Japan's Must-Read Magazine

The Japanzine Grab bag: Drive-by Book Reviews

A sample of some of the more interesting books that crossed our desk here at Japanzine last year.  You may not find many of them in your local shop, but that does not mean they are not worth your time. 

Rain Fall
Hard Rain
By Barry Eisler
The thinking-man’s pot-boiler, in the style of Ludlum or Ellroy. 

John Rain is a half-Japanese, half-American hit man who specializes in making the death look like natural causes.  In Rain Fall, he falls for the daughter of one of his hits and finds himself caught up in an escalating chase involving the Japanese FDI, the yakuza, rightists and the CIA, all of whom are after the girl to get a disk they think she has.  Lots of cloak-and dagger stuff.

In Hard Rain, the protagonist has attempted to retire from his life of crime but is pulled back to do one last job.  Many of the same characters from the first book reappear in the second.  There is a lot more action the second time around but we also learn more about Rain’s sense of isolation and his weariness at the life he has lived.

Both are easy to read, with lots to like: dry and darkly humorous observations of Japanese culture, the US government, and corruption, especially of the political system.  Japan residents will love the evocative descriptions of Tokyo, the hip restaurants, jazz clubs, and bars serving all sorts of fine single-malts.  Action aficionados will dig the fights, the discussions of surveillance and detection techniques, and the high-tech gadgetry.  And the ladies will find Rain a chivalrous bad boy, who really wants to do the right thing. 
See the interview with Barry Eisler for more on these books.

The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen: Inspired New Tastes
By Eric Gower
Photographs by Fumihiko Watanabe
Kodansha International

This book attempts to combine Japanese and Western ingredients and customs.  The result is a fresh, inventive approach to food that will make purists blanch.

Divided into eight sections, including tofu, and potatoes and rice, this book offers new twists on old favorites and there are many recipes suitable for vegetarians of any stripe.  Additionally, most are prepared without oil or butter, making them healthy and nutritious, as well as delicious.

Beautifully shot, all dishes are presented on gorgeous Japanese pottery and glassware.  If you like to look at food, as well as eat it, the photos in this book will make your mouth water!

The dishes themselves are quick and easy to prepare (assuming you have the ingredients at hand), enabling even novice cooks to go from chopping to chewing in less than an hour.  The author, a wine lover, has given recommendations for each.
The only downside is that it was written for a North American audience in mind, thus many of the food items required in the recipes (and many of the wines) are not available in Japanese stores.  However, in the sprit of experimentation and playfulness that pervades this book, creative cooks are given ample suggestions for substitution.

This book would make an excellent present for people, both here and at home, who like to play with their food!

Seahorse Variations
By Thomas Boggs
Writers Club Press
The eight short stories in this book center around the theme of gender shift and transvestism.  But don’t let that scare you off.  The stories and the styles in which they are written are quite varied.

Some are whimsical fairy tales, some are steamy pieces of erotica, some are historical thrillers, and some are futuristic sci-fi.  All are set in Japan (bar the last one).  The author, born and raised in Japan to an American father and a Japanese mother, seems equally at home in the two cultures and writes with sensitivity and insight on both.  His eye for his subjects is keen, his style deft and he writes well from both the male and female perspective.

If you get squeamish about scenes that depict sex in anything other than the most vanilla variety, this book is not for you.  However, if you like gender bending and mind-fucks (in addition to the other sort), the stories here are inventive, original and at times, downright dirty.

A Sex Pervert’s Diary
By Joji Numata
Translated by Thomas Boggs
iUniverse, Inc.
This is the English-language translation of Numata’s 1999 book, Hentai nikki, which generated a fair bit of controversy when it was published, for appearing as a how-to manual.  Written in the first person by an unnamed protagonist, it chronicles his activities flashing, peeping, and stalking women.  What gets him hot is humiliating women, about which he is absolutely unapologetic.  Furthermore, he commits his acts with impunity because he chooses victims who are exceedingly passive.

It was hard to know what to make of this book.  Parts of it are rather droll, such as the haiku he composes after committing one of his many transgressions.  Riding the subway during rush hour will never be the same.  Every bump by a briefcase, or shift of a shoulder is now imbued with a more nefarious and intentional meaning.  The first two-thirds of the book detail his various feats, all described in excruciating detail.  A bit boring and repetitive, to be honest, but is that not the nature of obsession itself?  It is not an entirely comfortable read.  Some of the passages will make you squirm, but I suspect that is the author’s point.  It is like watching a car accident in slow motion: you know you should look away but are somehow drawn to what you are seeing, proving that, like the narrator, we are all voyeurs at heart.  The story slowly snakes to a shocking, erm, climax, and then rolls over and smokes the proverbial cigarette, suggesting that it is all okay, as long as you get away with it.