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the Complete Review
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Five Modern Japanese Novelists

Donald Keene

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To purchase Five Modern Japanese Novelists

Title: Five Modern Japanese Novelists
Author: Donald Keene
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 103 pages
Availability: Five Modern Japanese Novelists - US
Five Modern Japanese Novelists - UK
Five Modern Japanese Novelists - Canada
  • Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo, and Shiba Ryotaro

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Our Assessment:

B : fine quick introduction to five major writers

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Journal of Asian Studies . 11/2003 Guohe Zheng

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The complete review's Review:

       The five modern Japanese novelists of the title are Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, Abe Kobo, and Shiba Ryotaro. Not the cutting edge of contemporary Japanese fiction, but most of the grand old men of 20th century Japanese literature that are known in the West.
       Keene has likely done more than anyone to bring an understanding of Japanese literature to Western audiences, but early in this volume one has to have some doubts about whether he is an ideal guide: he admits that: "Before arriving in Japan in 1953 I knew the name of only one living Japanese novelist, Tanizaki Jun'ichiro". Given that he had studied Japanese, taught it (at Cambridge) for five years, and already published three books ("including an introduction to Japanese literature" !) one has to wonder how such ignorance is possible. A complete lack of interest in contemporary literature seems the most likely explanation (and he acknowledges preferring the classics). Nevertheless, Keene proves a good guide to these authors and their work.
       Much of the success of this introductory volume certainly lies in its personal approach: Keene knew all five authors, and was fairly close to some of them, and so his descriptions include some entertaining and revealing anecdotes and insights. (Unfortunately, he is not as forthcoming as one might wish about Mishima, despite the fact that he was apparently close enough to him that one of the three 'farewell letters' Mishima wrote was addressed to Keene). The sections are little more than sketches, but still give a decent picture of each of the authors, with contrarian Abe especially nicely presented. Amusing side-notes include the fact that when Keene first met Abe in 1964 the Japanese writer came with an interpreter -- Ono Yoko (though Keene -- typically -- only discovered her identity years later).
       Particularly useful is the introduction to the least well-known of the quintet, Shiba Ryotaro. Keene writes of him:

He is as close to being a twentieth-century hero as the Japanese possess.
       But, as with all the writers, more information would be welcome .....
       Keene writes in his Preface that he hopes: "this book will be read by persons daunted by the bulk of my history" (i.e. Dawn to the West, where some of this material also appears), but conversely one might hope readers' interest will be piqued and they'll move on to that much more expansive history -- or, better still, the authors' works. Keene's discussions of the works themselves is, for the most part, cursory, but he still manages to give a decent impression of each writer's work -- certainly enough to point readers in the right direction when they are trying to decide what to read, making for a decent guide-book.
       Five Modern Japanese Novelists isn't very ambitious, but is both useful and informative for readers not very familiar with twentieth-century Japanese literature. Engagingly told (peppered with entertaining anecdotes), it packs quite a bit of information, and there's certainly an audience that will find it of interest.

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Five Modern Japanese Novelists: Donald Keene: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Donald Keene was born in 1922 and is a leading expert on Japanese literature.

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