With the success of 2018’s “The Traveling Cat Chronicles” joining a clutter of famous feline-linked Japanese tales, cats definitely receive literary affection in Japan. Yet as this year’s “Of Dogs and Walls” by Yuko Tsushima shows, we can’t forget the literary canine either. To close out the Year of the Dog, here’s the best in canine literature in Japan.
Think of the gesaku literary tradition as the Edo Period (1603-1868) version of the mass-market paperback: popular, engaging stories meant to be enjoyed. “The Eight Dog Chronicles,” Kyokutei Bakin’s sprawling epic of eight samurai half brothers descended from a dog, took nearly 30 years to write (1814-42) and covers the thrilling Sengoku period of warfare in Japan. Marked by literary wordplay and Buddhist philosophy, it’s one of the world’s longest novels and enjoyed enormous popularity during publication. Moving into the 21st century, modern adaptations are frequently made — everything from anime to stage plays to kabuki. A partial translation is available from Columbia University Press’ “Early Modern Japanese Literature Anthology (1600-1900).”
A modern dog novel, historically ambitious in scope, was written by Hideo Furakawa in 2005, “Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?” Translated by Michael Emmerich, Furukawa sniffs out the historically accurate use of dogs during military combat by chronicling the lives of four army canines abandoned in 1943 on the Aleutian Islands after a battle. We follow the misadventures of these four dogs and their offspring as they travel around the globe in the 20th century of war, from World War II to the Korean War, the Cold War (where the Soviet-U.S. space race included sending dogs up in space), the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan. It’s a fantastical dog’s perspective of war-mongering humanity.
“The Bridegroom Was a Dog,” by Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada, investigates the blurred lines between storytelling and reality when a prim schoolteacher reads a story to her class about a princess marrying a dog, only to encounter a surreal dog-like man in her everyday life. The erotic affair that follows twists expectations both stylistically and thematically. Translated by Margaret Mitsutani, the short story was awarded the Akutagawa Prize in 1993 and is available in English as a novella from New Directions Publishing.
Finally, one more dog book deserves mention for its inventive premise, although it’s not yet translated into English. “A Dog’s Body” by Rieko Matsuura, won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in 2007. A young woman adores dogs so much she feels she is suffering “species identity disorder,” and when a nefarious stranger offers her the chance to reincarnate as a canine, she takes it. And so her dogged adventures begin.
Japanese dog literature joins such international greats as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog” or Virginia Woolf’s “Flush: A Biography” or Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” Pick up one of these recommendations for a barking good end to the year of humankind’s four-legged friend.