- Red Circle Minis, by selected authors.
We first learn to understand countries through the cliches they present to the world. In the case of Japan, those superficial, sentimental images would include cherry blossoms, geishas, sushi, sumo and Fuji. Happily, not a single such cliché is evident in the attempt by Red Circle publishing to introduce new readers to contemporary Japanese writing.
Red Circle Minis advertise themselves as "original, short and compelling reads". Just as early Penguins were designed to be compact and succinct enough to read on a train, so too Red Circle's stories can easily be digested comfortably in an hour or so. Each showcases a contemporary Japanese author; the books are first editions, each written specifically for the series, published in English first. The excellent translator of two volumes, Meredith McKinney, lives in the bush outside Braidwood.
A selection like this quintet need possess no organising principles other than quality, novelty and ingenuity. The set bears no resemblance to the dozens of little black Penguins published recently as a novice's guide to classics. I started, for instance, with a tale from the 16th century, then moved forward 500 years to 2091.
Japanese tradition is honoured in motifs, colours and the mark on the covers. Each of those covers is a delicate, elegant pastel: umeganase, haiume, torinoko-iro, fuji-iro and goso-iro. Pearl grey, slate, blusher, light green and soft pink sound prosaic by comparison.
One character, a young lord, is confronted by "a great cone-shaped mountain of bound books". Here, by contrast, we are offered an amuse-bouche, an aperitif, a tasting or a teaser. Together on a bookshelf, the five tales resemble "a box where sweets compacted lie". For someone seeking to learn about Japan, Red Circle has provided a kaleidoscope rather than a telescope. As with appetisers, the reader is meant to be left wanting more.
My favourite is The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro,by Kanji Hanawa, which - with gentle, gracious irony - recounts the growth of Lord "Someday-Soon". Asunaro fondles a breast, chews an ear, composes a poem, whacks a leg with a wooden sword, and deciphers a status system "as complex as a spider's web". Hanawa's historical grounding is deep and respectful; who knew that the faithful can send their dogs out to shrines as Proxy Pilgrims? Deep in classic Kurosawa territory, Hanawa is judicious, sometimes even decorous, in describing how urges and desires can swell in an adolescent.
Propelled forward five centuries, Soji Shimada's One Love Shigura contains faint echoes of Pinocchio and Pygmalion. The victim of a motorbike accident, "crushed, torn to pieces and scattered about", is re-constructed with a cyborg body. Rejecting most of humankind (our angry looks offend him), the hero becomes infatuated with the "relaxed and gentle manner, and a fleeting smile" of a woman he sees passing by.
She is then idealised, amidst digressions on Aryan history, chicken kebabs, Benjamin Franklin and - in various reprises - "Annie Laurie". The narrative slows, the ending is obvious, and there is not enough substance to the main character. Even two generations on, unrequited love has not become any more subtle or enjoyable.
Dystopia also frames Takusi Ichikawa's The Refugees' Daughter. Ichikawa (renowned for the novel, Be With You) confects a parable about how we might survive the appalling damage we have been doing to our planet. Overwhelmed by "an unbearable amount of bad news", some refugees decide to escape their fate. A few capitalised controllers of our world are introduced: Builders, The Complex, Observers. Humble humans wander along a road, much as Cormac McCarthy had them do in his novel of the same name.
At the end, despite a few symbolic spirals and with the antidote of a book on kindness, the conclusion is comforting. Those displaying a capacity to nurture and soothe will be looked after. Nirvana, Heaven or life after death, whichever Ishikawa settles on, is no more clearly outlined than that. A reader might be left wanting more conflict along the way as well as a bit more resolution at the end.
Stand-In Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi adapts contemporary predicaments to a semi-futuristic setting. Its characters are troubled by a low sperm count or problems with a fallopian tube. The eponymous Stand-In Companion might assuage some of those anxieties, but will be re-possessed at the end of eight years. That's less brutal than the one imagined by Shimada. Instead of being pulped and melted down, the matrimonial helper simply fails to wake up. In an unlikely finale, the hero is promised "the life you want", but we might reasonably wonder if he knows what to ask for.
In a radical change of pace, Backlight by Kanji Hanawa is realistic and intense, artful and thoughtful. A child is abandoned, contrite parents fret, psychologists opine, emergency services do their job. Grim, gripping but not gratuitously gruesome, this story is exceptional.