Book – When I started reading this book, I didn’t know much about it, other than that it had a glow-in-the-dark octopus on the cover. And really, what else do you need to know? The octopus, fortunately, is a character (although he doesn’t glow in the dark) – Katsu, a mechanical octopus made by the titular watchmaker, Mori, a Japanese nobleman who has moved to England to practice the art of making tiny things out of even tinier gears. We meet him through Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphist recently recruited by Scotland Yard, who is being used by his superiors to investigate Mori as a suspect behind a high-profile bombing.
This is fantasy only by the thinnest hair, and steampunk only because of the prominence of Mori’s fantastic clockwork creations (and their proximity to Japantown’s fireworks shops). The plot circles around the investigation of the bombing, but Thaniel and Mori’s relationship is the real core of the book, growing slowly through mistrust and uncertainty into a deep, heartfelt connection. I was a little iffy about it for the first few chapters; by the end, I was entirely in love.
Movie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.
The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment. Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Reading mysteries set in interesting locations is one of my favorite forms of armchair travel. In this whodunit Ken Tanaka, who became an amateur detective when he solved a murder involving a samurai sword in California, is invited by a Japanese television show to an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo to share the story of his adventure. Descriptions of the nuances of his travels were especially entertaining.
Despite being a third-generation Japanese American, Ken experiences some culture shock as he interacts with the television studio team. He also learns something about himself and his identification as an American regardless of his ethnicity or minority status. His humble sense of humor is likable and the overall tone of the story is light.
In addition to traveling among the sights in Tokyo, Ken’s sleuthing propels him into a treasure hunt in rural settings near Kyoto. Japanese history and legends color this mystery nicely. The historical embellishments as well as some code deciphering are slightly reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel. However, descriptions of humorous missteps that occur while traveling in a foreign land lighten the tone of this book.
Book – Ruth is a writer in a rut. That is until she finds a Hello Kitty lunch box, wrapped carefully in plastic bags off the coast of British Colombia, thought to have been carried across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 tsunami. Inside are letters, a decorative wrist watch, and a diary of a teenage girl named Nao.
Nao lives in Japan, and after years of bullying and not being accepted, she has decided to kill herself. But not before she tells the story of her great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is over 100 years old.
Ruth’s life becomes engulfed with Naos. Questions arise: Is Nao still alive? Is Jiko still alive? Can Ruth do anything to help Nao and her family?
This novel allows the audience to read Nao’s journal with Ruth. We solve mysteries and gain new information together, which makes for a rather exciting read. A Tale for the Time Being has been nominated for various prizes and awards, and also won the LA Times Book Award for best fiction of 2013.