Not quite a year ago, my highly revered, most beloved advisor (of my second unfinished almost-ABD-PhD) passed away. As well as being one of the most important (and groundbreaking) Japanese scholars working in English, he was – and remains – the definitive western authority on Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916). A household name in Japan if for no other reason than because he appeared on the 1000-yen note for two decades (until 2004), Sōseki is considered the most important novelist of Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) as well as a pivotal figure in Japanese modern literature.
I just can’t picture my august advisor in his hallowed office reading manga ever, especially in his later years (OMG! – have to sit a moment with that thought!). He was born too early to have been a manga-reader in his youth growing up in Japan (he was hapa-Japanese/Scottish). But perhaps he’s making up for lost time, and chuckling from above, head together with Sōseki himself, laughing over the imaginative antics of Sōseki’s manga self in the multi-volume The Times of Botchan.
The series begins with a 38-year-old Sōseki as he contemplates writing another novel. He has recently returned from studying in England and is now a literature professor at Tokyo Imperial University (today’s University of Tokyo, or “Todai” – Japan’s premier university). Having found a welcoming audience with his serialized story, I Am a Cat, Sōseki embarks on what will become his novel, Botchan, whose protagonist is not unlike his own self.
Sōseki is surrounded by a group of sake-loving friends, who both entertain and challenge him, as they discuss the many changes that are happening to a once closed Japanese society. Sōseki recalls some of his past experiences, vividly remembering the miseries he faced living among foreigners especially in London. Little by little, he explores potential plots, creating his characters after careful observations of the quickly changing world around him.
Funny enough, Sōseki’s own grandson, Natsume Fusanosuke, is a noted contemporary manga critic. He insists in the book’s epilogue that his grandfather was no drinker, which means “the rowdiness that Sōseki exhibits at the beginning of the story must be fictitious. Just as the encounters between the historical characters that are narrated in this work must be figments of the imagination.” But the grandson is also quick to add, “it is not my intention to disapprove of any of these inventions just because I am proud to be Sōseki’s grandson. I like the character who appears in the story and his imaginary personality, and I very much enjoyed reading it.”
I’m thinking my beloved advisor, too, is enjoying it muchly from above. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2005 (United Kingdom, United States)