Sunday, November 8, 2015

Study Guide: Kawakami Mieko “About Her and the Memories That Belong to Her”

Study Guide: Kawakami Mieko “About Her and the Memories That Belong to Her”

Study Guide: Kawakami Mieko “About Her and the Memories That Belong to Her”

Original (“Kanojo to kanojo no kioku ni tsuite”): Published in MONKEY vol 2 (2014)
Translation: Hitomi Yoshio, Granta 132 (2015)

Mieko Kawakami (1976–) was born in Osaka. Her first break was as a singer, making her major-label debut in 2002 and going on to release three albums. Eventually she branched out into writing, first submitting poems to literary magazines and then earning an Akutagawa Prize nomination for the 2007 short story Watakushiritsu in hā, mata wa sekai (Myself and a Toothache), which was published in the prestigious Waseda bungaku journal. She won the Akutagawa the following year with her next work, the novella Chichi to ran (Breasts and Eggs). In 2010 Kawakami further established her writerly reputation by receiving the MEXT Award for New Artists and the Murasaki Shikibu Literary Prize for her first full-length novel, Hevun (Heaven), a story of love between two middle-school students bullied at school. She added to her honors in 2013 by winning the Takami Jun Prize for her poetry collection Mizugame (Water Jar), and the Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Prize for her short story collection Ai no yume toka (Dreams of Love). (Source: J-Lit: Books from Japan)

Kawakami Mieko Homepage:

Study Questions

1. Describe the narrator (i.e. her job, background, interests, status, personality, age, worldview, etc.).

2. How does the introduction, in which the narrator explains how human memory is “in the shape of a box,” relate to the main story? How are the memories that resurface—of her prepubescent lesbianic experiences with Kozue Kurosawa—like a box?

3. Why does the narrator return to her former hometown to attend a middle-school reunion? Is there any chance that she might be returning—albeit unconsciously—in order to find out what became of Kozue?

4. Describe the reunion setting. How does the narrator see herself vis-à-vis the town, her former classmates (e.g. the drunk tennis girl, the rowdy men), etc.?

5. Initially, how much of her middle-school days does the narrator remember? Explain.

6. Describe the girl in the ladies room. Was her main purpose in attending the reunion to inform the narrator of Kozue Kurosawa’s death? Explain.

7. Describe Kozue Kurozawa, her relation to/experiences with the narrator, and the circumstances of her death. Is the narrator in some way responsible for her death?

8. What effect does the news of Kozue’s death have on the narrator? As the memories of her sexual experiences with the girl resurface, does she feel guilty? Explain.

9. The narrator has returned to her former hometown—a place that should be familiar/homely/canny—but she is instead destabilized by the experience. Explain this process.

Further Discussion Question

1. Discuss the [Bergsonian] notion that memory is something external to the individual.
2. What is the past, what is it all for? A mental sandwich?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mizoguchi Kenji's A Geisha / 祇園囃子 (Gion bayashi; 1953)

[Study guide forthcoming]

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Study Guide: Tayama Katai “The Girl Watcher” (1907)

Study Guide: Tayama Katai “The Girl Watcher” (1907)

Tayama Katai “The Girl Watcher” (Shōjobyō1907)

*Original: 少女病May 1907, Taiyō 太陽 
*Translation: The Quilt and Other Stories by Tayama Katai, trans. Kenneth G. Henshall. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1981.    

Tayama Katai (1872-1930): Ken’yūsha and, later, naturalist novelist credited with writing the first “I-novel” (watakushi shōsetsu). His early work was highly romantic, but with the essay “Rokotsu naru byōsha” (1904; “Straightforward Description”) he pointed the way toward the more realistic path he was to follow under French influence. The injunction to observe strict objectivity and to describe things as they are, deriving from the early French naturalists Guy de Maupassant and the brothers Edmond and Jules Goncourt, developed into a major genre in Japanese literature—the watakushi shōsetsu, or “autobiographical novel.” His Onna no kyōshi was published in 1903, but Futon (1907; “The Quilt”) made his reputation. It described in embarrassing detail the attraction of a middle-aged writer to a young female student. A trilogy of autobiographical novels, Sei (1908; “Life”), Tsuma (1908–09; “Wives”), and En (1910; “The Bond”), fixed the distinguishing form of Japanese naturalism. Inaka kyōshi (1909; “A Country Schoolmaster”) showed the influence of the Goncourts and of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Tayama’s essay on his own literary theories, “Katai bunwa” (1911; “Katai’s Literary Discourses”), introduced into the critical language the term heimen byōsha (“plain description”), with which he is identified. In later years, with the decline in the influence of naturalism, he entered a period of personal confusion from which he emerged with a calm, almost religious attitude, which was reflected in Zansetsu (1918; “Lingering Snow”) (adapted from Encyclopædia Britannica and other sources).

Literary Terms

1. Heimen byōsha 平面描写: Plain/flat/objective/surface/unmediated description; Tayama’s guiding aesthetic concept and key to his technique of sketch-from-life shaseibun realism; focuses on “surface” of things, with as little thoughts/feelings/imagination/subjective evaluation as possible. Tayama’s radically empiricistic motto: “I describe my own experiences in reality only as I saw, heard, and touched them.”

2. Watakushi shōsetsu 私小説: Form/genre of twentieth-century Japanese literature (or mode of reading) characterized by self-revelation and focus on personal matters from subjective perspective; author usually read as the central character; emphasizes flat, unvarnished, and sincere depiction; grew out of the naturalist movement; Tayama’s Futon often regarded as first I-novel; the term first used in the 1920s; Hirano Ken divided the I-novel into two types: 破滅型 and 調和型.

3. Genbun itchi 言文一致: The principle of unifying spoken and written languages; modern colloquial “transparent” style; first advocated in the 1880s; first successfully achieved in the works of Futabatei Shimei and Yamada Bimyō; became the dominant mode of writing after 1895. By 1910, the principle/style had become so widespread that the term was no longer used.

Study Questions

1. From what point of view is the story told? Where is the focalization point? Give examples.

2. Describe the style of prose. Is this an example of “heimen byōsha”? If so, how? Is it an example of genbun itchi? Explain.

3. Describe the setting/surrounding scenery. What sort of area was Sendagaya in the early twentieth century?

4. Describe Sugita Kojō (i.e. his age, appearance, personality, job/workplace, interests, dreams, literary experience, domestic situation, type in women, anguish, reputation, romantic history, “illness/condition,” etc.). Is he a comic, tragic, or tragicomic figure? Explain.
5. Describe the final scene. Might his death have been intentional? Explain.

6. Make a list of all the girls (shōjo) that appear in the story. Describe their features. What do they all have in common?

7. Is Sugita aware of how he is viewed by others? Does he care? How does the author (Tayama Katai) employ ironic distance /dramatic irony in the work?

8. Tayama Katai is often regarded as the first “I-novelist.” Can you identify any “I-novel”-esque features in the work? Explain.

Further Reading

1. Tayama Katai. Literary life in Tōkyō, 1885-1915: Tayama Katai’s Memoirs “Thirty years in Tōkyō.” Translated and introduced by Kenneth G. Henshall. Brill Archive, 1987.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Study Guide: Kawabata Yasunari “Pomegranate” (Zakuro)

Study Guide: Kawabata Yasunari “Pomegranate” (Zakuro)

Study Guide: Kawabata Yasunari “Pomegranate” (Zakuro)[1]

*Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成 (1899-1972): Son of a highly-cultivated physician, Kawabata was born in 1899 in Osaka. After the early death of his parents he was raised in the country by his maternal grandfather and attended the Japanese public school. From 1920 to 1924, Kawabata studied at the Tokyo Imperial University, where he received his degree. He was one of the founders of the publication Bungei Jidai, the medium of a new movement in modern Japanese literature. Kawabata made his debut as a writer with the short story, “Izu dancer,” published in 1927. After several distinguished works, the novel Snow Country in 1937 secured Kawabata’s position as one of the leading authors in Japan. In 1949, the publication of the serials Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain was commenced. He became a member of the Art Academy of Japan in 1953 and four years later he was appointed chairman of the P.E.N. Club of Japan. At several international congresses Kawabata was the Japanese delegate for this club. The Lake (1955), The Sleeping Beauty (1960) and The Old Capital (1962) belong to his later works, and of these novels, The Old Capital is the one that made the deepest impression in the author’s native country and abroad. In 1959, Kawabata received the Goethe-medal in Frankfurt. (source:

*Palm-of-the-hand story: According to Kawabata himself, the essence of his art was to be found in a series of short stories-which he called “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories”-written over the entire span of his career. He began experimenting with the form in 1923 and returned to it often. In fact, his final work was a “palm-sized” reduction of “Snow Country,” written not long before his suicide in 1972. Dreamlike, intensely atmospheric, at times autobiographical and at others fantastical, these stories reflect Kawabata’s abiding interest in the miniature, the wisp of plot reduced to the essential. In them we find loneliness, love, the passage of time, and death. (Source: Buffalo Library)

Study Questions

1. What season is it? How does this season relate the mood/themes of the piece?

2. When is the story set? Describe that time period.

3. How would you describe the life of Kimiko and her mother? Where is the father?

4. Are there any symbols in the piece? Explain the significance/function of the pomegranate.

5. Describe the mother. How in tune with her daughter’s emotional life is she?

6. Explain the significance of the following passage: “It [the mother’s comment that she had forgotten about the pomegranate] made Kimiko think of their loneliness. The pomegranate over the veranda too seemed lonely and forgotten.”

7. What function does the seven-year-old cousin serve in the piece?

8. Is this a linear story? Or are there flashbacks (i.e. analepses, external or internal) embedded in it? Explain.

9. From what point of view is the story told? If third person, is it omniscient? Where is/are the point(s) of focalization?

10. Why does Kimiko feel “somehow apologetic”? Toward what/whom?

11. Explain the scene where Keikichi first sees Kimiko coming down the stairs: “He greeted her with his eyes, as if it were more than he could do to wait for her to come down. She stopped on the stairs.” Why does Keikichi drop the pomegranate?

12. Why does Kimiko refuse the pomegranate at first, and then take it?

13. In what ways does the form (“palm-of-the-hand story”) determine the content/style? Is the style more poetic/symbolic/literary OR straightforward/prosaic/transparent?

14. Can you find any examples of “synesthesia” in the piece? Explain. Write three sentences that employ the technique.

15. Explain the significance of the following passage: “With her mother watching her, it would have been strange for Kimiko to refuse to eat. She bit nonchalantly into it. The sourness filled her mouth. She felt a kind of sad happiness, as if it were penetrating far down inside her.”

16. Why does the mother say she was “afraid to comb my hair” after her husband’s death?

17. What is Kimiko’s “private happiness” (himitsu no yorokobi)? Why does it make her “feel shy before her mother”?

18. Why is she afraid to bite into the pomegranate in the last sentence?

19. If Kawabata had expanded this into a full-length novel, what sort of novel would it be? Write a brief summary of the plot of that novel.

“The Pomegranate” by Kawabata Yasunari

In the high wind that night the pomegranate tree was stripped of its leaves.
The leaves lay in a circle around the base.
Kimiko was startled to see it naked in the morning, and wondered at the flawlessness of the circle. She would have expected the wind to disturb it.
There was a pomegranate, a very fine one, left behind in the tree.
“Just come and look at it,” she called to her mother.
“I had forgotten.” Her mother glanced up at the tree and went back to the kitchen.
It made Kimiko think of their loneliness. The pomegranate over the veranda too seemed lonely and forgotten.
Two weeks or so before, her seven-year-old nephew had come visiting, and had noticed the pomegranates immediately. He had scrambled up into the tree. Kimiko had felt that she was in the presence of life.
“There is a big one up above,” she called from the veranda.
“But if I pick it I can’t get back down.”
It was true. To climb down with pomegranates in both hands would not be easy. Kimiko smiled. He was a dear.
Until he had come the house had forgotten the pomegranate. And until now they had forgotten it again.
Then the fruit had been hidden in the leaves. Now it stood clear against the sky.
There was strength in the fruit and in the circle of leaves at the base. Kimiko went and knocked it down with a bamboo pole.
It was so ripe that the seeds seemed to force it open. They glistened in the sunlight when she laid it on the veranda, and the sun seemed to go on through them.
She felt somehow apologetic.
Upstairs with her sewing at about ten, she heard Keikichi’s voice. Though the door was unlocked, he seemed to have come around to the garden. There was urgency in his voice.
“Kimiko, Kimiko!” her mother called. “Keikichi is here.”
Kimiko had let her needle come unthreaded. She pushed it back into the pincushion.
“Kimiko had been saying how she wanted to see you again before you leave.” Keikichi was going to war. “But we could hardly go and see you without an invitation, and you didn’t come. It was good of you to come today.”
She asked him to stay for lunch, but he was in a hurry.
“Well, do at least have a pomegranate. We grew it ourselves.” She called up to Kimiko again.
He greeted her with his eyes, as if it were more than he could do to wait for her to come down. She stopped on the stairs.
Something warm seemed to come into his eyes, and the pomegranate fell from his hand.
They looked at each other and smiled.
When she realized that she was smiling, she flushed. Keikichi got up from the veranda.
“Take care of yourself, Kimiko.”
“And you.”
He had already turned away and was saying goodbye to her.
Kimiko looked on at the garden gate after he had left.
“He was in such a hurry,” said her mother. “And it’s such a fine pomegranate.”
He had left it on the veranda.
Apparently he had dropped it as that warm something came into his eyes and he was beginning to open it. He had not broken it completely in two. It lay with the seeds up.
Her mother took it to the kitchen and washed it, and handed it to Kimiko.
Kimiko frowned and pulled back, and then, flushing once more, took it in with some confusion.
Keikichi would seem to have taken a few seeds from the edge.
With her mother watching her, it would have been strange for Kimiko to refuse to eat. She bit nonchalantly into it. The sourness filled her mouth. She felt a kind of sad happiness, as if it were penetrating far down inside her.
Uninterested, her mother had stood up.
She went to a mirror and sat down. “Just look at my hair, will you. I said goodbye to Keikichi with this wild mop of hair.”
Kimiko could hear the comb.
“When your father died,” her mother said softly, “I was afraid to comb my hair. When I combed my hair I would forget what I was doing. When I came to myself it would be as if your father were waiting for me to finish.”
Kimiko remembered her mother’s habit of eating what her father had left on his plate.
She felt something pull at her, a happiness that made her want to weep.
Her mother had probably given her the pomegranate because of a reluctance to throw it away. Only because of that. It had become a habit not to throw things away.
Alone with her private happiness, Kimiko felt shy before her mother.
She thought that it had been a better farewell than Keikichi could have been aware of, and that she could wait any length of time for him to come back.
She looked toward her mother. The sun was falling on the paper doors beyond which she sat at her mirror.
She was somehow afraid to bite into the pomegranate on her knee.



[1] Written in 1943. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, in Contemporary Japanese Literature, edited by Howard Hibbett (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1977), 293-295. For a translation of the entire collection, see: Kawabata Yasunari. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. Translated from the Japanese by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman. Imprint Rutland, Vt. : Charles E. Tuttle Co. 1988.