Tsundoku Reader

A blog on Japanese books, mostly untranslated, that deserve a wider audience outside of Japan

Category: Harada, Maha

Nominees for the 2018 Japanese Booksellers Award

The 10 books nominated for the 2018 Booksellers Award were announced on January 2018. One of the reasons I look forward to this list so much is the sheer variety of the selections. After all, the titles are chosen by bookstore clerks who are eager to promote their favorites, so I think this is as close as we can get to an award given by people who are readers first and foremost. This year the list is as eclectic as ever, with novels about zombies, the intersections between Japanese art and French Impressionism, the struggles of the publishing industry, a murder involving the game of shogi, bullying, a professional assassin, a modern-day scribe, a mysterious brain cancer patient, and a failing department store (with a cat thrown in for good measure).

『AX アックス』、伊坂幸太郎

AX, by Kotaro Isaka

Isaka, a mystery writer who has won many awards, has said that he writes to deal with his constant fear that something horrible is going to happen and that these catastrophes will change Japan irrevocably. “AX” is about a highly skilled professional assassin who continues to take jobs until he has enough money for retirement. In contrast to his professional mien, he cannot stand up to his wife at home and doesn’t even have the respect of his son. While you’re waiting for this to be translated, you could try Isaka’s novel, ゴールデンスランバー, published in an English translation by Stephen Snyder under the title Remote Control, about a young man who is framed for the murder of the Japanese prime minister and tries to escape.

『かがみの孤城』 、辻村深月

The Solitary Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura

This long novel is about a young girl who has stopped going to school because she is being bullied. One day, she notices that the mirror in her bedroom is glowing, and as she reaches out to touch it, she is pulled through the mirror and into a game, supervised by a young girl wearing a wolf mask. Kokoro and six other children in similar situations have one year to search a castle for a key that will grant the finder a wish. I will read anything Tsujimura writes. I don’t read her books for the plots, I read them for her vivid characters and their relationships with each other. This book is worth reading if only for the back-and-forth between the prickly young girl leading this group and the fragile kids she tries to guide in their search.


The Sparkling Republic, by Ito Ogawa

This is a sequel to last year’s “Tsubaki Stationery Store,” also nominated for the 2017 Japanese Booksellers Award. This book continues Hatoko’s story and her life in Kamakura, interspersed with the predicaments and letters of the people who come to her for help writing letters.


Hold Tight to the Collapsing Brain, by Mikito Chinen

Chinen is a practicing doctor who writes mysteries and thrillers set in hospitals. This rather bizarre title is no exception—his other books have titles like “How to Keep a Pet Guardian of Death” (優しい死神の飼い方)and “Hospital Ward: The Masked Bandit” (仮面病棟). This novel is about Usui, a young man completing his medical residency when he meets Yukari, a young girl with brain cancer. They become close, but when he returns to his hometown, he is told that she has died. Billed as a love story wrapped in a mystery, Usui struggles to discover why Yukari has died and whether she ever existed in the first place.


Murderers at the House of the Living Dead, by Masahiro Imamura

Members of a university’s mystery club travel together to stay at a pension, and find themselves forced to barricade themselves inside on the very first night. The very next morning, one of their members is found dead, in a locked room. This mystery takes some of the elements of a locked-room murder, but adds zombies to the mix. Reviews have been mixed, with my favorite being from someone who wrote that he felt like he had ordered curry rice, and was served with curry udon instead.


The Fang in the Trick Picture, by Takeshi Shiota

This novel follows Hayami, a magazine editor at a major publisher, as he desperately tries to keep his magazine from being discontinued. Hayami struggles with internal politics, but also faces the fight within the entertainment industry for our attention. I plan to read this one on the strength of Shiota’s previous novel based on the unsolved Glico-Morinaga case, “The Voice of the Crime” (also shortlisted for the 2017 award).


“Fluctuat nec mergitur,” by Maha Harada

(The title refers to the Latin phrase used by Paris as its motto since 1358, meaning something like “tossed by the waves but never sunk.”)

In this novel, Harada has used the historical figure Tadamasa Hayashi, a Japanese art dealer who went on to introduce ukiyo-e, woodblock prints and other forms of Japanese art to Europe, as a way to explore the question of why Japan is so fascinated with Vincent van Gogh. Harada believes that the explanation lies in elements of ukiyo-e in van Gogh’s paintings, and although there is no evidence that Hayashi and van Gogh ever met, this novel imagines a friendship between Hayashi and and Theo and Vincent van Gogh that changed Impressionism.

Harada was also nominated last year for『暗幕のゲルニカ』(Guernica Undercover), about Picasso’s Guernica painting.


“The Sunflower on the Shogi Board,” by Yuko Yuzuki

The book starts in 1994 with the discovery of skeletal remains buried with a piece from a famous shogi set (shogi is a Japanese game similar to chess). Naoya Sano, a policeman who had aspired to be a professional shogi player, and veteran detective Tsuyoshi Ishiba try to identify the body. Their search alternates with the story of Keisuke, starting in 1971. Keisuke’s mother has died and his father abuses him, but a former teacher recognizes his unusual talent for shogi and encourages him to leave for Tokyo and become a professional.

This book is especially timely as shogi has been in the headlines a lot lately thanks to the amazing wins of fifteen-year-old Sota Fujii, Japan’s youngest professional shogi player. There has actually been a run on shogi sets, which has to be a first!


The Department Store’s Magic, by Saki Murayama

This book is a series of interlinked stories about the people who work at a local department store: the elevator girl, the concierge, the jewelry department’s floor manager and the founder’s family. As rumors about the store’s impending closure begin to go around, they all come together to try and save the store—with the help of the white cat who lives there. Murayama’s The Story of Ofudo (about a bookstore, and also involving a cat) was nominated for last year’s award, and I’ve been reading it when I need a respite from my current read, Fuminori Nakamura’s R帝国 (Empire R)—its fairytale atmosphere is a welcome contrast to Nakamura’s dark vision.


Child of the Stars, Natsuko Imamura

The narrator of this novel (which was also nominated for the Akutagawa Prize) is a third-year middle school student, Chihiro. She was born premature and began suffering from eczema when she was a baby. Her parents tried every treatment recommended, but with no effect. Finally, her father’s co-worker gives them a bottle of water labeled “Blessings of the Evening Star,” with instructions to wash her with it. This completely cures her, and her parents become wrapped up in this co-worker’s cult as a result. Although Chihiro’s older sister runs away, Chihiro is able to separate her home life from life outside—at least until she reaches adolescence.

And there you have it. The booksellers have spoken, and now we must do our part and get reading.

God of Cinema



文藝春秋, 2013


God of the Cinema

Maha Harada

Bungeishunju, 2013

[No English translation available]


One reviewer of this book said she become so caught up in this book that she started reading it at 11pm, read it until she heard the sound of the motorbike delivering the morning newspaper, slept a few hours and then read to the end. But what convinced me to pull this book off my shelves was her comment that this book made her glad that she was born Japanese so that she could read this book.

The story centers on Ayumi Maruyama and her father, known as Go. When the story begins, Ayumi has just quit her high-ranking position at a development company, rather than accepting a transfer that is essentially a demotion, and Go is recovering from heart surgery.

Ayumi has always followed her father’s advice to find what you love and stick to it, no matter how hard it is, and as a result she was able to work at a large company developing theater complexes. At the same time, her single-mindedness made her enemies at work and left her single at age 40.

Go was dealt a lucky hand of cards when he was born. He was born to parents who lost their house but survived the Kanto earthquake, spent his childhood in Manchuria, made it through WWII without a scratch, married a dependable woman, and was always able to rely on his wife and friends to bail him out from his gambling debts. However, his heart surgery and his wife’s discovery that he has the equivalent of about $30,000 in debt from playing mahjong and gambling on horse races seem to suggest that his luck has run out. Ayumi and her mother consult experts on gambling addiction, and are told that by always paying off his debt, they have been enabling him and must cut him off from any source of money. They sequester his pension and, left with only enough money for a few visits to the movie theater and DVD rentals, Go falls into a depression.

Despite all of his failings, Go’s enthusiasm for life has earned him a few constant friends. Terashin, the owner of a meigaza theater that shows classic films and holds retrospectives, loves Go as he is. Telling Ayumi that he knows Go has used the money he loaned him to play mahjong, he says, “I like that about him. He may be a bit of a charlatan, but he’s big-hearted. These days, there aren’t many people who are that joyfully irresponsible. … When I see how dogged he is in living life his own way, it makes me feel that as long as there are movies in this world, there’s a reason for me to keep this theater going. The God of the Cinema hasn’t abandoned me yet.”

It was Go that told Terashin about this “God of the Cinema.” He writes,

Movie theaters are actually temples to entertainment. One step into these temples and you have entered a sacred area occupying a different dimension. Movies are an offering to the gods living in this temple. Ever since I was a child, I have sensed the presence of the god of cinema watching the movie together with me somewhere in the theater. This god might enjoy the movie, but more than anything else, he finds joy in the pleasure of all the people watching the movies. … I keep talking about these gods, but in reality I’m not a religious person. And yet still, I sense a strength that I cannot see with my own eyes and a presence that is beyond human knowledge. When I watch a truly great movie, this feeling is particularly strong.

While Go is in the hospital, Ayumi finds stacks and stacks of notebooks that her father has filled with notes on the movies that he has seen. Although he writes in an unsophisticated way, it is his frank pleasure in movies that draws her in. On a whim, Ayumi scribbles an entry of her own on a piece of scratch paper and tucks it into his notebooks. Inspired by a recent visit to Terashin’s meigaza, she likens these meigaza to village temples:

Snug, simple places with a good atmosphere. No gaudy shrines or showy events here, just the kind of temple that hosts a quiet summer festival with cotton candy and cold soda and goldfish catching games. That girl you’ve had your eye on will come in her yukata. Those short summers have a poignancy so sharp it makes your heart ache. And yet these places are dying out, one by one.

It is these hastily scribbled words that finally result in a new job for Ayumi at Eiyu, a movie magazine. Hoping to keep her father away from the temptations of mahjong and horse races, Ayumi had taught her father to use the Internet to read movie blogs and check on theater showings (he even keeps a glass of sake by his computer, just as you would leave an offering in front of a shrine). Finding her notes in his notebook, he posts it on Eiyu’s blog. This magazine was originally just one of the assets of a large company, one of the first companies to obtain distribution rights for Western movies in Japan. Now only the magazine is left, and it is also on its last legs. The editor is hoping that Ayumi will be a fresh new voice for the magazine.

However, it is really Go that rescues the magazine. He becomes the main blogger for the magazine’s website, given the title “apostle of the God of Cinema.” His posts bring in comments from all over Japan, and they even post English translations with help from Ayumi’s former colleague. And this is where the storyline takes another turn. Somebody only identifying himself as “Rosebud” begins responding to Go’s movie reviews on the English site, and his erudition and deep knowledge of movies reveals that he is not your usual blog commentator. The back-and-forth between Go and Rosebud draw in large audiences, and their arguments about the merits and shortcomings of “A Field of Dreams,” “Roman Holiday” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” are part of the pleasure of this novel. We finally learn Rosebud’s identity when Go asks for his help in saving Terashin’s movie theater, which has been threatened by the construction of large movie complex nearby.

This book could easily have become maudlin and marred by a series of convenient turns in the characters’ fortunes, but luckily (for the reader), Go’s failings and Ayumi’s prickliness always stand in the way of tidy resolutions. And as Terashin says, “The God of Cinema does not grant miracles that easily. Gods are actually quite heartless, you know.”

In the end, though, Maha Harada gives us an ending worthy of all those great movies Go and Rosebud discuss, bringing the characters together in a movie theater. Because after all, “no matter what the movie is, if you are watching it with the person you love in a theater you love, that is the best movie of your life.”

(To see a favorite scene from the movie they watch, click here.)

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