So I've just finished the first of a number of Japanese classics I put on my Fill-in-the-Gaps list. I was kind of horrified when I was making up my list and realized that despite 10 years of studying Japanese, I really didn't know much about the Japanese literary canon. Hence Kokoro and several other choices.
Of course this meant that most of my very interesting reading was not the book itself but the introduction and Wikipedia articles on Natsume and the book. Natsume is apparently in the highest tier of Japanese cultural celebrities--his face was on the 1000Y ($10ish) bill from 1984-2000, which says something very interesting to me. Kokoro was written in 1914, only two years before he died of a stomach ulcer at age 49.
The book itself was (to me) more interesting as a reading experience than it was as a book, which may be a terrible thing to say about myself as a reader, but I'm being honest. The composition is unusual for what you expect of a novel--it's in three pieces, the first of which describes the nameless shiftless and self-indulgent main character's friendship with his nameless older friend, whom he calls "Sensei." The second third is about the main character's time at home over summer vacation with his family, while his father slowly dies of kidney failure and the main character puts off finding a job. The entire third third is a letter Sensei wrote the main character. Sorry for the spoiler, but at the end the story doesn't even retun to the narrator--it just signs off with the end of the letter, which runs about 80 pages.
The thing that struck me most about the actual story was probably the very casual misogyny. The story is ultimately about the sacred bonds between men, even though the problem between characters boils down to a betrayal over a woman. There are several of these sacred manly friendships throughout the book, which is also strewn with comments like "Although it's true that women are generally incoherent, my mother is especially loquiacious with her incoherence" etc etc.
The part that gets to me the most about the misogyny is Sensei's eventual choice to commit suicide to avenge K, the friend from whom he stole his wife. The desicion is so selfish, having to do with his personal feelings of guilt, and totally ignores a fact that actually comes up in the book several times--his death leaves his wife, the Object, destitute and alone. Why was her interest never taken into account?
Has anyone else read Kokoro? I'd love to hear your thoughts.