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Japanese Novellas: Bite-Sized Literary Brilliance

The prospect of reading a lengthy novel can appear daunting. In contrast, putting your feet up with an absorbing novella or novelette presents an achievable literary goal, perfect for your Friday evening glass of wine or Sunday afternoon unwind.

This, and the desire to highlight some of Japan’s most talented writers, inspired Red Circle Minis – ‘short captivating books by Japan’s finest contemporary writers’. A juicy dose of Japanese literary brilliance to digest in one or two sittings.

We hope these goosebump-inducing stories will inspire you to discover new writers and pick up a Japanese novella this year.

 

Stand-In Companion, by Kazufumi Shiraishi

Translated by Raj Mahtani, 58 pages.

 

Amazingly, Kazufumi Shiraishi and his father Ichirō Shiraishi are the only father-son pair to ever win Japan’s Naoko Prize.

The former’s Stand-In Companion is set in a future reality dominated by AI, science and technology – which can solve almost every human problem. Husband and wife Hayato and Yutori cannot conceive a child; but rapid population growth means IVF is now illegal as a pregnancy aid. They both face a crisis of meaning. After Yutori miraculously gets pregnant from a co-worker, they split – and both apply to the Human Rights Relief Committee to receive an android 'Stand-In Companion' (indistinguishable from 'real' human beings).

This is a story about the deeper needs of a partner and the struggle of finding meaning in a technologically advanced world.

“He would have no choice but to gaze at the sleeping face of his wife, pleasantly sleeping her usual way in the comfort of his arm, and, within the emotion of fear, dread and apprehension, take stock of his calibre as a human.”

 Other translated works by Kazufumi Shiraishi:

  • The Part of Me That Isn't Broken Inside (translated by Raj Mahtani)
  • Me Against The World (translated by Raj Mahtani)

 

Backlight, by Kanji Hanawa

Translated by Richard Nathan, 66 pages.

 

Kanji Hanawa looks at human psychology and underlines the pressures and challenges of life in Japan.

Backlight is Hanawa’s unique spin on the true story of a 7-year-old Japanese boy who spent 6 nights alone in the freezing bear-infested forests of Hokkaido (northern Japan) in 2016, after his parents left him on the side of a mountain ride to discipline him for misbehaving during their car ride.

As days pass, thousands join the search and child psychologists are enlisted to predict the boy’s movements. We see the story through a child psychologist and the predicted POV of the child. Moral and philosophical questions bubble throughout, and Japanese cultural practices (like discipline) are contrasted with those of Europe.

The story holds a vivid, cinematic-type feel that will set your brain in motion and keep it whirring throughout the night.

 

The Refugees' Daughter, by Takuji Ichikawa

Translated by Emily Balistrieri, 80 pages.

 

'Urbanisation and industrialisation breed cynicism and nihilism - in other words, another form of depression. Passive people with lowered brain activity surrender their lives to someone else without deciding a single thing for themselves.'

The Refugees' Daughter presents a pulsating end-of-the-world thriller that will keep you thinking way past your bedtimeA dystopian novella about a world on the brink of extinction.

A surge of eco-disasters (floods, droughts, etc) caused by human greed has caused a series of catastrophes which have left people fighting over scant resources. A family (led by a 16-year girl who understands humanity's plight) tries to escape through a magical gate to a safe, other world. But they face trouble.

Only thing remains in this world: hope - in the form of refugee children.

Takuji Ichikawa manages to weave politics, pollution, poverty and environmental degradation into 80 beguiling pages that resonate a frightening realism for today's reader.

 

The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro, by Kanji Hanawa

Translated by Meredith McKinney, 72 pages.

Laced with humour, this is the fictionalised re-telling of the life of Lord Asunaro, a former feudal lord during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868).

Set in a period of peace after the ‘Warring States Era’, Asunaro (ironically called ‘Lord Someday-soon’) is next in line for the throne but he’s hilariously bored and dim-witted, deemed ‘a fool from birth, and lacking all judgement’ by his father. He struggles to gain authority in a modernising world where intelligence outweighs military prowess.

‘He couldn't remain formally seated on the floor for any length of time, but very soon began to stretch out his legs, turn and stare out the window, and set about picking his nose, which he did so excessively that he developed nosebleeds, ending up in the care of the castle physician.'

Hanawa's historical fiction with a twist lets you discover the psychology of change within Japan when it was still ruled by its men of steel, samurai and shoguns. A digestible and enjoyable read.

 

One Love Chigusa, by Sōji Shimada

Translated by David Warren, 108 pages 

Described Japan’s ‘God of Mystery’ for his gripping whodunnit-style mysteries, Sōji Shimada gives us something unique in One Love Chigusa: a sci-fi-style obsessive love story – complete with a sprinkling of Shimada suspense which lingers throughout. 

A motorcycle crash mangles Xie Hoyu’s body, but he is restored with a new cybernetic body: making him a mix of human and machine. His memory is even restored by a 'Quantum Memory Drive'. Set in 2091 Beijing, he returns to his life as an illustrator, but with a warped perception of reality. He hears ghostly voices and phantom music, and all women appear as ‘red-faced devils’.

All except Chigusa, who appears to him as a normal person; more than that, she is most beautiful girl he has even seen. After spying her outside a coffee shop, Xie begins to follow her and his obsession spirals. We feel on unstable ground as we see the world through Xie’s distorted (and misogynistic) eyes.

One Love Chigusa explores what it means to be human in a world of advanced science artificial intelligence. Looking at loneliness, infatuation and the meaning of an AI-dominated existence, Shimada gives us an eerie read that will live long in the memory.

Other translated works by Sōji Shimada:

  • The Tokyo Zodiac Murders
  • Murder in the Crooked House

 

I'd like to send big thank you to Red Circle for joining us in their championing of Japanese authors. 

If you liked the sound of these, and like the idea of reading a spellbinding Japanese novel (in English) every month – head over to Osusume Books to see details of monthly book packages, including our 1-month Short Story Trial.

 

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