David Mitchell on his 5 favorite Japanese novels

David Mitchell on his 5 favorite Japanese novels

Photo by Paul Stuart
Photo by Paul Stuart

With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.

The reader: Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, David Mitchell is one of England’s most respected and admired contemporary writers. His 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, a metafictional discussion of the human condition, launched him into literary stardom, and the book was adapted into a sprawling cinematic epic by the Wachowskis in 2012. Since Cloud Atlas, Mitchell has been on a tear, producing the coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, a massive work of historical fiction taking place in 18th-century Japan. Mitchell’s latest work, The Bone Clocks, returns to the modernist tropes of Cloud Atlas, but may well be a better book. An avid fan of Japanese literature, Mitchell sat down with The A.V. Club to give us a list of five of his favorite Japanese novels.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

David Mitchell: In Japan, The Makioka Sisters is considered to be Tanizaki’s masterpiece. It’s a big, substantial book about the lives and fortunes of four sisters in Kyoto, from around about the 1930s to the 1950s. To describe it really doesn’t do it justice. It’s a domestic family saga, but because it’s Tanizaki, it has this dark underlay. He started out as kind of an Edgar Allan Poe-drenched figure. But after the Great Kanto Earthquake, he moved back to Kyoto, and he sort of underwent an authorial personality change. The Makioka Sisters is almost something like what Henry James might have written, but because there’s this Edgar Allan Poe in the background, it’s got this delicious recklessness about it, which really puts it head and shoulders above most domestic family sagas. It’s a beautiful thing. I read it 20 years ago now, but it’s stayed with me all that time. For me, it’s the joint-best 20th-century Japanese novel.

The A.V. Club: Is there a supernatural element, or does it just have the dread that seems to permeate every Poe story?

DM: There is the supernatural element. He plays it completely straight. The ghost is in the style. It’s not in the plot or the characters. There’s a sort of static electricity about this book, sort of charged up by the earlier half of Tanizaki’s career, when you couldn’t move without coming across a supernatural happening in his work. It’s not there, yet the ghost of it is there. It’s a great achievement. It uses no tricks, but because of him, and its dark, velvety quality. It’s as if David Lynch wrote a season of Mad Men, with an emphasis on the women. He’s a really great writer. There’s a humor there that you don’t get in Yukio Mishima. Mishima wouldn’t know a joke if it flew up his nose and died there. But Tanizaki has got this warm, ticklishness to his strangeness.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

DM: This is my other joint-favorite 20th-century Japanese novel. Silence was particularly helpful for me when I was working on The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. It’s about the era after Christianity had been outlawed, and it describes the landing in Southwest Japan by a couple of Portuguese priests who are there to minister to the flocks. They get caught, not much of a spoiler there, it’s about a third of the way through. It’s about faith, and belief, and religion. What I loved about that novel is that it’s a very ecumenical view of these things. Endo was a Catholic, but you don’t have to be one to find the novel really thought-provoking, and moving, and involving. It’s a great book. It’s a great historical novel. It’s about a foot long. The characters are complex, and multi-layed, and flawed. Their motives are messy and tangled, like our motives are messy and tangled. It’s a great achievement, and I love the book.

The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi

DM: Ariyoshi is one of two women on my list, in a male-dominated field. This is another historical novel, set somewhat later than Silence, in the early years of the 19th century. History records the first general anesthetic, and the first great anesthetist, as an American who used gas to put patients under. But actually, and the world would know this if Japan had not been in a state of isolation in this era, this achievement had happened 50 years earlier in Japan, in about the 1810s by a doctor whose name has flown out of my head. That’s the doctor in the title, The Doctor’s Wife. It’s told from the point of view of his wife, the sacrifices she made, as sort of a model for him. Back then, operations like mastectomies were essentially death sentences, because the trauma on the body by such invasive surgery would cause death, if the bleeding didn’t. So you had a very slim chance of surviving. But then his wife required a mastectomy. It’s a really involving story about the doctor, and his wife, and the sacrifices she made for him. It’s the sort of thing Oprah Winfrey would love. [Laughs.] It’s a really well-written book that views a normally male field from a female perspective. There’s a pretty good translation of it [by Wakako Hironaka and Ann S. Kostant – Ed.]. It’s not a widely well-known book.

AVC: You mentioned that Ariyoshi was also a woman working in a male-dominated field, and you focus on women in male-dominated fields in your work as well. In Jacob De Zoet, you have a woman learning medicine, and in The Bone Clocks, Holly Sykes’ foray into the literary world is shown through a man’s perspective. Does the concept of women moving into typically patriarchal conditions resonates with you?

DM: Yes, that’s true. I’d forgotten that. The Doctor’s Wife was very helpful for Jacob De Zoet as well. As James Brown sings, “It’s a man’s world.” James Brown does not sing, “If you have a daughter, then you become…” Men who have daughters shift several notches toward feminism, because you worry about the crap that your daughter is going to have to put up with when she comes of age and goes out into the world, which is still rather unfair and tilted against women. So, yeah, I did become more sensitized, and it’s a good thing that I’m grateful for. Your kids teach you many things in many areas, but daughters teach men this, or they should teach men this. And men should learn this and act accordingly.

The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe

DM: This is Kobo Abe’s masterpiece. It’s a really polished and engaging novel about an entomologist who is looking for insects in the sandy armpit of Japan. On the Sea of Japan coast, the west, backwater coast. The east coast is where all the cities are and everything happens. He falls into a hollow in a sand dune, and finds he can’t get out. It’s very surreal, but never admits it, which is one of the ticklish things about the novel. There’s a village nearby. It’s never really stated, but it’s a village of the untouchable caste of Japan, the Burakumin, who historically do all of the dirty work, the unclean work, the impure work. The butchering of animals, the leather work, the removing of night soil. The entomologist sort of becomes their indentured laborer. He’s not allowed out, and he has to keep digging away at the wall of the sand dune that he’s in, in order to keep it from encroaching upon the village. It’s about fate, and your attitude to fate, and maybe the Buddhist idea that you can’t change what happens to you, but you can change your attitude toward what happens to you. There’s a house down in the hollow, and there’s a woman there. And it’s about what happens to them, what happens to the entomologist. It’s not a long book, but it’s quite a singular one. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s the best thing that Abe ever wrote. Certainly the most consistent thing. He was a bit bonkers, to be honest. But it all came together for him here. There’s a great film version of it, with a score by Toru Takemitsu, the greatest 20th-century Japanese composer, which is itself a beautiful piece of work. But the book is better.

The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

DM: This book is pretty well known in America. It was published six years ago. She’s probably one of the top five well-known Japanese writers in New York. The Housekeeper And The Professor is about mathematics and love. Ogawa is quite an experimental writer, and some of her experiments are more successful than others. But this one is just great. It’s understated. It’s subtle. It’s about almost deliberately dull lives. The professor has a memory defect that wipes his memory clean when he wakes up in the morning. He knows he has it, and it’s not presented in a wacky, Oliver Sacks way. It’s something he has to live with. The housekeeper is just the hired help who comes in to help him. She has a son, and a relationship slowly develops between the three of them. It’s really very beautiful. She learns all about the professor’s past life. He loved mathematics, he loves teaching math to the son, and the housekeeper. And you learn about the duty of math as the book goes on. It’s quite slim, and it’s a little gem. My wife bought it for me a few Christmases ago.

AVC: Were any of these books touchstones for you while working on The Bone Clocks?

DM: To be honest, they are free of any association with The Bone Clocks. But they are books I would like people in the West to know more, because they are some of the high points of Japanese literature. Even the most famous aren’t widely known outside Japan, and the last three aren’t even really well known there. I thought about including Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but everybody knows it, so what’s the point? Anything you read that you admire you keep with you, and wish to emulate, even if only as a reminder of how high the bar you should be aiming at is.