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Vostok Magazine offers a list of Japanese writers whose books are valued even among the high-taste Western readers.
1. Ryuunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927)
"Ryuunosuke Akutagawa did not stand on the bastions of a town laid to siege, like Lev Tolstoy, he did not raise his voice to defend the justice, like Emile Zola, did not fight for revolution, like Jaroslav Hasek. He had a measured and pretty useless life of a Japanese maitre of literature… Like other maitres he was not a family man, even though he had 3 sons. Suffering from nervous exhaustion, he was treated on Yutaka resort. And he worked, he worked furiously and uninterruptedly". (A. Strugatsky "Three discoveries of Akutagawa Ryuunosuke")
When Ryuunosuke was 10 years old, his mother committed suicide in the mental institution. Later the writer himself suffered from mental disorders and was afraid of going insane. At the age of 35 he joined the silent majority by taking a lethal dose of barbital. The true reason behind his suicide is unknown. The most common opinion suggests that he became unable to cope with hallucinations and anxiety attacks, the description of which can be found in his autobiographic "Spinning Gears" and "Fool's Life". Another so-called culture studies opinion (supported by a Russian Japanologist G. Chkhartishvili aka Boris Akunin) suggests that Akutagawa committed suicide in the thoughts that his own work and Japanese literature in general is not able to compete with the Western one.
Akutagawa's work was heavily influenced by European and Russian authors: Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov. For example, Akutagawa's "The Nose" is an interpretation of Gogol's "The Nose" only displaying the Japanese reality. The most famous works by Akutagawa are "In a Grove" and "Rashoumon" that were later taken by Akira Kurosawa as a basis for his "Rashoumon" movie. Masterly created plot of "In a Grove" is based on different versions of the same crime suggested by different heroes. A. Strugatsky said that alogism had been taken to a whole new artistic level in this story. We highly recommend to begin the journey to his work from this small story. Fans of Dostoyevsky and Allan Poe might like to begin with "Spinning Gears" and "Fool's Life".
2. Ryuu Murakami (born 1952)
Ryuu is a rebellious writer who must not be mistaken for Haruki Murakami. Ryuu writes about what he calls "true life" not caring about how his writings will be interpreted. "I don't care if I will be understood by the readers without experience in group sex and drugs", said the writer harshly while answering the objections of the critics regarding his getting the Akutagawa Prize. The softest Murakami Ryuu novel is "69". It describes the lifestyle of Japanese teenagers in the 1960s (that actually makes it close with Murakami Haruki's "Norwegian Wood" but the former has sex, drugs and rock'n'roll). If you are ready for something more "hardcore" (like Irvine Welsh) we recommend "Almost Transparent Blue".
3. Yukio Misima (1925-1970, actual name Kimitake Hiraoka)
The author of most read worldwide Japanese novel ("The Temple of the Golden Pavilion"), three times nominated for Nobel Prize, a pilot who completed a world tour, a body-builder, an actor, a director, a nationalist – this is all Yukio Misima, one of the most scandalous Japanese writers. On November, 25 1970 he tried to start a rebellion on one of the Japanese self-defense bases, calling upon the coup d'etat. When the attempt failed he committed suicide through seppuku (harakiri).
The greatest fame was brought to him by "Confessions of a Mask" and "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion". The first is partly autobiographical. Despite all the artistic advantages, we do not recommend reading it to those who can't deal with homosexual topics. The second novel is the author's attempt to understand whether it is possible to live without beauty, this is the novel about a person and an unattainable beauty. The readers who are not offended by maybe provocative topics are recommended to read these plays: "Madame de Sade" and "My Friend Hitler".
4. Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972)
Kawabata is the first Japanese to ever receive Nobel Prize in Literature "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind". The distinctive feature of his modernist work is inherent to Japanese culture innuendo and a major role of implication, high contextuality of the language that demands a skill to read between the lines from the reader. This Japanese style will not be in every Western reader's favor, so we do not recommend to begin with "The Sound of the Mountain" and "The Master of Go". Try reading something short first like "The Cicada and the Cricket" to figure out whether you like Kawabata's style.