REVIEW: Territory of Light

I’m going to start this review right off the bat by saying that I picked this book up for the sole reason that Tsushima Yuuko is the daughter of Dazai Osamu, my favourite Japanese author in history. Had it not been for that connection I honestly doubt I would have picked it up at all.

Territory of Light is a short novella made up of serialized vignettes that look into the life of the nameless narrator as she does her best to raise her two-year-old daughter in the midsts of a separation. Dreamlike in the way these peaks into a life on the edge of losing it all, this novella drifts in and out of time as it deals with loss, longing, depression, and the hardships a young single mother faces.

From the beginning, my own childhood definitely resulted in this book inflicting a few gut punches, but then it began to shift in a way I’m not sure I can explain and instead of seeing myself in the place of the narrator’s daughter, I imagined the author and her mother overlapping within the characters. Tsushima was only a year old when Dazai was discovered dead, having drowned in a canal with his lover, Yamazaki Tomie. I can’t begin to imagine the trauma that caused for Tsushima, let alone her mother who had clearly been abandoned due to Dazai’s self destructive whims and ever changing moods. When the narrator discusses the death of her father within the story, and the way it affected the character of her mother, it read to me as an accusation – but not necessarily a negative one – directed at Dazai for not being there, for leaving them not only for another woman, but in death as well.

Knowing what I know about Dazai absolutely coloured my reading this book and I found something cathartic in reading it as well as greatly appreciating the different perspective – even if it’s a fictionalized one – regarding a man I greatly admire. I definitely plan on seeing out more of Tsushima’s work available in English and hope to one day be able to read her stories in the original Japanese. It would be curious to see if her style is similar to that of her father’s. Especially considering both were cursed with only placing second for the Akutagawa prize.

REVIEW: Rashomon & Other Stories

I have been wanting to get a hold of some of Akutagawa’s short stories for a while now, and finally got my hands on the Tuttle collection that contains six stories. Considering I started reading this on March 1st (Akutagawa’s birthday) and finished it on the third (an important date in the final story), it seemed like fate brought this collection to me.

As much as I would have loved to have bought a larger collection, Tuttle Publishing always has really quality translations and I love supporting a company that does so much work producing educational material and language studies books (like 90% of my self-study Japanese textbooks are from Tuttle). Of course, that being said, I think this is a great edition for anyone who wants to get a taste of not just classic Japanese literature, but also a taste of Akutagawa in general. The stories in this edition include In The Grove, Rashomon, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa & Morito, and The Dragon.

I primarily wanted to read this collection for Rashomon and In The Grove as they are the most famous of his work due to the Kurosawa Akira film adaptation of the latter (although it was called Rashomon). Both stories were exactly as I expected them to be. Rashomon is a story of morals and while being short and cynical, really forced readers to question what they would do if they were starving and the choice was between your own survival or the survival of others in the same situation. In The Grove was a classic murder mystery with nothing but unrealiable narrators and the lack of closure is so interesting and unique as it leaves the decision up to the reader. The lesser known stories in the collection were are so different from each other while keeping that cynicism towards human nature and human desire that gives Akutagawa his edge.

What I found the most interesting is how, despite the difference in translators, I can see where Akutagawa influenced the works of my personal favourite, Dazai Osamu. Dazai held Akutagawa in a high regard (the two even died the same way) and I can see where their questions towards human nature crossover. That was my main reason for wanting to read these stories and I’m so happy I was finally able to. I look forward to tracking down more of Akutagawa’s work in English and – hopefully with some help from my textbooks – Japanese when translations are not available.

Happy [belated] birthday, Ryuunosuke.

Murakami Double Feature: Piercing & Audition

Note: both of these works by Murakami Ryuu contain intense levels of violence, gore, self-harm and references of sexual trauma and child abuse.

One of the most well known Japanese horror films is Audition from the incredibly director Miike Takashi. To be perfectly blunt (so excuse my language here), that movie is one hell of a mind-fuck that is not only confusing but so incredibly nasty, I don’t ever recommend it to anyone even though it’s a move that completely captivates me. A few years ago, I found out that this classic of a film was actually based on a book by “the other Murakami”, the twisted mastermind, Murakami Ryuu.

However, Audition wasn’t the first book of his that I read. Late in 2020, I read through Piercing during a 12-hour shift at my day job, and absolutely fell in love with it. Adapted into a film more recently (but far too white and far too different to be worth watching, save your time for better movies), the only thing I knew about Piercing is that it was graphic. But wow did that book hit me in ways I was certainly not expecting. Both Piercing and Audition are incredibly intense books but I’m so pleased to have finally read them. Now to get onto the reviews!

Piercing is about a man struggling with violent urges from his childhood that are once again plaguing him as an adult and about a young sex worker unable to manage her childhood trauma. As both find themselves in a situation where they are equally trying to kill each other, the realisation of being cut from similar clothes leads to a strange ending that will not be what one expects.

The graphic violence in this book borders on extreme that may be off putting for many readers, even ones who enjoy horror. Murkami’s horror is on a different level than most to say the least.

Given how short this book is (and the same goes for Audition) I don’t want to give too much away, but when it really boils down to it, Piercing is a story about broken people. Both lead characters have been abused, the trauma of their youth bleeding into their adult lives. As the cat vs cat (because neither of these people are the mouse) game continues onward over the course of the night, the realisation hits just how much their individual trauma resonates with the other’s. To me it was a book about accepting your baggage as much as accepting that you can’t be responsible for other people’s baggage. It’s a complex narrative that I felt really hit the nail on the head when it comes to trauma and dealing with trauma in unhealthy ways. As horrible of a visual this novel gives, I felt uplifted by it. As weird as that sounds…

Audition is a very different novel when compared to Piercing. It’s quieter, softer around the edges, while still addressing the harsh violence that comes with unhealthy trauma processing. It follows a man who misses his deceased wife, who’s son suggests he settle down again. Though middle-aged, he follows his skeezy friend’s idea to hold a fake audition to find a refined young woman to settle down with.

It’s not his fault that things go sideways.

Fans of the film will be familiar with the gruesome torture scenes, the implied sexual violence, and of course, the piano wire. But much of what Miike put in the film doesn’t actually occur in the book, and I would probably be more likely to recommend the book to people within my circles than I would be to recommend the movie.

The flashback sequences of what Asami went through, the visits to her apartment and the restaurant where he were. Visceral scenes that are signature to Miike’s film style that were entirely made up. While the film is somewhat non-linear and full of drug induced hallucination scenes, the book is more linear and straight forward (and also far less graphic until the infamous ending). That being said, I found the film added far more to Asami’s character, making her more alluring while also more terrifying. The book, while more palatable and easier to follow, felt like it was missing some greater threat while it built up to the ending. I felt it needed more to really suck someone in.

That being said, as a huge fan of the film, I am incredibly happy I was still able to read the source material in English. It’s a must read for fans of the movie.

Murakami has a very distinct style that is visceral and gut-wrenching while somehow simultaneously being quiet and tender. He writes messy stories about messy people, most of them just wanting to live their lives as best they can manage. He reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk in some ways if I’m being honest. I really hope that as 2021 continues, I’m able to read more of his translated works (especially Coin Locker Babies since Miike was in talks to adapt that one before the project was cancelled).

REVIEW: The Memory Police

Completely out of character for me, I read yet another dystopian novel this month and while I enjoyed it enough, it was definitely an unsettling story.

Ogawa Yoko’s latest novel, The Memory Police, is about a small, unnamed island that is controlled by a strange regime from nowhere called the Memory Police. The police control what is and isn’t allowed the exist on the island, meaning when something has been “disappeared” not only does the thing itself vanish from the island but all memories and emotional attaches to said thing vanish too. Anyone who is capable of remembering what has vanished is taken away by the police, and as more and more things begin to disappear, the nameless narrator struggles with a terrifying thought: what if things never stop disappearing?

This novel takes it’s time, the slow and easy pace really making you feel like things are okay. It is very much a false sense of security that shows how oppressive and yet normalized high-surveillance states are – everyone on the island is nervous around the Memory Police, but everyone also has a firm “I’m not doing anything wrong, so there is nothing to worry about” mentality. The concept of things just vanishing is also terrifying. It isn’t just little things, but it includes food and animals as well. As the story progresses and the stakes rise while our narrator is hiding her friend, R, the horrific concept really gets dark: what if words disappear? The censorship in media that’s heavily implied through that idea is horrifying and I love how intense the metaphor is.

Much like some of my favourite Japanese horror films, this book is quiet until the last few chapters when everything is happening to an overwhelming degree. It’s an ending that can’t be described without huge spoilers, but it gets really twisted really quickly. I got very uncomfortable and finishing it was a struggle but I do plan on re-reading it when the world isn’t entirely on fire. Do I recommend reading this book? Absolutely. But maybe wait a few months.

REVIEW: No Longer Human

#MangaMonday has been shifted to Wednesday, because the title for this week is actually an adaptation of the amazing, semi-autobiographical novel No Longer Human by Dazai Osamu.

I also would like to mention trigger warnings for this novel include suicide and sexual assault (both implied and actual).


No Longer Human is the story of the narrator finding lost journals from a man named Oda Yozo, and following him through his struggles at simply existing around human beings. Yozo has never felt he fit in with the world, let alone just the space he occupied. He was easily taken advantage of and quickly found himself in barely escapable failures.

The novel is a complicated one, at first reading like little more than a depressing tragedy of a time where mental health care didn’t exist at all, resulting in the sad existence of Yozo. I actually had to read this a few times for the words to sink in, and upon re-reading, feel that the true meaning of the story is to be more aware of the people around us. It’s a story about loneliness and how that feeling is exacerbated when you can’t understand the social cues that berate you every waking moment. The lines about depression, about what it means to long for non-existence as opposed to outright death (which is the way I personally read it – suicidal ideation over suicidal intention). Yet our protagonist is so overwhelmed and sad that his ideations actually become failed truths again and again and again.

In a weird way, I find this novel surprisingly comforting in that it gives voice to some very real feelings that I’ve had to deal with myself. While I was reading a translation, I feel that Donald Keene did an incredible job of capturing Dazai’s essence and his emotion in the words and one day I really do hope that my Japanese reaches the point where I can read the original.

While I wouldn’t recommend this book to a single person I know, it is just so touching and important to me.