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If you want to get a sense of Japan’s upper-crust sensibilities during the 20th century, pick up the 1972 Tanizaki Prize-winner, “Singular Rebellion,” by Saiichi Maruya. It is decidedly slow-paced, but the careful prose peels back the layers of Japanese social conventions to reveal a rebellious spirit.

Singular Rebellion, by Saiichi Maruya, Translated by Dennis Keene.
412 pages
Kodansha, Fiction.

Three months after his first wife’s death, passive middle-aged salaryman Eisuke Mabuchi decides to marry a fashion model. It’s not his first “rebellion”: Mabuchi previously declined a promotion to the Defense Agency and left his restrictive government job to become head of planning at an appliance company.

The ensuing social complications of his marriage unfold with droll humor thanks to a handful of unruly characters, including the live-in help Mabuchi employs, a politically charged photographer and Mabuchi’s grandmother-in-law, who has just been released from prison for murder.

“Singular Rebellion” may not be laugh-out-loud funny for some readers, but for anyone interested in Japanese traditions of unspoken consent and hierarchical negotiations the book is a fascinating exploration of a viewpoint rarely articulated.

Although Maruya’s book is nearly 50 years old, his exploration of the individual’s struggle for freedom — told with dry wit and understated humor — is still relevant today.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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