The Art of Kozu, by James Edgecombe

The Art of Kozu, by James Edgecombe

I’m really pleased this week to be reviewing The Art of Kozu, which won the MMU Novella Award earlier this year.* And, after that has whetted your appetite,  there’s also an interview with the author, Jamie Edgecombe. Author interviews are always good to read, but this especially makes a great companion piece to the review, and gave me so many insights into the narrative. A novella may be a short book when compared to the novel but, certainly in this case, it also provides more to think about, digest and unravel than any of your doorstops. Even whilst I was putting this up on the blog, I kept thinking of more questions I wanted to ask, more details I wished I’d squeezed into the review. Seriously, read the review, read the interview and then GO AND READ THE BOOK!


The Art of Kozu is a story of two parts. Except it’s not as straightforward as that. Nothing is straightforward. Kasumi Takayanagi is an art dealer who specialises in the works of Yuichiro Kozu. In Part One, we find him in his gallery on the Ginza, an upmarket shopping district in Tokyo. It is 1927, and Takayanagi is talking to a nameless client about a particular painting, the nude portrait of a girl, Yumiko, which signalled Kozu’s stylistic breakthrough from being ‘little more than a copyist’ to becoming the painter who, for a time, outsold Picasso. The story behind the painting takes us to Paris in the summer of 1911, and unlocks a fevered month of charcoal sketches, fraternal rivalry and extreme dissection.

Part Two leaps unceremoniously to a village in Japan in 1947. The war has been lost, and another Takayanagi, the grandson of the one we met in Part One, is scraping out an existence in tumbledown hut in the mountains. His connections with Kozu, now branded a criminal for his work as official war artist for the Japanese Army, bring Takayanagi to the attention of of the occupying American forces as they try to confiscate any ‘subversive’ paintings which document the wrong side of the campaign. Takayanagi is also visited by an unnamed Doctor who has one of these paintings which he hopes to sell. Mirroring his grandfather, Takayanagi tells the story behind the painting, this time transporting us to Saigon at the beginning of 1945. Kozu is there, engaged in creating an epic image of Japanese heroism. The French have been relieved of their control over Indochina, and Takayanagi has been sent to oversee the protection of the valuable artworks that the French have left behind, as well as to escort Kozu back to the Imperial Household in Japan. But Major Honma, a member of the feared Kenpeitai, has a commission for Kozu to complete before he leaves.

James Edgecombe

One of the things I love about reviewing books is when I’m sent something that I wouldn’t necessarily have come across otherwise. The Art of Kozu is a densely woven and intensely visual read, and you don’t want to rush it. There may only be 130 pages, but they repay time spent amongst them. I made a couple of false starts, losing track of who was who and getting lost with Takayanagi’s leaps around time and place, but then the switch clicked and I was in. Chair of the Novella Award judging panel, Jenn Ashworth, commented that ‘it’s a testament to the skill of its writer that after finishing it, I immediately read it again.’ So did I and, as I continued to dip in and out whilst writing this review, I was still discovering new angles. Kumiko, the subject of Kozu’s first really influential painting, haunts me in particular. She floats beneath the surface throughout the first half, a complex, troubled woman whose final appearance will remain with you for no short time. History is blended with story in such an utterly convincing way that I gave up trying to decide what was real and what wasn’t. I also challenge you to read this without feeling a powerful urge to read up on – assuming an Anglocentric position such as mine – the less familiar history of WW2.

Both Takayanagis views the world through the prism of art, which allows Edgecombe to engage his considerable talent in conjuring up pictures with words. In the Parisian scenes particularly, I felt that I was not only sitting in a café along with the artists, but that I was sitting in a café within the frame of an Impressionist painting, ‘every surface beyond the orange lamps of the café awning…touched by mercury’. I also liked the sense of seeing a familiar world from another cultural viewpoint: another stand out moment comes from Part Two, when Saigon’s streets are filled with Japanese soldiers, the ‘smiling young men (those who had never seen action before) a stark contrast to the weathered faces of their older colleagues, those who were supposed to be recuperating after action in Burma.’ Such a powerful yet understated way to remind us that we are now on the opposite side of the military fence. And I could take the whole of the review unpicking and admiring the subtle and finely drawn characters.

On the debit side? If I had a quibble, it would be that the ending was a touch inconclusive, the final two pages feeling somehow hurried and under-developed. And the proofreading net let a surprising number of typos through….

Overall, though, this is an assured and beautiful work with an impeccable and skilfully sustained tone throughout. Highly recommended: it might just set off a novella habit on this boat.

James Edgecombe author photo

Jamie, thanks for taking the time to chat in between building bunkbeds and coping with your pile of marking! I know from the back of the book that you’ve spent a fair bit of time in Japan. Can you tell us a little bit about your time there?

Well, I first visited Sapporo, the largest city of Hokkaido, when I was 19. Coming from Plymouth, I experienced not so much culture shock, but a lust for encountering difference. I mean, travel at such an age allows you to see how people from different cultures are similar at heart, but also that they are different to you. They understand the world through a different set of lenses and trying to look through lenses yourself, well: it changes you. I loved the country, the people and this led me to pick up a collection of haiku poems whilst on field studies in NYC (I studied both geography, as well as English at the University of Wales, Swansea). After that, I was hooked and at university I enjoyed studying how Chinese and Japanese poetry influenced European and American poets (later, I followed a similar trail with the visual arts).

These influences led me to apply for the Japan Exchange Teaching Programme. After I graduated in 2001, I went to live in Sapporo and work for the Sapporo Board of Education. Sapporo was a fantastic city to live in. It is modern and vibrant and the people are very open minded. Surrounded by mountains, with much wilderness (I mean, bears walk out of the woods and into the city during the spring and summer months). As such, Hokkaido also suits my taste for landscape painting. The summers are warm and a lot of snow falls throughout the winter. I have since become fascinated by the history. When I was younger, I enjoyed reading what I thought as very “Japanese” history – about samurai etc. Since then, I have become more and more interested in the Meiji period and how Japanese painters and writers struggled and explored modernity from the early 20th century and into the war years.

Where did the idea for The Art of Kozu come from? And did you always know you wanted to write a book based in Japan?

The concept originated in a St Lukes Charity bookshop in Tavistock. I was looking through the arts’ section and came across a guide/primer on how to render anatomy. The pictures were amazing: lots of sketched out bodies in different poses with sections of skin and muscle removed. I thought, ‘Let’s have an artist do that for real.’ I have subsequently found out how common it was in Europe for artists and doctors to work together, while making anatomy books. The real twist came when I was reading an edition of the literary journal The Common and saw a painting of a so-called Asian slave. The figure was basically Caucasian, only the skin colour had been changed. Later I found out that the artist Foujita Tsuguharu, during the war, struggled with rendering the ‘Japanese body,’ rather than rehashing western models. After that, I spent a lot of time researching medical information on how different races have various skull morphologies and what leads to these differences, under the skin. Foujita is a fascinating character. His life in Paris and his loss of reputation during the war mirrored the struggle of Japan to become a modern nation in the eyes of the west. He became the basis for Kozu.

The Art of Kozu is narrated entirely by the Japanese art dealer, Tagayanaki. How hard was it to inhabit a narrator from another culture?

Very very very very difficult. Also, one narrator (part II) is the grandson of the other. That way they have similarities, but their diction is different. Also, the latter is a bit more pushy! To help me get in role, I read a lot of Japanese fiction and some non fiction (like accounts of the Russo-Japanese War from the Japanese point of view) of the period. The style of TAOK was influenced by Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s Hell Screen and Spinning Gears. To pay homage to this, I mention Akutagawa in the first line of Part I. Of course, I poured over accounts of Japanese artists in Paris and studied their paintings and how critics responded to them. The most difficult part was Part II. Representing Saigon in pre-August 1945 was very difficult. More difficult than maintaining a Japanese narrator. Paris I visited and can navigate with travel literature etc. Saigon? That was a whole other matter. I bought actual maps from the period, and money, and studied allied intelligence photos which specified bombing targets and postcards…lots and lots of postcards. Much of the geography and of course the names of places are all different now.

You have an enviable skill at putting art into words, and I see from your Twitter profile that you’re an artist as well as a writer. How do the twin disciplines of writing and art feed into each other?

Well, this is the topic I am most interested in working out. It is the basis of my current postgraduate studies. All artists need a visual imagination and strong visual memory, which helps me picture scenes as pictures, which I then try to recreate using the schemas of the visual arts. I have written a number of short stories in which I try to mirror the particular art form I am trying to explore, through the writing style. I am still working out how it all works. Natsume Soseki was great at this. I love his Kusamakura. In my current project I am exploring Japanese ink and pigment painting.

Winning the MMU Novella Award is a great first step. What comes next?

I am now working on a longer work, linked to the Kozus and Takayanagis but in a very different style. The interaction of art and prose is still a major focus!

James Edgecombe author photo

Thanks again, Jamie, it’s been great talking to you. Very best of luck with the PhD and the next stage of the Kozu story!


The Art of Kozu is published by Sandstone Press. I’d encourage you to order it through your local bookshop, of course, but it is also available here. The paintings above are both by Jamie, by the way. Good, eh?

*The award is now run jointly with LJMU, find out about the current award here.



1 Comment

  1. James
    21 Nov 2014

    Thanks for the insightful review!

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