The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963)

Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.

A band of fierce thirteen-year-old boys reject the adult world as hypocritical and sentimental. When Fusako, the widowed mother of Noboru, begins an affair with a ship's officer, Noboru and his friends idealise the man at first.

Soon they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic, and regard this disillusionment as an act of betrayal on his part – and the retribution is deliberate and horrifying.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea is an urgent and unforgettable exploration of masculinity. 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)

I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o'clock in the morning.

In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife's missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan's forgotten campaign in Manchuria.

With comedy and menace, Murakami explores themes of alienation, loneliness and an individual's search for identity in this bravely imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.

Surreal, psychedelic, and compelling, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is considered by many to be Murakami’s masterpiece.  

Out (1997)

If they came now and arrested her, they'd never be able to find out why she'd done it; they'd find no trace of what had spurred her on. 

Out is a sharp social commentary on Japan's social and economic underclass, patriarchal society and the situation for women and foreigners is tangled up with debt, the yakuza and murder. In an act of seemingly random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, Masako Katori, a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches, strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.

A shocking psychological portrayal, and a complex yet riveting game of cat-and-mouse, Out is a literary page-turner as timely as when it first came out .

The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)

Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. 

An enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family, The Housekeeper and the Professor is one of the more recent and yet most beloved Japanese classics. He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.

Every morning, as the professor and the housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them, mostly expressed in mathematical theorems, cooking and the slightest touch. A charming tale of mathematics and love.

The Makioka Sisters (1957)

The ancients waited for cherry blossoms, grieved when they were gone, and lamented their passing in countless poems.

A sweeping, emergent masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters sees four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing in Osaka in the years immediately before World War II.

Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances.

With fascinating characters, understated humour and utterly wonderful writing, this is a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family and an entire society sliding into the abyss of modernity.

View the whole Vintage Classic Japanese series.

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