Jacobmartin's Reviews > The Changeling

The Changeling by Kenzaburō Ōe
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Oct 25, 10

really liked it
bookshelves: japanese-literature, no-library-for-old-men, historical-perspective, contemporary-fiction, nobel-prize
Read in October, 2010

(The following review is taken from Jaoob Martin's book review of this work from the website That Guy With The Glasses.com. It is far more satirical than the usual tone, and even though I greatly enjoyed the book keep this in mind when reading my impressions of it. - Jacob Martin)

There's a lot to be said for the disappointment I have about the idea that Japan is mostly referred to as a source of manga, anime and video games, but the biggest disappointment of all is that actual Japanese people, if what I've heard from Lucky Star (hypocritical irony there) is correct, actual Japanese people don't read their own country's literary works as much as they used to - mainly because anime and manga are more accessible - particularly manga because it's even more accessible to the average Japanese person than anime is which is shown at more ungodly hours than the original TV run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Australian TV broadcasting.

That said I had tried a number of Japanese novels before I attempted this Nobel Prize medal neck-dangler from 1994 - which only in 2010 received an English translated world-wide release. The first Japanese novel I ever read was Junichiro Tanizaki's Quicksand, a book so bleak and angsty it makes Linkin Park look like, well, privileged white boys complaining how allegedly tortured they are. Make no mistake, a lot of Japanese literature as the Cinema Snob once said about Riki-Oh, "is no Miyazaki fairy tale".

Good Lord, some Japanese literature is enough to make you slit your wrists, but thankfully this is not one of them.

We are introduced to two brothers, Kogito and Goro, who have become moderately successful in their old age in the literary arts for Kogito and the film world for Goro respectively. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, in the first fifteen pages, Goro kills himself, leaving behind a load of cryptic cassette tapes which are to be used for the necromantic purposes of talking to him from beyond the grave. This, as we find out - is the game of Tagame - a game named for the ancient cassette player that has headphones that resemble a beetle squeezing its food in its antlers or something.

And at this point, while I've never seen the initially cool sounding premise of an obsolete version of the Sony Walkman being used as a hotline to the world of the dead before - I have to legitimately ask: WHAT IS IT WITH JAPAN AND SUICIDE IN ITS FICTION?

Honestly, it's like you can't swing a katana in the Japanese literary world without accidentally helping somebody commit seppuku over a lost love or lost honour. I mean, I know Japan has legitimate social problems with the issue of suicide in their country but Japanese writers tend to use it as a plot device as often as Nicholas Sparks uses the plot device of a woman swooning over a man. It seems to be one of those things you just tend to expect from Japanese literature since you don't see it too much in Miyazaki movies, so it comes as a bit of a shock to those who are unfamiliar with the Land of the Rising Sun's literary output.

We follow the character of Kogito as he angsts about how his books aren't selling as well as they used to, and an enemy of his is plotting against him, launching scathing attacks both in print and in his literary criticism solely based on the idea of destroying this poor man's credibility.

A little word to the enemy of Kogito though - RUTHLESSLY TROLLING A MAN SOLELY TO MAKE HIM FEEL MISERABLE, MAKES ME WONDER IF THE JAPANESE LITERARY COMMUNITY OVER THERE IS NO BETTER THAN 4CHAN'S /B?. Seriously, I know Japan is based on keeping face in public and retaining one's good name, but why isn't anybody taking Kogito's side in this? I would expect this kind of media based rage from otaku over the release of a K-ON! Blu-Ray, but I severely doubt that anyone in Japan in the real world would be that enraged by Kogito releasing a new book - which is unlikely to be covered in modern news media because as far as I'm aware, Japanese news media covers TV and movie celebrities most of the time, along with... ACTUAL NEWS mind you.

Now I'm not even saying you shouldn't read this book, in fact, I highly recommend you read it. I just take issue with the ludicrousness of literary authors treating their little circle of elite writers who win prestigious prizes as something that would be a nation wide scandal. In fact, this book makes Kogito the Taylor Swift to his enemy's Kanye West, only in the plotline the Kanye West equivalent gets away with it.

This incredibly well crafted but sometimes annoying book covers an extensive range of topics about non-anime and manga related Japanese culture, and even goes into the somewhat uneasier details of wartime history, but it's presented in a way that is neither apologetic for the war effort in Japan nor ashamed of it. I see this in a lot of books based around the idea of old men who were teens in World War II from the view of different countries than say, America or Britain. There seems to be a shift towards analysing worldwide conflicts such as World War II on the personal level of the character who reevaluates his life experiences in terms of what he has learned in his old age.

Oh, and the title of the book? The title of the book isn't even explained until the Epilogue. At least The Catcher in the Rye had the decency to put the title in the context of the main story. I ought to do a blog post, or even a video on the subject of book titles and why books are called what they are. See you next time, remember, if it won a Nobel Prize, you should probably check it out but it's okay not to like it.
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