The Secret of the Fish and Other Stories – Review

Artwork by Natalie Parisi

When a foreign work is translated into English, so much depends upon the translator. The translator’s responsibility lies not only in the rendition of each word, but also in the successful expression of the author’s meaning in a way beautiful enough to move the reader. When it comes to a language like Japanese, sentence structures and certain words have no simple equivalency in English, meaning that the translator has a duty to create his own prose. Often translations of Japanese works into English are awkward and difficult to enjoy. The fault lies not with the foreign language skills of the translators, but with the lack of ability to convey the beauty the author had articulated in the vernacular.

Geoffrey Ivar skillfully translates meaning, tone and emotion, making “The Secret of the Fish and Other Stories” by Kotarou Tanaka fluid and pleasant to read. His clear, simple prose illustrates the stories and allows certain moments of Tanaka’s works to shine.

The publication includes “Moths,” “The Soldier Who Vanished Into Thin Air,” and “The Secret of the Fish.”

Of the three short stories, I was most impressed with “Moths,”(1923) a unique story in which Tanaka seamlessly blends the surreal and mundane experiences of a young woman. The girl spends her days working at a restaurant catering to rowdy, provincial men. Her life becomes touched with beauty when she meets a mysterious, attractive young man, “with a gentle, fair face that projected the aristocracy.” His compassionate and graceful nature makes an impression upon the girl, who becomes enchanted by his relationship to moths. As the story progresses, his aspect appears to the girl daily, in dreamlike apparitions, which spark a connection between them. The illustration of this relationship between the boy and the girl is charming:

                  Her eyes slipped to the insect cupped in his hands. The customer lightly cradled the moth, giving it plenty of space. “A butterfly came the other night, too. It’s like you share a bond with butterflies.”

“Ah, yes, there was one then, too. It’s a shame that I only share a bond with butterflies, and not with you.”

                  The second story presented, “The Soldier Who Vanished Into Thin Air,” (1938) is the weakest of the three. It’s a very short piece, with a very predictable twist. Unlike “Moths,” there are no vibrant characters, and, unlike “The Secret of the Fish,” it lacks powerful and memorable imagery.

Essentially, the story concerns air force pilots whose comrade mysteriously vanishes during a drill. These pilots periodically meet their lost comrade at unpredictable times as they fly. There is nothing particularly striking about this ghost tale.

The third short story, “The Secret of the Fish,” (1934) comes with rather memorable imagery. A group of young people visits a pond, intending to catch fish by pouring poisonous chemicals into the water. A wandering monk condemns their actions and begs them to halt, though fully aware that the young people have made up their minds. Dark images of the massacre of fish are illustrated:

                  “The lagoon coalesced in inky blue­black shadow. It began to boil and crash, and the body of an enormous indigo­white fish emerged. The terrible fish turned face up, exposing its white belly, and then floated, totally still.”

Overall, I found this short collection of stories to be remarkable. I recommend this to anyone interested in short stories and certainly recommend it to any fans of Japanese literature.

Ivar’s translation provides the first collection of Tanaka’s stories that is readily available to western consumers on sites such as, currently on sale for 99 cents. It is also available on in Kindle, PDF, Epub, and other formats.

See Link For Other Works By the Author:

“Moths” first appeared in the Osaka Daily News, October 25th, 1923

“The Soldier Who Vanished Into Thin Air” first appeared in The New Collection of True Ghost Stories, 1938

“The Secret of the Fish” first appeared in The Complete Collection of Japanese Ghost Stories, 1934


Runaway Horses – Yukio Mishima

Runaway Horses (Honba)

Yukio Mishima


The first book I read by Yukio Mishima was Spring Snow. Saving my immense praise, respect and love I have for that book, I will instead talk about the sequel to it, Runaway Horses.

Set in the politically provocative time of 30’s, when the Japanese government became increasingly aggressive, both towards foreign nations and domestically. It was also a time during the Great Depression, when many farmers in Japan experienced horrendous poverty similar to that in the United States. There were clandestine communists and socialists and republicans, and there were people that had no interest in politics. There were also people, who young, passionate and patriotic embraced Japan’s militarism, exclaimed love for the Emperor and hatred for the left.

Runaway Horses is about one such youth, who inflamed by tales of Meiji “counter-revolutionaries” dreams of nothing more than to restore Japan to its pre-industrial state, to rid it of the powerful industrial conglomerates that he believes are harming the Emperor’s rule. His dream is to destroy such enemies, and in the end commit seppuku before the rising sun.

This novel is my favorite of all Mishima’s books, and I believe, is his definitive work. Many Japanese and Westerners feel uncomfortable with Mishima and this specific book due to Mishima’s politics, patriotism and suicide. While I could argue that they misunderstand, it would serve no purpose. Instead I ask anybody willing to experience something truly unique and beautiful to discover Runaway Horses as it is. Without thinking about the horrendous war that came in the forties, and without thinking about the terribleness of fascism, and without your conservative or liberal views, I ask you to simply follow a passionate youth on his desperate journey to discover true beauty. And as you read, ask yourself questions about what you think true beauty and devotion are.

It is not necessary to read Spring Snow before, but I would highly recommend it. Give it a chance, and you won’t regret having read it.


Image of Runaway Horses from Paul Schrader's Film "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters"

Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)

There are few times when a man in a purple suit or a man with a purple handkerchief wrapped around his neck can look bad-ass. The only time I have seen such a rare occurrence was in the film series directed by Kinji Fukasaku titled “The Yakuza Papers.”

Recently at a half price book store I stumbled upon a mysterious box set titled: The Yakuza Papers. Other than the title, there were no other words, only a faint image of a man with tattoo on his back. My consumer senses began to tingle and before I knew it, I was the owner of this box set. When I returned home to open it, I found five DVDs, and two packets. One packet was a fold-out “family tree” full of dozens of persons, spanning the decades between 1946 and the early seventies.

Immediately after I began to watch Battles Without Honor and Humanity, the first film in the Yakuza Papers series, I became completely captivated by this world of the Hiroshima underground. Within a few minutes, a violent and cruel tone is set, and every character is introduced. Due to the large amount of characters, there were many jarring moments in the beginning, where I had no idea who was who, and consequently I couldn’t get emotionally involved. I found myself constantly referring to the “family tree” packet. After the first thirty minutes however, I had found my bearings in the world of the Yakuza Papers, and I could fully enjoy this spectacle.

As one could gather from a title like “Battles Without Honor or Humanity,” the film is full of violence and brutal conflict. This being said, this is hardly what I would call ‘mindless violence.’ Once somebody develops a bond with a character, the struggles and suffering the characters go through begin to mean something. Unlike in Transformers or the Star Wars prequels where a fight is just something that looks cool, and I could care less about who gets hurt, I felt the feeling that any good movie should create: a feeling of stake in a character’ conflicts.

The cinematography is strong, and seems to me was a heavy influence on directors such as Quentin Tarantino (particularly in the movie Kill Bill, the theme of which was named “Battle Without Honor and Humanity). I thought that the film’s pace was good, and that every single shot was exciting.

In conclusion I will say that “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” is a memorable and exciting film, and completely enjoyable. The single flaw is the series of jarring moments at the begin pertaining to the incredibly wide cast of characters. But this flaw is only temporary, and I found that I enjoyed this film more the second time I saw it. I recommend this film to any person fond of Quentin Tarantino, mafia-type movies, and anybody interested in Japan’s yakuza.


Acting: 4

Cinematography: 4

Plot: 4

Average: 4/5

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P

A Novel by Rieko Matsuura

Translated by Michael Emmerich


In 2009, Rieko Matsuura’s cult novel was translated and released in America, more than a decade and a half after its release in Japan. “The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P” had been a major success in 1993, as publisher Kodansha International boasts that it sold “300,000 copies in hardcover” rocketing its “cult author to stardom almost overnight. The shocking and sensually fascinating story that lured masses hooked readers.

The novel tells the story of a young woman in Tokyo who wakes up one morning to find that her big toe has become a penis, and how her life changes radically afterward. There is tremendous shock value to this story, which is not so much surreal, but written in the vein of magic realism.

Shock value is never nearly enough to create a wonderful story. Shock value always wears off, and when it is stripped away, what is left? Rieko Matsuura, quite capably has used shock value to enhance the telling of a story, but far from relies on it. She generated a story moved by stunning, memorable characters, which provide a firm base for this novel. The lives and interactions of the characters are so believable, real, and complex that the audience cares about them, and as a corollary care about the story. The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

Other strengths of the novel include the humor found throughout the novel, as well as the provoking questions it raises about gender, sexuality, and the act of sex.

There were a few weaknesses. The translation, while acceptable, could have been written much better. Several times, the prose was awkwardly written. Also there were a few parts, which seemed a bit long, notably around the middle.

Overall, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is a stunning read, and is a must for anybody interested in contemporary Japanese literature.

The Magic Hour (2008)

The Magic Hour – ザ・マジックアワー (2008)

Directed by Koki Mitani

Genre: Comedy

Actors: Satoshi Tsumabuki (Waterboys), Haruka Ayase (Cyborg She), Eri Fukatsu (Haru), Koichi Sato (Sukiyaki Western Django), Toshiyuki Nishida (Get Up!), Susumu Terashima

When I saw this film in Japan, the first thing I noticed was that nearly every single actor had a familiar face. Japanese actors are in many ways busier than their Western counter-parts. Among most actors’ duties are not only to act in movies, but also to appear in as many various commercials, talk-shows, game shows, television dramas and magazines as humanly possible. When an actor/actress is hot in Japan, you can quite easily see her face anywhere. The summer I saw this film, it was not uncommon to see different commercials back to back featuring at least one of the actors found in “The Magic Hour.” Whether or not you can recognize the celebrity cast of “The Magic Hour” is irrelevant to enjoying the film. Like “Anchorman” you don’t have to be familiar with the actors to laugh, and like “Anchorman” if you do recognize the actors you will not be distracted. The actors of “Magic Hour” do their roles well, most memorably Koichi Sato and Toshiyuki Nishida.

But what allows these actors to excel in this film is not just their ability or synergy with the cast, but also the brilliant and original plot. A hotel manager (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is doomed to die after he is found out for having an affair with the beautiful wife (Eri Fukatsu) of the local mob-boss (Toshiyuki Nishida). To save his own life, he promises to find Dela Togashi, despite not knowing who or where he is. Upon discovering that Togashi is the Phantom Assasin, Japan’s #1 sniper, the manager decides to hire an unsuccessful actor (Koichi Sato) to pretend to be the killer. To keep his actor unaware that these situations are real, the manager creates the illusion that they are producing a mafia film, done in an improvisational style. The results are hilarious.

All this being said, the film does have a few setbacks. The issue that stood out the most was that it was too unnecessarily long, however I didn’t notice this until the ending. I have nothing against long movies, but a good movie should never allow an audience member to think, “Gee, what time is it? How much longer is there to go?”

In conclusion, this film is hilarious, creative and fresh. While a bit too long, this is a memorable comedy.


Plot: 4

Acting: 4

Cinematography: 3

Average (Overall): 3.7/5

Ore Wa Matteru Ze – I Am Waiting (1957) Review

俺は待ってるぜ – I Am Waiting

1957 Poster

directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara

I saw this film as part of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir Box.

In the late fifties and early sixties, Japanese youths were more interested in American and French cinema than watching Japanese films. To bring in younger audiences, the Nikkatsu film company produced several noir films in the style of the Western ones.

I Am Waiting is at the forefront of this western-imitation noir. Influenced by Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, the story follows Jôji (Yujiro ishihara) who is an ex-boxer who threw away his career when he was in his prime. His path intertwines with Saeko (Mie Kitahara), a once famous singer who lost her voice and became forced to work for a gangster at a cabaret. Together they fall in love, kept apart only by their own distant dreams.

While  created in the image of Western noir films, I am Waiting is unique. The plot, while typical of western noir, has a distinctly Japanese twist to it. Japanese conceptions of shame and honor accentuate the drama and tension surrounding the protagonists and their decisions. Story aside, the crooner music sung throughout the film shows provides a taste for the post-world war II era music heavily influenced by Western Europe.

The protagonists are wonderfully played. It is refreshing to have a protagonist played by a man who isn’t handsome. The casting of the non-dashing Yujiro Ishihara was a brilliant choice. His acting, and his romance with Mie Kitahara’s character is entirely believable, something few films can pull off. Mie Katahara is simply beautiful, in a word, but in the everyday-sort-of-way, and her voice perfect for the role of a cabaret singer. The biggest strengths of these actors is that they are real. They are not the handsome plastics Hollywood has employed for decades. They are what they are.

The Cinematography is decent, but every once in a while it has moments of beauty. The use of light is done artistically, and is especially impressive in the opening scenes. Overall however, this is artistically nothing spectacular.

In conclusion, I Am Waiting is a fun, well-made film reccomended for any fan of the noir genre who wants to try something a little different. This is also a good film for anybody interested in late fifties/early sixties Japanese cinema.

Rating Breakdown (1-5):

Acting – 4

Cinematography- 3

Plot – 3

Average: 3.3

First Post!

Hi, I’m danielgaikokujin, here to review and present Japanese films and books which I love, but also to try to pass on some of my knowledge on Japan and Japanese culture.

I was inspired to start this in response to how the western scene of interest in Japan is dominated by a crowd that, in a nutshell, sees manga and anime as the most interesting and important form of Japanese media. And there’s also people that get way too obsessed with anime. Don’t get me wrong. I love manga and anime…but I love Japanese Film and Literature more.

Can you dig it?