New Hyakunin Isshu Book: A Review

March 26, 2011

Well, the book was actually published in 1996, but I came across this book only recently: Joshua S. Mostow’s Pictures of the Heart: The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image. The book is a serious effort to study the Hyakunin Isshu, and not for a casual reader, but also the history and culture around it, while offering fresh, new translations.

The first chapter alone, dealing with issues of historiography and deconstruction, makes my head hurt, but it makes an important argument: that only studying the poems themselves, and ignoring their role in Japanese culture leads readers to a one-sided view. Mastov demonstrates how some poems have even changed and evolved over time, depending on which book published the poem over the centuries. Sometimes, even in antiquity, poems were radically different depending on which book, so Mastov explores the various debates surrounding each poem. Who knew a few lines of verse could cause so much scholarly debate?

The book is a great read because for each poem, it carefully analyzes it, provides historical context, artwork and shows how the poem has been interpreted over the generations. It often debunks certain assumptions too. For example, Poem Number 6 is traditionally thought to allude to the story of Tanabata, but in fact Mastov demonstrates how this is a later interpretation.

The translations for the poems as well are quite good, readable, and well thought out in my opinion. The book is a weighty tome, but for any serious students of Japanese poetry, and in particular the Hyakunin Isshu, I highly recommend it.

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2 Responses to “New Hyakunin Isshu Book: A Review”

  1. people change, language as well, books documenting points in time, annotating reason, rhyme, shadows of generations, footprins of a long March on the trail of civilizations

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