Fantastic reading & viewing for before, during and after your trip
|There is a huge volume of literature and non-fiction available related to Japan. Whether it be the surreal novels of the master writer Haruki Murakami, the social commentary of Alex Kerr, or the quirky fashions presented in Strange Fruits. Whatever your particular interest in Japan there will be something in print to keep you engrossed.
This page is split into two halves - books by Japanese authors and books about Japan. In recent years novelists such as Murakami have shot to prominence in the West with their beautiful writing and haunting stories. We feature some of those novels here as well as some books about the many different aspects of Japan.
Haruki Murakami - Norwegian Wood
First published in 1987 (and in English in 2000), Norwegian Wood propelled its author, Haruki Murakami, to such levels of fame that he packed his bags and spent 15 years living in voluntary exile in Europe and the United States. The haunting story of a middle aged man reminiscing on the life and loves of his university days struck a cord with millions of Japanese, young and old alike, becoming a mandatory part of the school syllabus. The narrator of the story is Toru Watanabe, a freshman student at a Tokyo university during the 1960s, a time of radical student activism and social upheaval in Japan. Although principally a novel about Toru's romantic relationships with two very different women - the delicate and emotionally vulnerable Naoko and his vivacious and outgoing classmate, Midori - the themes of the book are universal as Murakami explores the impact of suicide, conflicting desire and the search for identity on his principle characters. Norwegian Wood is beautifully wistful and thought provoking tale and a fantastic introduction both to the works of Murakami and to Japanese literature as a whole.
Comment by Alastair Donnelly (Director)
Other Novels by Haruki Murakami (Japanese titles and publication dates in parentheses)
1989 A Wild Sheep Chase (1982 Hitsuji o meguru bôken)
1991 Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985 Sekai no owari to hâdoboirudo wandârando)
1994 Dance Dance Dance (1988 Dansu dansu dansu)
2000 South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992 Kokkyô no minami, taiyô no nishi)
1997 The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1992-1995 Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru)
2001 Sputnik Sweetheart (1999 Supûtoniku no koibito)
2005 Kafka on the Shore (2002 Umibe no Kafuka)
2007 After Dark (2004 Afutâ Dâku)
Natsume Soseki - I am a cat
Soseki's comic masterpiece, I am a Cat (or perhaps more literally from the Japanese the more humorously pompous “We are a Cat”), centres around the lives of the beleaguered school teacher Mr. Sneeze and his curious group of associates and friends. Soseki brilliantly sends-up the pretentious middle class that developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century following the Meiji Restoration (1908) with their western affectations and pseudo intellectual conversations whilst amusing the reader with the tales of social intrigue and neighbourhood gossip. The twist? All this is told through the eyes and ears of Mr. Sneeze's pet cat, a young stray, who happens upon the house of Mr. Sneeze who uncharacteristically takes pity on the young creature and takes him in. Originally published as a newspaper serialisation, over the course of which the narrator grows increasingly pompous and human in tone until eventually, after two years chronicling the foibles of these foolish humans and the general superiority of cats, the nameless protagonist gets drunk and drowns in a water barrel! I am a cat is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand the seismic changes in society which accompanied the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and rapid westernisation that followed it.
Other novels by Natsume Soseki (available in translation)
Junichiro Tanizaki: Naomi
Widely regarded as his Tanizaki’s first masterpiece , Naomi captures a fascinating period in Japan’s history. Naomi is set in the 1920’s Tokyo, a period when western style and culture started to slowly seep into Japan. This breath of fresh air was regarded by some as new and exciting and others as endangering traditional Japanese values.
Naomi was a ‘modern girl’, one of the first wave of women in Japan who emulated their western counterparts, and the book was well received by younger readers who coined “Naomi-ism” as a name to describe such young women.
Naomi is both a great introduction into Tanizaki’s works as well as a fascinating insight into Japanat a time when it started to question itself and it’s place in the world.
The Makioka Sisters
Tanizaki's controversial and engrossing tale of the trials and tribulations of an Osaka merchant family fallen on hard times as told through the story of their four daughters' lives.
Taichi Yamada: Strangers – (Ijintachi to no Natsu)
Hideo, a recently divored scriptwriter lives in a large Tokyo building where he is seemingly one of only two residents - the rest of the space being given over to offices. One evening a knock on the door introduces him to Kei, the other resident with whom he eventually becomes entangled in a somewhat bizzare relationship. Meanwhile, whilst on a nostaligic visit to his childhood neighbourhood of Asakusa, Hideo meets a man with a striking resemblance to his dead father. Taichi's Yamada's affecting ghost story with a twist beautifully captures the emotional and spiritual conflicts felt by many of Japan's legion of salarymen and the alienation of modern urban life.
I Haven’t Dreamt of Flying for a While (Tobu Yumewo Shibaraku Minai)
Taura, a middle aged salaryman, estranged from his wife and son and going through something of a mid-life crisis meets Mutsuko whilst recuperating in hospital. Several months later he encounters her again, a changed woman. Taura's relationship with Mutsuko frames this novel which explores the issues surrounding ageing, youthfulness and sexuality.
Kazuo Ishiguro: Remains of the day
Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen
Murasaki: Tales of Genji
Matsuo Basho: Narrow Road into the Deep North
Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
The Lone Samurai ; The Life of Miyamoto Musashi – William Scott Wilson
Now You’re One Of Us – Asa Nonami
Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha
Books about Japan
Alex Kerr: Lost Japan
Alex Kerr, American author and long time resident of Japan, has spent many years trying to preserve traditional Japanese bulidings in the countryside of Shikoku and in Kyoto. In Lost Japan, Kerr details and laments what he sees as the willful destruction by the Japanese of their cultural heritage in the name of 'progress'. Although this is a somewhat depressing depiction of modern day Japan, Kerr's book does introduce the reader to those hidden areas where more traditional ways of life are still present today.
Shoko Tendo: Yakuza Moon - Memoirs of a gangster's daughter
Less a book about the Yakuza, Japan's powerful gangster clans, and more a moving memoir of a disfunctional upbringing in bubble era Japan. Yakuza Moon is Shoko Tendo's account of how she struggled to come to terms with her family background and a life of abuse before finally finding her identity and carving her own path in life. Born into the family of a powerful Yakuza boss in Osaka, her early life was idyllic. However, when her father was sent to prison the family fell into debt and her life gradually spiralled out of control. Bullied at school and isolated at home, Shoko found solice and a sense of identity skipping school with the gangs of 'yankee' kids, sniffing paint thinner and developing an addiction to speed.
The fascination in this book is the vivid picture painted by Shoko of an underworld rarely revealed in Japan; A world of sexual and violent abuse and drugs that many Japanese would not even acknowledge exisits. Yakuza Moon leaves the reader feeling numb at the hardships and trials Shoko has faced but at the same is a life affirming story of the triuph of human perserverance.
Click to read an interview in the Guardian with Shoko Tendo
Murasaki's After Dark deals with similar subject matter to Yakuza Moon.
Jun'ichi Saga: Confessions of a Yakuza - A life in Japan’s Underworld
Jeff Yang et al: Eastern Standard Time
John Nathan: Japan Unbound
Will Ferguson: Hokkaido Highway Blues – Hitching in Japan
Liz Dalby: Geisha
The Road to Sata – Alan Booth
Looking for the Lost – Alan Booth
Ghostwritten - David Mitchell
A Year in Japan - Kate T Williamson
Insight guide Japan
Frommers Japan Guide
Rough Guide Japan
Lonely Planet: Hiking in Japan
Japanese cinema has come increasingly to prominence is recent years, from the beautiful Oscar winning animation of Studio Ghibli to the violent gangster films of Japan's modern day auteur, 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano. Below you will find detailed some of our favourites.
Lost in Translation
Zatoichi - Takeshi Kitano
For 2003's 'Zatoichi' Takeshi Kitano turned his attention to one of Japan's classic characters, the blind masseur/swordsman. Zatoichi was created by novelist Kan Shimozawa and was the subject of Japan's longest running series of films (26 were made between 1962 and 1989) as well as spawning a television series. However, in his inimitable style, 'Beat' Takeshi brings a fresh approach to this old tale producing a classic of Japanese cinema. Not to be missed!
All about Lilly Chou-Chou - Shunji Iwai (Rirī Shushu no Subete)
This hard hitting 2001 film brings into sharp focus the challenges of adolescence facing Japanese youth in the age of the internet. Lilly Chou-Chou is a beautiful and mysterious Japanese singer, idolised by her fans and followed obsessively through internet chat rooms and online forums. The film focuses on the life of Yuiichi, a sensitive teenager as he struggles to come to terms with the daily bullying and loneliness he faces at school, his only solace being found online. Beautifully shot with a gorgeous soundtrack of Debussy mixed with the trance like classically themed music of the singer of the film's title, All About Lily Chou-Chou hypnotically builds its tragic conclusion.
Set in Australia, this is an entertaining film about a Japanese businessman on a trip to the Australian mines.
Kagemusha - Akira Kurosawa
The Seven Samurai - Akira Kurosawa
Famously this Kurosawa classic was remade by Hollywood as The Maginifcent Seven but the American adaptation has nothing on this undisputed classic of Japanese cinema. A poor village comes under atatck from bandits and recruits seven 'ronin' or masterless samurai to protect them and teach them to fight. The final battle scene is one of the greatest ever shot. The Seven Samurai is perhaps the classic of Japanese cinema.
Japan has given us some of the very best action films. The master is the autuer Kitano 'Beat' Takeshi whose work has had a major influence of Western filmmakers such as Quentin Tarrantino. If you like a good gangster film, Kitano is your man.
Hanabi - Kitano Takeshi
Japanese animation has been taking the World by storm in recent times. Formerly the preserve of a highly dedictated obsessive fans, anime has stepped into the mainstream, illustarted back in 2003 when Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Spirited Away won that year's oscar for best animated film. There is a whole world of anime to discover but below we have tried to detail some of the very best.
Japan has long produced some of the best horror movies being made anywhere in the World. The Japanese just seem to have an inherent understanding of what is truly frightening! Below are some of our recomended horror films - not for the faint hearted!
Audition - Takeshi Miike
For obvious reasons, as a genre Romantic Horror, hasn’t enjoyed much success.
It has taken Japan’s enfant terrible of cinema Takashi Miike to finally put these two genres together and make what is perhaps the best Romantic Horror film that has been, and will ever be made.
Miike weaves a touching tale of a lonely widower who, urged by his teenage son, holds auditions for a new bride.
He selects the beautiful but baggage laden Asami, and for the first hour of the film we are treated to a touching courting between the two. But this is a Takashi Miike film and we know what to expect, and the suspense as we wait for him to do his best is intense. And when the Horror part kicks in, it is vintage Miike – terrifying, bizarre, and lots and lots of gore. Do not watch this alone…
The Ring - Hideo Nakata
Over 10 years after it was first released, The Ring is still widely regarded asthe most frightening horror movie in Japan. It has spawned remakes in both Hollywood (starring Naomi Watts) and Korea as well as a sequel, prequel and video game. But none beat the original for sheer suspense. It is the highest grossing horror film in Japan, not bad when it was made on a budget of US$1.2 million.
It will make you think twice before watching a video again (although in the age of DVD, this many not be such a problem!)
Ichi The Killer