– Non-Fiction –
Or you could approach the topic from a cultural angle with Paul Varley’s Japanese Culture.
– Fiction –
Pretty bleak in places, but Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro [The Heart of Things] (1914) offers a commentary on the traumas of Japan’s modernization reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ writing on industrial Britain.
A little more upbeat, and succeeding Kokoro by a generation, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s family drama The Makioka Sisters (1948).
Black Rain (1965) is Ibuse Masuji’s account of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.
Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood (1987) has been the first toe in the water for many a fan of Japanese literature, so well worth a mention here.
For a side of Japan the tourist board would definitely not want you to see, have a read of Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice (2010).
Finally, two major women writers currently available in English are Setouchi Harumi (now Setouchi Jakucho) and Yoshimoto Banana: see The End of Summer (Setouchi, new ed, 1993) and Kitchen (Yoshimoto, 1988).
— Film –
A writer and director from present-day Japan well worth paying attention to is Mitani Koki. His University of Laughs (2004) presents a view of life on Japan’s wartime home front from the perspective of a struggling playwright and a repressive/repressed government censor (brilliantly played by Yakusho Koji), who strike up an unlikely relationship.
Another Mitani film is Welcome Back, Mr McDonald (1997), a comedy about a woman who wins a competition to have her short play produced for radio, only to suffer endless nonsensical revisions from preening voice actors hoping to enhance their roles. There’s a short trailer with English subs here.
And then of course there’s anime, for which Studio Ghibli has provided something of a gold standard since the 1980s. Nothing adequate can be said about their wartime drama, Grave of the Fireflies (1988); you just have to see it. Striking a different note altogether, My Neighbour Totoro was released the same year:
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