In the Miso Soup

In The Miso Soup

Title: In the Miso Soup
Japanese Title: イン ザ・ミソスープ (In za miso sūpu)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 217

In the Miso Soup was serialized during 1997 in the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the highest circulation in Japan (and perhaps in the world), and it won the 1998 Yomiuri Prize for Literature, an extremely prestigious award given to superlative works of writers who have already established themselves as leaders in their fields. The novel’s North American and Japanese publishers have marketed it as a “psycho thriller,” and its extreme and violent content will more than likely shock anyone who isn’t familiar with Murakami’s oeuvre, especially his other suspense novels from the 1990s, such as Piercing (1994) and Audition (1997).

The twenty-year-old protagonist of the novel, Kenji, is a high school graduate from Shizuoka Prefecture who makes his living by acting as a guide of Shinjuku’s Kabukichō neighborhood, which is internationally famous for its nightlife. Kenji specializes in sex tours for foreigners, who learn about his services through Tokyo Pink Guide, a publication helmed by a man named Yokoyama, who believes it is his calling in life to bring the people of the world together through something all human beings have in common. On the morning of December 29, Kenji is contacted by an American named Frank, who claims to be a distributer of Toyota car parts and meets Kenji while clutching a copy of Pink Guide in his meaty hands.

If you mention In the Miso Soup to anyone who’s read the novel, the conversation will instantly turn to how delightfully creepy Frank is. Frank is a pathological liar, for starters. If one of the bizarre things Frank says is challenged in any way, he becomes suddenly and irrationally furious, his expression transforming into a mask of rage that Kenji soon comes to refer to as “the face.” The skin on Frank’s neck and hands is loose and seems artificial, and a sex worker who services Frank at a peep show says that there is something inexplicably wrong with his penis as well. To make matters even more upsetting, the body of a high school junior named Takahashi Akiko had been found dismembered and distributed across Kabukichō early in the morning of the 27th; and, after Frank goes on a rant about killing homeless people during his first night out with Kenji, the charred corpse of a homeless man is found in Shinjuku Central Park the next morning. By the end of the first of the novel’s three chapters, both Kenji and the reader are supplied with ample evidence to suspect that there is something not quite right with Frank.

Although Kenji is understandably apprehensive about spending more time with Frank, he is even more worried about what Frank might do in retaliation if he were to break their agreement and stand him up. He thus goes out for a second night on the town with Frank, who now makes very little effort to appear normal. After an episode of highly concentrated weirdness at an underground shot bar, Kenji and Frank go to an omiai club, a bar where people hoping to hook up with a stranger can meet. The girls who enter the club are given numbers and chosen by the men, who must pay a cover charge to enter. If a girl is chosen, she will share a table and drinks with the man who selects her. If they hit it off, they can then proceed to a nearby love hotels, and it is understood that money will more than likely change hands after the encounter. It’s not quite prostitution, but the women do have a financial interest in convincing the men to leave the club with them, and they will put everything they have into flirting and appearing attractive. What could be a quirky comedy of errors in another novel becomes an absurdist drama in the bizarro realm of In the Miso Soup, and Frank puts an end to the staged and artificial interactions of the club’s patrons with a lengthy orgy of meticulously narrated ultraviolence. Although Kenji is clearly traumatized by this turn of events, he also takes tentative steps towards an acceptance of what has happened to the other people at the club, who have upset his fundamental faith in humanity with their superficiality:

They were like automatons programmed to portray certain stereotypes, these people. The truth is it bugged the hell out of me just to be around them, and I’d begun to wonder if they weren’t all filled with sawdust and scraps of vinyl, like stuffed animals, rather than flesh and blood. Even when I saw their throats slit and the gore oozing out, it hadn’t seemed real to me. I remembered thinking, as I watched the blood drip down from Lady #5′s throat, that it looked like soy sauce. Imitation human beings, that’s what they were.

Murakami therefore configures Frank’s dispassionate killing spree into a sort of social critique, a theme that comes to fore in the novel’s third chapter. After the bloodbath at the omiai club (which Kenji refers to as “The Great Omiai Pub Massacre,” as if it had happened years ago), Frank shanghaies Kenji into spending the night with him in the abandoned medical facility in which he has ensconced himself. While Kenji shivers in the darkness of the unheated building, Frank regales him with stories from his childhood in America. As might be imagined, Frank’s childhood is dysfunctional and disturbing enough to make Stephen King proud (Frank even grew up in Maine!), as it includes the creepiness of small towns, the killing of small animals, murder, institutionalization, and extreme body horror courtesy of American mental health practices. Frank is obviously a sociopath, and he has already been established as a pathological liar, so it’s not entirely certain that he’s telling the truth, but he does seem to be telling Kenji his life story for a reason. Frank is almost like an overweight Tyler Durden as he explains that society needs terror, discord, and disruption in order to evolve:

“I see myself as being like a virus. Did you know that only a tiny minority of viruses cause illness in humans? No one knows how many viruses there are, but their real role, when you get right down to it, is to aid in mutations, to create diversity among life forms. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject – when you don’t need much sleep you have a lot of time to read – and I can tell you that if it weren’t for viruses, mankind would never have evolved on this planet. Some viruses get right inside the DNA and change your genetic code, did you know that? And no one can say for sure that HIV, for example, won’t one day prove to have been re-writing our genetic code in a way that’s essential to our survival as a race. I’m a man who consciously commits murders and scares the hell out of people and makes them reconsider everything, so I’m definitely malignant, yet I think I play a necessary role in this world.

I won’t spoil what happens to Frank, Kenji, and Kenji’s girlfriend Jun at the end of the novel, as the suspense regarding the fate of the trio lends an air of immediacy to Frank’s metaphysical speculations and the moral decisions Kenji begins to make concerning Frank. Let it suffice to say that the shock horror of the first two-thirds of the novel are compounded by the social horror of its final chapter. In the Miso Soup is a short book and a blisteringly quick read, but it stays with the reader long after it draws to its conclusion on New Year’s Eve, at which point its seemingly nonsensical title takes on chilling connotations. In the Miso Soup is a sublime dose of nihilism and ultraviolence that illuminates the seedy side of Tokyo in its blindingly dark shadow that is sure to please fans of Japanese horror and readers of extreme literature.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Tsukuru Tazaki

Title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Japanese Title: 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年
(Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to kare no junrei no toshi)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Publisher: Bungei Shunjū
Publication Year: 2013
Pages: 370

From July to January of his second year of college, Tazaki Tsukuru was absorbed by thoughts of death. His four best friends from high school suddenly stopped talking to him, and he had no idea why. Sixteen years later, the 36-year-old Tsukuru is employed a railroad company, where he works on the design and construction of train stations. He’s single, but he has kindled a romance with a businesswoman named Sara, of whom he is quite enamored. Sara reciprocates Tsukuru’s affections, but she senses that something is holding him back from being in a fully committed relationship. She thus gives Tsukuru an ultimatum: Get rid of your emotional baggage, or I will never sleep with you again. Sara’s Lysistrata-like threat compels Tsukuru to embark on a pilgrimage that takes him across and beyond Japan to track down his friends from high school in order to figure out what happened between them and what went wrong.

Tsukuru’s friends are an interesting group, and each of them goes by a color-based nickname. Oumi Yoshio, or Ao (Blue), has an outgoing personality, and he was the captain of his rugby team in high school. As an adult, he works as a salesman at a Lexus dealership. Akamatsu Kei, or Aka (Red), is fiercely intelligent and analytical, and everyone thought he would become a university professor after he graduated from college. Instead he entered the corporate world and quickly dropped out in order to launch a consulting firm that holds management training seminars. Kurono Eri, or Kuro (Black), is quick-witted and clever and was known for her sarcastic sense humor in high school. Kuro became a potter and fell in love with a foreign student who had come to Japan to study pottery, and she now lives with him and their two daughters in Finland. Shire Yuzuki, or Shiro (White), looked like a model and had gorgeous long black hair, but she hated attention and found joy in playing piano. Unfortunately, she failed to become a concert pianist and so ended up as a private piano teacher, but her ultimate fate was even more tragic. The easygoing and unflaggingly polite Tsukuru acted as the “colorless” background against which these four could shine, and he was the invisible glue that held the group together.

The forward momentum of the first 150 pages of the novel is driven by the mystery of why Tsukuru got dumped by his friends. The first member of the former group that Tsukuru tracks down, Ao, reveals the bare facts of the answer, but this answer creates even more questions, since Tsukuru has no memory of what he was accused of doing. Moreover, what Tsukuru was accused of doing is extremely upsetting, not only to him and the other characters in the novel but to the reader as well. The accusation, as well as Tsukuru’s responsibility in the matter and the obligation his friends felt in responding to the situation, are heart-breaking and profound, and the practical and emotional complications are quite distressing. I’m sure that, when the novel is translated into English, Murakami is going to catch a lot of flak for writing such a scenario, but what he describes is extraordinarily relevant to contemporary societal debates, and the sensitivity with which his third-person narrator describes the fallout of what happened from multiple perspectives is one of the novel’s best features.

Another interesting component of the novel is the wealth of detail given to the description of each character and the interior spaces he or she occupies. The personality of each character is conveyed by his or her words, of course; but, since the narrator’s point of view is fairly limited to Tsukuru, the reader only knows what Tsukuru is doing or thinking at any given moment. The reader is thus encouraged to tease out the finer details of character through the narrator’s meticulous descriptions of clothing, hairstyle, accessories, and interior decoration. Tanaka Yasuo was strongly criticized for his endless litanies of product brand names in his novel Nantonaku, Crystal, and I imagine that it’s possible to levy the same sort of complaint against Tsukuru Tazaki, as the writing comes off as more than a bit Nantonaku-ish at times. That being said, Murakami’s method of character analysis through the intense reflection on taste and setting strikes me as less vapid and materialistic than it does as vaguely Homeric. How does the reader know that Achilles is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of his armor. How does the reader know that Aka is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of how he has set up his corporate office.

Aside from the brilliance of its characters, the novel also has some genuinely creepy moments to offer the reader. Many of these moments are encapsulated by Tsukuru’s relationship with his college friend Haida (whose name contains the character for “ash,” or “grey”). Haida tells Tsukuru a story about how his father once met a jazz musician named Midorigawa (whose name contains the word “green”) while working at an isolated inn in the mountains, and how Midorigawa possessed a strange ability that he may have passed on to Haida’s father. It’s a weird story, and Haida’s intentions in telling it to Tsukuru are unclear, but shortly thereafter Haida does something bizarre in an uncomfortable scene involving sleep paralysis before disappearing from Tsukuru’s life without a trace. Such scenes and stories-within-stories are not “softly haunting,” or “elegiac,” or anything fancy like that; they are genuinely creepy and upsetting. Furthermore, Haida is not the only source of surreal urban folklore in the novel – the story a subway station employee tells Tsukuru about something he found in one of the station’s bathrooms is particularly delightful.

As is the case with most Murakami novels, the deeper psychological and supernatural elements of the plot are never fully explained, but I found Tsukuru’s journey to be rewarding in and of itself, and I enjoyed reading the novel. Tsukuru Tazaki is evocative of the pains of youth and what it’s like to reconnect with people years after you’ve graduated from high school. In many ways, Murakami’s latest book feels like an answer to Norwegian Wood, the 1987 novel that first boosted the author into international literary stardom. Whereas Norwegian Wood is permeated by a nostalgic longing for the perceived potential for individual dignity made possible by a vanished youth in a vanished era, Tsukuru Tazaki is concerned with a more pragmatic strain of existentialism that seeks to justify the manner in which the passing years inevitably drain color from one’s life. If Tsukuru is indeed on a pilgrimage, it’s less of a pilgrimage to find his friends or to figure out the truth but rather an experiential process of recreating the story of his adolescence as a narrative that can properly function as a suitable prequel to a middle-aged adult life that is less of an anticlimactic ending and more of a canvas that is still waiting to be filled with color.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle

Title: The Goddess Chronicle
Japanese Title: 女神記 (Joshinki)
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野 夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 309

The protagonist of The Goddess Chronicle, Namima (“Woman-Amid-the-Waves”) lives on a small and richly vegetated island called Umihebi (“the island of sea snakes”). Umihebi is located somewhere in the island chain south of the kingdom of Yamato (i.e., Japan), and it is known throughout the Ryūkyū seas as a place where the gods come and go. The cape at the north end of the island is sacred and marked by a huge black boulder called “The Warning,” beyond which no one but the high priestess of the island may walk. On the eastern side of the island is the Kyoido (“Pure Well”), and on the western side is the Amiido (“Well of Darkness”), and only adult women are allowed to approach them. Between these landmarks grow plantain trees, banyan trees, pandan trees, and all manner of flowers. The water surrounding the island is filled with fish and sea snakes, which the island men take on their boats to trade with the people of other islands.

Namima’s grandmother, Mikura-sama, is Umihebi’s high priestess. She embodies the energies of light and life and protects the island from harm as she prays for prosperity. Because light and dark alternate, Mikura-sama’s daughter is dark, while Mikura-sama’s oldest granddaughter Kamikuu is light, thus entitling her to become the island’s next high priestess. If Kamikuu is light, then her sister Namima is dark; and so, if Kamikuu is to become then next high priestess of light and life, then Namima must become her dark counterpart, an outcast warden of darkness and death. While Kamikuu is fated to live at the top of a hill and be provided with generous quantities of nutrient-rich food as she prays to the gods and generates offspring from the seed of the young men on the island, Namima is fated to live in the shadow of a cliff, eating dregs and shunning the company of all save the corpses of the island’s dead, which she must watch decay in order to ensure that their souls pass on safely. Although Mikura-sama explains this to Kamikuu, the kind-hearted Kamikuu does not have the heart to tell her sister, so the teenaged Namima is outraged when she is hauled kicking and screaning down to a cave by the shore to take the place of Mikura-sama’s dark counterpart, who has vanished. Namima is immediately visited by her lover Mahito, the son of a family ostracized because of its matriarch’s inability to produce a female child, and the two escape the island on a small boat. Namima dies at sea, and that’s when the book really begins.

Namima, who dies with deep regret in her heart, is not allowed to move on to the world beyond death but instead finds herself in the underworld, a dark and formless landscape of unhappy souls presided over by Izanami, who is both a creator goddess and a goddess of death. Having died while giving birth to a fire god, Izanami found herself in the underworld. Her consort, Izanaki, came to retrieve her, but he was so appalled by the pollution and impurity of the underworld that he fled from his former lover and symbolically sealed the entrance to the underworld with a giant boulder. In her rage, Izanami vowed to end the lives of a thousand humans every day. In response, Izanaki vowed to erect a thousand birthing huts so that the human population would never decline.

Izanami, who has spent aeons under the earth, sees a kindred spirit in Namima and therefore draws Namima’s soul to her to act as an attendant and companion. The Goddess Chronicle is an account of how Namima rails against and finally settles into this role as she comes to understand and sympathize with Izanami’s suffering and the burden that the goddess has assumed. Over the course of her story, Namima returns to Umihebi as a tiger wasp and sees the religious and human drama of the island through the eyes of an outsider. Izanaki himself eventually enters the story and makes his own trip to Umihebi, so the reader sees the island from yet another perspective that further emphasizes how terrifying yet compelling its religious landscape and rituals are. The experiences both Namima and Izanaki have on Umihebi cause them to return to Izanami for closure and salvation.

In the end, however, there is no redemption for Izanami herself; there is only eternal hatred. I don’t want to give away certain plot developments; but, in light of these developments, it seems as if there would be so many other paths open to the goddess at the end of the novel. Moreover, although Namima can leave at any time, she decides to stay with Izanami, not as her friend or equal, but rather as the priestess of her pain. The novel ends with these lines, spoken by Namima:

I, who was once a priestess of the darkness, feel that serving here at Izanami’s side I am able to accomplish what I was unable to finish on earth. For, as I said earlier, Izanami is without a doubt a woman among women. The trials that she has borne are the trails all women must face. Revere the goddess! In the darkness of the underground palace, I secretly sing her praises.

I’m not sure if that’s a happy ending or not. So all women are united in a shared oppositional relationship to men? All women are united in their hatred, and in the fact that their destinies are shaped by the carelessness of men? Why do women have to harbor so much hatred? Why can’t men just be normal people instead of the shapers of the destinies of women? Why does there need to be an dualistic and antagonistic relationship between Woman and Man on such a deep mythical level?

In other mythological revisionist novels written from a feminist perspective, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia, there are layers of depth and meaning and subtle characterization added to mythological personages who were relatively flat in the original sources. In The Goddess Chronicle, the gods remain flat, and the human characters aren’t granted much depth either. The story told by the novel is fascinating, and the writing and translation are beautiful, but in the end there is almost no resolution or character development. Perhaps the point of the story isn’t to give human characteristics to nonhuman entities, however, but rather to provide the reader with an entryway into the conceptual geography of the existential questions religion and myth seek to address. In this latter purpose, The Goddess Chronicle succeeds spectacularly.

Kirino Natsuo is an extremely dark writer; and, while she never offers any feminist solutions to the problems she raises, she excels in bringing the reader’s attention to the sexism and hypocrisy that exist in mainstream narratives about women. By showing the reader the other side of the story, Kirino deftly illustrates the anger of the otherwise voiceless women who have been left out of most stories, but it is ultimately up to the reader to find hope in the situation and to figure out how to use her or his newfound anger to change the world for the better. In The Goddess Chronicle, Kirino encourages the reader to see one of the keystone tales of Japanese mythology from the perspective of darkness, and the perspective of those not showered with glory, and the perspective of those left behind. Such a perspective can be upsetting and frustrating, but it’s also an invitation to the reader to formulate her or his own interpretations, as well as her or his own ideas concerning the further adventures of these characters and their relevance to the modern world.

Fujisan

Fujisan

Title: Fujisan
Japanese Title: 富士山 (Fujisan)
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口 ランディ)
Translator: Raj Mahtani
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 191

In her Foreword, Taguchi states that she “wrote this anthology of stories as an expression of my veneration and appreciation for this life-affirming mountain; it is my personal tribute to Fujisan.”

Although Mount Fuji is in the background of each of the four stories collected in this volume, the main theme of these stories is an affirmation of life in the face of fairly extreme social maladjustment and malaise. “The Blue Summit” is about a convenience store worker who begins reflecting on his past experiences as a member of a religious cult after he survives an attempted robbery. “The Sea of Trees” is about three high school students with an interest in the occult who go hiking in the Aokigahara forest and come across a failed suicide. “Jamila” is about a public servant who is tasked with dealing with an old woman who lives in a house overflowing with garbage. “Child of Light” is about a nurse at a small gynecological clinic who ponders a teenage abortion patient she recently cared for as she climbs Mount Fuji with a group of older women. The characters of these stories all face death and the more unpleasant aspects of continuing to live and somehow manage to come out okay on the other side.

I liked the opening story, “Blue Summit,” for its description of the appeal of sanitized and familiar spaces like convenience stores and family restaurants to the broken people who seek refuge there in the small hours of the night. As the narrator says of the convenience store where he works as a night shift manager:

I like it here. This convenience store is my sanctuary. There’s a stillness here that’s like the stillness you find in the snowy, bleak plains of Siberia. [...] The store’s open twenty-four hours and it’s menacingly bright. There’s no darkness. It’s all so gloriously digital. While intimacy and a sense of reality are effectively absent in the store, a minimum degree of comfort is always guaranteed. The convenience store is stabilized on a low-energy wavelength: it never betrays you. In a convenience store, you can silently snuggle up to the void. (3, 13)

In this story, the convenience store as a comforting space is juxtaposed against the nightmarish interior spaces of the people who enter it. The narrator is haunted by the memories of a friend he made when he was a member of a religious cult headquartered at the base of Mount Fuji who may have been killed by the group when he tried to defect. Kozue, one of the employees who works under the narrator, suffers from a fascination with dissection and enjoys watching herself bleed. As for the anonymous assailant who unsuccessfully attempts to rob the convenience store at the beginning of the story and later shows up with a baseball bat looking for revenge, the narrator suspects that what he’s ultimately after is a validation of his own existence, a concern that the narrator sympathizes with even as he is attacked.

My favorite story in Fujisan has to be “Jamila,” if only for its colorful descriptions of a gomi yashiki, or “garbage mansion,” in Susono City, a small municipality in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The narrator of the story, a native son who has left a corporate job in Tokyo to take a post at Susono’s Office of Environmental Quality, is tasked with dealing with a local hoarder’s residence. He hasn’t made much progress, partly because he is fascinated by the structure:

When I went to investigate the house of trash for the first time, a part of me was genuinely thrilled. I wanted to see for myself who the old garbage lady was, the one reputed to be a goblin, but when I arrived, the horror of it all simply defied imagination. It was a slice of nightmare lying exposed in the heart of a residential area lined with middle-class houses. What bothered me the most was the drabness of all the visible junk, especially in light of the fact that each and every one of the objects was at one time or another brand new. [...] The trash, estimated to be sixty tons’ worth, was spilling over from the premises into the public road, where it bore an uncanny resemblance to the entrails of a road-killed cat. (108)

I really don’t find all this trash-hoarding that objectionable. I find it more interesting than, say, staying inside city hall. As I stood there, gazing vacantly, my eyes registered an entire universe of things: wire hangers, torn umbrellas, broken TVs, antennas, vacuum cleaners, plastic bags, tattered clothes, tricycles, flowerpots, bedpans, bamboo blinds, futons… The trash went beyond trash to become works of fantastic, sculptural art. (100)

As in “Blue Summit,” physical spaces have a close relationship with psychic spaces, and the narrator’s meditation on an old woman’s gomi yashiki reveals the disorganization of his own (possibly deranged) mind and the sociological state of a nation that produces and throws away so much physical, cultural, and human garbage.

If I had to describe these stories in one word, it would be “intense.” There’s a bit of navel gazing going on in Fujisan, but it’s never too cumbersome, and the collection’s four stories move quickly and capitalize on topical issues for emotional impact.

If you’re wondering about the publication quality of Amazon’s new translation publisher, AmazonCrossing, it’s actually fairly decent. The front and back covers of the physical version of Fujisan look like printouts of a mid-resolution PDF document, but the inside text is crisp and clear, and the page layout is clean and uncluttered. During the short promotional period when Amazon was offering the book for about as much money as a cup of tea at Starbucks, I also downloaded the digital version of the book from the Kindle store, and it looked great as well.

Several reviewers on Amazon have complained about the translation, but I didn’t mind it so much. There were a few sentences that were awkward (they mostly involved slang), but overall I think Raj Mahtani did a great job conveying the voices of Taguchi’s characters. I have read (and produced) a great deal of clunky awkward translatorese, and I know just how terrible it is, but nothing of the sort appears in Mahtani’s translation of Fujisan. The vast majority of the translated prose in the collection is clear and serviceable. It’s never going to win any literary awards, but Taguchi herself isn’t exactly a “literary” writer; she writes popular fiction, and her writing reads like popular fiction.

In any case, the translated narrative voices of Fujisan are similar to the translated narrative voice of Taguchi’s previously translated work, Outlet, and readers who appreciated the exploration of hidden spaces and raunchiness of Outlet will definitely enjoy Fujisan.

By the way, the author has her own website, which includes an interview translated into English. If you can read Japanese, her blog is also well worth browsing.

The Inugami Clan

The Inugami Clan

Title: The Inugami Clan
Japanese Title: 犬神家の一族 (Inugamike no ichizoku)
Author: Yokomizo Seishi (横溝 正史)
Translator: Yumiko Yamazaki
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1951 (Japan)
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 309

Reading The Inugami Clan reminded me of sitting in my local public library as a kid in the early nineties and reading crime novels with yellowed pages and crappy covers that were always on the verge of falling off.

This novel is pure pulp. The sentences are short and declarative. The chapters are only a few pages long and always end with cliffhangers. The murders are fantastically improbable. The beautiful young female victim is always fainting. The ugly older women are pure evil. The men regularly walk around with assault weapons. The sexuality on display isn’t overt, but it’s always kinky. Someone gets murdered every five chapters. Even the paper Stone Bridge Press used for its publication of this translation has a deliciously pulpy smell. The pulp dial on this book goes up to eleven.

In other words, The Inugami Clan is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining.

The primary point-of-view character of the novel is Detective Kindaichi Kōsuke, an eccentric private investigator of strange appearance and stranger personal habits. (“Physically, he is a stammering, inconsequential fellow with nothing to recommend him, but his remarkable faculty for reasoning and deduction has been attested to,” the narrator says.) Because of the detective’s fame, he has been summoned to the Nasu Lake region (in Tochigi prefecture) by Wakabayashi Toyoichirō, a lawyer associated with the estate of the recently deceased Inugami Sahei, a local silk magnate. Before the lawyer arrives in Kindaich’s hotel room, however, the detective witnesses a beautiful woman going down with a sinking boat on the lake beside the hotel. This woman is Nonomiya Tamayo, who stands to inherit the entire Inugami fortune. Even though Tamayo is saved, Kindaichi returns to the hotel to find Wakabayashi dead from ingesting a poison that had been applied to the filter of one of his cigarettes. Someone is obviously out for blood, and it’s up to Kindaichi to figure out what’s going on before anyone else is killed.

Not that Kindaichi succeeds, of course. The detective’s “razor-sharp deduction skills” are no match for a long-held grudge, and the novel has plenty of time for an additional assortment of gruesome deaths. The Inugami family motto is “yoki koto kiku,” an expression that means “tidings of good fortune” but is also synonymous with the words “axe, koto, chrysanthemum” ( 斧・琴・菊 ), which is as good a set-up as any for a series of themed murders. The “axe” murder happens early on, and the reader is given the pleasure of anticipating what the “koto” and “chrysanthemum” murders will look like. It would be a shame if Kindaichi were to solve the case before the killer could complete the set, right?

Instead of pulling a “just add Sherlock” instant deduction, Kindaichi spends most of his time accompanying the family’s other lawyer, Furudate Kyōzō, to various formal meetings of the Inugami clan, which are full of drama.

It turns out that Inugami Sahei was a bit of an asshole. The man had three consorts who all lived with him, and each of these consorts bore him a daughter, each of whom in turn bore a son. Since none of these consorts was Sahei’s official wife, none of these grandsons is his official heir; and, in his will, Sahei leaves his entire fortune to Nonomiya Tamayo, provided that Tamayo marries one of his grandsons. Tamayo is the granddaughter of Nonomiya Daini, the head priest of Nasu Shrine, who took in Sahei when he was young and starving. Sahei had a very close relationship with Daini, and he had an even closer relationship with Daini’s wife, and he apparently loved Tamayo as if she were his own granddaughter. Sahei also had an (even more) illegitimate son with a much younger woman named Aonuma Kikuno (who apparently looked just like Tamayo); and, if Tamayo for some reason won’t marry one of Sahei’s other sons, then the majority of the fortune goes to this son, a man named Aonuma Shizukuma. Since both Aonuma Shizukuma and Inugami Kiyo, the oldest of Sahei’s grandsons, had problems with repatriation after the war ended, however, there are plenty of opportunities for confused identities.

As things stand, everyone has a motive to kill everyone else. It’s almost as if Sahei were trying to punish his three daughters for something – but for what? It quickly turns out that the Inugami clan is about as dysfunctional as families get, and there are plenty of family secrets for Kindaichi to uncover before he can figure out who’s trying to kill off everyone associated with Sahei’s will.

Even though most of action of the novel is generated by Sahei’s three grandsons, the three older Inugami daughters really steal the show. Inugami Matsuko, the reigning matriarch of the clan, is an especially powerful and compelling character. I can’t write too much about her without giving away the story, but let it suffice to say that she is awesome, and the social conflicts and historical crises that she represents add a layer of depth and thematic richness to the novel that it would otherwise have lacked had she been just another ugly and bitter old woman in a pulp mystery about silly murders.

I read The Inugami Clan while re-reading John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, and I found that Dower’s description of the political confusion and cultural liberation of the immediate postwar period in Japan resonated perfectly with the themes and atmosphere of Yokomizo’s novel. Dower’s chapter “Cultures of Defeat” (especially its sections on “Kasutori Culture” and the “Decadence and Authenticity”) was especially interesting in its discussions of postwar pulp magazines, the sexualization of literature, and the re-emergence of “erotic grotesque nonsense” as a mode of storytelling. As is the case with any good pulp novel, The Inugami Clan has its fair share of plot holes and obvious exaggerations, but an understanding of the book’s historical and cultural background goes a long way toward making these plot holes and exaggerations make sense. If you’re interested in classic Japanese mystery fiction, Sari Kawana’s Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction & Japanese Culture, which was published back in 2008 by University of Minnesota Press, is an excellent cross-cultural study that’s a lot of fun to read (and, for an academic book, it’s actually fairly affordable). Even without all of the secondary literature, though, The Inugami Clan is a lot of fun to read. The novel is currently out of print, but it’s totally worth the effort to track down a copy.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo

The Paradise Bird Tattoo

Title: The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, Attempted Double-Suicide)
Japanese Title: 赤目四十八瀧心中未遂 (Akame Shijūyataki shinjū misui)
Author: Kurumatani Chōkitsu (車谷長吉)
Translator: Kenneth J. Bryson
Publication Year: 2010 (America), 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 225

I’m not going to lie – the first twenty pages of this book didn’t make me want to continue reading. The narrator of The Paradise Bird Tattoo, Ikushima Yoichi, is a graduate of an elite university who dropped out of society for reasons unknown, and he has all the charm of a thirty-three year old Holden Caulfield, which is to say not very much charm at all. Life sucks, he can’t get his shit together, he has no money, he goes from train station to train station with no rhyme or reason, people are disgusting, nobody likes him, he wants to assault salesgirls with scissors, and he might as well jump off a cliff.

On page twenty-one, Ikushima sits down for coffee with the woman who has agreed to temporarily employ and house him at the request of one of the narrator’s old friends. This woman, whom Ikushima refers to as “Seiko Nēsan,” owns a pub called Igaya in the Higashi-Naniwachō district of Amagasaki, an industrial suburb of Osaka located west of the Yodo River. As Seiko Nēsan tells Ikushima about how she used to be a pan-pan girl during the American occupation, the story begins to shift away from the narrator’s existential crisis and outwards to the other people who occupy the seedy little neighborhood where Ikushima now lives in a cheap backstreet apartment building.

Down the hallway is a room for by a prostitute for couplings that are oddly accompanied by what sounds like religious chanting. Across the hallway is a gruff tattoo artist named Horimayu who occasionally bursts into Ikushima’s apartment. An elementary school aged boy named Shimpei wanders around mostly unsupervised and alternately befriends and bullies Ikushima. A woman named Yi Mun-hyong, who goes by Ayako, lives in an apartment on the first floor and attracts Ikushima’s attention before entering into sexually charged yet emotionally complicated relationship with him.

As a an employee of Seiko Nēsan, Ikushima’s job is to sit in his apartment all day and skewer raw offal meat to be served later in her pub. Ikushima does so without complaining or seeking any sort of meaningful connection to the world around him, but he still ends up unwittingly getting pulled into the lives of the other people in the apartment complex and becomes trapped in relationships that he doesn’t fully understand. Seiko Nēsan asks him to retrieve a large amount of cash from the phone book in a public telephone booth, Horimayu pressures him into holding onto a mysterious sealed box, and Ayako enters his apartment one evening to have her way with him. By the second half of the book, Ikushima is way over his head into affairs about which he knows nothing.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo is a slow burning novel fueled mainly by the grungy atmosphere of the greater Osaka area of the late seventies. Ikushima’s narration contains details about his life in Amagasaki that make the book a pleasure to read. There’s a small sundries store in the same alley as Ikushima’s apartment that he doesn’t shop at because it’s too creepy for him, and the lady who runs it always gives him the evil eye from inside the store when she sees him. A group of cab drivers who spend most of the day gambling park their cars in an alley, but a woman whose house fronts the alley calls the police and has them tow all of the cars. Shimpei finds a toad and keeps it as a pet in one of the apartment drainage pipes until it dies. Seiko Nēsan comes over on a rainy day to have a beer, and she sings old Osaka folk songs rife with double entendre.

Kenneth Bryson’s tone and word choice captures the grittiness of the narrator’s style and attitude:

All I did day after day was cut up beef and pork organs and stick them on skewers. Sooner or later they would wind up in someone’s mouth, be digested inside his organs, and vanish into the toilet as excrement. I wasn’t sure what happened after that, but I assumed the reside would eventually be washed out into the ocean. It was just the same with the glamorous goods lining the shelves in the department stores and supermarkets; someday they would all become rubbish or shit. This was the essence of all human activity; this was why I could tell Seiko Nēsan in all honesty that I had no need for pleasurable pursuits.

The Paradise Bird Tattoo is a walk through the lives of people who live on the margins of society in a neighborhood that is as dangerous and desperate as those who inhabit it. Although the narrator can be a bit of a bore sometimes, the mindset that has led to his decision to abandon a middle class life is fascinating, as are the experiences he describes to the reader in full dirty detail.

Bødy

Bødy

Title: Bødy
Japanese Title: 躯 (Karada)
Author: Nonami Asa (乃波アサ)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 192

If body horror makes you squeamish, you probably shouldn’t read this book.

If body horror fascinates you, you have come to the right place. Surgery, needles, public bathing, erectile dysfunction, heart attacks, concussions – Nonami Asa’s Bødy has it all.

Bødy collects five short stories, which are all about forty pages long. Each of these stories centers around the body-related neurosis of its protagonist. The short stories in Bødy remind me of the short stories of Patricia Highsmith (particularly those in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder and Little Tales of Misogyny) in that they feature tongue-in-cheek accounts of terrible things happening to people who probably deserve them. In “Blood,” a man who gets off on injuring others learns that he can also get off on injuring himself. In “Whorl,” a man planning on dumping his girlfriend is dumped by her after some mishaps involving an experimental treatment for baldness. In “Jaw,” a man consumed by his training to become a boxer is ultimately defeated by his own physical regimen. The opening story, “Navel,” is about a mother and her two daughters who blow through their savings in order to undergo a series of cosmetic surgical procedures. The last laugh, however, is on the husband and father who doesn’t notice that they look any different until it’s too late.

Although the tone of Bødy is far from jovial, it never takes its subject matter too seriously. With an escalating series of bad things happening to weak-willed and pathetic people, the humor in Bødy is as black as it gets. As soon as the reader thinks that things can’t get any worse for the characters, things get worse in the worst possible way. As a result, these stories are horrifying and fascinating at the same time.

Humor usually works best when the butt of the joke is in a position of power or otherwise represents the status quo, and an element of discomfort tends to creep in when the character being ridiculed truly is a victim. For this reason, the story “Buttocks” stands out for me as the most disturbing story in the collection.

Hiroe, the former queen bee teenage protagonist of “Buttocks,” suffers severe culture shock after she leaves her home in the country to attend a high school in Tokyo. She lives in a dorm, where she has trouble physically and mentally adjusting to a communal lifestyle. She didn’t want to leave home in the first place, her friends from middle school won’t talk to her anymore, and she learns that the only reason she’s able to live in Tokyo is because her father made a large donation to her school. When one of the other girls living in the dorm calls her fat, Hiroe develops an eating disorder. The reader, who is given intimate knowledge of Hiroe’s mindset and methods, sympathizes with the bulimic Hiroe’s improved self-image and sense of renewed control over her life. It actually seems as if the story will have a happy ending before Hiroe collapses and is revealed to be terrifyingly unhealthy. As her parents carry her out of the dorm, Hiroe overhears the same girl who had mocked her for having hips like a duck whispering how creepy she is now that she looks like a skeleton.

Hiroe may have bullied another girl in middle school, but she didn’t deserve this, and the punch line of “Buttocks” is chilling. In this story, the narrative pattern that characterizes the stories in Bødy is less tragicomic and more genuinely upsetting. It’s easy to laugh at the chauvinist pigs of the first three stories in the collection, but the teenage protagonists of the last two stories are genuine victims of forces beyond their control who receive no sympathy from other characters and turn to desperate measures in an attempt to exert some small measure control over their lives. The emotional range Nonami achieves within these stories is remarkable, as is the skill with which she treads the line between amusement and discomfort.

Nonami Asa is a fantastic writer, and I’m happy that more of her work is appearing in translation. She’s primarily known for her detective fiction in Japan, and Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation of The Hunter is an good example of her gritty hardboiled style. Nonami’s other novel in translation, Now You’re One of Us, is creepy gothic horror that features the black humor and body horror of Bødy without the blunt, cringe-inducing needle-in-your-eye imagery. If you can handle literature with genuinely dark themes, it’s hard to go wrong with Nonami Asa, and Bødy is an excellent introduction to the writer’s work.

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Title: The Lord of the Sands of Time
Japanese Title: 時砂の王 (Tokisuna no Ō)
Author: Ogawa Issui (小川一水)
Translator: Jim Hubbert
Publication Year: 2009 (United States); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 196

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and wonder what just happened.

The Lord of the Sands of Time was like that for me.

Allow me to spoil the ending:

The weakness of the aliens attacking the earth is salt water.

There is also time travel involved. Androids with highly advanced artificial intelligence are sent back in time to fight seemingly mindless mechanical extraterrestrials who for some reason are bent on wiping out the human race, and it takes the best among the androids several sweeps of human history to figure out that sea water kills the aliens.

I’ll be the first to admit that premise of the novel is kind of silly, but it’s still an engrossing tale of adventure across alternate histories.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is about Orville, an android who was created on Triton, one of the last outposts of human civilization in the year 2598. Orville is one of many Messengers, who were engineered with the purpose of going back in time and saving the humanity from destruction at the metallic tentacles of an alien force from beyond the solar system, which is collectively referred to as ET.

The novel begins in Japan in the year 248, a destination at which Orville has arrived after many timestreams of trial and error. With the cooperation of Himiko, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wa, Orville tries once again to rally the human race against the ET, but the situation is dire. The ET have already overwhelmed the Asian mainland, and many of Orville’s Messenger comrades have fallen over the course of their long journey. Even worse, the ET are also capable of time travel; and, unlike the Messengers, they have the capacity to attack from space.

Every alternate chapter tells a segment of Orville’s backstory. The Messengers first came to Earth in the twenty-second century, but humanity was too busy bickering with itself to launch an effective resistance against the ET. After failing to rescue humanity in that timestream, the Messengers try again, transporting themselves to the eve of the second World War. Once again, however, humanity is too busy bickering with itself to fight the ET. The Messengers thus try again, and again, and again, their numbers decreasing as the ET use their own version of time travel to thwart them.

Although it first appears that the humans of Himiko’s timestream will also fall victim to internecine warfare and thus prove incapable of marshaling a united front against the ET, Himiko is strong willed and politically savvy enough to keep the peoples of the Japanese archipelago from killing themselves long enough to realize the full extent of the threat the ET pose. Even though Orville lends Himiko his superhuman strength and knowledge of technological advances, the outcome of this timestream seems bleak as well, and the fight will be a close one.

For the first half of the novel, tension builds steadily as Himiko deals with political machinations and Orville comes into his own as a character. The descriptions of Japan in the late Yayoi period are just as fascinating as the descriptions of the doomed yet utopian society on Triton, and Himiko’s growth as a ruler is just as compelling as Orville’s blooming love affair with Sayaka, a human woman in the Triton Defense Force, as he learns about what he is trying to protect.

Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart in the last quarter of the novel. As the narrative rushes toward its conclusion, world building and character development are neglected in favor of battle scenes. In the midst of this fighting, Orville trips and falls into bed with Himiko. This is not quite as epic as it could be. In two short paragraphs, Orville tells Himiko about Sayaka, Himiko calls Orville by his first name, Orville cries, and Himiko hugs him. There’s a page break, and then the narrative is back to talk of fighting and armies.

“From that night on, Miyo [Himiko's personal name] and Orville shared the same bed” is about the extent of the romance between them, but Himiko undergoes a startling personality shift after she begins sleeping with Orville. She becomes a background character in her own story and spends most of her time panicked and helpless. The following “newsflash,” which has been making the rounds on Tumblr recently, states:

If a strong, independent female character falls in love, it does not automatically mean that she has lost her values or that she’s become less strong and independent, and does not necessarily change her story into an anti-feminist one. The idea that all women should fall in love and get married IS sexist, but a woman actually falling in love and getting married of her own free will is NOT sexist. Thank you and good day.

Sometimes, however, a female protagonist will fall love with a male protagonist and suddenly cease to be a protagonist at all, and that’s what happens in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Himiko is barely even fully conscious throughout the final quarter of the novel, and Orville is too busy kicking ass and taking names off camera to have any real input in the story. With the two main characters out of the picture, the novel gears up for its big reveals – what the motive of the ET is, how time travel works and doesn’t work, how the ET will be defeated – but these big reveals are rushed don’t really make any sense. The weakness of the aliens is water, the power of love plays a role in this discovery, and the aliens don’t have any real motive for attacking the earth. The time travel mechanics are especially disappointing. To be fair, time travel never makes sense, but it’s as if the author got around all the problems implicit in time travel by simply pretending that they don’t exist.

The last sixty pages of The Lord of the Sands of Time thus pass by in a flurry of tropes and battle scenes that might have worked better if they were filmed instead of written. In the novel’s defense, though, the buildup to these last sixty pages is strong enough to carry the reader all the way to the end. Sure, the love story between Orville and Himiko/Miyo never goes anywhere, and sure, this flaccid non-relationship diverts the narrative focus away from the relationships between Orville and the other Messengers (which are infinitely more interesting), but the reader is still curious to see how it all ends (and don’t worry, I didn’t spoil everything).

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not high art or epic romance, but it’s a fun novel, especially if you have a soft spot for science fiction. Jim Hubbert’s translation doesn’t call attention to itself and allows Ogawa’s prose to flow quickly and seamlessly. (In fact, I’m so impressed by the eighties American sci-fi feel of Hubbert’s translation that I’ve already ordered a copy of his other translation for Haikasoru, Hayashi Jyōji’s The Ouroboros Wave.) As much as I make fun of science fiction tropes, I can’t get enough of them, and The Lord of the Sands of Time fully satisfied my holiday craving for a sci-fi novel of manageable length to chill out with over a relaxed weekend.

Speculative Japan 3

Title: Speculative Japan 3: “Silver Bullet” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editor: Edward Lipsett
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 270

In my review of Speculative Japan 2, I said that I loved the anthology and couldn’t wait until the next installment was released. Speculative Japan 3 is finally here, and it’s everything I hoped it would be: a diverse collection of intelligent and beautifully translated short stories.

Speculative Japan 3 opens with several shorter pieces. These shorter pieces, which range in length from five to twenty pages, run the gamut from hard science fiction to magical realism to fantasy with a sci-fi twist to elegiac horror. Fujita Masaji’s “Angel French” is about the romance between two deep space robotic probes who began life as two college students hanging out in Mister Donut. “To the Blue Star,” written by Ogawa Issui (whose novels The Lord of the Sands of Time and The Next Continent are published in translation by Haikasoru), is another story about a self-aware technological entity. This entity, whose name is X, is a collective intelligence made up of a fleet of robotic star cruisers that represent the last remnants of human civilization. X tells its own story as it travels through the universe, watches civilizations rise and fall, fuses with other advanced life forms, and finally meets God. Matsuzaki Yuri’s “The Finish Line” is a thought experiment in the form of a short story and features a quiet but chilling scenario of the end of all life on earth. Kamon Nanami’s “A Piece of Butterfly’s Wing,” which is probably my favorite story in the collection, is a beautifully creepy ghost story in the literary tradition of writers like Kurahashi Yumiko and Kanai Mieko. Like the work of these masters of the poetics of horror, Kamon’s story is filled with beautiful, atmospheric imagery and resonant symbolism. It also features a delightfully disturbing twist at the end.

The longer stories of Speculative Japan 3 shine just as brightly as the shorter pieces. Even though none of these stories are more than thirty-five pages in length, they’re long enough to allow nuanced character development as they explore their premises in greater depth. Suga Hiroe’s “Five Sisters” is about a woman named Sonogawa Hanako who meets four clones of herself that have all been raised in different households. Each of these women has a different personality, and it’s fascinating to see how each has lived her life with the knowledge that she is a clone created to be harvested for organs. Ueda Sayuki’s “Fin and Claw” is a window into a future where humans have been genetically modified to be more adaptable to an environment covered in seawater. “Fin and Claw” is sort of like Jurassic Park with enormous sea creatures, and the moral of the story is the same. The last three pages of Ueda’s nightmarish vision are particularly terrifying in their visual imagery.

The title story, Yamada Masaki’s “Silver Bullet,” is a Japanese Cthulhu mythos story (more of which are collected in Kurodahan’s Night Voices, Night Journeys). In my experience, there are two main types of Cthulhu mythos stories: pseudo-Victorian and classy, and unabashedly pulpy. “Silver Bullet” belongs to the latter category. Its protagonist is sufficiently hard boiled, and the story contains more cheap sexuality than you can shake a flagella at. Still, all of the story’s thematic elements mesh together nicely, the ending is well earned, and the method used to summon Cthulhu is awesome (as is the instrument used to stop the summoner).

If there’s one story in the collection that feels out of place, it’s “Green Tea Ice Cream,” which is written by Mark Schultz. Perhaps it feels out of place because it’s merely good instead of excellent, but perhaps this is also because it bears the traces of awkwardness that often afflict stories written about Japan in English (a few of which have been recently collected in The Future Is Japanese). It’s difficult to pinpoint what the exact causes or sources of this awkwardness are, but it probably has to do with the writer feeling the need to explain certain “Japanese” things to the reader, as well as with the unstable balance between Japan as a real place and Japan as a fictional creation in these stories. “Green Tea Ice Cream” also revolves around a science fiction trope that I personally find silly and boring, namely, the unnecessary sexualization of a young woman who embodies fears concerning the changing relationship between human beings and technology. If the non-consensual impregnation and subsequent abduction of mindless machine girls is your cup of tea, though, knock yourself out. There are also some uncomfortably sexual father-daughter issues on display, if you’re into that sort of thing. That being said, the unsavory nature of the scenario and the characters of this story gives it greater depth and impact as a speculative commentary on contemporary bioethics.

To counter the sour taste of “Green Tea Ice Cream,” Mori Natsuko’s “It’s All Thanks to Saijō Hideaki” is made of pure sugar. To give a summary would be spoiling the fun, so let it suffice to say that this is one of those stories that you can’t believe you’re reading while you’re reading it and then can’t believe you’ve read once you’re finished. The experience of reading this story filled me with joy. If you’re a fan of yuri or bara stories (or brilliant parodies of such stories), then this is the story of the elegant, fabulous apocalypse you’ve been waiting for.

As in Speculative Japan 2, the translation is smooth and even throughout, with each story retaining the individual characteristics and quirks of its author. It’s a pleasure to read the stories in this anthology not just for the freshness and wonder of their ideas but also for the high quality of their writing and translation. As both an anthology of contemporary science fiction and an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature, Speculative Japan 3 succeeds brilliantly in collecting not the newest or the most popular, but rather the most interesting and the best written. Speculative Japan 3 is an excellent collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for intelligent and exciting new fiction, speculative or otherwise.

Review copy provided by Kurodahan Press

The Briefcase

Title: The Briefcase
Japanese Title: センセイの鞄 (Sensei no kaban)
Author: Kawami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 176

Kawakami Hiromi’s novel Manazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich and published in 2010 by Counterpoint, is a strange, dreamlike story told from the perspective of an otherworldly and unreliable narrator. Manazuru is about pain and bitterness, and broken hearts and broken families.

Kawakami’s newest novel in translation, The Briefcase, is a far cry from the atmospheric surrealism of Manazuru. Its narrator, Ōmachi Tsukiko, is a single woman in her late thirties who is firmly grounded in reality. The Briefcase is about her daily life and centers around her encounters with her former Classics teacher, Matsumoto Harutsuna, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Two decades after graduating from high school, Tsukiko meets Sensei by chance at a neighborhood bar, and the two strike up an easy friendship. Each of the ten-page chapters in The Briefcase details an episode in this friendship, such as a trip to an outdoor market or a mushroom hunting excursion with the owner of the bar Tsukiko and Sensei frequent. Seasons change, but not much else does. Nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected happens throughout the large majority of The Briefcase, and the novel’s close attention to detail provides much of its charm.

Although it doesn’t become apparent until a little more than halfway through the novel, Tsukiko gradually develops romantic feelings for Sensei. I would love to say something along the lines of “despite the significant age difference, the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei blossoms beautifully;” but, in reality, it’s quite awkward. Not only is the situation itself awkward, but both Tsukiko and Sensei are awkward people. They’re not charmingly awkward, or amusingly awkward, or so awkward that want to hug them – they’re just awkward. Still, the gentle progression of their relationship is entertaining in its earnestness, and Kawakami describes it from Tsukiko’s perspective with commensurate delicacy:

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a holf on this sense – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The quiet normalcy of The Briefcase is satisfying in and of itself, yet there are some disturbing undercurrents running through the novel. Why is Tsukiko alone? Why is Sensei alone? What happened to him? Why does he always carry around his briefcase? These uncertainties serve to make the story more intriguing, however, and don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis until the very end of the novel, when Tsukiko undergoes a startlingly surreal experience. During two of the final chapters of the novel, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei, as well as her fear of his rejection, are explored in a strange sequence titled “The Tidal Flat – Dream,” which may or may not have actually happen. This chapter is a unexpected break from the regular mundane atmosphere of The Briefcase, but it pulls the novel together thematically in a creative and unexpected way.

Allison Markin Powell, who also translated Dazai Osamu’s Schoolgirl, deftly conveys the lightness and humor occasional strangeness of Kawakami’s prose. Although Powell’s English is flawless (with the possible exception of a few out-of-place Britishisms), her style of translation leaves the reader with no doubt as to the Japanese setting of the novel. Passages like…

“Yes, today is a tomobiki day. But tomorrow is a red-letter day, a konoe-tora!”

…and…

Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen.

…are not uncommon. It’s an interesting style of translation that emphasizes the novel’s focus on peaceful daily life in a richly detailed environment, and it’s fun to read. The culturally specific words scattered throughout the text can be largely ignored if you’re not feeling up for a hyperlinked adventure on Google, though, so they shouldn’t be distracting for the reader.

The Briefcase is a gentle and quiet novel that’s enjoyable both for its story and for its atmosphere, and it’s much more accessible than Manazuru (which is not to say that Manazuru is bad, just very weird). It’s literature that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I very much enjoyed reading it.