Tag Archives: Japan

The Demon at Agi Bridge (book review)

The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales
by Haruo Shirane (editor), Burton Watson (translator)
Columbia University Press, Nov. 2010
22.50 USD at Amazon
9.99 USD Kindle Edition

My rating: 4.5/5

When I came across this book on Amazon, it had me at : “The Demon at Agi Bridge,” a fantastic story, and Haruo Shirane, a fantastic scholar. Being familiar with and an admirer of Shirane’s writings on Basho and haiku, I could think of no better person to guide me through setsuwa, Japanese anecdotal literature.

The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales includes thirty-eight moving and entertaining setsuwa from seven major anthologies compiled between the ninth to thirteenth centuries, selected by Shirane and translated by Burton Watson. With a brief, but informative introductions to the collection and each section, this book provides cultural and literary context for the reader unfamiliar with the history of Japanese literature.

The setsuwa in this book cover tales from India, China, and Japan (from Buddhist and secular veins), and features characters from all social classes and professions. One of my biggest complaints about Royall Tyler’s Japanese Tales has been the exclusion of India and China setsuwa. Tyler’s intentions are reasonable, but I feel he failed to acknowledge how these tales have influence and are a part of Japan’s setsuwa tradition.

Of particular interest to me, Shirane has included several stories that feature prominent female characters, such as the woman in “The Woman of Pleasure at Eguchi” and the wife in “How a Poor Man Left His Wife and She Became the Wife of the Governor of Settsu,” and several stories revolving around poetry, including the strong ending piece “The Deep Meaning Underlying the Way of Japanese Poetry.” Each of setsuwa carries its weight and adds to the richness of the collection. With short stories, it’s easy to read one in-between chores, but this book as a whole drags the reader back again and again until the end.

While the collection does contain a wide variety of characters, there is a heavy emphasis on Buddhist tales. Given the origins of the stories, it’s not surprising, but any reader looking for an abundance of secular stories may be a little disappointed. Aside from that, my only real complaint would that all the introductions, while interesting, can be a bit disruptive to the reading experience when some sections only have one or two stories.

In The Demon at Agi Bridge, the rhythm and style feels familiar to translated Japanese literature I’ve read before; however, I must commend Watson in particular for his ability to make the setsuwa accessible to the English-speaking reader without padding the sentences and stories to fit English grammar. Watson’s crisp and polished translations appeal to the sparse, but playful nature of many of the setsuwa. When reading, I feel he has stayed true to the original and actually given me the story, rather than just a translation. Furthermore, not only has Watson taken care with the prose, but with the poetry. In the five stories that include waka, each poem feels like a poem. A number of translators I’ve encountered have had a deficiency in one or the other, so it was a pleasant surprise when both the poetry and prose read smoothly.

The Demon at Agi Bridge is worth the investment for anyone who enjoys Japanese literature. Since it comes from an academic press, the price feels a bit steep for a short book, but the clean translations and extensive bibliography in the back make it worthwhile.

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Goodbye Madame Butterfly (book review)

Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman
by Sumie Kawakami
Chin Music Press, 2007
20 USD at goodbyemadamebutterfly.com

My rating: 3.5/5

I originally picked up Goodbye Madame Butterfly at the Chin Music Press sales table at AWP in 2009. At the time, the potential content of the book didn’t intrigue me so much as the physical book itself. However, by the second day, they were slashing prices and offered a combo price for it and Kuhaku (the book I was actually interested in). Figuring $25 for two beautifully made books was more or less a steal, I grabbed them both without the slightest inkling of when I’d actually have time to read either of them.

While Kuhaku, which I finally read this summer, is a more general collection of accounts and stories about life in Japan, Sumie Kawakami’s Goodbye Madame Butterfly focuses primarily on Japanese women’s love lives (in every sense of the phrase). Each of the eleven stories is about women Kawakami met with personally and listened as they opened up about their experiences with sex and marriage. As a result of this direct contact, each of story has a distinct flavor and style; the prose vary from first to third person. While some stories keep the reader more at a distance than others, each story is deeply personal and shows the women’s perspectives.

I wouldn’t exactly call Goodbye Madame Butterfly a happy read, but certainly enjoyable and interesting one. The writing is light and easy to get through, so I finished it easily in two days at the beginning of the new year. While the stories are wrought in affairs and loveless marriages, I felt compelled to read on with the desire to see these women overcome and find happiness. Kawakami’s writing draws the reader in and introduces him or her to real, relatable women. It is important to remember while reading that these women are not just extreme examples of the female condition in Japan. Kawakami has made a clear effort to represent everyone: the young woman, the business woman, the homemaker, the single mother, the emotionally scared woman, the continually optimistic woman, the woman who does everything she can to support her family. One of the interesting aspects about this book, to me, is that each of the women selected are ones that Kawakami personally “likes, respects, and admires.”

When glancing through Goodreads, the two main complaints was that the book is full of stories of unhappy women, and that the book seems to have no conclusion. In the preface of the book, Kamikawa notes: “Globally, forty-four percent of all adults claimed to be happy with their sex lives, but only twenty-four percent of the Japanese and twenty-two percent of the Chinese said they were.” This, among other reasons given in the preface, accounts for why the majority of the stories seem unhappy. That being said, I, admittedly would have liked to have read one or two more stories that were positive or uplifting such as “Shinto Priest’s Wife” and “Long Distance Love” (both of which appear at the end and thus end the book on a relatively positive note), even though I was also awed at the strength of some of the women such as in “Joint Venture.”

For those that want some sort of conclusion, all I have to say is: It’s not that kind of book. It’s not a scientific study, nor is it Kawakami’s place, as I believe she knows, to draw conclusions. These women’s stories are presented as is, for better or worse, and it’s up to the reader to make of them what he or she will. I would encourage readers not to go into this book looking to judge. Each account, while rich in emotion, gives only a glimpse into these women’s lives. Appropriately, Kamikawa often bookends the accounts with the woman coming and going from the interview or in the middle of daily activities. It reinforces the fact that these women are living their lives in any way they can, again, for better or worse.

To read Kawakami’s preface (an insightful piece of writing that stands well on its own) and one sample story, go to the website for the book. On the site, you will also find under “Book,” details about the making the book and photographs of the cover and insides. As I mentioned in the beginning, this was what initially drew me to the book. The hardback book feels sturdy in my hands, and surprisingly light. Gorgeous end pages, and an uniquely styled table of contents make for a graphically interesting design. Chin Music Press’ dedication to beautifully, well made books alone make any of their publications worth the money. Even better, CMP always delivers with quality content that reflects the design and quality of the physical book.

Goodbye Madame Butterfly is for anyone interested in the lives of women and/or gender roles in Japan (and globally). With the preface and occasional footnotes, the book gives the reader insight into Japanese societal and cultural norms and expectations. The book was not a life changing experience for me, but certainly unforgettable. Each of the stories touched me in their own way with each woman’s suffering, joy, heartbreak, endurance, determination, and dedication.

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