book review
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Book review: 『マチネの終わりに』by Keiichiro Hirano

Introduction

Title: 『マチネの終わりに』
Author: Keiichiro Hirano 平野啓一郎
Published by 文春文庫

This novel is a best-seller in Japan and has been adapted into film in 2019. It tells the love story between Satoshi Makino and Yoko Komine.

Satoshi, 38 years old, is a talented guitarist of classical music. After one of his concerts, he meets the reporter Yoko Komine, 40 years old, who lives in Paris and will be soon dispatched to Baghdad. We follow the long-distance relationship of these international lovers.

This review is divided into:

  • Book review I (spoiler-free)
  • The audiobook
  • The music (yes, the books has its soundtrack!)
  • Book review II (spoilers)

Review

I could have loved this story very much, but I did not enjoy reading the book. There were too many things in the novel that bothered me, and while I could see that the story had a strong emotional potential, I just could not feel any sympathy for the characters nor care about them.

This being said, I very much want to watch the film, I don’t know if I will like it, but the trailer looks good and I love the music. I kept listening to the main track 『幸福の硬貨』 during the long one and a half month it took me to read the novel. To me, the music brings the emotional dimension that I was unable to feel while reading the book.

What I disliked the most in the whole novel is how elitist it is. This is true of the setting and the characters.

The setting

『マチネの終わりに』has a very ambitious setting.

The story takes place in Japan (several cities), Paris, Bagdad and New York. Unfortunately, I find that the Keiichiro Hirano did not succeed in building the atmosphere proper to each place. We knew a scene happened in Paris for example, because the author would give very precise locations like name of streets, public gardens or subway stations, but I found the descriptions insufficient to give each place its particularities.

Furthermore, I found that naming with such precision all these places in Paris sounded pretentious. It felt like the author was displaying his knowledge of the city but did not invite the reader to follow him by explaining what kind of place it is.

As a French reader who knows Paris well, it was easy to picture the places mentioned, but I doubt whether a Japanese reader who does not know Paris can have the same reading experience. Similarly, I was not able to feel that some scenes actually happen in New York, because I don’t know the city myself, and I didn’t feel like the book was bringing me there.

Instead of sharing, instead of allowing the reader to learn something and to experience living in a foreign country through the characters, the novel only shut out the reader who is not cultivated enough or who has not travelled enough.

The characters

This elitist way of telling the story finds echoe in our two main protagonists: Yoko Komine and Satoshi Makino.

I found that Satoshi was the character I could the most relate to, but I really had a hard time with the female protagonist Yoko. She is so well educated, so perfect and has so high standards that I kept rolling my eyes each time she said something. I have nothing against culture obviously, but I didn’t like how culture was constantly handled as something sacred. I found Yoko extremely snobbish, and I could not feel sympathy for her, let alone identify with her.

I would not be surprised if the privileged, highly cultured and refined world of the characters prevented many readers to be able to identify with them. Again, it did not feel like the author was sharing something with the reader. In the story, secondary characters (like Sanae or Richard) cannot share the profound intellectual and artistic awareness of our two protagonists. To me it felt like the reader was also treated the same way: either you belong to the same elitist world than Yoko and Satoshi, either you don’t, but the novel will not introduce you.

I also found that all the other characters were often neglected. They appear to serve the plot, but we never really know them, their motivations and sentiments. As a result, I found them uninteresting and was bored everytime we had to cope with one of them.

The plot

As I said, I find the story interesting, but unfortunately, I find the mechanisms of the plot very unconvincing. I just could not believe that things could happen as they were described. As a result, I was more frustrated than emotionally involved.

Finally, what bothered me the most is certainly that I could not feel involved or even interested in each character’s life. I expected each character’s personal life to be interesting and the love story to be exciting, but in 『マチネの終わりに』, I found the love story to be interesting only because the other parts describing each character’s personal life were boring. As a result, I was bored most of the time, and even when the plot did raise my interest, I remained sceptic and detached.

Conclusion

『マチネの終わりに』is a best-seller in Japan and has a lot of good reviews too, so it certainly has a lot of good things in it that I was unable to see, and the story must have found echo in many readers. Usually, when I don’t like a novel, I still can understand why other people do. With 『マチネの終わりに』, however, it remains a mystery. If you have read this book, I would be very interested in knowing your thoughts!

And with this novel, I am moving forward in my 2020 reading challenge:

The audiobook

The only reason why I finished 『マチネの終わりに』is because I had bought the excellent but expensive audiobook. I listened and read at the same time in order to improve my listening.

I have never been disappointed by an audiobook I bought on audiobook.jp, but the audio version of 『マチネの終わりに』was really excellent.

The narrator and each character are voiced by different voice actors. The voice actors were all excellent, and I particularly enjoyed listening to Takayuki Masuda (増田 隆之) who plays Satoshi Makino. He really brings the character alive. I also liked the narrator Nozomu Sasaki (佐々木 望) very much, he made the audiobook very pleasant to listen to.

The only thing that I did not like that much is how Yoko always sounded so serious and delicate. But it does match the character very well so I think that it was intended.

The audiobook does not contain background noise or background music that would make it sound like listening to a film. However, it does contain tracks of classical guitar played by guitarist Shinichi Fukuda (福田進一). I really love this addition, but there are only three or so occurrences. It only happens when Satoshi himself plays guitar in the novel. I find that they could have added more tracks and more often, for example each time a piece of classical guitar is mentioned.

Finally, the pace of the audiobook is very slow. While it makes a perfect listening practice, it can also be frustrating to advance so slowly.

幸福の硬貨

The tracks used in the audiobook come from the CD 『マチネの終わりに and more』interpreted by Shinichi Fukuda (福田進一). There were two releases of the CD, the second one adding more tracks.

I find it so interesting that there should be a soundtrack for a book! The tracks on the CD follow the chapters of the book, so you can listen to the pieces that are mentioned in the novel. It is a nice addition to the reading experience, especially if you are not an expert in classical music and find all these names of classical pieces a little abstract.

Most of the pieces mentioned in the novel are real pieces of classical guitar. However, Keiichiro Hirano also created a fictional one: 『幸福の硬貨』. In the story, it is the main music theme of the fictional film 『幸福の硬貨』 directed by Yoko’s father. The name 『幸福の硬貨』 comes from one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, to be precise, the fifth elegie of the Duineser Elegien, and I guess that is why many people translate it in German (Münzen des Glücks) rather than English (Coins of Happiness). It is an important element in the story and has a lot of meaning for both protagonists.

I hope that I am not mistaken, but what I understand is that composer Soyoka Hayashi (林そよか) composed a piece for 『幸福の硬貨』, which was released in the CD 『マチネの終わりに and more』, interpreted by guitarist Shinichi Fukuda (福田進一). This version of 『幸福の硬貨』 is the one used in the audiobook. You can also find covers of it on YouTube if you search for Soyoka Hayashi’s version.

For the film, however, a new version of 『幸福の硬貨』 has been created, this time by composer Yugo Kanno (菅野祐悟). This is certainly the most popular version of the two, having been featured in the film. It is interpreted by guitarist Masaharu Fukuyama (福山雅治) himself (who plays Satoshi Makino in the film).

I highly recommend that you listen to Yugo Kanno’s version of 幸福の硬貨 if you intend to read 『マチネの終わりに』, there are numerous covers on YouTube. It is a beautiful piece for guitar and easily conveys all the contradicting emotions both characters must have felt.

Spoilers – more about the characters and the plot

The characters

Yoko.

Clearly, the author wanted Yoko to be a global character, but I do think that he got carried away. Her mother is Japanese, her father has Croatian, Yugoslavian and Austrian origins, and her fiancé is American. She studied in England, Switzerland and the United States, she lives in Paris, works in Bagdad, and later moves to New York. She speaks Japanese, French and English perfectly, she also speaks German (she reads Rilke in German), she can read Latin (because she turned to studying Latin and Greek when she got frustrated with learning the kanji), she can also speak some other languages like Romanian, and to complete it all, she can quote the Bible by heart (rolling my eyes).

I mean, it’s great to have such a rich experience and to know so many languages, but what bothered me is that it just looks like Yoko is packed with all the cool things the author could think about. It does not feel real in the novel, it just feel extremely elitist and pretentious.

Similarly, the author placed Yoko in prestigious, upper-class residential areas. I don’t know New York enough to have a clear vision of what living in Chelsea represents, but I can tell you that not everyone can afford to live rue du Bac, in the 7th Arrondissement. It is not as simple as to say “my character will do what rich people of this country do”. Readers of this country might end up associating the character with a certain social class and moral values. I am sure that Japanese readers would not feel it this way, but as a French reader, I kept feeling that Yoko had something unpleasantly bourgeois in her.

There was also an episode that made Yoko unlikable to me. When she comes back from Baghdad, suffering from PTSD after having survived a bombing, she has a panic attack in the metro when she realises that a young man of Arab origin is watching her. The man is certainly French of Maghreb descent, and I really felt bad for him, not for Yoko. I understand very well that surviving a bomb attack is a traumatic experience, but I think that the author could have chosen another trigger for Yoko’s panic attack. As it is, it only supports the negative image I have of her.

Moreover, I find this whole PTSD thing unconvincing. It was all tell and not show. I knew she was suffering from post traumatic disorder because the narrator told us so, but I could not feel what Yoko must have felt, I could not experience, through her, what it means to witness and survive a bomb attack.

And finally, I just find Yoko boring. I had this impression right from the beginning, when they all eat together after Satoshi’s concert. The conversation was lively with people telling jokes, but Yoko would always try to come back to serious topics. She would also display at length all her capacities as if she was doing a job interview or something. (rolling my eyes)

The other characters.

I found that the other characters were neglected. Two characters only seem to be there to serve their part in the plot: Jalila (ジャリーラ) who is Iraqi and Seiichi Sobue (祖父江誠一). I particularly found that Jalila was completely in the background, faded so to speak. She could have been an interesting character, but we never truly get to know her. Granted, the story is about the love story between Yoko and Satoshi, but they only meet three times and the novel is 464 pages long, so there was ample space to develop other characters.

When Yoko, Satoshi and Jalila spend an evening together, Satoshi and Yoko start talking about Yoko’s father’s film 『幸福の硬貨』. The film is about the resistance against the Ustashe, a Croatian fascist and ultranationalist organisation inspired by Nazi racial theory, who slaughtered Serbs and Jews during WWII. Satoshi asks where the title of the film comes from, and Yoko explains that it comes from German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s fifth elegie from the Duineser Elegien. And then Yoko realises that Jalila does not know Rilke and cannot follow the conversation:

洋子は、ジャリーラが実は、リルケをよく知らないらしいことを察して、彼が二十世紀のドイツ語の詩人としては最高峰の存在であることを、極簡単に説明した。

I guess that the author did not intend it to sound this way, but I found Yoko’s attitude condescending: Poor Jalila is not as well educated as we are, of course she does not know European poets, she has not studied in Columbia University and Oxford, so how could she be as intellectually and artistically aware as I am…

Later, it is said that Jalila has difficulties to understand the meaning of Rilke’s poem:

ジャリーラは、その難解な詩句の意味を理解しようと考えながら、少し戸惑っている様子だった。

It looks like well educated people like Yoko or Satoshi can understand Rilke without problems, and other people like Jalila cannot. This is ridiculous. Obviously, you cannot just take one of Rilke’s poems, read it, and pretend that you understand it all!

It feels like Jalila is only here to make Yoko look good by contrast. For example, Yoko and Satoshi can speak Japanese, French and English, but Jalila can only speak English. To me, however, it had the opposite result. Jalila is in a distressing situation: she had to flee her country because she was being threatened, she left her family behind, she is a refugee in a country whose language she does not speak. And what about Yoko? She is reading Rilke’s poems aloud, translating it on the spot in English and reading it in German too on Satoshi’s request… (rolling my eyes)

Another character that I found needed more attention is Sanae Mitani. Even though she plays a central role in the story, we only know very little about her past, her motivations, her feelings. As a result, when she finally plays her part, she only appears as a bad person, she is just the bad guy of the story. I would have liked to know more about her own sufferings to understand why she acted like she did. She does have more space in the novel towards the end, but it is after the events, and it comes a little late in my opinion.

The plot

The story borrows the topic of the forbidden love that will never be fulfilled. But for a love to be impossible, there has to be things that get in the way, like social conventions, social class, customs, parents, religion, and so on. None of these affect our characters. They are grown-ups, and they are not burdened by social conventions or pressing parents.

In order to make their love impossible, the author had to use some mechanisms, but to me the result felt scarcely credible.

First of all, there is Sanae Mitani’s fake email to Yoko. This is really an ugly thing to do, and I would have liked to feel that Sanae had to act this way, that her own sufferings made it impossible for her to resist the temptation. As it stands, I just could not buy it. Would a grown up woman really do such a nasty and stupid thing? Even a child would realise this action is bound to be discovered.

Sanae’s action was unconving to me, but what was even more unrealistic and improbable were the protagonists’ reactions to the email. It just does not make sense! They are in love, they think of marriage, they don’t see each other often but spend a lot of hours talking via Skype. Yoko flies to Tokyo to meet Satoshi and when she arrives she receive an email, supposedly by Satoshi, to tell her that their relation is over. And she accepts it?? Obviously, this is the time for a “we need to talk” scene. Anyone’s reaction would be to want to meet and discuss it in person. But Yoko? She shuts down her phone and later delete all messages from Satoshi without reading them.

Things must have been even weirder for Satoshi. They were supposed to spend several days together in Japan, and suddenly, Yoko says that she “cannot go on like this anymore”, does not answer his messages and becomes unreachable.

Later in the story, Yoko’s PTSD and the guilt of the survivor are called upon to explain her behaviour, but as mentioned earlier, I just could not believe in Yoko’s trauma. It didn’t feel like Yoko reacted like she did because she was suffering from PTSD, but rather that she was suffering from PTSD because the author needed something to explain her behaviour.

Another key element of the disastrous turn of events is Yoko and Satoshi’s utter respect for the other’s decision. This really drove me crazy. Those two protagonists are so perfect and so understanding that they are constantly thinking “I must respect the other’s decision”. The other just let them down suddenly and without apparent reason, and they are okay with that? Then why should I care about their love story if the characters don’t care about it themselves?

It looks like Yoko never gets cross, like she does not have emotions. When Richard, who insisted on marrying her, cheats on her and asks for a divorce, she does not get angry or depressed. She even prays for Richard and Helen’s happiness (rolling my eyes). When Sanae confesses to Yoko, Yoko similarly prays for Satoshi and Sanae’s safety and does not look angry at Sanae at all (rolling my eyes). I mean, if this state of mind was the result of a long internal conflict, with Yoko struggling to not hate Sanae, why not? But no, Yoko is so perfect that she does not need to make an effort to think this way.

To me, this whole “love story” was all about putting feelings and emotions aside and behaving like respectable grown-ups. It is not the story of lovers who will fight against social conventions to be together no matter what. It is the story of lovers who don’t even try to put up a fight when their relation is in danger, give up easily and end up in a conventional marriage, each one on his side.

As a result, this book is not a romance at all, even though it is sold as a 恋愛小説. I would even say that it is the opposite of a romance. When I first heard about this book, I thought that it was great to have a love story involving two characters around 40 years old, especially in Japan. There seems to be tons of romance for young people, but I think that love stories for adults are less common. In a society where you are expected to get married and have children, characters who fall in love at 40 is certainly refreshing and appealing for readers of that age. I thought that this point was one of the reasons why the book was such a best-seller.

But what happen in our story? Yes, they fall in love when Yoko is 40 and Satoshi is 38. But then? They separate and they both marry someone they do not love. Two years later, they both have a child. While Satoshi eventually learns to love his wife, Yoko’s fate is more tragic: her husband cheats on her, they get a divorce, and she only get to see her son three days a week.

You thought that you’d read a story that says it is never too late to fall in love, but you find yourself with a book that is telling you: it is not too late to fall in love, but if you do, it will only make you unhappy.

I also find it unnatural that both characters end up marrying and having a child just after their separation. None of them was really interested in marriage when they met. Yoko easily discarded her fiancé because she was attracted to Satoshi, and Satoshi was single at the time. But soon after their separation, they hurriedly marry and have children, as if it was a race or something. It sounds artificial: the author just wanted to make sure that they would not be able to go back to each other easily or at all.

Finally, I was expecting the last scene, at the end of the matinée, to be very emotional and I was bracing myself for some tears, but no. I could not feel anything, even though I was willing to break in tears with Yoko when Satoshi plays 『幸福の硬貨』. Maybe it comes from Satoshi’s “for you”, whose double meaning is explained in Japanese at that moment. I found it a little ridiculous to be honest.

This review ended up being very long 😅 I am glad that I read and listened to 『マチネの終わりに』until the end. Despite all the things that bothered me, reading this book, which was rather difficult, is a big achievement in my “reading in Japanese” journey!

3 Comments

  1. Eushdu says

    You can listen to audiobooks at 1.5x etc. Guess it would ruin the guitar music though. I do that for audiobooks and YouTube vids.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I listened to this audiobook with a 1.2x speed for narrative passages and came back to a normal speed when there were dialogues. I don’t think that my Japanese is good enough for a 1.5x speed, it would be too fast and difficult for me to follow. 🤔

      Like

  2. Pingback: Reading Journal: March 2020 | Inside That Japanese Book

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