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review 2018-03-04 00:27
The Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove
The Master Key - Masako Togawa

This is set in Tokyo, at the K Apartments for Ladies. I didn't write down enough of the mentions of exact years to be 100% sure, but the book's "present" is probably the late 1950s.

The K Apartments for Ladies were originally meant to help "Japanese women emancipate themselves" (17). All of the women who live there are unmarried. Men are only allowed into the building if they check in first, after which they're escorted to whichever apartment they plan to visit. All the rents are frozen at wartime levels, so it's a cheap place to live. In the book's present, the entire building is about to be moved four meters in order to make room for a road-widening project. This can supposedly be done without disturbing any of the building's residents, who have all opted to stay inside until the project is finished.

Togawa gives readers glimpses into the particular stories and secrets of several of the building residents. In every instance, the weight of their secrets either begins to overwhelm them as the date of the move nears, or there's a strong possibility that the move will force their secrets into the light. Some of the residents mentioned include: Chikako Ueda, who once worked with a male accomplice to bury a dead child in an unused communal bathroom in the building's basement; Toyoko Munekata, who is supposedly hard at work correcting her late husband's manuscripts; Noriko Ishiyama, who has taken to living like a mouse, existing off of others' scraps; Suwa Yatabe, a violin instructor; and Yoneko Kimura, a retired teacher who spends her days writing letters to every single one of her former students.

I heard about this via a list on Goodreads. Although it's been tagged as a mystery, it's not really a traditional mystery, and readers who approach it as one are likely to be disappointed. There are certainly plenty of crimes mentioned - kidnapping, murder, arson, theft - but it's only in the last half of the book or so that anything like sleuthing happens, as Yoneko investigates one of her fellow residents on behalf of a former student.

Even then (I'm trying to avoid spoilers), there is the issue of appearances and reality. Some readers may love the twists at the end, while others may feel like the author cheated. I fall somewhere in between. I admired the way Togawa set things up so that readers would expect that they were dealing with one set of rules when they were actually dealing with a completely different set. She managed this without, as far as I could tell, ever really lying to readers, although I suppose that could depend upon your definition of "lie."

That said, the revelation concerning one particular character really bugged me. It required the character to be completely and utterly bound up in the building, the residents, and all their stories, to the point that that was their personal story. My suspension of disbelief was severely strained. I also had trouble believing that this person could do everything they would have had to have done without anyone ever being the wiser.

I thought that Togawa was going to end the book with a few "realistically" loose threads, and I was fully prepared to be mad at her for that. Instead, she included a short epilogue that answered that last question and left me feeling absolutely furious at one of the characters, the only one who'd escaped the story completely unscathed. I'm actually angrier at that character than I am at the one who literally murdered another character.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. The structure was a bit strange, the timeline and characters weren't always easy to keep track of, I disliked a lot of the revelations in the chapter just before the epilogue, and there were parts that were ridiculous enough to make me wonder whether this could be considered a black comedy. Still, it was fascinating seeing characters' stories get tangled up together. I'd probably be willing to try another one of the author's works.

Additional Comments:

This translation seemed decent enough, although potentially a bit over-localized. I wonder, was the spirit medium really named "Thumbelina" in the original, or was that just the closest approximation the translator could come up with? Thumbelina was repeatedly described as being dressed in "a white robe with loose red trousers" (15) or something similar. I figured that she probably looked very much like a miko, not that there were translator's notes mentioning this (and the word miko was never used - the translator's choice, I'm guessing, because I doubt the original Japanese text would have gone out of its way to avoid using the word).

Names were almost always in Western order, given name first and then family name. I noticed one or two instances of the translator messing up and using the Japanese order, which unfortunately contributed a bit to my difficulty with keeping track of all the characters' names.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2018-01-01 04:31
The Ginza Ghost by Keikichi Osaka, translated by Ho-Ling Wong
The Ginza Ghost: and other stories - Ho-Ling Wong,Keikichi Ōsaka

Have I mentioned that I hate reviewing anthologies? Collections of stories by the same author are easier to review than ones with stories by many authors, but I’d still rather review individual novels, novellas, and short stories.

Anyway, this made it onto my TBR after I finished Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and went hunting for similar books. The Ginza Ghost starts with an introduction about Osaka and his stories. Like Shimada, Osaka was an author of honkaku (orthodox) mysteries. He was born in 1912 and began prolifically publishing mystery stories starting in 1932. Unfortunately, this was a time when honkaku mysteries were looked at unfavorably in Japan, and so he eventually had to switch to comedy and spy stories. In 1943 he was drafted, and he died of disease sometime in 1945.

The collection includes twelve stories organized semi-chronologically by publication date. I’m not sure why there were a few exceptions mixed in. Perhaps to make sure the volume ended as strongly as possible? “The Phantom Wife” wouldn’t have made for as good a stopping point as “The Ginza Ghost.”

I’d highly advise skipping the portion of the introduction that discusses the individual stories. I made the mistake of reading the first few and, although they didn’t quite include spoilers, they contained enough information to affect the way I interpreted the stories and the evidence.

The first story was a fairly basic mystery. It wasn’t until later in the collection that one of Osaka’s signature elements, the possibility of supernatural involvement, came into play. Although none of his stories contained true supernatural elements, many of them were designed to look like they might. In “The Phantom Wife,” it appeared that a man was killed by his vengeful dead wife. The murder in “The Monster of the Lighthouse” seemed to have been committed by an enormously strong red octopus-like monster. In “The Ginza Ghost,” a young woman seemed to have been murdered by the ghost of a jealous wife. In “The Cold Night’s Clearing,” the murderer looked to be none other than Santa Claus himself.

Another thing that came up a lot in Osaka’s stories was optical illusions. While the way these illusions were uncovered didn’t always work for me, they were certainly interesting. One part, in particular, brought to mind 2015’s “The Dress,” the one that either looked blue and black or white and gold depending on who you asked.

I liked but didn’t necessarily love most of the collection. My particular favorites were “The Mourning Locomotive” (even though it relied heavily on information found in a letter after everything was all over), “The Ginza Ghost,” “The Guardian of the Lighthouse” (tragic and horrific), and “The Demon in the Mine" (wonderful incorporation of the setting). “The Cold Night’s Clearing” was also quite good, as long as you’re okay with your Christmas stories being very depressing. And “The Hungry Letter-Box” was a nice change of pace, the only mystery that didn’t involve a death of some kind. I later learned, after reading the bit about this story in the introduction, that this was the one story in the collection written after Osaka switched to spy stories and comedies.

There were other stories I didn't like quite as much. “The Phantasm of the Stone Wall” was a little boring, and the deductions in “The Mesmerising Light” were largely unnecessary and could have been done away with if one of the characters had come up with better questions. “The Three Madmen” and “The Hangman of the Department Store” were both nice enough mysteries, but not the best or most intriguing mysteries in the collection. “The Monster of the Lighthouse” started off okay but became, for me, the worst story in the collection by the end. Its placement right after “The Mourning Locomotive” probably didn’t help.

Ah, and I feel I should mention really quick that some of the stories have very gory and descriptive crime scenes. The ones that made me cringe the most were “The Mourning Locomotive” and “The Three Madmen.” The first had many grisly deaths by train, including the aftermath of trying to clean up, and the second included a victim whose brain had been removed.

Those with more of a taste for short stories might like this collection more than I did, but it wasn’t bad. “The Demon in the Mine,” the longest story in the book, made me wish that Osaka’s one novel, Yacht of Death, had been translated. The story’s greater number of pages gave him more time to really set up the situation (although the characters still weren’t fleshed out at all), and I loved the way he incorporated the specifics of the mine into the mystery.

The book included a publisher’s note on Japanese weights and measures, as well as a few translator’s notes. I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a few more translator’s notes - there were at least a couple things I was curious about that didn’t get notes.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2015-06-30 04:21
Kokoro
Kokoro - Sōseki Natsume,Edwin McClellan

One of the most famous works of Japanese literature, Kokoro is a masterpiece exploring themes of loneliness and the death of the Meiji era.

 

It was also really depressing. So while intellectually I know it was a good book, it wasn't really all that enjoyable to read. That's just my own personal preference, though.

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review 2014-04-13 05:55
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - Yasutaka Tsutsui,David James Karashima

Despite my disappointment with the live action movie Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I was looking forward to this book – possibly one of those instances of me being too attracted to cover art. Seriously, the cover of this book is lovely. And also makes no sense. At the very least, the flowers should be lavender flowers, not daisies or whatever those things are.

First off, this book is short. My e-reader app says it's only 64 pages long. The print version is 200 pages. Second, it's not just one story, it's two, and they're completely unrelated at that. Two thirds of the book is devoted to “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” while the last third is “The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of.”

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is a science fiction story starring a girl named Kazuko. She has two male friends, Goro and Kazuo. One day, she and her friends have to stay late at school, cleaning the science lab. While Goro and Kazuo are off washing up, Kazuko hears somebody walking around who shouldn't be there. When she tries to confront this mystery person, he or she disappears. Kazuko becomes overwhelmed by the smell of lavender, produced by some test tubes the mystery person broke, and faints.

She wakes up and is seemingly fine, but a few days later she and Goro are almost hit by a truck, and something odd happens. Kazuko wakes up in her bed, thinking that the incident with the truck was just a dream. However, it soon becomes apparent that she has actually jumped backwards in time. Somehow, Kazuko has to convince her friends to help her and figure out how to undo whatever it was the mysterious stranger did to her.

The simplicity of this story disappointed me right from the start. It was entirely plot-focused – no attempt was made at character development at all. Any sense of fear, or wonder, or awe seemed muffled. Even after she realized what was going on, Kazuko made no attempt to play around with or test out her new ability. She cared enough about altering the past to want to try to save Goro, but the possibility of preventing the accident from happening in the first place never even occurred to her. Kazuo, Goro, and Mr. Fukushima's reactions to what was happening to Kazuko were remarkably mild, and Mr. Fukushima believed Kazuko far more quickly than I would have expected him to.

The story was interesting enough, until the mystery person's identity was revealed. I already knew what to expect, having watched Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (although that movie takes place years later), but reading this story gave me additional details. Unfortunately, those additional details managed to make the whole situation seem even dumber than it did in the movie. The mystery person's feelings for Kazuko weren't believable, and the amount of mental tampering the person had engaged in made them seem more creepy than anything. Had I been Kazuko, I'd have been mad, scared, or both, but she adjusted to it all fairly easily.

The story's ending was absolutely pointless, and I am still wondering how the mystery person managed to smooth things over so that the truck accident and the fire never happened.

“The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of” is a contemporary fiction story. You could maybe call it a bit of a psychological thriller. After her friend Bunichi scares her with a Prajna mask, Masako becomes obsessed with finding out the root of her two greatest fears, heights and Prajna masks. What horrible thing did she see or do that gave her such fears, and why can't she remember? While considering the problem of phobias, Masako accidentally learns the source of the fear that prevents her little brother Yoshio from going to the bathroom at night and leads to him wetting the bed. She tries to deal with her own fear by confronting it, but, when that doesn't work, she decides she has to find its root, the same way she did with her little brother.

This was actually pretty interesting and suspenseful, even though it suffered from several of the same problems that “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" did. As in that story, character development was nonexistent, and just about everything was oversimplified. For example, whenever Masako discovered the root of her little brother's fears, she told him about it, which instantly cured him of his fears. I'm fairly certain that curing fears and phobias is usually a little more difficult and complicated than that.

I was all geared up to find out about the horrible thing that Masako had done or seen that gave her her fears...and then the horrible thing turned out to be kind of a letdown. Yes, it would have been an awful moment, but it wasn't nearly as shocking as I had been expecting, and the way the revelation was handled could have been better.

This was a “meh” story with one particular aspect that bothered me: the way Yoshio's fears were talked about and handled. Repeated throughout the story, by several characters, was the assertion that he was five years old and a boy, so he should no longer be afraid to go to the bathroom at night. The fact that he was a boy was particularly important. His mother essentially called him a little girl for being so afraid and for playing with girls because the other boys bullied him. At the end of the story, when he fought back against one of the bullies, Masako told him he shouldn't fight and then praised him for fighting. I wanted to ask these characters to sit down and really think about the words that were coming out of their mouths.

All in all, this book was a bit of a disappointment. Both stories had interesting premises, but fell flat in the end, and both were far more simplistic than I would have liked.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2012-01-23 00:00
The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories
The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories - John L. Apostolou,Martin H. Greenberg,Kōbō Abe,Ryo Hanmura,Shin'ichi Hoshi,Takashi Ishikawa,Morio Kita,Sakyo Komatsu,Tensei Kono,Taku Mayumura,Yasutaka Tsutsui,Tetsu Yano Early Sci-Fi, Nihon (にほん) Style . Science fiction has been published in Japan for over a hundred years, the first to really influence were the novels of Jules Verne, with the translation of Around the world in 80 days, published in 1878-1880, followed by his other works all of which were immensely popular. In fact the word kagaku shōsetsu (科学小説) was coined as a translation of "scientific novel" as early as 1886. Sci-Fi by japanese writers started to appear around the start of the twentieth century, with writers such as Shunro Oshikawa (1877-1914) and Junro Unno (1897-1949) who, inspired by Verne and H.G.Wells, wrote military style adventures combined with aspects of science, such as Oshikawa’ s The undersea Warship (1900) & Unno’s The Floating Airfield (1938). Prior to world war two most japanese Science Fiction were pale imitations of western fiction, placing the emphasis on techno future, with it’s reliance on machinery to solve any problems and was considered a sub literary form, normally placed within the mystery genre. After the war with the American army an occupying force, the Japanese were introduced to a wide range of writers through the magazines & paperbacks carried by the G.I’s. Exposure to this material led to a widespread revival in the genre, followed by translations of the works of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, which both made the bestsellers list.Two major events occurred in the development of Japanese Sci-Fi in 1950’s, the first being the - now considered legendary - fanzine Cosmic dust (Uchu-jin, 宇宙塵) was founded, although the first science fiction magazine in Japan was Seiun (星雲) in 1954, but this was discontinued after only one issue. The second Hayakawa Shobo, began it’s series of Sci-Fi books and it’s Hayakawa's S-F Magazine (S-Fマガジン) with the February 1960 issue, appearing in bookshops at the end of 1959. Under the editorship of Masami Fukushima it started publishing translations of English Language stories, although later it would be prominent in the publication of original Japanese Science Fiction.http://parrishlantern.blogspot.com/2012/03/early-sci-fi-nihon-style.html
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