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

2550921Original Title: 山羊の歌

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

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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.

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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


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.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: The Setting Sun, by Osamu Dazai

194740Original Title: 斜陽 (Shayō)

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: Donald Keene

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮

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This I want to believe implicitly: Man was born for love and revolution.

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I very much enjoined No Longer Human. I liked its quiet melancholy and its deep, depressing theme. Whether or not I cared for the narrator is dubious, but I thought it was insightful and I relished it thoroughly. To completely flip the page over and end up here is a bit of a shock.

The biggest problem with The Setting Sun is that it’s boring, and also that it’s melodramatic. It’s full of symbolism relating to the post-war era of Japan following World War II, and if the book related to the country as a whole, I could get down with that. Instead, Dazai wrote about a specific aristocratic family. This means that the attention is centered on them. This means that I have to care for them and direct my sympathy towards them, and I can not.

If I felt anything at all, it was squashed by Kazuko. How the hell am I supposed to feel bad for her when she writes to a man, knowing that he has a wife and family, asking to become his mistress and to have his child? Ignorance is one thing, but she knows. I realize that times were different then, and that many men had mistresses and their wives even knew about it, but that doesn’t disregard how much it sickens me.

Naoji has told me that many people say you are repulsive, and that you are hated and often attacked. Such stories only make me love you all the more. I am sure, considering who you are, that you must have all kinds of amies, but now you will gradually come to love only me. I can’t help thinking that.

Kazuko is whiny. She’s whiny and self-absorbed and just plain annoying.

In regards to the writing, Dazai has this habit of stating an event, and then going back and describing what happened. I hate this tactic, because it’s anti-climatic – it’s almost lazy. Where’s the build-up and tension? As a whole as well, parts are extremely plain, some are purple enough to induce vomiting, and some just don’t make sense. (Why are the words ‘breast’ and ‘breasts’ used so often? Is it intended to be sexual or could he not think of a proper synonym?)

This book is important to Japan because it depicts its transition into a more industrial society. It’s not that I don’t understand that, or that I’m overlooking it – I simply didn’t enjoy this book.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

35206Original Title: 羅生門 (Rashōmon)

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

Translator: Jay Rubin

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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What happened to the lowly servant, no one knows.

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Stories in this book:

  • Rashōmon
  • In a Bamboo Grove
  • The Nose
  • Dragon: The Old Potter’s Tale
  • The Spider Thread
  • Hell Screen
  • Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
  • O-Gin
  • Loyalty
  • The Story of a Head That Fell Off
  • Green Onions
  • Horse Legs
  • Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years
  • The Writer’s Craft
  • The Baby’s Sickness
  • Death Register
  • The Life of a Stupid Man
  • Spinning Gears

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was actually one of the few Japanese authors that I knew before I started this project. He’s one of the more well-known ones out there. There was a collection of his stories in my school’s library, but when I started to read them, I wasn’t impressed. The translation was awkward and the story was confusing, and I only finished a couple before I gave it up and returned the book.

It turns out, I am not alone in my opinion. I mention this to emphasize the fact that a good story can be ruined due to a terrible translation, and that it’s better to see which ones are available before picking one up.

This collection is much, much different. The writing is beautiful, and Akutagawa’s creative genius shines through. The tales are morbid, strange, and cynical. Hell Screen, the longest one in the book, was one of the ones that I tried to read previously. The first time, it was like trying to complete a puzzle with pieces that didn’t go together; this time, I was absorbed completely.

Akutagawa has been compared to Atsushi Nakajima on multiple occasions, but to be honest, he reminds me of Osamu Dazai. Both authors committed suicide, and death and alienation are two recurring themes in their work. There are multiple differences in style – Dazai’s No Longer Human felt very sad in a numb, hollow way, whereas Akutagawa’s stories are more dramatic – but both authors suffered in similar ways, and it’s reflected in their writing.

–I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

The most controversial ones are Akutagawa’s non-fictional work. (Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years Spinning Gears.) There is especially criticism regarding The Life of a Stupid Man, Akutagawa’s “autobiography”, told in fragments. Akutagawa’s personal life, though interesting, is inconsequential to me regarding the story’s merit; it didn’t affect how I read it. I loved it because I thought that it was beautifully written, and the way it’s sectioned gives it a poetic feel that I particularly liked. I wasn’t that impressed with Spinning Gears, neither was I O-Gin or Green Onions, but as a whole I think this is a great illustration of Akutagawa’s craft.

Akutagawa was, in a way, tragic. His skills once put him at the top – but changing times, mingled in with his own doubt and other’s criticism, resulted in his decline. That is why although quite a few of his works are considered to be masterpieces, there are others that are far less than that. I don’t think Akutagawa’s work is something that you will always love 100% of the time, but an author is never perfect, and many of his stories are true classics.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: The Moon Over the Mountain: Stories, by Atsushi Nakajima

9811918Original Title: 山月記 (Sangetsuki)

Author: Atsushi Nakakima (中島 敦, Nakajima Atsushi)

Translator: Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner

Genres: Japanese Literature, Chinese History

Rating: ✮✮ +½

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“We are all of us trainers of wild beasts, it is said, and the beasts in question are our own inner selves.”

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Stories in this book:

  • The Moon Over the Mountain
  • The Master
  • The Bull Man
  • Forebodings
  • The Disciple
  • The Rebirth of Wujing
  • Waxing and Waning
  • Li Ling
  • On Admiration: Notes by the Monk Wujing

I try not to be apologetic when I review books, but this is one case where I feel truly terrible – and my rating isn’t even that low.

Atsushi Nakajima is famous for his stories on Ancient China, and is considered to be a master of the sub-genre by keeping his stories faithful to their original source. He’s highly regarded in Japanese Literature and praised for his work – an annual festival is even held in his honor – and his writing style is one full of rich philosophical idioms about what it means to be the “self”, and why things are the way they are. According to the translators, Nakajima’s original Japanese is “erudite” and hard to read, which might be why this is the only collection of his stories published in English.

To the accuracy of the content, I cannot verify; I studied Ancient China once, but it was years ago, and it’s all but forgotten. The first few stories – including, of course, The Moon Over The Mountain – are beautiful. They’re absolutely beautiful.

Having chanced to go mad, I became a wild beast

Calamity piled upon calamity – I cannot escape my fate.

Who could now withstand my fangs and claws?

Yet in student days I shared your bright promise –

Now I have become a beast crouching in a thicket,

While you ride grandly in an official’s carriage.

Tonight I gaze at the bright moon over the mountain.

Unable to sing an ode, I can only howl.

The problem with his style, though, is that it’s unbalanced. Though it might be accurate, most of these stories are “related” and not “created”, just as Sima Qian laments about in the novella Li Ling. Basically, these stories are recounted fact for fact, until it stops reading as a story and becomes a textbook. While in the shorter stories the effect is softened, in longer ones such as The Disciple, The Rebirth of Wujing, and Li Ling, it’s exponential. The events that take place in these stories are indeed full of blood, power struggles, politics, and war – there’s even a castration. Ouch – but due to the way it’s written, it’s hard to get enraptured and easier to fall asleep. It’s exactly the same as medieval history: it seems exciting until you start studying it.

This could be a big case of, “It’s not you, it’s me”. For him to be so highly respected, I have to think that my feelings are more due to personal taste than Nakajima’s abilities as a writer.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edogawa Rampo

196150Original Title: N/A

Author: Edogawa Rampo (江戸川 乱歩, Edogawa Ranpo*)

Translator: James B. Harris

Genres: Horror, Mystery-Thriller

Rating: ✮✮✮✮


“The living world is a dream. The nocturnal dream is reality.”

— Edogawa Rampo

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Stories in this book:

  • The Human Chair
  • The Psychological Test
  • The Caterpillar
  • The Cliff
  • The Hell of Mirrors
  • The Twins
  • The Red Chamber
  • Two Crippled Men
  • The Traveler With The Pasted Rag Picture

Edogawa Rampo is referred to as “Japan’s Edgar Allan Poe”, and to that there are multiple reasons why:

  1. Edgar Allan Poe was Rampo’s mentor; he was an avid reader of both American and European mysteries, and a big fan of Poe’s work. (Eddie’s swelled head would blow up at that.)
  2. Similarly to Poe being the creator of the modern detective story, Rampo created the first original Japanese mystery story.
  3. Edogawa Rampo is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The author’s birth name was Tarō Hirai (平井 太郎, Hirai Tarō).

These stories are more suspense than mystery. At any rate, those that contain murder are not about whodunit, but how they were caught, such as in The Psychological Test and The Twins. Some of them are horrifying and some are grotesque, but all of them are very, very peculiar.

Take The Human Chair, the first and probably the best story in the entire collection. A man that defines himself as “ugly beyond description” writes a letter to an authoress. In the letter, he recounts how he created an armchair that could inhabit a human being, how he holed himself up inside of it, and his experiences with all of the women that have sat in it – all of them unknowing that there is a man underneath them, caressing their body.

Gives you the absolute creeps, doesn’t it?

Then in The Hell of Mirrors, a man obsessed with optics creates a perfect sphere of mirrors and accidentally gets locked inside of it, and the images reflected cause him to go raving mad. In The Twins, one of two identical twin brothers confesses how he murdered his other half and took his place, then proceeded to carry out crimes as his true self while he continued to pose as his brother. In The Red Chamber, a madman recounts how he caused the deaths of ninety-nine individual people without lifting a single finger.

I was disturbed over and over again.

Another great thing about these stories is that they’re written in a way that feels timeless, like they could take place anywhere, anytime. Though the style of these stories is without a doubt Japanese, the translation gives it a Western feel, and this is due partly to Edogawa Rampo’s love of Western mysteries as well as his contribution to the translation. (According to the translator’s preface, Rampo could both read and comprehend English, but was unable to write it or speak it; the translator could speak Japanese but could not read or write it. Thus a painstaking five-year project commenced, with the translator turning out sentence after sentence until Rampo was satisfied with how it was read in English.) So even though Japanese mysteries are largely unknown to English readers, it’s easy to integrate into Edogawa Rampo’s writing, since he knew how Western mystery stories were crafted.

Today there is a Japan Mystery Writer’s Club, which Rampo founded, meaning that there is a whole vein of writers of the genre that have yet to be discovered. Still, there is no better place to get started than the man who started it all.

*Note: 乱歩 has been romanized as both ‘Rampo’ and ‘Ranpo’.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

Original title: 人間失格 (Ningen Shikkaku)194746

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: Donald Keene

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.”

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No Longer Human is considered to be Dazai’s masterpiece, and it’s without a doubt one of the most depressing books that I’ve ever read. Considering the elements that relate to Dazai’s personal life, including suicide, it’s no wonder that people consider this more of an autobiography than a work of fiction.

The story follows the life of Ōba Yōzō, who feels alienated from other people and creates a cheerful facade in order to dispel his true nature. As he grows older his fears increase and prevent him from integrating into society, and he falls to smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and adulterous affairs with women. He reveals on multiple occasions that he wants to die, and considers a violent death a blessing.

During the course of my life I have wished innumerable times that I might meet with a violent death, but I have never once desired to kill anybody. I thought that in killing a dreaded adversary I might actually be bringing him happiness.

Definitely not a cheerful book.

This is a book where the relationship between the reader and the narrator is not definite. Even though I constantly felt sympathetic towards Yōzō’s situation, there were many times where I was frustrated with him as well. I think that was Dazai’s point, to not make him completely likeable, to emphasize how troubled he is. To create a character that is simultaneously likeable and dislikable is an amazing thing.

Overall, what this book highlights is how some people are unable to cope with everyday life, with the trials of “being human.” As a result, they are isolated and lonely beings who go through life as if in a living hell. In that aspect, although we don’t want to face such things as grief, guilt, and fear, if we avoid them we will only suffer more.

This book was dark and depressing, but a quick read, and beautifully written and translated.

Announcing Project Bungou Stray Dogs!

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All right, guys. Here is where I announce a new project that I’m starting that is both for the public and for myself. Will it benefit anybody? I have absolutely no idea, but I feel a sense of duty.

First and foremost: have any of you ever heard of Bungou Stray Dogs?

Image result for bungou stray dogs ending gif

It’s an anime/manga by Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa. The characters have supernatural powers and are named after famous literary figures in Japan (Bungō, or 文豪, means “Literary writer” or “Literary master”), and their “gifts”, as they call them, are based on their most famous work. They even bring in famous American authors as well, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louisa May Alcott, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Basically, it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread.

Naturally I’ve heard of the American authors, but my curiosity was piqued about the ones from Japan. I started researching them, and I realized, with harsh clarity, that Japanese literature in English-speaking countries is practically scarce. Despite the fact that these authors are so acknowledged in Japan, elsewhere, they are virtually unknown.

I love Japan, but I have to admit that my list of known Japanese authors is about the length of a post-it note. I felt a little…ashamed.

I’ve decided to use Bungou Stray Dogs as a guide. I want to read these works not only for myself, but to bring Japanese literature closer to other people. Many of these stories, books, and poems have been translated into English, so it’s not like it’s due to a lack of availability. It’s simply that Japanese literature is isolated, and I want it to spread out.

These posts will be a lot like reviews, but I want to focus more on the book and less on opinion. Whether or not I like it is inconsequential; it’s not about me. I’ll keep a documented list of the work that I’ve read, and hopefully this will bring it into another reader’s hands.

*phew.* That was a mouthful.

I hope you’ll enjoy them in the future! I’m excited to get started.