Confucius and his disciple Zilu. This story, because of that open intertextuality, expresses the teacher-student tradition common knowledge for those in the Eastern (and Greek) tradition into English. Ironically but truly, Nakajima shows that moral education is not about adhering to strictures, the grasping of the intellect, or performance in the field, but it is a form of love.

Book Review: 7.5/10: Nakajima’s best work are classics of modern world literature

Anime Review: Noein

Noein is a bold, intriguing romance. Yu and Haruka are two elementary school students from Hakodate, Japan–(Hakodate, an actual city, is so expertly and lovingly recreated it becomes a character in itself). Before we know it, blue snow falls and these kids–at an important juncture in their lives–are swept up in an adventure that involves nothing less than the destruction of all dimensions of creation.

The Cast of Noein
The Cast of Noein

Noein takes string theory and runs with it to create a mesmerizing arena within which traditional inquiries into identity, human suffering, and the nature of existence are explored. This quantum world is a world of infinite dimensions. Every chance event and every choice we could make inhabits another dimension. What gets the plot rolling is that an elite fighting squad from a dimension ten years in the future bolts into our slice of life anime and are in pursuit of the Dragon Torque, the key–they believe–to save their dimension from destruction. What is bold about this series is that some of the characters of this squad confront and observe themselves 10 years younger.

These encounters help the characters grow into their selves. The supernatural mechanics of the plot are superb in showing how reflection is an active process. The pacing is right on, but because of the Dragon Torque’s supreme power Noein’s climax is not as gripping as other back-from-the-brink finales (Giant Robo, Evangelion). However, Noein’s plot resides in the working out of the characters’ identity. For that emphasis, Noein deserves a strong recommendation.

Movie Book Reviewer: 7/10: Noein is a fascinating time traveling take on the coming-of-age story

Book Review: Silence

The novel Silence by Shusaku Endo is set in the Nagasaki during the severe persecution of Christianity in 1600s Japan. With letters, documents, and third-person narration, Silence chronicles the journey of a Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues to corroborate whether his esteemed mentor apostatized during his mission. This novel grips to major questions and does not let go. With some of the existential sharpness of Kierkegaard, Silence is a vehicle to investigate the possibility of cross-cultural communication, endurance, and faith. But it is not an erudite exercise; in his depiction of human frailty and depravity, Endo combines this novel of ideas with the pathos of short, painful lives.

Rodrigues and his mission does seem like Marlow’s trip into the Heart of Darkness. His journey from his native Portugal, stowing away on a boat to Japan, learning about the new culture, and facing a warped doppelganger mirror the structure of Joseph Conrad’s work. In Heart of Darkness, the machine of colonialism is revealed as an elaborate form of the savagery in the Congo. While spreading Catholicism may seem like a parallel, for all their politics, the lone priests have kindness and conviction to lift peasants out of a brutish existence. And in Silence, the brutality of the natives is utterly remorseless, yes, but also intellectually devious. In Endo’s work, the would-be subjects colonize the mind of the colonials and seek to end their movement not by force per se, but by a turn of conscience.

Endo describes Rodrigues’ precarious life in feudal Japan with periods of ease before the inevitable capture. We are almost led to believe that his mission, as one of only a two remaining active priests in this unforgiving land, may succeed. What’s most riveting, however, is when the conflict becomes internal. When he is in dialogue with his captors, at first, he is strong, but he seems to partially agree to their statements, and then seems to have little foundation to stand on. They want to use him to break the resolve of the Japanese Christians holding onto their secret way of life. They want to prove that their beliefs are foreign, could never live inside them, and must be ejected as not Japanese. And these captors could be replaced with Japanese society, specifically, at many other times when authorities were resolute on destroying individual threats to the power structure with bureaucratic rigor. It is an endemic pattern that repeats elsewhere: the goal of the captors brings to mind Winston’s fight against Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.

The climax shows the power of a novel to express a change in consciousness. This change is unexpected, but resonates with the narrative. Quite different from what his captors wanted, this change may even show how Christianity is not as foreign as his captives want him to believe. Whether you believe that Rodrigues’ trip had not merely been a fatalistic nightmare–the descriptions of the slow crucifixions of poor people at sea are particularly harrowing–may depend on whether you believe in his mission in the first place. But Endo has made us witness one resolution to the conflict between culture or races. There could be some kind of accommodation or persecution and death.

Book Review: 8.5/10: Shusaku Endo uses a traditional close third person and first-person perspective to uncover the relation between the Japanese thought and Christianity. He endeavors to find not only whether a universal truth is possible for a Japanese person, but whether this faith, tested in extremis, is universally true in itself.