Of the last five books I’ve read, two were in English and three in Japanese. The English ones were both pretty good (one biography, one fantasy), but since they had little to do with Japanese I haven’t posted reviews for them here. The first two Japanese books were pretty mediocre, so I decided against writing reviews of them as well.
The last of these Japanese books, Passaggio by Hitonari Tsuji (published by Bunshun), was not just good enough to make me write a review about it, but was a very redeeming read in many ways.
I came across this novel in a Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon which bills itself as the largest independent bookstore. The Japanese section of this massive, labyrinthine place generally has a good selection of Japanese used books. It doesn’t beat Kinokuniya or Bookoff, but from what I’ve seen it has more Japanese books than any bookstore in the US that doesn’t specialize in Japanese media.
After reading through the synopses on the backs of 15-20 books, Passaggio was one of the few that really caught my attention. Its cover was quite strange and somehow eerie (though I think the awkward image could have been produced better). At under 200 pages, its length was also attractive since I wasn’t looking for a several month commitment.
As for the story itself, while I won’t be giving any spoilers I will translate a portion of the book’s synopsis (the latter half I omitted seems like it gives away too much):
A professional singer who has lost his voice right before a concert follows a mysterious, alluring doctor, and ends up stumbling upon her grandfather’s immortality research lab hidden deep in the mountains.
One thing that I enjoy in a novel is a sense of mystery that carries you through to its conclusion, and this novel fulfills that nicely. There are some surreal parts where the boundary between a believable story and an unbelievable one is nearly crossed, and these were reminiscient of some of Haruki Murakami books. These supernatural elements were not quite enough to categorize the book as “fantasy” (though it is clearly fiction) and not enough to lump it in with everyday popular fiction.
Its plot is put together very well, with few unnecessary scenes or chapters. The ending was also excellent, predictable in some parts but resulting in an interconnected, complete whole.
Passaggio touches upon some important universal themes, including science, immortality, and music. It’s definitely a book for adults, with a few scenes of violence and sexual content not appropriate for children. But more importantly, it contains a philosophical depth that may have you thinking long after you’ve finished the last page.
I didn’t realize it at the time I bought this book, but Hitonari Tsuji is actually a famous Japanese author who has written over 40 novels, several of which were made into movies. I have read one of his other books before (アンチノイズ), but it was before I started this blog so I never wrote a review of it.
I discovered the author is actually a rock musician himself, and after doing some research about his life it almost seems like this book has a biographical aspect to it. While this novel is technically fiction, I feel that Hitonari really wrote from the heart about some of the themes interwoven into this book.
As someone who is interested in writing and storytelling, I found this book quite educational. Not only is the plot composition done skillfully, but the author makes good use of metaphors throughout, and his overall descriptive ability is superb. If I were to make a nitpick I’d say some of the paragraphs run on a little too long and could have been edited down a bit. But given this book was done in the early part of his career (it was published in 1998, about 9 years after he began writing), I’m sure his style is even more refined in his later works. His is still actively writing as far as I know, and has published a novel last year.
The Japanese in this book is advanced for a few reasons, one of which is that the author’s dense style tends to fill up pages with little space to breathe. The realistic treatment of music, science, and medicine requires there to be a few terms you may not be familiar with (ex: 声帯, vocal cords), although you don’t have to be a scientist or a doctor to follow what is going on. Furigana (Kanji reading hints) are also quite sparse. On the positive side, the dialog is easy to follow and lacks any regional dialects, and the book’s relatively short length makes it possible to complete even if you have to struggle.
After thinking about it, I’m on the verge of calling this book a classic because of it’s unique treatment of universal themes, told through a tight, well-connected series of events. Except for the fact that some of the technology referenced in the book (floppy disks, etc.) is over a decade old, I felt this story has aged very well in over 15 years. To me, a “classic” is one of those books I was forced to read in high school that was a challenge to finish, but touched on important, universal topics. If nothing else, I feel Passaggio falls squarely into this category, and I can imagine myself highlighting key phrases like I did back in those days and mulling on the various themes of the book.
You can find this book on Amazon Japan. You might be able to find it on E-book sites, though I haven’t checked any of those.
Unfortunately, this book has not been translated into English. In fact, I wasn’t able to find English versions of any of Tsuji’s books, even those who are more popular than this one (though there seems to be translations of some of his works into a few European languages). Why there are no English translations is a complete mystery to me.