Mieko Kanai - Writing becomes an act of unknowing, an act of obfuscation. Ideas of self, time, and fact become fugitive issues

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Mieko Kanai, Word Book, Trans. by Paul McCarthy. Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.

Like the surfaces of a jagged crystal, each story in this collection shows an entirely different facet when viewed from a different angle. Playing games with the basic units of both life and fiction—the solid certainties of the self, the world around us, and the words we use to describe these things to one another—Mieko Kanai creates a reality where nothing is certain, and where a little boy going out to run errands for his mother might find that he’s an adult, and his mother long dead, at the end of a single train ride. Using precise language to describe dreamlike plots owing as much to Kafka and Barthelme as to Kenzaburō Ōe and the long tradition of the Japanese folktale of the macabre, The Word Book is an unforgettable voyage to absurd, hilarious, and terrifying locales, and is the English-language debut for one of the greatest and most interesting Japanese writers working today.

«After starting this blog I've come to realize just how much Japanese literature,(just considering the twentieth century alone), there is yet to be translated. So it's great to learn that the Dalkey Archive is adding Mieko Kanai's, The Word Book to the list in their Japanese Literature Series. It's a collection of twelve short stories, originally published in Japan in 1979 under the title 'Tangoshu' by Chikuma Shobo, and is translated by Paul McCarthy. In Japan, Mieko Kanai has published collections of short stories, novels, and has won numerous awards for her poetry, this is her first collection to appear in English.
Mieko Kanai has a detached dream like quality to her prose, but retains a certain exactness to her writing, through these stories she presents an array of characters that seem to be lost in memory. Many of the stories feature memories from childhood, her narratives mingle real events in the character's lives, with recollections, seen or remembered again by the character as an adult, some of the characters here seem to be in a locked groove,repeating or re-enacting scenes or memories from childhood, in a way that sometimes resembles a Kafka like world, it sometimes feels that there is a distant nihilism in her writing. These stories portray lives, lived as a reflection of incidents in the past or the reflection of their memory. Mieko Kanai has an unnerving ability to dislodge notions of time,memory, dream, i was completely captivated how Kanai can pick up a theme and circle over it,and not waste a single word.Another disorientating aspect about this collection, that gives the whole a unifying feel, is that the character's are rarely named, many of the stories being depictions of family relationships, so it's just, mother,father,brother sister. In the other stories,characters are distinguished by being referred to as, her or he. I found this to be a really interesting element, and creates a great feeling of intimacy with the characters. In fact the only names i think in here are the names of other authors; Mishima, Yoshioka Minoru, Jun Ishikawa , and also Von Geczy and Leo Reisman , whose songs feature in the story 'The Rose Tango', which tells the story of a violinist of a small band, who is witness to a fight caused when a jealous gangster punches a man for dancing with his girl. But none of the stories are solely about these people. Mieko Kanai, who herself features in the story 'The Voice', a story about an author,(Kanai), who receives strange,sometimes hostile phone calls from a young aspiring writer/reader, who foresees that Kanai will write a story featuring the phone call they are having, another story that explores the world of authorship.
The last three stories,(Kitchen Plays,Picnic, and The Voice Of Spring) seem to have connecting elements to them, again memories from childhood, a mother's instruction to buy a litre of milk, spindle-tree hedges, train journeys, a visit to a dilapidated basement theatre,the milk being spilt,the possibility of a father's infidelity.Kanai mixes the narratives to the degree that it's uncertain to who is actually narrating the story,the father?,the son?.The mirror like labyrinthine quality to these stories is spellbinding,'Windows', starts with a meditation on authorship,the author (Kanai?) sitting contemplating writing a story on plants, but gets distracted by objections made by the character she is about to create, the character questions the author's knowledge of the character,but slowly the character's story emerges,a memory from childhood, a building, a weapons depot, and a first experience with a camera, a photo album from father with pictures of mother as a young woman,before we were married,his father tells him, the mother he never met. Photography becomes his obsession,wanting to photograph every second,every hour. He returns to the weapon depot building of his youth to photograph it everyday,to witness it slowly deteriorate into a ruin,but then come to be dissatisfied with what a camera can capture, he dreams of the single photograph,which catches the stopping of the instants, separate from time's continuous progression.
The brilliance of this collection completely caught me off guard, explorations of relationships lost, meditations on authorship, examination of events, that skip from dream, to memory, from childhood to adulthood,and pass from generation to generation, memories that seem to hover and exist in some other ethereal realm. I'm already looking forward to another collection.» - ihondistractions.blogspot


This is a collection of 12 short stories. Like fine wines, each with its own idiosyncrasy, or like a set of twisted pearls, each story displays an entirely different appeal when viewed from a different angle, and reading them through is no simple task.
The curiously titled Choriba shibai (Kitchen Play) can be read as the tale of a boy getting on a train with instructions from his mother to deliver a letter to a certain house. She puts a black leather box in his inner pocket and fastens the pocket flap firmly closed with a big, shiny, silver safety pin. (What the box contains is unspecified.) Besides the box, the boy is given a letter, an apple, chocolate, sandwiches, and motion sickness pills.
Inside the train, a woman wearing a gray tweed traveling outfit seats herself in front of him. She opens up a film magazine with a cover photo of a smiling Maureen O'Hara in long green gloves with a matching velvet evening bag, and begins to read. The boy, his head reeling from her musky smell, falls asleep. When he wakes, the safety pin is unfastened, the box gone.
When the boy (the narrator, "I") gets off the train, a thought suddenly comes to him: "I'm grown up now." Thinking that his mother may actually be dead, he nevertheless keeps his promise to her and buys a one-liter bottle of milk on the way home. It is perhaps not the "I" of the present who feels compelled to do so, but the little boy of the past whose black leather case was stolen.
At some point the protagonist boards the train again, encounters the woman in tweed, and has physical relations with her. Ultimately the new protagonist, or perhaps the original little boy, remembers "definitely going" on the train long ago with his father and little sister, carrying their mother's ashes to a grave in a town by the sea.
In this story, the pronoun "I" shifts meaning without continuity or consistency. Even the gender of the person referred to is never certain, but switches back and forth. Time progression is not straightforward, either. Drawn in by the author's unique sensibility, the reader is confronted by the uncertainty of existence. - www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/284-the-word-book


«Reading Mieko Kanai's stories is an unsettling experience, like swimming underwater, existing in a new and shimmering medium, and coming up for air between stories just to make sure everything is still real — or as real as you remember it. Concurrently, it feels as if one were skating on a slippery surface, gliding along, glimpsing things possibly more substantial beneath — maybe even catching sight of your own double.
In "Rivals," a standout among the stories collected in "The Word Book," a writer travels north on a train, moving through dreamlike landscapes of forests and wastelands. She meets an encyclopedia salesman in the dining car who asks her to join him for a whiskey. He reveals that he used to be a writer; he tells her of his first love, of a rival for the woman's affections, and how he found the rival's notebook, identical to his own, with passages from his own works. This mirror effect, this fragmenting of self, forced the man to abandon writing. The story enfolds and explodes like a rose grenade, asking questions about originality and inspiration.
In "Windows," a photographer meets an author in a teahouse; already an imagined character, he arrives just as the author is delineating his nature. He tells her of memories and photographs and the shifting relics of past and present, and how he took the same photograph every day for 20 years. Concerned with fluctuations of time and the impossibility of capturing memories and things, the story allows us into the writer's mind.
"The Rose Tango" tells of a boy's childhood in postwar Peking, his return to Japan, the death of his parents, his membership in a criminal gang and the formation of a musical group. It reminded me of Borges' "Man on Pink Corner" with its tangos, violence and yakuza molls.
The history of memory, the hierarchy of recall, the question of fictive selves, autobiography, identity, and fiction about fiction are the subject matters of "The Time of One's Life."
"Vague Departure" and "Fiction" are mirror-image stories. The first deals with an act of loss, a lover's departure and the different-depth perceptions of love and forgetting, while the latter is a story of longing for something insubstantial, something just out of reach. Both enact their own storytelling within their fictions — that is to say, both are self-aware that whatever our reality is, whatever stage our desire is at, then that "situation" may change in an instant or change imperceptibly over time until it is unrecognizable from the original.
Regaled by a rival and a reader, the narrator of "The Voice" questions what it is to be a character, and from where writers get their stories — how difficult is it to be original without appropriating others' stories and others' lives?
Three stories reminded me of Surrealist paintings. "The Moon" is like a Paul Delvaux painting. A ghostly paranoia pervades; the narrator, haunted by memory, realizes things are not quite what they seem. "The Boundary Line" — a nightmarish story about a drowned corpse — conjures images of Yves Tanguy-like beaches, where the boundary lines between the real and dream, life and death are vague. "Kitchen Plays," with its chance encounters and dreamlike train journeys, is very Chirico-esque.
Kanai's tales are fragmented and nebulous yet remain vivid in the memory. Smells and objects act as catalysts for narrative. The storyteller becomes a character telling a story about a storyteller. The stories tell of plays and films that are versions of the stories, and vice versa. These interconnected stories are concerned with travel, memory, identity and writing — like Roberto Bolano rewritten in the slow-motion prose of W.G. Sebald. Very good.» - Steve Finbow

«Writing is where you learn to think. Yes, you gather information through reading--about everything from science and the natural world to philosophy--and through your own life experiences and personal observation, but writing is where you work out your own thoughts on the matter. Writing is how you share those thoughts with an audience, especially yourself. Most writers and critics can tell you that sometimes it helps to get thoughts onto the page before seeing where you might want to go with them. Sometimes, merely seeing them offers you the chance to consider what they mean, where they're coming from, how you feel about them. Writing is a path to self-knowledge.
Not in the extremely skilled prose of Japanese author Mieko Kanai, though. In The Word Book writing becomes an act of unknowing, an act of obfuscation. Ideas of self, time, and fact become fugitive issues in Kanai's prose, and she achieves such an inchoate state through writing that is both as logical as a scientific proof and as gossamer ornate as a flower's petal. The tension between these forces, the poetic and the argumentative, gives her work a curious dreaminess, a fleeting mental space that she even describes in her "Fiction," included here:
'The young narrator in the story waits for this apocryphal woman of his memories or imagination at a train station, but through a series of subtle changes in voice and point of view, Kanai slowly alters this story from being about a young man waiting for a woman in a train station to a young author passing his time at an old folks home to an old man at this home who may be a writer trying to make sense of a story of a woman at a train station, a story he feels like he's read before--or maybe even written.'
Kanai's narrators aren't so much unreliable as they are mutating forces of uncertainty. And her prose - in stories whose titles (such as "Vague Departure," "The Time of One's Life," "The Boundary Line") often suggest a built-in prosaic pliability - so elegantly moves from narrative drive to reflective musing and back again, in precise control of tone and mood that makes The Word Book's stories not merely stories, but writings that plumb quotidian consciousness. Such a skillful wooziness recalls the architectural paragraphs of Borges or Robbe-Grillet, only Kanai has an ephemeral sensuality that offsets and compliments her modulated voices, who guide you through mini epics in this crisp, cool collection.» - Bret McCabe

«The short stories in THE WORD BOOK begin with a prosaic remark or observation, typical of how we spend the vast majority our days. For example, the first line of "Fiction" is "The platform was crowded with commuters boarding the 6:58 a.m. train for Tokyo and with high school boys in uniforms, their hair slicked back with pomade." MIEKO KANAI, a well-respected author in her first book to be translated from Japanese into English, takes those mundane starts and delves into complex psychological and philosophical journeys.
When reading her carefully-crafted stories, the reader will experience a vague and restless uneasiness, a subtle but effective way to drive the plot. In "Fiction", a cleverly disconcerting point-of-view shift (from first to third person) makes us reconsider who the story is about, or even if it is truth or fiction. A young man, besotted with a mysterious woman, waits daily at the train platform for her return. But she never arrives and the man leaves disappointed. The story proceeds with a vague dread that perhaps something bad happened to the woman, perhaps that the man did something bad to her. He is staying in a cheap seaside resort inn, where the other visitors speculate that he is a writer, most likely a novelist, perhaps taking a break from writing. In the end, the man's fate is not so much revealed as questioned.
In "The Moon", a husband sets out on an errand at night when the moon is rising. The sight causes memories to bubble up, transporting him back to times in his life when he the moon or weak, pale sunlight held him transfixed in the moment. We wonder why these moments have meaning, and how they tie to the present. In a few pages we come to know him as if we have known him all his life, and feel the weight of his existence.
Kanai's stories, while each is unique, all have a meta-cognitive and meta-narrative experience. The characters, and readers, are thrown into a soup of wonder, sometimes addressed directly, other times revealed obliquely like shadow puppetry. We wonder about their thoughts and our own, and how they relate to the stories unfolding in many layers. Readers will have to consider their role in reading: to answer the characters questions and solve their problems, or perhaps to construct the characters fictional existence.
The settings, characters, and themes could be in Europe or South America, as much as Japan, but perhaps not in America which is often too transparent and requires a more conflict-driven approach to storytelling. Kanai's stories remind me of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, with their stylistically vague flatness yet strong character-driven underpinnings. They need to be read in a quiet room to fully appreciate their subtlety and power. But however you read the stories, I highly recommended them and look forward to more.» - Todd Shimoda

«That it has taken 30 years for Japanese writer, Mieko Kanai, to be translated into English seems like a surreal, absurd expansion of time performed in one of her short stories. Kanai's story collection, The Word Book, written in Japanese in 1979 and translated last year by Paul McCarthy, observes the filmy atmosphere of a dream with the objective precision of a scientist. A writer discovers his own words in a rival's notebook. A photographer documents a decaying wall for 20 years. Lives fade "into that strange silence that lies between memory and oblivion." The basic elements of fiction in The Word Book are elegantly fractured to expose new, delicate inner structures.
Perhaps the most interesting experiment Kanai performs is on the element of place. The nameless characters float through strangely familiar urban spaces: empty dining cars, amusement parks deserted in the afternoon, neon-bathed night streets. In abandoning the vernacular, the specificity of place, Kanai creates folktales of the modern, urban world. Her stories could take place in any lonely cityscape - Tokyo, Mexico City, New York. In this way, Kanai might be considered what Eliot Weinberger calls in an essay from Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, a "post-nationalist" writer. Her aesthetic is indifferent to the notion of nation, irreverent to rootedness of place. She is unfettered by the vernacular and so can create bold experiments-narrative voices shifting seamlessly, landscapes mutating, memory melting into the present. In our era of Weltliteratur, we might wonder how nation functions in fiction-do we stay grounded in the provincial, or hover above it? Kanai's translation seems to represent the latter both in form and content.» - Noelle Bodick

"The pink cover of this small paperback might lead one to think that it’s a short collection of chick lit. While it’s true that Kanai Mieko is female, and while it’s true that she has often been classified as a “women writer,” The Word Book is just about as far away from chick lit as you can get. The twelve short stories in this collection are perhaps not so much “stories” as they are prose poems, or perhaps even essays written in the form of short stories. Kanai’s language is gorgeous, and the way she presents her ideas is fascinating. The stories themselves are very loosely structured and don’t follow established narrative patterns.
Kanai’s preoccupation in The Word Book is the writing self, or the self who is speaking, or telling a story. Many of the narrators in this collection are writers, and many of them are trying to explain something that happened in the past. Kanai almost fetishizes her narrators as they write about writing and constantly question their ability to tell a story. Perhaps it happened like this, perhaps it happened differently. Who is writing? Who is telling the story? Is the narrator of the story the same person as the protagonist of the story? Many of these stories have multiple narrators within the span of less than ten pages. A reader is faced with two choices – to either puzzle out who the narrators are and what their relationship to one another might be, or to let the narrative flow wash over him or her and simply accept that the narrator of a story is never a stable or unquestionable entity.
In that each of Kanai’s stories resembles something of an intellectual puzzle, I am reminded of Borges’s Labyrinths. In that Kanai’s stories are filled with a multitude of unreliable narrators who may or may not actually be the same person, I am reminded of Faulkner, especially As I Lay Dying. However, since Kanai is still able to infuse her stories with a sense of place and beauty, I am reminded of Furui Yoshikichi (Ravine and Other Stories, translated by Meredith McKinney), another Japanese writer of mysterious short fiction.
An interesting aspect of Kanai’s prose that I think is undeniably characteristic of her and no one else, however, is her play on gender. Kanai is a woman, but all of her narrators are men. To be more precise, Paul McCarthy has translated all of her narrators as men. I have only read a handful of Kanai’s stories in the original Japanese, but it is my impression that the writer takes full advantage of the ability of the Japanese language to not differentiate gender. Why does Kanai write with exclusively male narrators? Or are her narrators all men? Is she intentionally writing within a masculine narrative realm? If this book did not have a pink front cover and an “about the author” blurb on the back cover, would the reader even know that the author of this collection is a woman? Does it matter?
Meta-textual issues aside, I really enjoyed reading The Word Book because of its narrative sophistication, dreamlike atmosphere, and poetic touch. To illustrate what I like so much about this book, I would like to end with a passage from a story entitled “Fiction:”
'But after awhile, I changed my mind: my guest’s words were as vague as they were clear, spoken by one who expresses by looks or by his whole weak body the scintillating talent of a born poet. Realizing this, I trembled with envy. Bitter as it was to admit, I was envious of those empty words, not understood even by the man who uttered them, those empty words that shone with a soft, rose-colored radiance. Words such as these, shining words bathed in a soft, rose-colored radiance, precisely because of their emptiness lusted after a shameless ecstasy of the sort one can only experience in dreams. And I thought, feeling a kind of despair, “Long ago my words, too, trembled violently in this shining, soft, rose-colored radiance.” - japaneseliterature.wordpress.com

«The stories that comprise The Word Book hold only a fragile grip on reality – and the effect is quietly unsettling. Poet, writer and film-maker Mieko Kanai is, perhaps understandably, concerned about stories: how they are told, how they are composed and what reading them actually means. This could make for heavy, even pretentious reading, but Kanai perfectly judges the balance between the theoretical and the enjoyable.
Like her contemporary Haruki Murakimi, Kanai is more indebted to the western influences of Kafka, Barthelme and Borges than the long traditions of Japanese literature, and this is obvious as the reader weaves through these dreamscapes. The plots are fantastical – a man finds his love rival writing the same journal as he keeps, a boy out running errands discovers he has turned into man – but the writing so exact and precise it feels crushingly real.
Undoubtedly these are stories that take effort and reward re-reading, but they are also playful, occasionally laugh out loud funny. It is a deft and subtle collection that should see Kanai reach a much wider audience outside of her native Japan. In fact, the biggest surprise is that it’s taken thirty years for this book to make it to the UK.» - theshortstory.org

Sometimes it’s only a whisper. Didn’t we just see that man? Weren’t they just talking about a missed train? And veins on a rock…where else did we just see veins? In one story, a man still feels guilty years later for not having met his lover at a train station to depart for a new life together. In the next, the tables have been reversed, or set askew: a man goes every day to a train station to wait for an unidentified woman who never arrives. Images are stitched across the stories that make up Mieko Kanai’s The Word Book, nagging at the reader, making her wonder whether this is one long, shifting tale rather than a collection of stories that explore rotating questions through the lenses of a few, usually unnamed characters. Time and situations shift without warning and characters mutate, as in dreams, from parents to lovers to strangers, leaving their counterparts little choice but to adapt.
These whispers finally become explicit in the dream trilogy that closes the book. In “Kitchen Plays,” a man remembers the many, many times he had to fetch milk for his mother as a child because the milkman forgot to deliver it. There is a large stone that juts out of the ground in front of his house, on which he often trips when returning with the bottles of milk, and has sometimes even broken the bottles on. Remembering all of this, the man thinks of his mother’s death, then feels uncertain about whether it really happened, so calls home; his mother answers, and asks him to go buy milk since the milkman has forgotten to deliver it. The story closes with the narrator remembering a train ride with his father and sister and his mother’s ashes. Who, then, is he bringing milk to? The next story, “Picnic,” opens with a narrator on the way to see his lover after having just delivered milk to his mother—a clear continuation of the last story, although the horrible moment when the man delivers milk to a house that either contains his mother or doesn’t is left to the reader’s imagination.
This thwarted anticipation takes another shape, that of the “kitchen play.” We never really learn what these evocatively named events are, though they are referenced prominently in two of the stories. They aren’t plays, exactly, and they don’t happen in kitchens, or not real kitchens, anyway. There’s a feeling of excitement as the narrator and his lover walk down the steps into a basement theater, but water from the canal next to the building immediately smashes the windows in the room, and the two have to run, like in a dream, up the stairs and through labyrinthine corridors of the building to get to safety. And in “The Voice of Spring,” two men discuss kitchen plays over hamburgers and beer, and then enter a theater in the basement of an abandoned hotel, apparently in pursuit of a kitchen play, but the story ends before the play begins. Surely, like in a prose adaptation of a villanelle or an OuLiPo experiment, there must be a pattern or logic here.
These stories demand attentive reading, although, as with a David Lynch film, it seems the solution to the puzzle will always be just beyond reach; but also like in Lynch’s films, the payoff is in trying to unravel the mystery, and in the beauty of the journey. Kanai’s delicate and sparse language—and Paul McCarthy’s superb rendering of it—make up for the lack of coherence.
One thing is for certain: Kanai is deeply invested in exploring the mutability of the self. And why wouldn’t she be? It is her profession to inhabit the minds and bodies of others. The narrator of the opening story, “Rivals,” falls into conversation with a traveling salesman who recounts a romance he had when he was younger, in which he came to realize that his lover was seeing another man. This other man, it turns out, was a rival in more ways than one: he would leave his diary lying around, and it mirrored the salesman’s diary word for word:
The notebook contained passages I myself had written, but that does not mean that the unknown man deliberately copied each word and phrase from my book. His notebook was exactly identical to my own.
The salesman has lived his life with the knowledge that somebody out there mimics his every move, thinks his every thought, feels his every emotion. “And since,” the story ends, “there is no one anywhere who can accurately gauge our numbers, instead of ‘rival,’ let us speak of ‘rivals.’”
The narrator of this story speaks in the first person, as does the traveling salesman—without quotation marks or italics—so that the reader has to keep close track of whose story is being told at all times. Naturally there is an expectation that this is the narrator’s story, since he is the one who invited us in, so it takes a few pages before we realize that this is not his story at all. But why nest the salesman’s tale within the narrator’s, when the narrator ultimately melts into the background? The narrator is a mask the writer wears; Kanai is allowing herself a tangible presence in the story, perhaps to remind us that without her, there would be no story. In “Windows,” the authorial voice interrupts again, with a description of where she is while she’s writing the story, deliberations about what to name her character, and even a prickly exchange with her character, who says:
I’m sure you realize this, of course, but what you wrote about was only one small part, and what you didn’t write of was much, much larger. And I feel that I’m living my life within the flow of the time you didn’t write about. Besides, you don’t know anything about me, and I bet you never really cared about me at all.
Rivals indeed.
These are strange, unnerving little tales: serious, surreal, and incredibly complex, yet told simply, with detachment. “I know which corner it is, but I don’t know how to explain how you would distinguish it from the other countless corners of the same kind, without drawing a map,” says the narrator of “The Voice of Spring” to his lunch companion. This could serve as a metaphor for the book—we recognize these experiences and emotions as real and crucial, but to relay them coherently to another person seems unfathomable. - Anne McPeak

You might not have heard of the Japanese writer Mieko Kanai (金井美恵子), but she wrote the short story "The Moon" that inspired my short film "LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER".
I stumbled upon her works by accident. It was September 2010. My uncle (father's younger brother) passed away suddenly, my parents, who were in Tokyo with me for my graduation ceremony, had to fly back to Malaysia immediately.
I was left alone in the hotel that my parents were supposed to stay for a few more days. Overwhelmed by solitude, I went to my favourite Aoyama Book Center in Roppongi, hoping to distract my mind with literature.
Going through the shelf, "THE WORD BOOK" by Mieko Kanai, a collection of her short stories, caught my eye. Maybe it was the cover. THE WORD BOOK came out in the 70s, but it only just got translated into English that year.
I flipped through the book, went through some stories, and found myself captivated by the imagery of her dream-like tales. I didn't buy the book immediately, but her words lingered. (I bought the book a few days later on Amazon)
This is the opening paragraph of "The Moon":
According to Mother, I was already old enough to go on errands all by myself, even at night. "The chicken butcher and the green grocer just in front of it, near the castle at the edge of the shopping area, should be open till nine, and I want you to get me a chicken and a package of mushrooms there, I'm sorry you have to go at night like this, but I couldn't say no. "Your older sister" - she had died at age six - "used to take a little wicker basket and go buy the enriched powdered milk she always drank," Father said, laughing good-naturedly; but Mother looked a bit sad. Then I went out into the town, where the last dim twilight had been swallowed up in night."
Another one:
Oddly enough, our accounts of our memories of the dead begin with the arrival of news of a sudden death. When this call comes, we are dazed, left speechless. Those who were close to the dead person may have the impression of things occurring in a dream whose meaning is out of reach. Like words heard in a dream - or rather, in a dream one was trying to recall while only half-awake..
What was sad, in what words? We have no idea. There are only traces of the raw reality of having been informed of something truly frightening. One's very irritation of being unable to recall the significance of words spoken in a dream feels like something that is happening in yet another dream, a nightmare. Thus, confronted with news of a sudden death, they (I) feel vertigo. Then they start to talk about you, who have already turned into a memory - about their memories of you, which are somehow lacking in reality. They emphasize the fact that you are no longer in this world as they speak of you, so the memories all become beautiful, taking on a tragic tone. Even the most boring memories are enveloped, in this place, in deep, tragic shadows.

And finally:
When I got home, I found everything just the way it had been when I left, with Mother lying on a rattan chaise-longue in her usual place in the sitting-room, listlessly reading a book with a russet cover. When she saw my face, she looked a bit angry and said, "Where were you off to, young man? I was afraid you'd been kidnapped and would never come back!" I started to open my mouth to explain what I had seen, but I was in the grip of a melancholic fretfulness and couldn't say a word. Then Father spoke: "You were looking at the moon, weren't you?"
 I blinked and just said "Unh" in reply. father took the packages of good, saying, "It'll take thirty minutes to cook the chicken, so go take your bath, you're big enough to wash yourself now, but I'll wash your hair for you."
It was after that Mother died, though I don't know if it was a year after, or a month, or a week, or a day.

The story shifted from the point of view of a child, and then to an adult, I wasn't sure whether it was the same person, or whether it was told from the perspective of the child and his father.
A few months later, I made LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER, because I needed to get these images out of my system. It usually happens this way. (my earlier short films, LOVE SUICIDES and KINGYO, were loose adaptations of Yasunari Kawabata's short stories as well)
Retyping the words from "The Moon", I am mildly surprised by how faithful I had been to the source material.
Two years after that, right now, I became a part of James Lee's HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL: 3 DOORS OF HORROR omnibus, I find myself, once again, drawing from the Mieko Kanai pool of inspiration, this time, it's from the short story "The Boundary Line" (also from "THE WORD BOOK"), which revolves around a drowned female corpse. The other two directors, Ng Ken Kin and Leroy Low have finished their segments (Leroy finished his shoot just a few days ago), both will most probably be great, so I'm now preparing for my shoot (scheduled at the end of June). Yesterday, I have secured most of the key cast members for the film. Soon, I will continue revising the script to see what is there to fix. I usually work on my script until during the shoot itself.
Going through the "THE WORD BOOK" again, I realized that another Kanai book "INDIAN SUMMER" had just gotten translated earlier this year. This book review is written by Paul McCarthy (who was the translator of THE WORD BOOK!).
Through this review that I found out Mieko Kanai had been living in Mejiro for decades, the very same area that I've stayed in for the past five years.  - Edmund Yeo



Read also: «The Rose Tango by Mieko Kanai»
http://www.untitledbooks.com/fiction/short-stories/rose-tango-by-meiko-kanai/



Mieko Kanai, Indian Summer, Trans. by Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley. Kawade Paperback, 1999. / Cornell Univ East Asia Program, 2012.

Indian Summer (Koharu biyori) is the title of a relatively short novel by Kanai Mieko (b. 1947), recognized by critics both inside and outside Japan as one of the most important Japanese writers of recent decades. The work brilliantly demonstrates Kanai’s light-hearted wit in addition to her penchant for biting commentary on conservative elements in Japanese society. Kanai is also an acclaimed essayist, film critic, literary critic, and poet, and has produced a steady output of high-quality material since making her literary debut in her teens.

Mieko Kanai is a prolific and provocative contemporary author whose poetry and short stories have been appearing in English since the 1970s and ’80s, but whose longer works are only now being translated. Her range is very broad, from the shocking, in-your-face short story “Rabbits” (translated by Phyllis Birnbaum, 1982) to the avant-garde collection of interrelated chapters that make up “Word Book” (which I translated, 2009).
Now we have something completely different: what was the third in an ongoing series of novels set in Mejiro, a middle- to upper-middle class enclave where Gakushuin (the former Peers School) is located, and which has been Kanai’s home for decades. “Indian Summer” has now been deftly translated into natural and amusing English by two Australian scholars.
“Indian Summer,” which appeared in book form in 1988 after serialization, centers on Momoko, a girl who has come up from the provinces to attend college in Tokyo. At the behest of her old-fashioned mother, she is living with her Aunt Chieko, a writer of novels, stories and essays, at least until her younger brother can come to Tokyo, after which, the mother assumes, Momoko will devote herself to “looking after him.”
Momoko’s mother is much concerned about boys in Tokyo, though she need not be, since Momoko regards them as mostly “useless,” and romantic/erotic relationships play no part in her world. We see that world through Momoko’s own eyes and hear it described in her girlish, colloquial voice, for she is narrator as well as protagonist. Her aunt figures largely: asleep for many hours of every day yet marvelously well read in Western and Japanese literature and devoted to films, especially “classic” ones by directors as different as John Ford and Jean-Luc Godard. In her Bohemianism and through her biting, sarcastic comments on establishment figures, she represents a model of liberation for Momoko. (She also seems to bear a passing resemblance to Mieko Kanai herself, though that is the sort of comment a reviewer is “forbidden” to make nowadays.)
The other principal character, Momoko’s great friend at college Hanako, is physically unprepossessing, unconventional and boyish (and indeed is taken for a boy by some arrogant and, of course, useless college lads at an art-film house — one of many comic vignettes that spice up Kanai’s novel). Hanako and Momoko roam the streets of Tokyo, from toney Ginza and trendy Roppongi to the more bohemian haunts of Takadanobaba and the gay district in Shinjuku. They eat their way through Tokyo, one might say, since food plays almost as great a part in Kanai’s world as film and fiction (witness the long, elaborate breakfast menu that opens Chapter 2).
Indeed, carnality is an ever-present element — not in the usual sense of sex but in a fascination with other body parts. Aunt Chieko, for example, obsessively brushes her teeth and gums and meticulously cleans the wax from her ears. “It’s self-love itself,” she insists to a puzzled Momoko.
There are lots of surprises in store for Momoko: She knew that her father had left her mother some years before but did not realize for what sort of relationship. Aunt Chieko talks vaguely of her father’s “flower artist partner,” avoiding a giveaway personal pronoun and describing the partner only as “a nice person. … A cat-lover, too.”
Surprises also await the reader, as six essays and two short stories are interspersed throughout the novel. These are given as samples of Aunt Chieko’s writing, but some, at least, had appeared under Mieko Kanai’s name in earlier years. Their presence substantially varies and enriches the texture of the novel proper. The story “Flower Tales,” in particular, is an elegant pastiche of the romantic girls’ fiction writer Nobuko Yoshiya from the late Taisho to early Showa eras.
By the novel’s end, Momoko and Hanako have decided to share rooms in a modest apartment house not far from Aunt Chieko’s house. Their next-door neighbor is a young man named Natsuyuki, who is caring for a mother-cat and kittens left with him by a roguish Eurasian youth who calls himself Alex. Kanai is skillfully concluding this “girls’ fiction” (as Tomoko Aoyama rightly calls it in her very helpful introduction) by re-introducing us to the principals of her earlier Mejiro novel, a “boys’ fiction” titled “Oh, Tama!” The two taken together form an amusingly provocative “matching set.”
- Paul McCarthy



Mieko Kanai, Oh, Tama!, Trans. by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy. Kurodahan Press, 2014.

Oh, Tama! takes the reader deep into the haphazard lives of Natsuyuki, the protagonist, and his loosely connected circle of dysfunctional acquaintances and family. Trying to keep some semblance of order and decency in his life, working as an occasional freelance photographer, Natsuyuki is visited by his delinquent friend Alexandre, who unexpectedly entrusts him with his sister's pregnant cat, Tama. Despite his initial protests, Natsuyuki accepts his new responsibility and cares compassionately for Tama and her kittens.

Half-sister Tsuneko, meanwhile, is herself pregnant by one of several lovers, all patrons of the bar she runs. She contacts three of them, claiming each to be the father, and demands money. One of these is Fuyuhiko, the older half-brother of Natsuyuki, although he is not aware of this fact. When Fuyuhiko comes to Tokyo in search of Tsuneko, he gravitates to Natsuyuki's apartment, where he and Alexandre move in with the weak-willed Natsuyuki.
Awarded the Women's Literature Prize in Japan, Oh, Tama! is the second book in the Mejiro Series, named after the area of Tokyo between the mega-towns of Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. The main characters (not to mention the author and her artist sister Kanai Kumiko) all live in this area. Most of the main characters in one book appear as side characters in the others. Natsuyuki and Alexandre, for example, appear in the third work in the series, Indian Summer. The protagonists of that book—Momoko, Hanako and Momoko's writer-aunt—all appear first in Oh, Tama!.
These Mejiro texts are full of humor and irony. While earlier works of Kanai are noted for their surrealistic, sensuous and poetic style and arresting, at times violent themes, the Mejiro novels focus on the human comedy in the seemingly mundane, actual world. The protagonists of the series are, however, in one way or another engaged in creative or intellectual activities, even though they are often unemployed or at loose ends.

Oh, Tama! is a study of parallel lives. At its center is the character Natsuyuki, an erstwhile photographer. He lives alone, attempting to make ends meet financially, but he is surrounded by a group of dysfunctional people who take advantage of his inherent good nature. Or is it his submissiveness and passivity in the face of solitude? These friends think nothing of arriving on his doorstep, moving into his small apartment, eating his food, sleeping in his reduced space, and seemingly giving nothing back in return. Although at first it seems that Tsuneko (a pregnant female who has had relations with two of the group) is the element connecting Alexandre (Tsuneko’s brother), Fuyuhiko (a psychiatrist), and our host, Natsuyuki, it soon becomes clear that it is not her but rather the solitude of each of the three men that connects them to each other, as well as the care they all lavish upon Tama the cat.
The pregnant Tsuneko has disappeared, so Alexandre brings her pregnant, stray cat, Tama, to Natsuyuki’s to be cared for in her absence. The obvious parallel between the pregnant Tsuneko and the pregnant Tama is clear. Also clear is the parallel between the loving care Natsuyuki gives the cat and her kittens versus the lack of similar care doled out to him by his neglectful mother. She is not only unfeelingly nonmaternal toward Natsuyuki (the offspring of her second husband); she had earlier abandoned a son born to her in a first marriage. This abandoned offspring turns out to be Fuyuhiko (the psychiatrist searching for Tsuneko). What a coincidence! How ironic that pregnant Tama is abandoned by pregnant Tsuneko, who abandons Fuyuhiko the same way his mother had abandoned him, and what a coincidence that both end up in Natsuyuki’s apartment. Although both are needy, abandoned creatures—man and pregnant cat—Natsuyuki accepts the responsibility of caring for them. When Natsuyuki’s mother learns that her firstborn son is sojourning in her second son’s apartment, she comes to meet him and suggests that Natsuyuki share the inheritance he is to receive (his father having just died) with his half-brother.
Yes, it is a little confusing. But the plot turns on the reader’s varied emotions—sometimes furious with Alexandre and Fuyuhiko for taking advantage of Natsuyuki, then suddenly furious with Natsuyuki for not sticking up for himself and throwing the interlopers out of his apartment. At times one feels sorry for the desperate Fuyuhiko, who searches for his pregnant lover, yet at other times one feels anger toward him for not being able to put her behind him. Tsuneko, who (they hear from a female friend) has gone to reside in Cairo, has no intention of returning, and has quite cavalierly shaken off the dust of her series of ex-lovers. The only apparent consistent emotion felt by all (other than Natsuyuki’s mother—who feels nothing for anyone except herself) is the enveloping care they manifest for Tama and her litter of kittens. 
Is this a strange tale? Not so much strange as convoluted. Yet it is an enticing novel and one that allows the reader to envelop herself in the strange sights, sounds, and tastes of this group of Japanese characters. - Janet Mary Livesey

Mieko Kanai, a prize-winning poet, eminent critic and author of experimental fiction that evokes comparisons to the works of Borges and Kafka, has also, in her "Mejiro" series, produced a series of novels notably lighter in tone. ...philosophical speculation and mind-bending textual play give way to a more light-hearted look at how people make their way in the contemporary world.—David Cozy, Japan Times

The unemployed photographer, the foreign-blooded porn actor and the confused psychiatrist are all connected in that they are existing outside the notoriously regimented constraints of mainstream Japanese society. They all scrape by on a day-to-day basis and occasionally show that they're not quite as cheerful on the inside as it appears on the outside... However, what they also have in common is a bond which allows them to seek comfort, and what Kanai does cleverly in Oh, Tama! is construct a cohesive social group from very different parts.—Tony Malone, Tony's Reading List

..what appealed to me most about Oh, Tama! were the characters themselves. Natsuyuki is a fairly laid back sort of guy, but this tendency (mostly because complaining or actually trying to change things would take too much effort) puts him into some odd situations. Alexandre, who seems to delight in messing with people, is often more concerned about Tama and the kittens than any of the people around him. I found their slightly antagonistic friendship and their interactions with Fuyuhiko and the others to be highly entertaining. I greatly enjoyed Oh, Tama! and its quirky, understated humor. So much so that I plan on reading the next novel in the Mejiro Series, Indian Summer, in the very near future.—Ash Brown, Experiments in Manga



Mieko Kanai (1947–) read widely in fiction and poetry from an early age. In 1967, at the young age of 20, she was runner-up for the Dazai Osamu Prize for Ai no seikatsu (A Life of Love), and the following year she received the Gendaishi Techo Prize for poetry. While maintaining a certain distance from literary circles and journalism, she has built up a world of fiction known for its sensual style. Along with her fiction, her criticism, which showcases her often scathing insights, has a devoted following.    

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