REVIEW: Three Japanese Short Stories

Three Japanese Short Stories is number five in my box of Penguin Modern Classics so I am classing these five slim volumes as one whole book read for my ‘let’s read 200 books this year goal’ (I’ve fallen a little behind by the way, but it’s still doable).

The short stories are Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu (1879-1959), Closet LLB by Uno Koji (1891-1961) and General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927).

I love Japanese literature and these three short stories are a great introduction for people who have not read any before.

Nagai Kafu is one of Japan’s most famous writers but I have never read any before. Behind the Prison is written in letter form to His Excellency (whoever that is). Our protagonist is 30 years old and has been ‘in the West’ for six years where he failed to find himself any occupation or academic studies and returned to Japan three months ago.

He tells His Excellency that he has considered various various occupations and dismissed all of them, saying to his father: “There is nothing for me to do in this world. Please think of me as mad or crippled and do not press me to live up to normal worldly expectations.” His father responds by saying they have a spare room so he can just hole himself up quietly in there. Which is what he does.

But what follows is a beautifully prosaic description of the Japanese countryside and its people, villages, flora and fauna through the year and the prison his family home is behind. His prose is poetic.

Closet LLB’s main character is Otsukotsu Sansaku who wanted to be a novelist but was coerced into studying law. He still lives in the same boarding house he first moved into when he arrived in Tokyo nine years ago. Since then he studied (occasionally) law and graduated second bottom of his class.

He lives hand to mouth by writing fairy tales but still wants to write his novel.

Uno Koji’s satirical tale discusses what happens when you’re stuck in a dead end job that you hate. I loved it.

The final story General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke was my favourite. Some blood and gore combined with fable and a good lesson in how history is always written by the victor. Loved it. There’s more action in this one.

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