Finding current events all a bit too much? Here are five portals — otherwise known as books — into the past and future.
- “Kyoto: A Literary Guide” grew out of circle of friends, academics, translators and professors who shared a love of Kyoto’s literary legacy. The result, writes Stephen Mansfield, is a highly filtered presentation of work, largely verse, that begins with the crafted words of privileged courtiers, counselors and ladies-in-waiting of the Heian Period (794-1185). From there, the book guides readers through the literary history of Kyoto until we reach the modern day. “The only reason we did not kill each other is that, even though every member had strong opinions, we kept relations warm,” says one contributor. One painful aspect of finalizing the book was that they “left so many wonderful poems on the editing room floor.”
- A followup to his 2018 book, “Japan Story,” cultural historian Christopher Harding’s new work — “The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives” — tells the personal stories of 20 figures representing defining eras, moments or aspects of Japan’s past. Some of his subjects are the great and eminent, such as Oda Nobunaga and Sakamoto Ryoma, while other inclusions are more surprising, such as a samurai/diplomat who paid the pope a visit in 1613. By shifting focus without losing the renowned figures or the sweeping trends but rather leavening them with formerly unsung individuals, writes Iain Maloney, the author is able to say something new about the history of Japan.
- Timon Screech, a professor of the history of art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, takes us on a journey to the early times of a backwater town, then called Edo and known better known as Tokyo. His book “Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo” offers a fascinating look at early urban planning that had to eschew the grid in favor of circles around the castle moats and respect the ki of Chinese geomancy. Although very little of Tokyo’s past remains standing, the original footprint is still there, writes Martin LaFlamme, and Screech shows us where to look.
- Think of the magical bathhouse in “Spirited Away” or the urban fabric of Neo-Tokyo in “Akira.” Chris Russell writes that the painstaking work put into the backgrounds of those films is as crucial as the character outlines and musical scores, yet there is rarely much focus on them, either by the artists or the viewers. Stefan Riekeles’ recently released book titled “Anime Architecture: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities,” however, shines a spotlight on these richly visualized worlds that are so crucial to conveying moods and themes.
- And lastly, a look at the present but don’t worry, it’s fictional and timely. In “There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job,” author Kikuko Tsumura details the everyday struggles of modern life, focusing on our complicated relationships with work. As the narrator navigates each workplace, she and the reader gradually become aware of a meaning underlying all endeavors in life, even those that seem bizarre. Translated in an understated style by Polly Barton, part of the novel’s appeal lies in the narrator’s distinct worldview and her deadpan humor, writes Kris Kosaka.