In one sentence: While this is not the best Sōseki I have read (that would be I Am A Cat), it is a novel worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Sōseki, or if you want to see one of the influences of Murakami.
This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
To be reductive, Sanshirō is a coming of age novel about a young man who faces the challenges of transitioning from life in rural to urban Japan. Of course this also parallels the events happening during Meiji era Japan, as the nation and its people transitioned from very traditional, to a more modern society.
On the whole, I felt like the book fit nicely between the humor and absurdity of I Am a Cat, as seen mostly through Yojiro and the melancholy of Kokoro. Melancholy in general is a good description of this book. While it has numerous funny moments, Sanshirō's laid back approach to everything that confronts him, and his cowardice around dealing with women lead to a very melancholy tone for the book. Throughout his relationship with Mineko, you can just feel the end result will not be good for Sanshirō, even when there's no obvious or concrete reason to see it ending poorly. Thus when you discover that Mineko has been engaged to another man (that you never meet), your reaction is less heartbreak than it is resignation.
There is a very important moment in the book when Sanshirō meets Hirota on the train,without knowing who the man is, and the professor tells him, "'Even bigger than Japan is the inside of your head. Don't ever surrender yourself - not to Japan, not to anything. You may think that what you're doing is for the sake of the nation, but let something take possession of you like that, and all you do is bring it down'" (16).
One of the reasons this book is so enjoyable is the reality of the way Sanshirō and the others react during relationships. How often, when encountering a new relationship, have you second guessed every little moment? Well Sanshirō does it as well as anyone:
"Come to think of it, she might even be laughing at him. When he had said before that he had come to the hill because the track meet bored him, she had asked with a straight face if there was something interesting up there. He had not noticed it then, but she might have been deliberately toying with him. Now, reviewing one by one the things he had said to him, the way she had acted toward him until today, he realized that everything could be given a negative interpretation" (126).
I guess there is some comfort in the fact that even in Meiji era Japan, men were as frightened, confused, and intimidated by women as we are today.
There's an interesting introduction to the book by Murakami, which I recommend reading after finishing the book. Not because it spoils anything, but more because of the influence it might have on your own reaction to the book. Speaking of Murakami, there is a moment near the end of the book where Hirota is relating the contents of a dream that is very reminiscent of the themes of Kafka on the Shore. In the dream Hirota meets a young girl he remembers from childhood. While Hirota is his current age in the dream, the young girl is still just as he remembers her. They exchange the following dialogue:
"'You haven't changed at all,' I said to her and she said, 'You're so much older than you were!' Then I asked her, 'Why haven't you changed?' and she said, 'Because the year I had this face, the month I wore these clothes, and the day I had my hair like this is my favorite time of all.' 'What time is that?' I asked her. 'The day we met twenty years ago,' she said" (207). Just as Miss Saeki visits Kafka as the girl who fell in love, so does Hirota's visitor remain young, unable to let go of the past. While Murakami may not have intentionally been referencing this in Kafka, it seems too similar to not at least mention.While this is not the best Sōseki I have read (that would be I Am A Cat), it is a novel worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Sōseki, or if you want to see one of the influences of Murakami.
Natsume Soseki the First Line of Sanshirō
Natsume Soseki the Last Line of in Sanshirō