Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Vita Sexualis, by Ōgai Mori

Original Title: ヰタ・セクスアリス (Wita Sekusuarisu)

Author: Ōgai Mori (森 鷗外 / 森 鴎外, Mori Ōgai)

Translator: Kazuji Ninomiya and Sanford Goldstein

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮

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Even someone like me couldn’t help but reason that some relationship exists between love and sexual desire. Yet even though I had a longing for love and affection, I didn’t feel, as one normally would have expected, any real sexual drive.


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(Let’s get this project up and running again, shall we? 😉 )

I was hesitant to read Vita Sexualis, mostly because I wasn’t sure that I would find it interesting. It chronicles the sexual awakening of a young man, from childhood all the way to early adulthood. It’s not that I’m prude, it’s just that I’m really, really not interested in sex. Like, at all.

However, despite its misleading title (In Latin, somewhere along the lines of The Sexual Life), Vita Sexualis is not the book that I thought it would be. Mori was interested in how sexual desire affected everyday life, and he wanted to disprove those that claimed sex was vital to human beings. When Vita Sexualis was published in 1909, it was censored four weeks after publication due to the strict morality of the Meiji era, since by discussing sexual desire, the censorship authorities automatically viewed it as an erotic novel. Honestly, I think that’s ridiculous. I’ve read children’s books more scandalous than this.

I was surprised at how liberal it was. Even though there aren’t any explicit depictions of sex, it alludes to prostitution and masturbation, and even homosexuality. This was the thing that I was really worried about. The introduction mentions that the narrator, Kanai, carries a dagger around with him to protect himself from the “queers.” I immediately assumed the worst, but it turns out that my concern wasn’t necessary. The “queers,” as they are referred to in this book, are actually viewed as more superior than the “mashers.” (This is because they are homosocial and it was considered to be more masculine.) The reason why Kanai carries a dagger around with him is due to a time when he was eleven when he was attacked by his upperclassmen after refusing to sleep with one of them. (Thankfully, someone stops them before things go too far.)

The other thing I loved about Vita Sexualis is when Kanai discussed his views on arranged marriage:

The woman herself did not say whether she liked the candidate or not. Only the male had to indicate his likes or dislikes. It was as if the parents of the daughter were selling her while the groom was doing the buying. The daughter was treated as if she were a commodity. If she were set down in Roman law, the word res would be used, the same as our word for slave. I had no interest in going out to buy a beautiful toy.

He also discusses “marriage in terms of soul,” and how he would hate to marry a woman he didn’t like, or for the woman to marry a man that she didn’t like. Since arranged marriages were based on looks, status, or wealth, this way of thinking was considered appalling. To me, it was the best part of the whole novel.

It’s a little dry, which is why the rating was reduced to three stars. The writing style is very analytical, as the narration is being told by a philosopher. (He criticizes his own work at the end, saying that it’s neither worthy of a novel or an autobiography and for some reason, I found that amusing.) However, to call this book “unessential” is incorrect. It’s more than just a book about sexual desire; Mori published this book knowing that it was going to be censored, putting his reputation as a writer and as surgeon general of the Japanese Imperial Army on the line, presenting Vita Sexualis to Japan in a time of strict moral codes that would continue through the second world war, decades after the Meiji era had ended. By writing and publishing Vita Sexualis, Mori was opening a door in a time when everyone else wanted to keep them closed.

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Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Mandarins: Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

111258

Original Title: 蜜柑 (Mikan)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Charles De Wolf

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮

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He could not help despising himself, even as he was equally compelled to think that when we peel back the skin we are indeed all the same.


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Mandarins
  • At the Seashore
  • An Evening Conversation
  • The Handkerchief
  • An Enlightened Husband
  • Autumn
  • Winter
  • Fortune
  • Kesa and Moritō
  • The Death of a Disciple
  • O’er a Withered Moor
  • The Garden
  • The Life of a Fool
  • The Villa of the Black Crane
  • Cogwheels

I’ve read enough of Akutagawa’s work that I feel like there’s very little left for me to say. A writer’s work speaks for the writer, and Akutagawa’s voice is loud and clear.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa despised humanity – but above all, he despised himself.

Why have you too come into this world so full of vain desire and suffering? And why is this your burden of fate: to have the likes of me as a father?

Mandarins contains stories that I’ve read before under a different translator, such as The Life of a Fool (also known as The Life of a Stupid Man), Mandarins, and Cogwheels (also known as Spinning Gears). Though Akutagawa is well known for the bizarre and the grotesque, as seen in stories such as Hell Screen, Rashōmon, and Kappa, he is also known for his psychological undertones that expose the ugliness of humanity. The stories inside of Mandarins are about the changing times of twentieth-century Japan and the misfits that cannot adapt – such as Akutagawa himself.

The translation is beautiful. The Life of a Fool is one of my all-time favorite short stories, and Charles De Wolf matched, if not exceeded the translation done by Jay Rubin in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. I also enjoyed Kesa and Moritō and The Death of a Disciple, though Cogwheels did not improve, unfortunately. It has autobiographical elements such as The Life of a Fool, but the latter is better written and told than the former.

The other stories were good, but I don’t think they stand out as strongly as the others. I think Akutagawa’s strength was irony, or perhaps tragedy – the brutality of human beings that he was so fond of portraying. Many of these shorts felt light in comparison, and perhaps a bit dull. That is why I could not bring myself to give the collection four stars, despite how much I love Akutagawa.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Poems of Days Past, by Chūya Nakahara

439359Original Title: 在りし日の歌 (Arishi Hi no Uta)

Author: Chūya Nakahara (中原 中也, Nakahara Chūya)

Translator: Ry Beville

Genres: Literature, Poetry

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✮

 


Today, hopes that resonated in me long ago

Are turning a sharp indigo and falling to me from the sky.


Project BSD

Note: Due to length, the quotes used in this review are excerpts, not the entire poem.

It’s official: Chūya Nakahara is my favorite poet of all time.

I can’t get enough of his poems. His rhythms, his framework, his imagery, his terminology…it’s all so captivating. These poems are the most beautifully written things I’ve ever seen. I have to give immense commendation to Ry Beville, because he translated them with so much care.

The tips of the leaves clinging to the lower branches

Held the glistening drops of water, and my gaze

Poems of Days Past is a bit different from Poems of the Goat. The poems are a bit more abstract and repetitive, and that lets Chūya’s lyrical style shine. Even so, they contain the same haunting melancholy, the same quiet, harrowing agony – the sense that the poet is one push away from falling apart.

It’s evening outside, and leaves are rustling.

It’s a Spring evening of subtle reminders.

And I – I’m quietly dying,

Sitting just as I am, fading away

Not all of them are like that, of course – but the ones that are remain the strongest.

Chūya’s poems are like an aesthetic – at least, that’s what they look like to me. Soft, elegant, and interwoven with a kind of sadness that transcends the natural world.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance, by Osamu Dazai

306559Original Title: 竹青 (Chikusei)

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: Ralph F. McCarthy

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature, Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮✮

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“People born to misery are destined to remain forever in misery.”


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • On Love and Beauty
  • Cherry Leaves and the Whistler
  • The Chrysanthemum Spirit
  • The Mermaid and the Samurai
  • Blue Bamboo
  • Romanesque
  • Lanterns of Romance

I didn’t enjoy these stories as much as I did the ones in Crackling Mountain. A lot of the ones in Blue Bamboo are kind of meh.

They’re more whimsical than his other work, definitely. I don’t think there’s anything about them that isn’t appealing; it’s just that they have a hard time sitting well. The two that I loved the most were Cherry Leaves and the Whistler – a sad story about a woman whose sister is dying from an illness – and The Mermaid and the Samurai, which is about a former samurai who kills a mermaid at sea, then struggles to prove his honesty when the world is turned against him at the hands of a rival. The other stories were all pretty gray.

I think the problem is certain elements that were included that outright piss me off. Blue Bamboo, for instance, and the relationship between the protagonist and his wife. That, along with a really sloppy ending that put an even worse taste in my mouth. Then there’s Lanterns of Romance, a sequel to the first story, On Love and Romance. I didn’t have any particular qualms with the first story – besides the fact that it seems kind of pointless – but in Lanterns of Romance, which is actually a story within a story, one of the characters includes a certain Biblical passage that made me spit fire and want to throw the book out the window. (I’m sure most of you know it. Something about Adam and Eve and who came first? Ring a bell?) I don’t doubt that Dazai was speaking for the character and not for himself, but why he should choose to insert that passage instead of letting them speak for themselves, I have no idea.

So, it’s not that any of these stories are bad, it’s just that not many of them are that good. In comparison to some of Dazai’s other work, few of them stand out. Blue Bamboo showcases Dazai as an idealist, but this is far from the work that he’s come to be reveled for.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Stories of Osaka Life, by Sakunosuke Oda

1703287Original Title: N/A

Author: Sakunosuke Oda (織田 作之助, Oda Sakunosuke)

Translator: Burton Watson

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮ +½

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“We bumbled through the period of our youth in an attitude of ambiguity, understanding things and yet not understanding them, not knowing whether we were young or old.”


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two!
  • Six White Venus
  • City of Trees
  • The State of the Times

Note: all mentions of ‘Odasaku’ refer to Sakunosuke Oda.

In Bungou Stray Dogs, Odasaku only appears for four episodes, but the effect he has is buried deep. His influence is evident in many different moments throughout the show, particularly in Dazai’s behavior. This relates so well to the authors behind the characters in Bungou Stray Dogs: many of them died tragically while they were very young, whether through disease (particularly tuberculosis) or suicide, but they still left a lasting impression on Japanese society.

Stories of Osaka Life is true to its name and is made up of four stories all taking place in Osaka, Odasaku’s place of birth. Contradicting the ideals made by higher-class citizens – bureaucrats, intellectuals, and social leaders – who were conscious of Japan’s moral state, Odasaku chose to write stories about the merchant class and the sordid aspects of Osaka life, simply because he wanted to. This resulted in a lot of his work being censored, both due to regulations at the time and because of World War II. After those regulations were lifted and Odasaku started to gain in popularity, he was put in the burai-ha, or “hooligan” school of writers, along with Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi. (Coincidence? I think not. Definitely not.)

I wouldn’t consider these stories obscene, though I am speaking for myself. I can understand why a lot of officials would wrinkle their noses.

What followed was all a dream: the distinctive odor of bodies, the moist sensations, breathless warmth, squirmings, the arms and legs going every which way, the rhythm that drove me senseless…how could I have been so stupid as to think that a woman merely lies there grudgingly and lets herself be manipulated!

^And the thing is, this story (The State of the Times) is supposed to be autobiographical, as one of the characters refers to the narrator as “Oda Saku”. Poverty, infidelity, and crime are also things that are threaded through these stories (though not necessarily all of them). Considering that Japan is a country that holds honor and pride in the highest respect, it makes sense why they would be reluctant to publish subject of this matter.

There are no particular points to any of them; they are, as the title says, stories of people in Osaka. I think this could be a breaking point for a lot of people, and the translation snags on a couple of points. Additionally, the right reader may interpret them in different ways. For instance, in Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two!, a man named Ryūkichi elopes with a geisha named Chōko. Ryūkichi is lazy and doesn’t work, while Chōko is supporting him with her earnings and trying to encourage him into different businesses. There are instances where Chōko is scorned for being unfeminine by other characters (meaning that she is doing work that women at the time weren’t considered capable of doing), and to one person, this may seem sexist – but as the translator mentions in the introduction, Odasaku intended to make fun of the Japanese concept of marriage and the roles of husband and wife. The reader obviously sees how hard Chōko works to keep the two of them on their feet, how she keeps a budget and saves every penny she makes, and that Ryūkichi is the one who should be ridiculed for spending so much of their money. Additionally, in Six White Venus, the main character, Narao, tries to assault a young girl before he realizes what he’s doing and then later attempts suicide because of it.

When he had threaded his way through the pine grove and come out on the sandy shore, it suddenly occurred to him that when a woman became someone’s mistress, that was the kind of vile treatment she would have to endure.

Like I mentioned, how the reader chooses to view the situation determines the outlook, like deciding whether a shade is one color or another.

I like Stories of Osaka Life overall, and I want to read more of Odasaku’s work in the future. Hopefully more translations will appear in the future.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Kappa, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

111256Original Title: 河童 (Kappa)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Geoffrey Bownas

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature, Satire

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father – the insanity alone is bad enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa’s existence is evil.”


Project BSD

I really enjoyed Kappa, but I don’t know how to describe it in an appealing way, because it’s weird – and I mean it’s really, really weird.

It’s a satire a lot like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but instead of politics, Akutagawa uses the fictional world of Kappaland to express his disgust of human beings, in particular himself. Akutagawa wrote Kappa during the last year of his life, while his already fragile mental health was deteriorating, not half of a year before he committed suicide in July 1927. In the story, an unnamed man falls down a hole into Kappaland, a world made up of Kappas, which are aquatic beings from Japanese folklore that have a tiger’s face, a sharp beak, scales, and an indentation on top of their head that, so long as it holds water, allows the creatures to live on land. He discovers that the Kappas have their own civilization, and from that point on he begins to live among them.

The Kappas have different ethics and practices than humans do, and though they’re not right by human standards, Akutagawa manages to twist it around and shove it back in the reader’s face a certain way that gives a sense of understanding. For instance, in a particularly disturbing birth scene, the Kappa has the choice of whether it wants to be born. This, along with the breeding practices mentioned in order to eradicate “evil heredity”, are subconscious indications of Akutagawa’s fear that he had inherited his mother’s schizophrenia. (The introduction claims that it’s a possibility, and that it is what eventually led to his death, but it’s impossible to say for certain.)

My favorite part is the end. There is a twist that Akutagawa kept until the very last few pages, and it wraps the story up nicely. When looked at from a distance, and after considering Akutagawa’s condition when he wrote the story, it also makes a lot more sense.

I am fascinated by Akutagawa’s work, because his stories are always filled with the weird, the grotesque, and the horrifying. I am more convinced than ever that although his stories aren’t for everyone, to the right person, they are magnificent.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Crackling Mountain and Other Stories, by Osamu Dazai

194742

Original Title: かちかち山 (Kachi-kachi yama)

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: James O’Brien

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮ +½

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I was a petal quivering in the slightest breeze, about to fall any moment. Even the slightest insult made me think of dying.


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Memories
  • Undine
  • Monkey Island
  • Heed My Plea
  • Melos, Run!
  • On the Question of Apparel
  • A Poor Man’s Got His Pride
  • The Monkey’s Mound
  • The Sound of Hammering
  • Taking the Wen Away
  • Crackling Mountain

This is my third round with Dazai, and I’m extremely happy to say that Dazai won this time.

Crackling Mountain and Other Stories is a very eclectic collection. Dazai is more well-known for his novels, including No Longer Human and The Setting Sun, but these stories are nothing like those works at all. Half of them are are retellings, and they show something of Dazai that was absent in his novels: a sense of humor.

The stories have very little in common with each other, which means that it’s going to be harder to sell to people as a whole. However, I think they are universally enjoyable and easy to read. The longest one, Memories, was actually my favorite, though it is a piece of autobiographical fiction like No Longer Human, so that could be the reason. Then again, Melos, Run! is a retelling of a German legend, entitled The Hostage, and it’s considered to be the most widespread work of Dazai’s in Japan. It’s a very simple tale with high morals, which contrasts considerably with the pessimistic style that I had come to know.

Reading Crackling Mountain taught me that I still haven’t seen every side of Dazai’s intellectual spectrum. There is still so much that I have yet to learn about him through his work. For instance, Heed My Plea is Biblical, which is something I know absolutely nothing about, as I am an atheist raised in a non-conforming household. It’s mentioned in the note preceeding the story that Dazai studied the Bible through the mid-1930s, especially in 1936 when he was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric observation. This, along with the themes in the stories, is what surprised me the most.

The more I read of Dazai’s work, the more peculiar he becomes to me – although for a man that committed as many suicide attempts as he did, I guess it’s only natural for him to be strange. I’ve read thirteen of his works, but I still feel like I’ve barely cracked the surface of the man that was Osamu Dazai.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Poems of the Goat, by Chūya Nakahara

2550921Original Title: 山羊の歌 (Yagi no Uta)

Author: Chūya Nakahara (中原 中也, Nakahara Chūya)

Translator: Ry Beville

Genres: Literature, Poetry

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✮

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The gateway to the shrine is draped in sunlight

The leaves of the elm are fluttering gently

The cobalt shade of summer beneath the trees at noon

Is working to ease my lingering regrets


Project BSD

Note: Due to length, the quotes used in this review are excerpts, not the entire poem.

Since I have started this project, I’ve learned so much about these authors and how they inspired their characters in Bungou Stray Dogs. There is something satisfying about putting a piece together, about figuring out a characteristic and connecting it with something that happened in the author’s life or one of their stories or poems. Because of this sense of familiarity, there are some authors that I have sought after explicitly in order to attain it.

Chūya Nakahara was such an author (well, poet). Because Chūya is my second-favorite character in Bungou Stray Dogs after Akutagawa, I wanted to read his work more so than others. Chūya Nakahara has been argued as modern Japan’s finest poet, and when someone slaps a title like that on a person, it makes their work irresistible. The problem is that Chūya’s work in English is extremely hard to get a hold of. I usually order books that I can’t find through Mel-Cat, but the only ones that are listed under his name are in Japanese, and I’m far from fluent enough to be able to read them.

So, of course, that meant that if I wanted to read the English translations, I had to buy them – and I finally got around to purchasing Poems of the Goat.

And it’s beautiful.

This longing that consumed me in my youth of quiet sadness

Is on its way to disappearing into the darkened night.

Even with the sentiment that there is something lost in translations, even without the visual effects of the Japanese language, even without the tone that is offered through different Japanese pronouns, these poems are so beautiful. They’re full of love and loneliness and insecurity, themes that reveal Chūya Nakahara as a person, and themes that I am drawn to on instinct. I was swept away by the haunting visuals, the elegant language, and the flowing, musical style that he was acclaimed for.

I love poetry because it feels personal. I love that the poet is free to either be vague or blunt, whimsical or dark, emotional or detached. It opens a window into their soul, into who they really are. By reading Poems of the Goat, I have glanced into the soul of Chūya Nakahara, and I love it so much.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami, by Akiko Yosano

1142106Original Title: みだれ髪 (Midaregami)

Author: Akiko Yosano (與謝野 晶子, Yosano Akiko)

Translator: Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda

Genres: Literature, Poetry, Tanka

Rating: ✮✮✮ +½

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Without returning…

O my feelings

In this gathering darkness of spring

And against my koto

My tangled, tangled hair.


Project BSD

I cannot verify how good I am at reviewing poetry. I can’t critique poetry the same way that I can books; I can only generate my personal opinion, not the quality of it. There were some that I didn’t like or understand, but Tangled Hair was a beautiful collection over all.

Tanka is syllabic, and it follows a structure of 5-7-5-7-7. Similar to the haiku, it also contains themes of nature. There’s a lengthy introduction that delves into the history of the tanka and also its evolution, leading up to where Akiko Yosano plays a roll in it. It rambles on and quite a bit of it is unnecessary – there’s a lot about Tekkan, Akiko’s husband, and all of his past lovers that was pretty boring – and in the end, it entails what can be easily understood by reading the poetry itself: it’s feminine, it’s erotic, and it’s sensual, just like Akiko herself.

Morning wisteria,

Soft murmurs of love,

His hand on the back of my neck,

O powerless to detain him,

My lover of one night!

What makes Akiko’s poetry so shocking is not just the eroticism, but what it symbolized. The traditional tanka relates strictly to nature’s beauty; Akiko crushed the “Old School” style and turned the tanka, which had been dying across the nation as an art form, into something completely her own. There’s a lot of themes in her poetry that become repetitive – the color red, pink blossoms, a koto, priests and temples – but sometimes she still twisted it and wrote something new. This one is my personal favorite:

The clear spring inside me

Overflowed,

Became muddy –

A child of sin you are

And so am I.

The best part about Tangled Hair is that it’s bilingual. Because it’s so difficult to translate Japanese exactly into English, trying to replicate it to the letter is an impossible job, especially since tanka is based on syllables. To give you an idea, hanashimasu means “speaks/will speak” in Japanese – four syllables versus one or two, depending on the context. It’s unbalanced. Instead of trying to cram the English translation into the same structure, the translators let the poems run free, and included the poems in the original Japanese – both in kanji and romaji – to keep its authenticity. There’s also notes that explain the poems’ meanings, though personally, I think trying to dissect poetry ruins its beauty.

Tangled Hair is feminist poetry. Though there were some that I didn’t get, I love the themes that are depicted in this collection: sexuality, beauty, desire, and throughout, that undertone of naturalness that the original tanka prescribes.