Japanese book review: “Humorous short story collection” by Endo Shusaku (遠藤周作:ユーモア小説編

By | October 22, 2014

“Humorous short story collection” by Endo Shusaku is one of the books I picked up at an Japanese grocery store in Orlando that just happened to have a rack of used books. At the time I thought it was from a different writer, but after discovering my mistake I decided to try reading it anyway. Unlike most other novels I’ve read, this book had no blurb on the back describing the plot, genre, or anything for that matter – all I knew is that the short stories were likely to be “humorous” in some way.

The first story (of 12 total) was quite memorable and involved the main character utilizing the latest in medical technology to shrink himself to micro-scale (think “Honey I Shrunk The Kids”) and entered the body of a women to treat her medical condition. It just so happens that he was infatuated with this woman. The “humor” aspect seems to be the contrast between his romantic feelings for this person and the fact that he travels all throughout her body, and at some point in the story he remarks about this. Without giving all the details away, I’ll just say that part of his journey involves quite “un-romantic” parts of her body . Because of the time period this book was published in (around 1968), I think this story was likely heavily influenced by the film Fantastic Voyage from 1966 which shares much in common with it. The above picture of the cover is a funny representation of this story, and the fact it was picked for the cover implies to me others also felt it as one of the most likable or sellable of the set.

The other stories also have unique or thought-provoking ideas, including one where the main character meets a near-identical twin of himself, another where a man enters a small country town to find he is mistaken for a famous comedian and pampered accordingly, and another story where two housewives compete over who can get the first driver’s license in their area of town.

In all honesty, I felt that several of these stories were not really “humorous”, but trying to understand what the author was trying to convey was very rewarding. I also learned a bit about certain aspects of Japanese culture, like that the area of Karuizawa is (was?) known for being a common place for summer houses. A few of the descriptive passages stood out as being very well-written, like one which compared the headlights of cars speeding by at night to colored cellophane candy paper.

If there was one thing in common with all the stories, it was they all seemed to be written with a great amount of thought by the author, and gave me the impression of a hidden meaning, even if I didn’t always understand it completely. In addition, I felt several of the stories were either direct or indirect satires on some aspect of society (like the “Karuizawa” story).

I briefly read about the author after completing this set of stories, and it seems he was well-known for his belief in Christianity and it’s heavy influence on his works, as well as the fact many of his character were allegories. Had I known this before reading the book I might have interpreted several of the stories in a different light. As it was, I didn’t detect much in terms of obvious religious references.

Linguistically, this book was quite a challenge because it was written before I was born, with many old expressions and kanji I was not familiar with. To make things worse, furigana (reading hints over kanji) was pretty sparse with only the most rare words covered. At least one or two of the stories had some non-Tokyo dialect which was a bit tricky to follow completely. Fortunately some chapters were easier than others, and most of the dialogue was pretty easy. Overall though, I wouldn’t recommend trying the Japanese version unless you have strong kanji knowledge and overall reading ability. A quick search didn’t come up with an English version (the title’s translation is my own), but there may one available somewhere.

With over 300 pages of tough Japanese, it was quite an epic feat for me to finish this book, but I stuck to it day after day and finally finished after roughly 2-3 months. Although much of the Japanese used will not directly help me in the terms of words or phrases I can use in everyday conversation (good luck fitting in words like 有象無象 or 猿股 into your conversations), the satisfaction of completion plus the cultural knowledge and depth of the stories made this overall a read that was well worth it.

Thinking back on this set of stories, I feel as if I have just read a classic of sorts, though it appears this work was not very popular compared to some of his others. If I have a chance to get my hands on another of his works I just may dive headfirst into the thought-provoking world of Mr. Shusaku again.

For now, I think I’ll take a short break from Japanese literature as I contemplate what to read (or write?) next.

See some commentary of this book (in Japanese) here: http://bookmeter.com/b/4061311697 

(Note: the featured image of the book’s cover comes from a slighty different version of the one I bought used and read. Mine was published a few years previous to it and contains one additional story. I’m not sure if the one I have is for sale anymore.)






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