Books / Reviews | RECENTLY PUBLISHED BOOKS ABOUT JAPAN

Japanese Classics series: Vintage Classics gives timeless Japanese literature a look for the new decade

by Renae Lucas-Hall

Contributing Writer

Each title in the new Vintage Classics Japanese Classics Series sets a different tone with distinctive characters and an array of brilliant plot twists.

Japanese Classics Series, by Various authors.
VINTAGE CLASSICS, Fiction.

“Out” by Natsuo Kirino is a gruesome story so well-written you’ll be completely captivated. Four dissatisfied women find themselves looking for a way out of their backbreaking factory work and unhappy relationships at home. When one murders her husband, the other three are persuaded to help her get away with it, leading to more violence and criminality. Kirino focuses on the way people deal with shame, anger and fear in such desperate situations.

Yoko Ogawa’s “The Housekeeper and the Professor” tells the story of a kindhearted woman employed to look after a former university professor who suffers from amnesia following a car accident. He’s obsessed with mathematics and prime numbers, and every morning quizzes the housekeeper with questions relating to her shoe size or zip code, thinking he’s meeting her for the first time. When the housekeeper brings her son to work, the professor immediately warms to him. As time passes by, his teachings open up a whole new world to the boy and his mother. It’s spellbinding and heartwarming; a discovery of the noble beauty of mathematics.

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is one of Haruki Murakami’s most famous novels. This wind-up bird has a cry only certain people can hear. Its sorrowful sound plunges protagonist Toru Okada into chaos every time he hears it. The themes and symbolism here are typical of Murakami: time is fluid, relationships are analyzed, the obligatory cat and crows appear, Western food is prepared and classical music is preferred. Fate rules and the individual counts for nothing.

“The Makioka Sisters” by Junichiro Tanizaki centers on an overly proud Osaka family trying but failing to find the perfect husband for their third sister, Yukiko. The development of the sisters’ personalities, the parallels with Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” the contrast between Tokyoites and Osakans, and Tanizaki’s interpretation of a declining middle class family in the 1930s make this book one of the greatest novels in Japanese literature.

Last but not least is Yukio Mishima’s exquisitely written “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea.” The love that sailor Ryuji feels for the beautiful Fusako is endearing and beyond reproach. However, all sweetness turns sour as it emerges that Fusako’s son is affiliated with a gang led by a chief who thinks in terms of absolute cruelty and dispassion. The comparisons between life and death, order and chaos, love and hate, as well as the freedom of the sea and ties to the land, all make this a wonderful addition to a magnificent series.

Another highlight is the books’ stunning covers, designed by Vintage Creative Director Suzanne Dean and illustrator Yuko Shimizu. Individually and as a collection, they evoke a sense of Japanese subtlety infused with modernity.

“I have a great love of Japanese culture and aesthetics, so I leaped at the chance to create a look for this series,” says Dean. “I decided to commission Yuko as I’d always admired her sense of color, dramatic composition and wit. Plus, she can draw beautifully.”

As momentum grows and excitement builds for the 2020 Olympics, interest in Japan grows across the board. This series provides the perfect introduction to the country’s multilayered culture as well as insight into Japanese society on a level usually reserved only for the Japanese.