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Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Monkey Business: New Voices from Japan is the first annual English-language edition of the acclaimed literary magazine. Edited by Motoyuki Shibata (curator, along with Roland Kelts) and Ted Goossen.

As someone who enjoys reading Japanese literature, I’m always delighted to discover publications that chronicle the works of Japanese authors relatively unknown outside of Japan. In many instances I have found that while the West may have some familiarity with traditional Japanese literature, there is very little focus given to the contemporary let alone experimental Japanese literary works. Beside the occasional popularization of a manga series or singular novel, the exposure of contemporary Japanese literature has been kept at a rather minimum level, seemingly crowded out by the abundance of American or British literary works and authors published within the West. Considering that I live within one such Western country as America, this is to be expected, so it’s always wonderful to see a collection of essays, short stories, poems and interviews from Japanese authors collected and published for a Western audience—which is where Monkey Business: New Voices truly establishes it mark as a very critical and important anthological work.

Working as a collective gathering of literary writings surrounding significant and emerging Japanese authors alike, Monkey Business: New Voices conveys within its pages a sense of exotica that burgeons on both the creative and bizarre—with the latter working as a positive force here. This foreign flair certainly is well warranted, mainly because it offers insight to the reader of the type of literature that currently exists within Japan today. This ranges from the rather illusive and cryptic issues concerning the societal and literal landscape of Japan in Hideo Furukawa’s opening piece Monsters, to the memories of yesteryear in Hiromi Kawakami’s People From My Neighborhood, to even the hilarity of foregone dreams in Koji Uno’s Closet LLB, this inaugural volume explores a wide variety of subject material that is quite expressive of the each individual authors observations on a multitude of topics.

What’s also intriguing in this volume is the variety of literary mediums that are used by the authors. From the use of poetry as seen in Masayo Koike’s When Monkeys Sing to a collection of short stories in Barry Yourgrau’s Song, The Old Way, and Bougainvillea, the volume provides a cross section of written pieces that should appease those particularly fond of reading different forms of literary writing. There is a considerable freshness as one reads through the volume, with each written segment offering up something uniquely interesting. With this in mind, some segments within Monkey Business: New Voices may not be of interest to every individual reader. As such the case with most accumulative anthologies, certain readers may not find that much interest in specific written pieces found throughout the volume, perhaps due to reading or subject preference or simply because they don’t like the medium in which the piece is conveyed. Those accustomed to other anthologies centered on a primary topic or theme may also find the scope of the volume rather extensive, mainly because while the pieces are considerably Japanese, they subscribe to a large variation of topics. Nevertheless, each piece elicits an excellent testament to the imaginative forces behind the authors explored within the volume.

One of the most impressive pieces within the volume—and most certainly my favorite—is the interview entitled Pursuing “Growth” which finds author Hideo Furukawa leading a wonderful interview with famous Japanese novelist Haruki Murukami. As a fan of Murakami’s work, this extensive interview truly delves into the creative aspirations and desires behind many of his novels and written work. Chronicling the major moments within his personal life and occupation as a novelist, Murakami gives incredible insight into his motivation in becoming a writer, his literary techniques and his evolution as a novelist with the creation and release of each novel by him. The dialogue shared between Furukawa and Murakami is also incredibly informative as the two share their own strengths and weaknesses with one another as they explore their past, present and future presence within the world of literature. From a personal standpoint, it’s always interesting to read about the creative sparks that drive some of your most liked novels, and in the case of Haruki Murukami, reading about the processes that went into works such as Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Underground are enlightening to say the least. This is certainly the focal point of the volume and it’s sure to please Murukami fans.

All in all, Monkey Business: New Voices remains a strangely fascinating look into the innovative writing that is currently come out of Japan. As a collection of literary material that is strikingly original in its execution, this inaugural volume provides an overview of a wide selection of material in which we, as the reader, can indulge in. Driving the curiosity of the reader with its challenging and unusual material, what Monkey Business: New Voices offers is expressive and visionary literary pieces that convey a sense of the external and foreign. Those looking to read alternative literature concerning Japanese culture and society should view this inaugural volume as an exploration into some of the more experimental aspects that culminate into what we perceive—from a Western context at least—of Japanese literature, with Monkey Business: New Voices being a great starting point for readers seeking something quite different from the norm.

Table of contents

Monsters: a short story by Hideo Furukawa
translated by Michael Emmerich

People from My Neighborhood: a collection of vignettes by Hiromi Kawakami
translated by Ted Goossen

The Sleep Division: a poem by Mina Ishikawa
translated by Ted Goossen

Sandy’s Lament: a short story by Atsushi Nakajima
translated by M. Cody Poulton

Song, The Old Way, and Bougainvillea: stories by Barry Yourgrau

The Tale of the House of Physics: a short story by Yoko Ogawa
translated by Ted Goossen

Pursuing “Growth”: an interview with Haruki Murakami by Hideo Furukawa
translated by Ted Goossen

Interviews with the Heroes, or Is Baseball Just for Fun?: a poem by Inuo Taguchi
translated by Ted Goossen

A Country Doctor: a manga by the Brother and Sister Nishioka, based on the story by Franz Kafka
translated by J. A. Underwood

Closet LLB: a short story by Koji Uno
translated by Jay Rubin

When Monkeys Sing: a poem by Masayo Koike
translated by Ted Goossen

Monkey Tanka: a poem by Shion Mizuhara
translated by Ted Goossen

Monkey Haiku: a poem by Minoru Ozawa
translated by Ted Goossen

The Forbidden Diary: an excerpt from a fictional diary by Sachiko Kishimoto
translated by Ted Goossen

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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