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[Review] Harmony, by Project Itoh

[Review] Harmony, by Project Itoh

[Review] Harmony, by Project ItohHarmony by Project Itoh
Published by Haikasoru, VIZ Media on 2010 (first published 2008)
Genres: Dystopian, Japanese literature, Science fiction
Pages: 252
Goodreads
four-stars

The world is in a state of 'perfect healthcare' and 'harmony'. Life is precious, and WatchMe is constantly monitoring your physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, it is socially unacceptable to be unfriendly and uncaring toward other human beings - crime is practically unheard of. Utopia has been achieved, or has it? There's only one way to game the system.

We all know there’s no such thing as Utopia. Utopia is always Dystopia. And oh boy do I love a good dystopian novel.

Harmony is told from the perspective of Tuan Kirie. As a teenager she is troubled, attempting to escape the pressure this ‘perfect’ society puts on her. And while her friend Miach finds a way out, Tuan grows up to become a member of the World Health Organization.

This book is typically the kind of novel that one should just shut up about and read. I don’t want to go into the plot too much because it’s so easy to spoil and take away the fun of reading and also the plot is too harmonyimgcomplicated to write down properly. But I encourage fans of hard sci-fi, as well as readers who enjoy dystopia and its social implications, to give this book a try. It raises a lot of interesting questions about humanity, and while I’m sure sci-fi fans are familiar with these questions, the novel doesn’t feel like a cliché.

The first thing you notice when you open this book is the coding. Initially it doesn’t seem to have much of a function, and I was afraid I’d get tired of it. But it’s clever and I’ll leave it at that. In case you’re worried, it’s not overpowering the ‘normal’ text (unlike what the photo of the first page would suggest).

In 2009 this book won both the Seiun award for speculative fiction and the Japan SF award. The book was put in a different perspective when I got to the end and read that the author, ‘Project Itoh’, aka Keikaku Itō (born as Satoshi Itō), revised this book while in the hospital receiving cancer treatment. Sadly Itō passed away in 2009, Harmony was his second and final novel.

I originally read Harmony for January in Japan and decided to pen down a review after all. Better late than never!

January in Japan wrap-up

January in Japan wrap-up

January in JapanJanuary is over and with that, so is January in Japan. I always end up participating less than I intended, but I had a lot of fun nonetheless 🙂 Thank you Tony, for organising this once again. I hope we can look forward to another round next year!

So remember that post I wrote where I made a selection of books to read for January in Japan? I didn’t think I’d stick to it, but I ended up reading four out of five books I selected… and then some. In the end I read nine books for the event. I’m pretty pleased! So here’s what I ended up reading:

January in Japan 2014

  1. The Diving Pool by Yōko Ogawa [review]
  2. Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Rampo Edogawa
  3. Harmony by Project Itoh
  4. Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa
  5. Vuurvliegjes: Nishikawa Sukenobu’s Ehon Chiyomigusa by Sukenobu Nishikawa
  6. In the Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
  7. Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto
  8. Lonely Hearts Killer by Tomoyuki Hoshino
  9. The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

It’s very hard to decide which book I enjoyed most. Books that stood out were definitely the two dystopian novels, Harmony and Lonely Hearts Killer, both very different. In Harmony, the world is in a state of ‘perfect healthcare’ and ‘harmony’: you can’t really get sick and it is socially unacceptable to be unfriendly and uncaring toward other human beings. There’s only one way to ‘fuck’ the system. Lonely Hearts Killer, which I won during the January in Japan event (thank you Tony and PM Press!), portrays media gone wild and ‘Japan’ in ’emperor crisis’. One of the more complicated books I read in a long time, and so good. I definitely recommend both to those who love sci-fi and dystopia!

Then there were the two Ogawa’s. I really enjoyed Restaurant of Love Regained, despite that one scene. I gave it four stars, went back to three stars, but in the end I realised I loved it anyway so there.

Whether he realises it or not, I was introduced to Rampo Edogawa by my friend and former classmate Ho-Ling (check out his blog, all about Japanese detective fiction). The first story in this collection drew me right in. Very enjoyable book, full of ‘perfect ways to commit a crime’, and a decent dose of wtf.

I strayed from my usual reading with some waka poetry. I don’t usually care about poetry but I have to admit this translation by Henri Kerlen, who is an expert in the field of Japanese poetry (among other topics), is really good. I now both appreciate and understand classic Japanese poetry a bit more. Might even pick up more in the future.

In the Miso Soup was a disappointment. This was my first book by Ryū Murakami and it just didn’t live up to the author’s reputation. Or maybe I should have started with Coin Locker Babies?

Can’t go wrong with Banana Yoshimoto. I understand why not everyone is a big fan of her work, but to me her books are calming and touching.

And finally there’s The Goddess Chronicle. From what I gather, people were quite disappointed with this one, expecting something more from Natsuo Kirino. It is certainly something quite different from her usual work, but not in a bad way. Anyone else can’t wait for In to be published?

[Review] Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pelgrimage, and the Murakami Festival

[Review] Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pelgrimage, and the Murakami Festival

[Review] Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pelgrimage, and the Murakami FestivalDe kleurloze Tsukuru Tazaki en zijn pelgrimsjaren (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pelgrimage) by Haruki Murakami
Published by Atlas Contact on January 2014
Genres: Japanese literature
Pages: 364
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Out of the blue and without saying why, Tsukuru Tazaki's closest childhood friends tell him he is no longer welcome in their group.

It’s already been two weeks since the Murakami Festival took place in Amsterdam to celebrate the release of the Dutch translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The book was published officially on January 10th, but participants to the festival received the book more than a month before.

The book is about Tsukuru Tazaki who, shortly after he moved away from his hometown to go to university in Tokyo, was told by his group of friends that they never want to see him again. Then Tsukuru, at age 36, meets a woman he maybe, possibly, wants to spend the rest of his life with. She tells him he has to overcome his trauma of being abandoned by his group of friends.

Colorless Tsukuru TazakiI have a hard time making up my mind on this book. I really love Murakami’s works, for several reasons. I love the ‘magical-realism’, not knowing what is going to happen and whether everything gets resolved by the end or not. I love how it feels like Murakami is always ‘writing the same book’, how characters reappear and all his works are intertwined, whether intentional or not. I love how his books touch me and I love how I am unable to explain how they touch me.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is different. It lacks magical-realism, although at some points in the book I had some hope we might see some. In this sense, the book is closer to Norwegian Wood than to his other works. The book definitely touched me with its theme of friendship and loneliness, in a way I haven’t experienced with any of Murakami’s other works.

However, some time has passed since I finished the book, and the more time passes, the more bland I think the book is. Not a good sign. Definitely not one of my favourite books.

Murakami Festival
We received the book a month early so we could prepare for the festival, where we discussed the book. The festival took place in 15 different locations at the same time, with one ‘book club’ of 150 people and the other ones smaller, 25-30 people. I must say this festival was a really fun experience! I picked one of the smaller book clubs to join and was lucky enough to end up discussing the book at the Cat Cabinet, an art museum dedicated to depicting cats. Couldn’t pick a better place to discuss a Murakami book!

Photo © Maartje Strijbis
Photo © Maartje Strijbis

The festival was attended both by long-time/die-hard Murakami fans as well as people who had never read a book of his before Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, and anyone in between.

Some interesting theories on the new book (spoilers!):

Read More Read More

[Review] The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa

[Review] The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa

[Review] The Diving Pool, by Yoko OgawaThe Diving Pool by Yōko Ogawa
Published by Vintage on April 2009 (first published 1990)
Genres: Japanese literature
Pages: 164
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Three novellas about love, motherhood, fertility, obsession, and how even the most innocent gestures contain a hairline crack of cruel intent.

This year for January in Japan one of the readalongs is Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool. The post gathering all reviews of the book is here. The Diving Pool is actually the first book I finished this year, far ahead of the readalong date (January 16th).

So, what did I think of the book? Frankly, even now I’m still not sure. The first book I read by Yoko Ogawa was The Housekeeper & The Professor, which is cute (and sad) if anything. This book, The Diving Pool, however is something different.

Let me start by saying I read the back of the book first. The blurbs describe the book as ‘haunting prose’, ‘to enter a dreamlike state tinged with a nightmare’ and ‘original, elegant, very disturbing… on the edge of the unspeakable’.

The book contains three ‘novellas’ (or short stories, at 50 pages each printed in a large font…). Let me skip a summary of the individual plot lines. This book is all about normal people. Normal people in comparatively normal situations. And this is where I start admiring Ogawa. Each of these stories gives you the chills. You either recognise yourself in the stories, or you start doubting yourself, or at the very least you see the world just a little differently by the time you’ve finished this book.

That said, don’t expect super exciting stories where a lot happens. You won’t find them because that’s not what this book is about.

Personally, I enjoyed the book. But it didn’t wow me. The blurbs gave me high expectations and in that sense I was let down a little. Nonetheless, the stories continue to fascinate me. It’s definitely worth giving it a try!

Update:
To answer Tony’s questions:

1) Which was your favourite story (and why)?
Probably Dormitory. A completely normal narrator, who procrastinates sending her husband abroad a reply or dealing with his requests. A college kid who never shows up after the initial part of the story. A dormitory manager with missing arms and a prosthetic leg. The mystery that never gets resolved, where did the other college student disappear to? And then the minor mystery that does get resolved, what is that spot on the ceiling? Wonderful and unexpected.

2) Bearing in mind that these stories were published individually in the original language, do you think the book worked well as a collection?
Surprisingly: yes. Although the stories at first glance don’t have much to do with one another, each story has narrators that do little things that seem off but are so very human. I’m thinking of Aya and the things she does to baby Rie in The Diving Pool, the narrator in Pregnancy Diaries who worries about her sister’s baby, and the narrator in Dormitory who doesn’t reply to her husband’s requests.

3) Did the slightly dark tone enhance your enjoyment of the stories, or would you have preferred a lighter approach?
Without the dark tone, I’m not sure this book would even exist. Nothing exciting happens in the stories, and with a lighter tone they would become plain boring and I’m not sure we could even ‘justify’ them ‘existing’.

January in Japan 2014

January in Japan 2014

January in Japan
I kicked off January in Japan this year with Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool. A little ahead of time (it’s a readalong scheduled for January 16th) but I already finished it… woops. I will say more about the book later on in the event!

I also made a selection for other books I hope to read. I don’t know if I’ll stick to it 😉

January in Japan 2014

  • The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa (finished January 4th)
  • Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo (currently reading)
  • Harmony by Project Itoh
  • Ehon Chiyomigusa by Sukenobu Nishikawa (a Dutch translation of tanka poetry)
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Let’s see what happens!