ManazuruAuthor: Hiromi Kawakami
Translator: Michael Emmerich
U.S. publisher: Counterpoint
ISBN: 9781582436005
Released: August 2010
Original release: 2006
Awards: Art Encouragement Prize, Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize

My introduction to the work of Hiromi Kawakami was through the annual literary journal Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan which regularly features her short fiction. In fact, her quirky series of vignettes, “People from My Neighborhood,” is one of the recurring selections that I most look forward to from issue to issue. Recently I was reminded that some of her long form work had also been translated, most notable her award-winning novels The Briefcase and Manazuru. Of the two, Manazuru was the first to be released in English. The novel, originally published in Japan in 2006, was selected for the Japanese Literary Publishing Project and has also been translated into several other languages, including French, German, and Russian. Michael Emmerich’s English translation of Manazuru was published by Counterpoint Press in 2010 and received a Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize. Manazuru was also very well received in Japan; Kawakami was awarded an Art Encouragement Prize from the Ministry of Education for the novel’s literary achievements.

Over a decade ago, Kei Yanagimoto’s husband Rei disappeared without a trace. No one seems to know what happened to him or where he went, why he abandoned Kei and their three-year-old daughter Momo, or if he is alive or dead. But life continues on for Kei. She and Momo now live together with her aging mother and she’s even having an affair with Seiji, a married man she met through her work as a freelance writer. But she still misses Rei tremendously and she feels his absence daily. As Momo grows older and matures she becomes more distant and Kei is afraid that she may lose her daughter as well. Kei has yet to come to terms with Rei’s disappearance and struggles to remember and to forget at the same time. When Kei discovers “Manazuru” written in a diary that Rei left behind she finds herself compelled to return to that seaside town again and again, chasing after some sort of long-lost memory. Manazuru holds meaning for Kei, for her past and for her future, if only she can open herself to discover it.

Manazuru is a poetic and atmospheric novel with a touch of the surreal. The narrative is told entirely from Kei’s perspective in an almost stream-of-conscious fashion as she moves from moment to moment in her life and from memory to memory. There is an intense sense of longing present in Manazuru. It is very clear that Kei loves and adores Rei. His disappearance is difficult for Kei to accept but even more difficult is not knowing the reasons why he is gone; Kei’s internal self is understandably in turmoil. As the novel progresses, and as Kei searches her very soul for answers and remembers more and more about herself and about her husband, what is real and what is imagined begin to increasingly blur together. Kei’s perception of the truth unravels and frays, lending a dreamlike quality to Manazuru, only to be woven together again as she forms a new understanding and acceptance of everything that has passed.

Overall, Manazuru is quiet, ethereal, and melancholic. The slow and subdued drive of the novel comes almost exclusively from Kei’s thoughts and feelings rather than from outside of herself. More than it is about an action-heavy plot, Manazaru is about Kei’s relationship with and to others, especially her family and her lover, but that doesn’t mean that the novel is lacking in drama. Kei’s mother never liked Rei to begin with; Momo starts to look more and more like her father; Seiji is Rei’s complete opposite, but that only serves to repeatedly remind Kei of her husband. Although Rei is missing, he is very much the largest presence in Kei’s life, a shadow that haunts her and that obscures the people around her. The more Kei tries to remember the more she forgets and the more she tries to forget the more she remembers. Manazuru is a meditation on memory, loss, and letting go. It’s a beautifully poignant and moving work.

Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Tales of Moonlight and RainAuthor: Ueda Akinari
Translator: Anthony H. Chambers
Publisher: Columbia University Press
ISBN: 9780231139137
Released: December 2008
Original release: 1776
Awards: Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize

Ueda Akinari’s Ugetsu monogatari is a collection of nine short stories of ghosts and the occult that was originally published in Japan in 1776. The classic as a whole has been translated into English several times and some of the individual tales have been translated as many as ten. The most recent of these translations is a study by Anthony H. Chambers first published in 2007 by Columbia University Press as part of its series Translation from the Asian Classics. With his translation of Ugetsu monogatari, titled Tales of Moonlight and Rain, Chambers aimed to provide th most accurate, comprehensive, and faithful English edition of the work, conveying the meaning of the text while still capturing Akinari’s tone and style of writing. His efforts were rewarded with the 2007 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. The particular reason that Tales of Moonlight and Rain was brought to my attention was that Akinari was noted as being one of Yukio Mishima’s favorite authors in his biography, Persona.

The nine stories in Tales of Moonlight and Rain—”Shiramine,” “The Chrysanthemum Vow,” “The Reed-Choked House,” ” The Carp of My Dreams,” “The Owl of the Three Jewels,” “The Kibitsu Cauldron,” “The Serpent’s Lust,” “The Blue Hood,” and “On Poverty and Wealth”—all deal with the mysterious and the strange. Ghosts make frequent appearances, demons cause terror and strife, spirits seek revenge, people are cursed or succumb to possession, and so on. All of the stories are set in provincial Japan which, as Chambers note in the introduction, would emphasize the strangeness and otherness of the tales for Akinari’s original audience, a group mostly made up of people who lived in Japan’s major cities. Additionally, all but one of the stories takes place before the Tokugawa shogunate was established in 1603, which also had a distancing effect. Today’s readers are even further separated from the stories in Tales of Moonlight and Rain, but the tales are no less fascinating because of it.

In addition to Akinari’s nine stories, Tales of Moonlight and Rain also includes extensive notes and analysis as well as a bibliography listing texts and commentaries, secondary resources, and previous English translations of Akinari’s work. Chambers has written a lengthy introduction to the collection as a whole, but each of the stories has its own prefatory material which notes important details regarding the titles, characters, places, and time periods, explains useful background information and the stories’ relationships and affinities to other works (both classic and contemporary), and provides additional commentary and any other observations. Chambers uses both footnotes and endnotes in Tales of Moonlight and Rain—the footnotes for points critical to the immediate understanding of the text and the endnotes for more in-depth information. In theory, this is an excellent idea, but in practice I found it rather annoying and cumbersome to have to look in two different places for the stories’ notes. But this is really my only complaint about the volume and I consider it a minor one.

One of the most interesting things for me about the stories in Tales of Moonlight and Rain were all of the references and allusions that the collection contained to other classic works of Chinese and Japanese literature such as Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and the collection of poetry Manyōshū. Having read translations of some of the older works being referred to, I particularly appreciated Akinari’s use of them in Tales of Moonlight and Rain. However, it is not at all necessary to be familiar with the Chinese and Japanese literary classics in order to enjoy the collection. All of the stories stand completely on their own despite the borrowing and adapting that Akinari employs. I didn’t realize it before reading Tales of Moonlight and Rain, but I was actually already familiar with some of the adaptations of Akinari’s own work; Ugetsu monogatari was more influential than I knew. Personally, I enjoyed the entirety of Tales of Moonlight and Rain a great deal, including Chambers’ commentary and analysis. The stories may be more than two centuries old, but perhaps in part because of that they remain both evocative and spellbinding.