Tsundoku Reader

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

Month: February 2016

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.)

Japanese Booksellers Award 2016

A glance at the list of nominees for this year’s 本屋賞, or Booksellers Award, provides an interesting counterpoint to the books translated from Japanese to English, a disproportionate percentage of which seem to be mysteries (with many of the blurbs claiming that here is the next Stieg Larsonn).

The Booksellers Award is a fairly young prize, launched in 2004. Booksellers and bookstore staff nominate three books that they would recommend, with a list of nominees compiled from the results. Booksellers must read all ten of the nominated books to vote in the next round. Looking through lists of nominees from past years is one of the ways I choose what to read next, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

You can read more about the prize and descriptions of the past winners (in English) here. The winner of this year’s award will be announced on April 12, 2016.

Books Nominated for the 2016 Booksellers Award

[None of these books have been translated into English yet.]

『朝が来る』Morning Will Come
辻村深月 Mizuki Tsujimura
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

A couple raising their child suddenly get a phone call from that child’s biological mother, saying that she wants her child back. This is described as a mystery with social themes, dealing with motherhood and what it means to be a family.

『王とサーカス』King and Circus
米澤穂信 Honobu Yonezawa
東京創元社 Tokyo Sogensha

A former journalist, now working for a travel magazine, is visiting Nepal when the royal family is massacred in 2001 (a true event). She begins reporting on the event, and comes across a body with the word “informer” cut into the skin.

『君の膵臓をたべたい』”I Want to Eat Your Pancreas”
住野よる Yoru Sumino
双葉社 Futabasha

A boy finds a diary written by his classmate, who it turns out is suffering from a fatal disease of the pancreas and doesn’t have long to live.

『教団X』Cult X
中村文則 Fuminori Nakamura

集英社 Shueisha

In this story of cults, madness and global terrorism, the main character tries to find his girlfriend, only to discover that she belongs to a cult. In the process of his investigation, he is abducted and ordered to spy on another religious group. Meanwhile, the cult is planning an attack…

『世界の果てのこどもたち』The Children from the Other Side of the World
中脇初枝 Hatsue Nakawaki 
講談社 Kodansha

This novel tells the story of three little girls who meet in Manchuria during WWII and become close friends. Their lives take very different paths after the war, with one orphaned during China’s civil war, the Korean girl experiencing prejudice in Japan, and the third losing her family in air raids in Yokohama.

『戦場のコックたち』Battlefield Cooks
深緑野分 Nowaki Fukamidori
東京創元社 Tokyo Sogensha

Set during WWII, this is a series of linked stories about Tim, Ed and Diego, cooks in the military who also solve everyday mysteries, such as who stole 600 boxes of powdered eggs.

『永い言い訳』The Long Excuse
西川美和 Miwa Nishikawa
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This novel covers a year in the life of a successful author following the death of his wife in an accident, together with her friend. He copes with his guilt and his grief by helping the bereaved husband of his wife’s friend raise his children, with mixed results.

『羊と鋼の森』Forest of Sheep and Steel 
宮下奈都 Natsu Miyashita
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This is a coming-of-age story about a young man so fascinated by the piano that he trains to be a piano tuner. He learns as much from the customers as he does from his teachers.

『火花』 Sparks
又吉直樹 Naoki Matayoshi
文藝春秋 Bungeishunju

This novel tracks the careers of two struggling comedians, one of whom eventually gives up and gets a day job. However, he continues to follow his friend, whose absolute dedication to his craft leads him into a downward spiral. The author is himself a comedian, and won the 153rd Akutagawa Prize for this novel.

『流』  Flow
東山彰良 Akira Higashiyama
講談社 Kodansha

This novel, which won the 153rd Naoki Prize last year, is a coming-of-age story based on the author’s grandfather’s experiences during the Communist uprising in mainland China. The author was born in Taiwan and came to Japan when he was five, and he explores that search for a sense of identity in his writing.


Notes in Idleness

管の穂をゆらす: つれづれノート26


角川, 2014

Swaying spikes of grass: Notes in Idleness 26

Natsuo Giniro

Kadokawa, 2014

[No English translation available]


Natsuo Giniro is a poet, artist, photographer and author with a huge backlog of books, many with her characteristic illustrations. She has been publishing her journals for decades now, and this is her 26th volume. They are perfect bedtime reading as they are bite-sized. Giniro writes with great humor about her 14 year-old son Sako, who is ostensibly studying for his high school entrance exams, and her 22 year-old daughter Kaka, who attends vocational school and has her own apartment but finds her mother’s house much more comfortable. The entries are sometimes funny, sometimes more meditative and sometimes just a catalogue of what she ate that day, but always entertaining.

I have translated a few excerpts from January and February 2014 below because I found myself wanting to read bits aloud, and when you find yourself reading aloud to your dog (who doesn’t understand much English, much less Japanese), you know you need to find a better audience.


January 7, 2014

Afternoon. Kaka is sleeping, as usual. Sako is playing video games. I watched a TV show about how to make a fish tank, and then did various tasks.

I went out and got some takoyaki [fried octopus balls], which the three of us ate together.

Reading a book at the kotatsu,* I said to Kaka, “I always used to think that something good was suddenly going to happen, but I don’t think that way anymore. Now I know good things don’t happen in that way. Lying about like this is my definition of happiness.”

Kaka (completely uninterested): “Hmmm.”


January 16, 2014

I’d like to travel again. When my time is my own again, I’ll travel all over. I can’t travel now since I have Sako to take care of, but once he graduates from high school I’ll have time. In fact, I could probably travel when he’s in high school a bit. Something to look forward to. But when I remember that now is the only time I have to take care of Sako, I realize I’d better just enjoy it.

Now that I think of it, it’s very strange that my cute baby turned into this clumsy Kaka. I asked Kaka, “Where did that baby go?” Children are really just a limited-time phenomenon. Actually not just children, all people are temporary. Too temporary. It’s a waste to just let time slide by without noticing it. Good times, bad times, they’re all precious.


February 14, 2014

It’s snowing today. It looks cold. The weather forecast says it will keep snowing.

Sako says he doesn’t want to go to school and he’ll just study at home instead.

I’m not sure what to do, but I figure he’ll study more at home so I tell the school he has a cold and let him stay home.

Sako: X from my class has been absent from school for, like, ever to study for the [entrance] exams.

Me: Since when?
Sako: Just forever.

Now he’s studying at the kotatsu. Sometimes he looks at videos and plays around with his guitar for a change of pace. When I tell him that he seems quite suited to studying at home at his own pace, he readily agrees.

Studying at the kotatsu: iIlustration by Natsuo Giniro

Studying at the kotatsu: iIlustration by Natsuo Giniro

*A kotatsu is a low table with a heavy blanket draped over the frame and the table top laid on top of that. A heater is attached to the underside of the table so that when you sit at the kotatsu, with your legs underneath the blanket, you stay warm. Kotatsu just might be Japan’s most clever invention.

My kotatsu

My kotatsu

On the Train



幻冬舎, 2010

Hankyu Railway, by Hiro Arikawa

Gentosha, 2010

[No English translation available]


Hiro Arikawa is a best-selling author in Japan, and after reading 「阪急電車」 (Hankyu Railway) I can certainly see why she is so popular. And “best-seller” is no denigration in this case—Arikawa has succeeded in creating mass appeal while not losing sight of the heart of her story. Hankyu Railway reminded me a little of the best romantic comedies of the 1980-90s. They might seem light and frothy on the surface, but making a truly great romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle that still resonates 20 years later is a difficult feat.

Hankyu Railway uses the clever device of a train line in Osaka as it travels between eight stations to tell the story of the people whose lives intersect on the train. Each chapter represents one train station along the 15-minute trip from Takaurazuka Station to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi Station, but the return trip is set one year later. This meant that I had to wait until the very last chapter to see what had happened to the characters introduced in the first chapter.


The book covers the eight stations from Takurazuka Station to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi Station and back again, shown here along the vertical blue stretch.

Arikawa has assembled a cast of characters from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. It’s almost as if she wanted to toss completely disparate characters together in one train car and stir the pot to see what would happen. On this one train line, Arikawa has packed in an elderly woman and her granddaughter, whose innocent (and loud) questions about other passengers set off some of the book’s incidents; a young man and woman who vie for the same books at the library without acknowledging each other’s existences; a woman dressed all in white who has just gone to her former fiancé’s wedding to seek revenge; a woman with her abusive boyfriend; two shy college students; a little girl who is being bullied by her classmates; a middle-aged woman who makes herself ill with anxiety; and a high school student trying to figure out what to do with her life.

One character’s actions trigger another, with a ripple effect among the other train passengers. Tokie, an elderly lady who speaks her mind, sees Misa’s boyfriend kick her to the ground and tells her to leave him. Still wavering, Misa hears Etsuko, a high school student, telling her friends about the kindness of her boyfriend. The realization that a teenage girl has a better romantic relationship than she does hurts her pride enough to convince her to break it off. Later, she helps a housewife who becomes ill on the train, and Misa’s straight-talking advice helps this woman see her own situation more clearly. This is just one chain of events, but almost all of the characters end up connected in one way or another.

One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was the way in which the characters have their eyes and ears open to any quirky or unusual sight or conversation. Keiichi, a shy college student with a keen interest in the military, strikes up a conversation with Miho over the Self-Defense Force helicopters flying near the train. Instead of being repelled by his fascination with helicopters, as most people are, she is impressed because he’s given her one more unusual sight to add to her “collection.” She returns the favor by showing him a red torii (a traditional gateway marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine) on top of an apartment roof—one of those puzzles you sometimes see in cities. A year later, on the same train, she is imploring him to come pick the wild bracken she can see growing on the steep slope leading off of the train tracks.

Similarly, a young woman uses a curious sight from the train window as an excuse to talk to the man she regularly sees at the library. On the embankment by the river their train is crossing, stones are piled to form the character 生 (which means life, but also raw, fresh or genuine), and soon they are vying to figure out its meaning. She thinks it refers to draft beer, while he thinks it might be a sort of prayer—it turns out to be a sort of temporary art installation commemorating the community’s restoration after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

Hiro Arikawa actually lives along this Hankyu train line (as of this book’s publication), and her affection for this area of Osaka shows. Although the characters and their interactions kept me turning the pages, I think what will stay with me are the images of a quiet train station in which swallow nests are protected by the train station staff, wild bracken growing on the railway sidings, the incongruous sight of a red torii on an apartment building’s roof, and messages shaped with rocks. It made me wonder if I might find something similar if I looked hard enough.

Note: Although there is no English translation of the book, there is a movie based on the book and you can watch it here with English subtitles. There are a few embellishments, and they’ve left out the couple from the library, but otherwise it follows the book closely and I quite enjoyed it.

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