Japanese literature sits in a rather strange spot in the world literary canon. On one hand, The Tale of Genji is often considered along with Don Quixote, to be one of the world’s first novels, and two Nobel laureates since 1960 have been Japanese. On the other hand, much of Japanese literary fiction remains obscure due to lack of notoriety, interest, and a general inability to connect with the cultural, mythological, and aesthetic elements of Japanese literature.
Despite this, Japanese literature sports an impressive list of great authors and stories, and few other mediums in Japan really capture the essence of the Japanese spirit in the same way literature has done. As a result, it would be a shame if anime fans missed out on a rather vital element of Japanese art in favor of an assortment of light novels that have been criticized for becoming so stereotypically mundane.
The following is a number of Japanese novels that I believe are certainly worth reading if one wants a much greater appreciation for Japanese art and aesthetics. I have not included titles such as Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro or Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human, for while they are without a doubt some of Japan’s most famous and renown novels, their adaptations in the well-known anime Aoi Bungaku would make their inclusion in this list a bit too easy.
Wagahai Neko de Aru (I am a Cat)- Natsume Soseki
Wagahai Neko de Aru in the original Japanese, followed by the Dutch, Spanish, French, and Chinese translations.
Nonetheless, a novel by Soseki must be named. He is undoubtedly the father of the modern Japanese novel and is the premier author to come out of the Meiji era. After the first Sino-Japanese War, Japan’s government decided to end its study of Eastern art and philosophy and, with its borders just recently reopened to the West, decided that it was time to study Western cultures and ideas. Natsume Soseki was the first Japanese scholar to be sent to Britain to study English literature.
Today, the idea of visiting a foreign country abroad for study is the dream of every college student. For Soseki, it was a nightmare, for while he fell in love with the likes of Jane Austen and her vintage realism, the culture and environment of Britain seemed irrevocably hostile to him, as he would later note in his essays on literary criticism. It is here where the beginning of a major modern theme in Japanese literature begins, the discomforting thought among Japanese authors of the mix of Western and Japanese ideology. While Soseki observed as his contemporaries fell in love with Western culture, architecture, and ideas, Soseki was one of many who raised a cautionary note of this brewing melting pot. So, of course, a few years after his return from Britain, Soseki published his first book, a satirical novel titled I Am a Cat, which commented on the coming together of Western and Eastern traditions from the perspective of a feline.
A perceptive anime fan may recognize the title if he or she has watched Azumanga Daioh, where in a dream, a ditsy Osaka is visited by a floating catlike creature, who announces to her “Wagahai wa Neko de Aru,” or “I am a cat,” albeit with an incredibly over-indulgent tone. The reference to Soseki’s novel is clear. The main character of the novel is a domesticated cat who speaks with the register of a nobleman as he observes his master and the world around him. Throughout the novel, the cat continuously makes sardonic jabs at his master, his friends, and even poetry. Unlike many of Soseki’s other novels, I Am a Cat is arguably his most humorous. Satire usually requires context, but anime fans who have experience with some of the politically savvy satire of anime such as Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, the novel offers an interesting satirical experience.
This recommendation is not only suitable for anime fans who read Soseki’s Kokoro as a result of watching Aoi Bungaku and want to experiment more with Soseki’s particular literary brand, but it also introduces to anime fans an interesting quandary that may even surface in anime. Often times, many anime fans may wonder why there is such an abundance of foreign elements in anime, from the blond haired transfer student in slice of life shows to countless plays of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a propensity for references to French and German music and writers. The fact is that while many foreign fans are interested in Japanese culture, Soseki’s novel aptly points out that the opposite, much to his chagrin, is also true.
Otome Youkai Zakuro, an anime that touches on the topic of the conflict between Japanese and Western culture in the Meiji Era.
Chijin no Ai (Naomi)
Two versions of Naomi in Japanese, followed by the English and Portuguese covers, then a film adaptation.
Right alongside Soseki is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, a major Japanese author of the modern era. Tanizaki arguably placed a much stronger emphasis on this Western and Japanese mixture with respect to the traditional Japanese family, as Soseki’s greater thematic emphasis pertained to ideas of individual isolation and how the individual was affected by rapid industrialization and Westernization. Tanizaki wrote a number of landmark novels throughout his career, many of which were shockingly sexual and erotic in nature. To put Tanizaki in context, one must realize that the pre-Meiji era literature was filled with pornographic fiction relegated to the lowest quality of magazines, and it was often looked down upon as lesser forms of literature. With novels such as The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man, Tanizaki demonstrated a robust aesthetic mastery over sexuality without using it as a crutch.
While these are certainly interesting recommendations to anime fans who are no stranger to the sexual nature of many anime, perhaps what might be most appropriate is his novel Naomi, a story focused on a young Japanese man’s obsession with a Eurasian girl, one who represents the modern Western woman. Of course, many anime fans are familiar with the idea of "waifus," and it would surely be amusing for one to read a novel that portrays a fetish in the opposite direction.
Another major element in the novel is a clash of generations. This is also a major theme pervasive across all literature in the modern to post-war era, but it perhaps rings clearly to the world of anime, as Naomi’s clash is not just between young and old people, but also new and old ideas of how a woman should be portrayed.
Asuka is a quarter Japanese.
Indeed, the onset of Western culture sought to redefine many things, even in the private lives of Japanese families, and one major dimension was the depiction of women in society. Anime and manga, especially in the 21st century, has often grappled with this very idea and criticism, and as Naomi questions the transition that the Japanese family undergoes in the modern era, there are certainly thematic parallels that shed light on an ongoing process in the portrayals of female in anime as well.
These themes are very rich, but another element that really impresses many anime fans is just the general aesthetic of Japanese anime. The image of the oh-so common cherry blossom holds a rather elusive and mysterious beauty, ideas of fleeting young love born anew after a wintry snow. It makes sense why a movie such as Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second gained such critical acclaim. The movie is visually stunning, but it also wonderfully captures a variety of images that are so iconic in Japanese anime. Miles of snowy landscapes, a lone young boy wistfully staring out a window into the dark, and falling cherry blossoms juxtaposed against two young lovers never to meet again.
Yukiguni (Snow Country)
Snow Country in Japanese, English, Chinese, Spanish, and Korean.
While I do not believe he has ever mentioned it in an interview, Shinkai’s works share similarities with one Yasunari Kawabata, who was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Those interested in Shinkai’s attention to aesthetic details might also be interested in Kawabata’s masterfully crafted novels. While Shinkai tells his stories through his visual brilliance, Kawabata’s stories speak from his images drawn from amazingly well constructed passages.
Kawabata was a member of the aesthetic literary movement, which rose up against proletariat movements in literature. In other words, Kawabata wrote art for art’s sake, and his prose and style was lauded for its haunting beauty and a great deal of complexity masked behind seemingly simple words. For fans of films like 5 Centimeters per Seconds, there is really no better place to appreciate Kawabata than his landmark work Snow Country, which was one of three novels cited when he won the prize in 1968. Aside from the obvious snowy parallels between both works, they are both deeply concerned with aesthetics and an underlying attempt at unraveling aspects of human nature.
Snow Country tells the story of an urban dilettante and his affair with his mistress in a hot springs inn in the depth of Japan’s snow country, the snowiest region on earth. It is a wonderfully crafted poetic piece, filled to the brim with phenomenally written prose juxtaposed against ideas of traditional and modernized beauty, the contrast between rural and urban, as well as a great melancholic feeling of empathy and sadness at one’s place within the Milky Way.
A personal favorite recommendation is Kawabata’s almost journalistic piece The Master of Go. Written about a famous go match representing an old guard of Japanese tradition surpassed by a younger generation, this is perhaps Kawabata’s most exciting and different novel. Fans of anime such as Hikaru no Go or Shion no Ou will likely appreciate this dramatic and emotional piece. While Kawabata may be difficult to approach, as his stories are far from what we traditionally expect them to be, his wondrous passages and imagination make him a magnificent author and deserving of perhaps the best Japanese author to have ever lived.
Gogo no Eiko (A Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea)
The Japanese and English versions of the novel, proceeded by a British film adaptation, a German opera, and the French translation of the novel.
His companion and fellow author, Yukio Mishima, however, may perhaps be a larger fan favorite to a Western crowd. While Kawabata wrote on traditional Japanese aesthetics in ways that may be almost too foreign for many to appreciate, Yukio Mishima was much more forthright with who he was as an author. Perhaps it is interesting to note that Mishima spoke highly of manga in a number of essays he wrote over the years.
It is thus a shame that Mishima today is more well known as a right-wing ultranationalist who killed himself in one of the most bizarre suicides ever recorded, because behind the tragic happenings of his death is a literary repertoire that was suitable for a Nobel Prize winner. Indeed, Mishima was nominated for a Nobel Prize and only lost to his friend Kawabata. It is my opinion that had Mishima not performed ritual seppuku in the office of a JDSF building trying to reinstate the emperor, he may have well eventually won the prize.
Nevertheless, Mishima wrote dozens of plays, essays, short stories, and novels in his 45 years, much of which is still unavailable to non-Japanese readers. Some novels, such as his Confessions of a Mask, are highly erotic and certainly interesting reads if an anime fan has any proclivity towards a psychological yaoi experience. Others, such as The Sound of Waves, reveals a rather interesting side of Mishima, a romantic side that mirrors a lot of the romance one finds in anime. Indeed, The Sound of Waves includes a number of famous anime tropes from an episode on the beach to breast comparisons between women that seem so trite in anime today, yet feel strangely humorous.
Perhaps the best entry to an anime fan interested in Mishima, however, is A Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, because it really tackles a lot of the major issues that would later surface in Mishima’s best novels. The book follows a young adolescent who initially reveres a sailor in a romantic relationship with his mother, but his reverence slowly diminishes over time as he begins to despise the sailor for what he sees as moral weakness. Mishima was almost obsessed with the issue of youth, which is the major cornerstone of his famous tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, and the psychological aspects of the novel which showcase the moral degradation of the adolescent and his group of friends is an interesting component that would appeal to anime fans who have a great fondness for psychological anime.
Suna no Onna (The Woman in the Dunes)
The original Japanese novel, a film remake, and the translated English, French, and German versions.
Mishima was certainly a strange case in the history of Japanese authors, but strange remains a key identifier of many things in Japan, especially in anime. After Mishima died in 1970, there was a period in time where avant-garde and experimental fiction became incredibly popular in Japan. Perhaps the most famous example is Kobo Abe, who was famous for his surreal and bizarre novels. Just reading the plot summary of an Abe novel is enough to have one scratching his or her head at how one could have come up with such a premise.
In anime, fans are no stranger to things that are incredibly surreal and unexpected. Think of Masaaki Yuasa and his works such as Kaiba, Kemonozume, and Cat Soup or Manglobe’s Ergo Proxy), a nightmarish world of the experimental and surreal. Fans of those kind of anime should definitely consider reading some of Kobo Abe’s novels, such as Inter Ice Age 4, and, of course, The Woman in the Dunes.
The Woman in the Dunes is a strange tale of a man out to collect insects, who finds himself in a house in the dunes. A single woman lives there, and the two spend their time shoveling sand out of the house. It is an extremely strange novel, one that would surely satiate the appetite of anime fans looking for a read that is reminiscent of a nightmare written by Kafka. For those who are interested in works such as Serial Experiments Lain, Ergo Proxy, and other works that seem highly mysterious, surreal, and often ambiguous, this is a novel that mirrors some of those elements.
Along the lines of the themes of some of these shows such as Lain, Abe might have been highly experimental and often compared to Kafka, but his emphasis on examining issues concerning contemporary society and the isolation of the individual in works such as The Woman in the Dunes, The Box Man, and Face of Another represents how even in works as surreal as Abe’s, many of Japan’s most historically prevalent themes continue to show themselves in interesting dynamics and renditions.
Kojinteki na Taiken (A Personal Matter)
A Personal Matter in Japanese, English, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese.
Abe was an inspiration to many, but Kenzaburo Oe is likely the most well-known. Oe is the second Japanese author to be awarded a Nobel Prize. As I have already mentioned Yukio Mishima, it would be important to note that the two are almost diametrically opposed ideologically. While Mishima was brazen in his nationalism and mission to restore the emperor, Oe looked down upon the right wing fanaticism of Mishima, which certainly contributed to their tenuous relationship. Indeed, Mishima in his letters once wrote that upon meeting Oe, he was surprised to see that Oe was such an ugly man.
Appearances aside, Oe’s commentary on society is powerful almost due to his seeming ability to set outside of it. Many of his stories involve outcasts or members of rural communities who are able to strike poignant messages at contemporary Japanese society. One particular example would be Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, a story of young children sent to a rural village to work. In a story slightly reminiscent of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the children are abandoned in the plagued village to their fate. Anime is no stranger to these types of stories, where children are left to fend for themselves, but I imagine the novel would be a much more appreciated alternative to the less than satisfactory Btoom! or, most recently, Mayoiga, which is already being characterized as a rather unfortunate traffic accident.
Oe’s later works however are deeply involved with his son, Hikari, who was born with brain damage and is now known as an autistic savant who writes symphonies. The most famous novel is the first, A Personal Matter, which was what helped Oe win the Nobel Prize. What might intrigue anime fans about A Personal Matter is we often never see real parent and child relationships in anime. The joke, which bears a rather significant bit of truth, in the anime world is most kids either have negligent parents or parents that are dead. Oe’s novel is a chance for anime fans to experience an incredibly passionate account of a man’s relationship with his son by one of Japan’s most celebrated modern authors.
Sekai no Owari to Hardboiled Wonderland
(Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World)
Murakami's novel in the original Japanese, followed by translations to English, Romanian, Chinese, and Korean.
Of course, no list of Japanese novels is really complete without having to mention the most popular Japanese literary figure to date, Haruki Murakami. In many ways, Murakami succeeded where his predecessors failed, which was to gain massive global appeal. One of the reasons is because Murakami does not write about distinct Japanese themes and ideas, so his stories are often less culturally separated from our own experiences and are thus more accessible.
Much like the experimentalists, Haruki Murakami often has incredibly vibrant and surreal stories and while his prose is certainly less sophisticated than any of the prior authors mentioned, Murakami has created his own brand of highly entertaining postmodern stories.
Perhaps the best recommendation for an anime fan would be Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, not because it is the best entryway into a Murakami novel, but because it has direct parallels with the setting of the anime Haibane Renmei. For many, Murakami wrote Hardboiled Wonderland and it was one of the most grandiose and fulfilling books they have read in their lives. In the novel, he feels like a master calligrapher, drawing the same character, with each stroke varying the speed and thickness, and highlighting the hidden strokes in the prose. A single stroke captured so much.
This is merely a small snippet of a greater story of Japanese literature. From the chilling tales of Akutagawa Ryunosuke, to the horrific tales of the lesser known Ryu Murakami, to the Christian themed novels of Shusaku Endo, there are a great deal more authors for anime fans to explore and consider. The world of Japanese literature, while fairly unknown still maintains a rather rich literary tradition, one that could easily replace the latest cell phone novel in one’s plan to read list.
MFA_Community is the official publishing arm of the MAL Featured Articles club. This article was written by masterofgo, the current chief editor of the club, in collaboration with the official Featured Articles team.