Japanese historical short story review: 野望の狭間 (Opposing Ambitions) by 天野純稀 (Sumiki Amano)

By | December 27, 2016

Recently at a Kinonuniya bookstore I picked up the 2nd edition (2号)of the book 小説幻冬 (Shousetsu Gentou) which is a compendium of Japanese short stories. I chose this because I was looking for something to read on a holiday trip, and didn’t want to get involved a long story, so though short stories would be perfect.

When I sat down in the airport and started to read the first story, I was surprised to find it was a “歴史時代小説”, which is a short story (or novel) set in a specific historical period. The title is “野望の狭間”, which literally translates to something like “the space between ambition”, but I am calling it “Opposing Ambitions”.

I started reading, and almost immediately started getting bogged down due to many words I’d never seen before (ex: 評定, 末席, 家臣、刻限, etc.). The dialogue was even more challenging, with first person pronouns (それがし) and verb conjugation (狙うておる) which I was unfamiliar with.

To make things worse, there was very few furigana reading hints, and many kanji which I’d seen never or very rarely (暁). With the help of a few different dictionaries I was able to look up many of the words, but there was not a small number of words which I couldn’t find.

After a few paragraphs, I was getting so frustrated that I considered stopping and trying another story. After all, a great portion of my time was being spent on word lookup. When I discovered the period where the story was set was the Sengoku period (戦国時代), which is over 500 years ago, I got even closer to giving up. Besides my lack of knowledge about classical Japanese history, I also am not familiar with war practices (formations, armor, etc.). To give you an idea, the movie Gettysburg really put me to sleep (though I loved the music).

However, I decided to push through and after around the second or third page things started getting significantly easier. The number of words I had to lookup in each paragraph reduced greatly, and I learned to just accept certain words, like places names, even if I didn’t know their pronunciation or exactly where they were located. (Many of the place names used like 尾張 (‘owari’) are now called something else). I started learning to imagine the troop formations, and one or two of the sword fighting scenes invoked images of Samurai Showdown.

I finally reached the end of the story (it was around ~30 pages) and was greeted with a well-written, bittersweet conclusion. While the story seems to be part of a series, it is technically a “読切小説” which means it is meant to stand on it’s own. I am not sure how much of the story is fiction and how much is fantasy, but I think the biggest connection to reality is the famous feudal lord Oda Nobunaga (織田信長).

So far in my Japanese I’ve focused mostly on modern culture and language, but this gave me a really nice sampler into centuries-old Japan, and I’d like to come back to this type of literature again sometime. But I think the next short story I choose in 小説幻冬 will be a little more… modern (:

While reading this, my inner-translator did have an urge to take a crack at this, but I think I’ll hold off for now. Besides the fact I didn’t understand all of the text completely, transforming this into centuries-old English seems quite difficult, especially the dialogue. But if I get requests I may translate at least a portion just to give an idea what this is like.

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