Japanese literature review: Kenji Miyazawa’s “Matasaburo of the Wind”

By | October 29, 2016

I’ll have to just come out and admit it: of all of the books I have read there is a small group I never made it to the end of, including both Japanese and English works. One of these is Kenji Miyazawa’s (宮沢賢治) “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (銀河鉄道の夜) which was a deeply moving story when I watched the anime adaptation, but several years (~7-8) ago when I tried out the novel a combination of older Japanese (it was published in 1924) along with a somewhat uncommon dialect (秋田弁) made it very hard going. I think I made it 20 or 30 pages, but eventually decided to give up.

Some time back I had filled my Kindle with a bunch of short stories and novels from Aozora Bunko (free classic Japanese works), and on a recent trip when I had a few spare hours I decided to see what stories I had and stumbled across Miyazawa’s short story “Matasaburo of the Wind” (風の又三郎), written in 1933, which is about a mysterious student who comes to a small school in the countryside. Like “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, a combination of things made it somewhat challenging, but as it was much shorter I tried to read it through the end. After a while I finally finished it, and was glad I didn’t give up this time.

Fortunately, I found a great site that translated the lines with heavy dialect into standard Japanese, which allowed me to follow what was going on. The grammar itself isn’t that difficult (although the sentences can be quite long), but you’ll find some words you thought you knew like “まるで” used in ways you may not be have expected. Sometimes it’s easy to figure what the author is trying to say, but sometimes it takes a bit of googling.

The story itself is pretty straightforward, and on the surface doesn’t amount to much more than school children experiencing various things together as they learn and play (with a few exceptions), which I guess you could call a “coming of age” story. But I don’t yet fully understand what makes this story a classic, if in fact it is considered as such (at least it was valued highly enough for a movie to be made out of it). There are several factors in play here: the fact that the same author also wrote many other famous stories (like “Night on the Galactic Railroad” that I discussed above), and also that “Matasaburo of the Wind” is actually connected to several of the author’s own stories, including “風野又三郎” which is confusingly named almost exactly the same, with (nearly) the same pronunciation as 風の又三郎, but with only the second character differing.

I think I will take another re-read or two, plus some research into this author and Japanese literature of that period for me to fully comprehend it’s depth and significance. Reading the other “Matasaburo” story (風野又三郎) would probably give me a very different perspective.

One thing that I found interesting is some subtle connections to Haruki Murakami’s writing style. Whether direct, or indirect through some other author(s), it seems Mr. Murakami was very likely influenced by Mr. Miyazawa (the details I’ll omit for now since it gives away an important part of the story). I’ll just say that it has to do with mixing just the right amount of real and fantasy elements.

This experience gave me a little more courage to go back and attempt “Night on the Galactic Railroad” someday, and it was a good sampler of Japanese literature from the 1920s. I think now it may be a little easier for me to break into other works of the same era.

If you are someone with several years of Japanese experience and haven’t yet experienced classic Japanese works, I think this as good place as any to start. You can read it for free (legally!) on Aozora Bunko here.

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