Before Manga captured the imagination of the world, Japanese artists sculpted a miniature society of human and not-quite human characters. These are ‘netsuke’: tiny figures, threaded by cords, which were used to hold in place the ‘purse’ that hung from a kimono. Carved from wood, ivory or bone, they formed an exotic society, reflecting the history, culture and fantasy life of Japan.
Now, for the first time, their individual stories come to life, and the unfamiliar and often startling nature of their society. Meet Momo, the beautiful but conflicted geisha cat; discover the dreams of the mermaids who worship Esther Williams; witness the rise and fall of a ruthless politician who plays the ‘alien’ card; encounter the creatures of legend and the demons who star in horror movies; learn the peculiar practices and customs of netsuke sexuality; try to solve the mystery of why netsuke suddenly disappear; admire the heroic quest to create a national orchestra; enjoy the embarrassment of a martial arts struggle gone peculiarly awry; share the hopes of an autumn and spring love story; face the threat to netsuke society of the plastic invasion.
This book of unusual short stories was inspired by the author's collection of netsuke. Each story is inspired by a different netsuke. The stories are whimsical and often funny - for example in the discussion of what is the best partner for a mermaid - man, cod or octopus.
The author has said: I found they [netsuke] offered a fascinating introduction to Japanese culture. On my daily walk to the university in Fukuoka where I was teaching, some character in my small netsuke collection, would suggest a story that fed into an emerging idea of Netsuke Nation, a mixture of imagination and the experience of Japanese life.
The stories are therefore more than just tales about the individual figurines, they are tales of "Another Japan" and as such some are musings on the Netsuke nation's politics, social class (the old ivory netsuke are superior to the cheap plastic and resin ones) and even hilariously on sexuality.
The author's style is I think influenced by the Jewish rabbinical tradition. He is the author of a number of theological books, the latest being A Rabi Reads The Torah and I think that shows as he muses on these small figures and extrapolates meaning and indeed a world from them.
Not all the stories worked for me. I was less taken with the politics of the Netsuke nation, as with those stories which focused on the individual netsuke characters - such as the geisha cat and the wrestlers of the opening story.
The book was produced by Matador, which is I think a self-publishing company. If this is the case I feel that the price of £5.14 for a self-published volume of short stories is too high in the current market.
I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review