Review: Clouds Above the Hill Vol. I, Ryotaro Shiba

Rating: 5 out of 5

I am a great fan of Ryotaro Shiba. It is always in February I get the wish to re-read his books, and most typically ‘Clouds Above the Hill’ because so much of the action takes place in wintery Manchuria. This time round, I was able to finish Volume 1 by July—clearly, the time considerations gave way to enjoying the prose.

For those unfamiliar with the author, Mr Shiba’s style is known as ‘historical journalism’: a narrative that is interspersed with facts that the author has done all he can to affirm. The story is centered around Akiyama Saneyuki, Akiyama Yoshifuru, and Masaoka Shiki. From the very start, the contributions of these three men are known for the reader. The journey is the description of how they got there.

Volume I is also the most descriptive of the background of Meiji Japan. This detail is very useful, and though originally intended by the author to highlight the differences with 1960’s Japan, it also serves to introduce the time and country for the modern Western reader. The tone often hearkens back to the Restoration while the reader is shown what the three characters were up to during the First Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Spanish-American War.

Noteworthy also is the detail which Mr Shiba ascribed to people who only tangentially enter the story. Not only Nicholas II and Alfred Mahan feature in the story, but also—for me—more obscure people like Ding Ruchang. Fortunately, the author has left assessing these people up to the reader as much as possible. Yet, there is a thoroughly enjoyable tendency to bring up anecdotes such as Admiral Ding returning the champagne and wine which Ito Sukeyuki had gifted during surrender negotiations. These small gems shine a wonderful light on these people.

Lastly, I appreciate this book won’t be suitable for everyone—but I feel it would only be for the better if there were more works like this. Give it a try, and I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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