Japan

The Sound of Waves

The Sound of WavesThe Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) was first published in 1954 in Japanese. If you do not know who Mishima was, then you are missing out on one of the scandalous stories of the century. The translator for the novel is Meredith Weatherby (1914 – 1997) – yet another scandalous character. Both Mishima and Weatherby ran in some of the same circles as Tamotsu Yato (1928 – 1973) and Donald Richie (1924 – 2013), who were involved in film, art, and photography. Much of the work and interests of these people crossed paths repeatedly; especially because much of their production was classified in the homoerotic genre. For example, Tamtosu Yato’s photography books of young Japanese males contained introductions written by Mishima and/or were dedicated to Mishima. Weatherby was an actor (Cp. Tora! Tora! Tora) and publisher (hence, translating and publishing Mishima’s writing), and also Tamtosu Yato’s lover. Needless to say, intentional or not, engagement with one of these folks usually contains a connection to one of the others.

All of that being said, I read the Vintage International edition translated by Weatherby. I feel that the closeness of those folks [sic] probably guarantees that the translation was faithful to the original Japanese. However, I also think that proximity causes bias, and I would definitely purchase and read another translation if one were to be published.

A last note on the book itself – there are ink drawings at each of the chapter beginnings. These were done by Yoshinori Kinoshita and they are perfect. They complement the story perfectly and I found myself pausing in my reading to look at these illustrations.

Anyway, The Sound of Waves is one of Mishima’s earlier novels. I read it because it is the earliest novel of his that I own. I have owned it for decades, but there are so many books that are on shelves waiting to be read. I think this is a very good novel for a number of reasons, although I can also agree with most of the criticisms of the novel that I have read.

The novel takes place, mainly, on Uta-jima, a small island. It is important to note that in the first sentence this is translated as Song Island. The greatest element of this novel, in my opinion, is the setting. Being titled The Sound of Waves and setting the story on Song Island, should cause the reader to immediately sense the carefully selected wording that the author chooses. The word selection that develops each and every scene is deliberate and not frivolous.  The nice thing that comes from this deliberateness is a vivid and robust description of Uta-jima that does not come from a deluge of adjectival verbosity, but rather from spare, precise, nearly-poetic writing. The setting is so realistic and strong that it is almost another character in the novel.

At 183 pages, this could easily be an afternoon read. However, it does not seem like the sort of novel one should read-through with haste. Uta-jima is not an island in which the residents live with haste. Home to fourteen-hundred residents, the novel spins around the connections that exist between a handful of characters. We meet the main character, Shinji, in the evening of a day like most days – a day occupied by the main industry of the residents of the island, fishing.  Shinji, who is eighteen years old, is bringing a halibut caught that day to the lighthouse, for the lighthouse-keeper. En route to the lighthouse, Shinji comes upon a young lady whom he has never seen before, the surprise of this confuses him and he silently tries to identify her. This whole event is but a moment in the twilight, but it sets up the entire rest of the novel.

In retrospect, is this novel a story of love-at-first-sight? Most descriptions of this novel call it a “coming-of-age” novel.  That is a categorization that really vexes me. I usually avoid novels that are classified that way because I find it absurd and ridiculous. I guess in a way, Shinji is at a turning point in his life. He has been supporting his family for awhile and he is old enough to consider a career/marriage/etc.  However, even though this focus is on Shinji, I feel like Mishima is not writing about how Shinji develops into a young man and the decisions that occur. In fact, there is little or no “character growth” at all when it comes to Shinji. The stolid young man we meet on page 6, is nearly the exact same as the young man we depart on page 183. In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest the novel is a demonstration of how success comes to such a solid, unchanging, and strong character. An ode, perhaps, to the rigid and dependable ideal of the samurai that Mishima was always so enamored.

Still, on the surface, its a love story. Shinju and Hatsue forever – carve it in a tree trunk or something. They are good kids, and the reader is going to root for them. Because the story, on the surface, is fairly straightforward and unsurprising. This is another criticism that I read. Some readers felt that the story was too basic and not nuanced; I guess readers did not feel challenged. Well, the story is one that, in one form or another, we are all familiar with in novels and film and in real life. Two kids fall in love, this affects the others who are connected in some way to the situation. The others react in various ways, which causes further effects that spread out like the Doppler system. In the end, everyone has to play a rôle and adjust to the events.

Frankly, I think that because it is such a common storyline that the novel is actually worthy of more praise. Such a well-known and obvious storyline is elevated by such good writing and style that this begs the question of whether this is not what, precisely, art is supposed to do. In other words, taking the common in life and making it elevated or highlighting the spiritual, the magical, the extraordinary within the everydayness.

Finally, Mishima’s passion for physicality is apparent with every deliberate scene. The materiality and the tangibility of character’s bodies, the wind and the waves, the temperatures and the scenery, all are very important to Mishima. For example, readers can feel the rain, they can feel the hole in the sweater, and they can see the too-bright sunshine on blinding sand. Now, not all of readership wants to focus on what Mishima focuses on, but for a short novel, it is poignant and powerful. Definitely worthwhile reading.

The very subtle usage of elements of Shinto are also noteworthy. In delicate and significant scenes, the faith of Shinji is like all other characteristics displayed by him – solid and diligent. I liked these little moments of religion on this little island.

Overall, this is a novel with a lot to offer readers who are careful not to heap expectations on it before they start reading. It contains a somewhat timelessly familiar story within a careful arrangement of setting and sound. Even if readers do not necessarily like the novel, I suspect it is still a novel they will be glad to have read.

4 stars

The Three-Cornered World

Three Cornered CoverNatusme Soseki’s (1867 – 1916) The Three-Cornered World was published in 1906.  The title in Japanese is Kusamakura, but I read the 1965 translation into English. It is the first that I have read by this author.

This is one of those novels that I suspect readers who write reviews have mixed feelings about.  It is an excellent novel – but it is also a rather short novel. The novel is so wonderful and thoughtful that it could easily evoke a review that is thrice as long as the novel itself.

Some readers have likened it to a haiku writing. As if the novel’s simplicity is deceptive because it contains such a wealth of insight. I do not think that is the best comparison, but I agree that this is just one of those few novels that it is just better to read for yourself and not bother with reading interpretations.

This is a rare novel. Not every reader will enjoy this novel. Many readers seem to me to be totally enthralled with action, hurrying, and loudness. And part and parcel of such action/loudness is usually severe depravity.  This novel is unrushed. It is aesthetic and honest. The honesty and the lack of loudness is what separate this novel from so many other ones. Usually, when someone calls a text “honest,” I think it is assumed that it is grossly confessional and obscenely open. The Three Cornered World is very honest, but do not expect some ribald, grotesque exposé.

For example, the author bluntly shares that he knows nothing of Zen. That’s not a literal truth, but it tells us that this is not some manifesto to artificially praise “true Japanese culture/religion.”  Of course, this must be contrasted with several points in which the author sharply expresses his negative feelings towards modern civilization and urban life.  The novel was published in 1906, but its setting is contemporaneous with the Russo-Japanese War.  Further, the development of Industry in Japan (particularly with railroads and coal) clearly affected the author’s vision of urban versus rural. So there is a current running through this novel that keeps the reader aware that the rush toward modern (and Western) industry is not entirely happy for the author.

The narrative of this novel is by an artist. He tells us he is a painter, but he writes much poetry and does a few sketches. His artist’s eye is keen and he sees colors and people and the world on an expert-level. However, he is unable to actively use his color-box.

The artist has taken a trip in late winter/early spring to develop his own art. He is doing this by detaching himself from society, from the caustic urban centers. And on this trip to a hot springs in the rural landscape, he must remain detached from all things – as if looking at scenes and people as if they were in a picture or even on stage.

Settings and scenes matter in this book, because the narrator is an artist and he is painting the narration. However, if you do not wish to deconstruct the setting and the language and everything else – the novel is still excellent. This is very nice because its one thing to say: “this novel is good, but you have to be intelligent and deconstruct and analyze every item in it” and its quite another to say: “this novel is so good; it is wonderful if you analyze it and it is wonderful if you lazily just let it carry you along to enjoy its rhythm.” 

The setting/scenes, though narrated by an artist, are not atmospheric or esoteric. The artist who is narrating is exceedingly down-to-earth and empirical.  I feel this is somewhat opposite of the stereotypical Western conception of an artist.

I find a lot of contemporary/modern Japanese writing to be morbid or gruesome. They are too raw and unpalatable for me, usually. Now, I know this particular novel is a bit older than “contemporary,” but I found it refreshing and delightful that it was not written how I have found many Japanese novels. I think the author is often referred to as Japan’s first modern novelist – to heck with that, I want to call him Japan’s last novelist, too.

The novel is sometimes sad and sometimes joyous. And it sometimes contains the slightest eeriness. But it also ends with a bittersweet perfect imperfection that the best Japanese artists have mastered. There are very stark comments from the narrator about Tokyo. But there are also humorous and amusing moments that display a very, very honest wit. Overall, that is the word I want to use to describe this novel:  honest.

4 stars