The samurai films of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa are set in the past, but they tell us much about the present, as do his crime stories, romances, medical dramas, and arthouse films. His movies are beloved for their timeless protagonists and haunting vistas of old Japan, but we haven’t yet fully grasped everything they can teach us about modern Japan. Kurosawa’s directorial career began in 1943 and ended in 1993, spanning 50 of Japan’s most transformative years, and his movies evolved as Japan redefined and reinvented itself over that time.
There is a word in Japanese—komorebi—that refers to the way sun shines through the trees, casting a sea of soft, dark shadows scattered with gleams of light, a phenomenon reflected in the title of Riku Onda’s most recently-translated psychological thriller Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight.
It was in the late 1930s that private detective Kosuke Kindaichi solved The Honjin Murders, the brutal killing of a newlywed couple in Okayama. Military service has prevented him from investigating another case since. Death on Gokumon Island, the second book in the Detective Kindaichi Mystery series by Seishi Yokomizo, begins just after the Second World War, and soldiers are returning home.
In the early 2000s, a group of anthropologists formed the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (MWRG). Their object of collaborative study was to be the matsutake mushroom and the ways in which humans interact with it. 15 or so years might seem a long time for a scholar (let alone a team of them) to study a single mushroom; nevertheless their project is ongoing, having produced two research monographs so far: Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom At The End Of The World and now Michael Hathaway’s What A Mushroom Lives For, as well as a series of essays. There promises to be at least one more book yet to come.
In Water Thicker Than Blood, poet and professor George Uba traces his life as a Japanese American born in the late 1940s, a period of insidious anti-Japanese racism, even following the wartime incarceration of 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens. His beautiful, impressionistic memoir chronicles how he, like many Sansei (and Nisei) across the United States, grappled with dislocation and trauma, while seeking acceptance and belonging.
Solo Dance is a novel about identity. Yingmei Zhao is in the fourth grade when she develops a crush on a girl in her class. In the years that follow, she realizes her life in Taiwan isn’t going to look like everyone else’s. She won’t marry. She won’t start a family. When sexual assault shatters her sense of security and self, she decides to start over in Japan. Even though Japan is “a queer desert,” she has fallen in love with the country through the literature of Osamu Dazai and Haruki Murakami.
The artistic zeitgeist of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868)—a time characterized by several centuries of social and political stability maintained by the repressive, isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate—was influenced heavily by the visual culture of the merchant and military classes in metropolitan centers. Sharing a goal to pursue the ephemeral pleasures of life, often through excessive expenditure, their patronage of the arts and popular entertainment espoused an aesthetic renaissance in the metaphysical space they occupied known as ukiyo, or the “floating world”.