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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Natsume Sōseki

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To purchase Sanshirō

Title: Sanshirō
Author: Natsume Sōseki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1909 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 250 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Sanshirō - US
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  • Japanese title: 三四郎
  • First published in serial form in 1908
  • Translated and with a Translator's Note by Jay Rubin
  • With an Introduction by Murakami Haruki
  • Previously translated, also by Jay Rubin (1977)

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Our Assessment:

A- : very good novel of the times and circumstances

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 14/2/2010 Steve Finbow
The Observer . 5/12/2009 Katie Toms
TLS* . 16/12/1977 Anthony Thwaite
*: refers to Jay Rubin's earlier translation

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Sanshiro embodies all of the doubt, excitement and paranoia of the Meiji Era. This is a campus novel 50 years ahead of its time, a coming-of-age story and a study of love in a changing world, commenting on the shifting social mores and morals of 20th-century Japan." - Steve Finbow, The Japan Times

  • "Soseki captures all the fear, arrogance and confusion of a young man experiencing the city for the first time." - Katie Toms, The Observer

  • "Sanshiro is a poignant, subtle but often comically robust picture of growing up in a rapidly changing and bewildering period. Soseki stands back, but not unfeelingly (.....) If I had to match what Soseki does in this book, and does so successfully, with a Western writer, I think I would choose Forster." - Anthony Thwaite, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sanshirō tells the story of small-town lad Ogawa Sanshirō in the big city. It begins with him heading off to Tokyo, a few years after the Russo-Japanese War, to begin his studies. On the long trip there he quickly finds himself in way, way over his head, sharing a room -- and even just a single mattress -- for the night with a woman he just met on the train. Sanshirō finds himself unable to (re)act, his relatively passive attitude one that he finds it hard to shake even in Tokyo. "You're quite a coward, aren't you ?" are the woman's parting words, and he can't deny them.
       On the one hand Sanshirō is fortunate to encounter such strong and independent women. The much more traditional girl back home, whom his family wants to set him up with, Miwata Omitsu, is the safe fall-back he wants to avoid -- but women like the one from the train, or then Satomi Mineko, whom he falls in love with, prove to be more than he can handle. (Indeed, there comes a point with Mineko that he: "knew somewhere deep inside: this woman was too much for him".) Sōseki expertly captures the young man's awkwardness, and especially his inability to express himself properly to Mineko and their frustrated attempts to connect.
       Sanshirō makes one close friend, the much more carefree and wild Sasaki Yojirō, while neither of the two scholars who become the most influential in his life are teachers of his. There's Nonomiya Sōhachi, a scientist who works in a cellar, and the philosophical literary scholar Hirota. Nonomiya and Hirota are both on the peripheries of the academy -- and university itself and the classes on offer turn out to be something of a disappointment to Sanshirō . But he has so much to learn that even just being in the big city forces him (in part unwillingly) to make great, quick strides.
       This is a time of rapid change in Japan -- "Meiji thought had been reliving three hundred years of Western history in the space of forty", for one -- and this is reflected in every facet of society, even the most fundamental. Professor Hirota observes:

Young men nowadays are too self-aware, their egos are too strong -- unlike the young men of my own day. When I was a student, there wasn't a thing we did that was unrelated to others. It was ll for the Emperor, or parents, or the country, or society. Everything was other-centered
       On some levels, the very fabric of society is being torn apart -- appropriately as a warning, among Sanshirō's first experiences in Tokyo is a suicide.
       Yojirō lives with and venerates Hirota -- and, wanting him to be recognized for his genius ("the man himself is made of philosophy"), wants to makes sure he gets his due. Among Yojirō's many ambitious projects is getting Hirota an appointment at the university, as a professor of foreign literature -- a position always held by a foreigner until that time. As with so much that he does, the plans go awry -- and, as also happens several times, Sanshirō is sucked into the fallout. For the most part, however, Sanshirō is able to accept this too as part of the learning experience.
       Cultural changes in the arts also play a major role in the novel: Yojirō is a writer and insists: "The literary world is undergoing a spectacular revolution". Sanshirō reads a fair amount, and also takes in art exhibits and theatrical performances, and the painting of a portrait of Mineko plays a significant role in the story.
       As one of Sōseki's serialized-novels -- first published in a newspaper -- the story is presented in short, not-quite-cliffhanging episodes, giving a bit of a step-by-step feel to the narrative. But Sōseki works well within these constraints, and it reads very well all at once, too
       Rather crammed with characters -- who are also somewhat more connected than might be reasonably expected -- Sanshirō also packs a lot of story in. It is a campus-novel and a novel of a small-town lad finding his way in the big metropolis; it is a (not-quite-)love story and a commentary on many aspects of Japanese life and society, from the institution of marriage to the role of the arts to the place of the individual; it poses a variety of questions on the nature of (Japanese) national identity.
       With its well-drawn characters -- most strong and at least appearing (to Sanshirō) to be far more certain of themselves, an amusing contrast to Sanshirō himself -- it is a lively and entertaining novel of its times, and a neat, short chapter-in-the-life.

       Both Murakmi Haruki and translator Jay Rubin's introductions are informative and helpful; Rubin's Translator's Note is, in fact, also an introduction to the author and book (rather than just his translation), and along with the helpful but not excessive endnotes, readers are well-positioned to appreciate most of the period-detail to the novel as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2015

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Sanshirō: Reviews: Natsume Sōseki: Other books by Natsume Sōseki under review: Books about Natsume Sōseki under review:
  • John Nathan's Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石; actually: Natsume Kinnosuke) lived 1867 to 1916 and was the leading Japanese author of the Meiji era.

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