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 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