“The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories”: An Individual Collection


Murakami Haruki writes in the introduction to this eclectic assemblage of Japanese fiction that it makes him think of fukubukuro, or “lucky grab bags,” sold at New Year in department stores. As with the sealed bags of mystery items, unpredictability is a reward in itself for the readers of the Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin.

The anthology is no straightforward trawl through the classics. There is, for example, no room for big names like Dazai Osamu or Ōe Kenzaburō. Instead, Rubin, who translated most of the stories in addition to editing them, freely admits that it is a personal collection of works that he has found unforgettable. His tastes tend toward plot-driven narratives; he finds relatively little room for the autobiographical “I-novel” genre—often lacking in incident—that looms large in any traditional survey of modern Japanese fiction. A thematic, rather than chronological, arrangement distances the collection further from the atmosphere of the university lecture theater.

Making Sacrifices

That is not to say there are no classic works here. One is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s “Hell Screen,” the grotesque tale of a medieval artist who can only paint the horrors of hell if he sees them with his own eyes. Akutagawa’s expansion of a story from a thirteenth-century collection is one of his most powerful works and a chilling take on the sacrifices made for art.

Also appearing is Mishima Yukio with “Patriotism,” which brings a heightened aestheticism and eroticism to the act of seppuku or ritual self-disembowelment. Meanwhile, Natsume Sōseki is represented by an excerpt from the novel Sanshirō, depicting the naïve young student of the title struggling with romantic and intellectual challenges during his train journey from the countryside to Tokyo. While the piece displays Sōseki’s talent to full effect, it is a shame to miss the opportunity to highlight his short fiction.

Polite Parrots

Yet the predominant mode is surprise. Among the unexpected delights, Hoshi Shin’ichi’s “Shoulder-Top Secretary” puts a satirical focus on the gap between what its characters want to communicate and the flowery, excessively courteous way they express it. In the whimsically futuristic setting, this is achieved via robotic parrots that sit on their shoulders and translate their curt utterances into socially appropriate statements.

Sometimes the appeal is more uneasy. “In the Box,” Kōno Taeko’s brief tale of passive-aggressive meetings in an apartment block elevator, packs an unexpected level of tension into its tight frame. In “Filling Up with Sugar,” Sawanishi Yūten tells the story of a woman caring for her mother, who is suffering from “systemic saccharification syndrome.” The imagined ailment, where the afflicted literally turns to sugar, brings a fresh and keen-edged perspective to the narrative of a loved one’s illness.

Murakami on Japanese Literature

The grouping by theme can invite interesting comparisons between related stories, although it is often so loose it feels unnecessary. According to this approach, fully one third of the anthology is devoted to fiction about “disasters, natural and manmade.” This seems somewhat excessive. In fact, this last section is more varied than the title might suggest, taking in stories like Nosaka Akiyuki’s “American Hijiki,” an exploration of Japanese memories of the Occupation years set in the 1960s, and Hoshino Tomoyuki’s speculative fantasy “Pink.”

Murakami’s introduction is characteristically casual in tone. He denies any claims to literary insight and—similar to Rubin in his selection—shows no hesitation in expressing his personal views. It is nonetheless a rare chance to read in English his opinions on Japanese literature, including his respect for writers like Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Nakagami Kenji, his bafflement at Mishima’s suicide, and his shared inspiration with Enchi Fumiko—in his latest novel Killing Commendatore and her included piece—from the same gothic short story.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories treads lightly across the landscape of modern and contemporary Japanese fiction, but covers considerable ground. Its diverse range of stories will certainly include many that are new and satisfying to any reader.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin, is published in the United States by Penguin on September 11, 2018. It was previously published in the United Kingdom on June 28, 2018.


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