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.

Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae

Title: Thermae Romae
Japanese Title: テルマエ・ロマエ(Terumae Romae)
Artist: Yamazaki Mari (ヤマザキ マリ)
Translation: Stephen Paul
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 372

This manga is fantastic.

There’s a drawing of a naked man on the cover (you can see his penis under the removable acetate), and there’s a chapter about Roman and Japanese phallus worship. There’s also a chapter about the Bar Kokhba revolt that’s sympathetic to the Romans. The manga tacitly acknowledges Roman homosexuality (Emperor Hadrian is an important character) and Roman slavery (Emperor Hadrian thinks it’s funny that his pet crocodiles have bitten his slaves). All of this is in the background, however; and, if you can get around it, you will love this manga. It’s like reading a super-awesome issue of National Geographic, except with time travel.

Thermae Romae is about Lucius Modestus, a Roman architect living in the first half of the second century who specializes in designing baths and balnea, or bath houses. At the beginning of the story, he sees his own time as possessing an inferior bathing culture and wants to return Rome to the glory days of bathing, but his designs are considered old-fashioned and unmarketable. While taking a breather in a public bath house after being fired from his job at an architectural firm, Lucius slips and is sucked through a water vent into a sentō, or public bath, in twenty-first century Japan. Lucius thinks the Japanese are just slaves from one of the lands that Rome has conquered (he calls them “flat-faces”), and the Japanese think Lucius is just another clueless foreigner (they call him “gaijin-san”), and thankfully no gaping time-travel-related holes open in time and space. Lucius is taught the joys of contemporary Japanese baths; and, after being sucked through another hot water vent, he returns to Rome to share his own adaptations of certain aspects of this culture, which prove popular with his fellow romans.

Although the story gradually develops over the course of the manga, it remains largely episodic. In each chapter, Lucius encounters a problem, is transported to contemporary Japan, learns about Japanese bathing culture, returns to Rome, and implements his own versions of what he saw in Japan to the amazement and delight of everyone involved.

Through these episodes, the reader gets to visit various parts of the city of Rome, as well as locations such as Emperor Hadrian’s mansion in Tibur, Trastevere (a small city on the banks of the Tiber River), and the Roman province of Judea. Also on offer are the hot springs of the Tōhoku region, including monkey hot springs and therapeutic hot springs for convalescents. In his accidental journeys to Japan, Lucius also finds himself in the bathroom of a private residence, a corporate showroom for bathtubs, and even an aquarium that uses the water from a natural hot spring to create a habitat for crocodiles and banana trees.

If exploring contemporary Japan and ancient Rome is half the fun of this manga, the other half is watching Lucius in action. Lucius, earnest to a fault, is a classic straight man who is very serious about everything and responds to every situation he finds himself in with utmost sincerity. Although his upright personality isn’t directly exploited for laughs, it occasionally leads to humorous situations, such as when Lucius takes off his clothes in inappropriate places (for science!) in modern Japan. Mostly, however, Lucius’s personality allows him to act naturally in situations that would otherwise be extremely awkward or uncomfortable. He’s a sympathetic character, and his intelligence and curiosity allow the reader to see and experience more than would be possible if Lucius were a more cynical or self-conscious person.

At first glance there seems to be an undercurrent of “everything in Japan is the best thing ever” running throughout the manga, but I don’t think the artist ever takes the story seriously enough for her celebration of Japanese bath culture to come off as jingoistic. Through Lucius, who is by turns clueless and comically sincere, Yamazaki pokes fun at both ancient Rome and contemporary Japan. The Romans thought they were the most civilized people in the world, but their culture is capable of improvement through outside influences; and, while Japan has a fantastic bathing culture, it’s not flawless either. If Emperor Hadrian trying to recreate the scenery of the Egypt in his private estate is a bit silly, so too is a Japanese zoo that grows bananas. Whether it’s foreign live-in caregivers for elderly people in Japan or Lucius’s frustrated wife leaving him for another man after he runs off to spend three years in Judea, the manga always treats its subject with gentle good humor.

Yamazaki’s art isn’t hyper-detailed, but it is pleasantly realistic. Although she uses screen tone, most of the texture in her drawing, such as the roughness of cloth or the movement of water or the blush on freshly bathed skin, is conveyed by pen strokes. She slightly abbreviates both line and texture in about half of her panels to give the page a clean and open feel and to draw attention to the more visually dense panels. There are always several pages in each chapter that display nothing more than talking heads, but Yamazaki is capable of conveying such a wide and deep range of emotion with facial expressions and body language that these pages never become oppressive or boring.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me in Thermae Romae were the two-page essays at the end of each chapter. These essays, which are always accompanied by a handful of captioned images, offer the reader a few more details about the cultural and historical elements of the preceding chapter. Yamazaki supplements factual information with her experiences travelling through Europe and Japan and anecdotes about famous figures of the ancient world, and her essays are entertaining without ever becoming too personal or pedantic.

Yen Press has done a beautiful job with Thermae Romae. Although the book is a bit too large to comfortably read in the bath, the extra size is worth the better print quality. It’s also worth mentioning that Stephen Paul’s translation is superb. When I read the manga in Japanese earlier this year, I wondered how certain aspects of the text (such as the Tōhoku dialect spoken by a handful of secondary characters) could be handled in translation, and I think the translator and editorial staff did a wonderful job; the language in Thermae Romae is beautifully smooth with no awkward translatorese or corny attempts to reproduce dialect.

Thermae Romae is fantastic. I’m so happy this manga finally made it to America.

Hatarake Kentauros

Title: はたらけ、ケンタウロス!(Hatarake, kentaurosu!)
Artist: est em (えすとえむ)
Year Published: 2011
Publisher: Libre Shuppan
Pages: 160

Hatarake Kentauros is a one-shot manga by the BL author est em that contains eight stories and a kaki-oroshi (a short afterward section created especially for the tankōbon publication). The subjects of these stories are centaurs trying to make a living in contemporary Japan. The first four stories are about a salaryman centaur named Kentarō, the challenges he faces at work and while commuting, and his relationship with his human co-worker. The fifth story is about a centaur who wants to apprentice at a soba shop but can’t fit into the kitchen and is assigned delivery work instead. The sixth story is about a centaur craftsman who makes shoes even though he can never wear them, and the seventh story is about a centaur model who becomes depressed because his lower half is always replaced with human legs in Photoshop. The eighth story is about a young centaur graduate who is nervous about moving to Tokyo and beginning work at his first job.

The world created by est em in Hatarake Kentauros is largely homosocial; and, although nothing is ever expressly stated, the reader is encouraged to think of the male protagonists of the stories as gay. The salaryman Kentarō misses a day of work due to a cold and is visited by his male coworker, who prepares noodles while making observations on Kentarō’s kitchen, which was built to accommodate a centaur. The apprentice soba chef ends up bonding with an attractive apprentice ramen chef, and the two decide to open a portable street stall together. The centaur shoemaker rescues the son of his employer from an arranged marriage, and the two grow old together while operating their own business in a different city. The bonds between these male characters are gentle and subtle but no less powerful for not including overtly romantic or sexual elements.

What I like about the stories in Hatarake Kentauros is that they avoid a facile allegorical application of social justice by disallowing a one-on-one correspondence between “centaur” and “gay.” Although they’re just as “human” as anyone else, the centaurs created by est em are most definitely “other.” They’re too large to fit into crowded elevators. There are special lanes for them on the streets because they can’t ride in cars. They need to eat large quantities of food, and they have separate toilets. Centaurs aren’t just different from humans in terms of the shapes and sizes of their bodies; they also live for hundreds of years and take almost fifty years to mature into adults. It is therefore difficult to map categories of real-world otherness, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, onto est em’s centaurs. The reader is thus able to understand the characters in Hatarake Kentauros not just as platonic symbols but also as individuals.

At its core, Hatarake Kentauros is about the stories of individuals. It’s not about social justice or about men in love with other men. est em’s Equus (released at the same time as Hatarake Kentauros), on the other hand, is much more raw. In my opinion, it’s also more artistic. Some of the book’s stories have almost no dialog, and the impressionistic yet forceful lines with which the centaurs of Equus are drawn emphasize their muscularity and masculinity. These centaurs are sexy – especially when they’re having sex with each other. The stories of Equus do not limit themselves to contemporary Japan but look back to other times and places in which centaurs lived freely in the wilderness apart from human habitation or were inherited from father to son like slaves. Equus makes a clear connection between otherness, sexiness, sexualization, and discrimination, and it’s not afraid to hit the reader where it hurts.

I could write much more about Equus and Hatarake Kentauros, but, to make a long story short, these two manga are brilliant, genius-level works. If you can read Japanese – and even if you can’t read Japanese – it’s absolutely worth the ridiculous shipping rates of Amazon.co.jp to import these two books from Japan.

ETA: Hatarake Kentauros will also be available via JManga starting on Thursday, April 19.

Reimagining Japan

Title: Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works
Editors: Brian Salsberg, Clay Chandler, and Heang Chhor
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: VIZ Media
Pages: 464

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty short essays on the future of Japan after an earthquake, a nuclear meltdown, and twenty years of economic stasis. The essayists brought together by this collection are mainly industry leaders and influential journalists, with a few academics and NPO-associated researchers thrown in for spice. In their essays, these luminaries speculate on what went wrong with Japan’s economic and social infrastructures and propose strategies to reinvigorate the country in the wake of the recent disasters.

I found this book to be infuriating. Here are five reasons why.

(1) The overgeneralizations. These generalizations tend to be made not about the economy, for which there are internationally recognized systems of characterization on the macro level, but rather about the Japanese people. Statistical demographic analysis is thrown to the wind as the reader is told, in essay after essay, that Japan is an aging society, that Japanese women don’t work, that there are no immigrants in Japan, and that the Japanese are a race of mindless automatons. Ironically, every other essay seems to offer the opposite set of generalizations. Women do work, Japan is filled with immigrants, and the Japanese are a highly individualistic people (everyone agrees that the population is aging, though). There are also generalizations about the relationship between the government and privately-owned industry and corporations. Government reliance on the private sector is good, government reliance on the private sector is bad. The government should regulate corporate activity, the government should not regulate corporate activity. This difference of opinion is not bad in and of itself, but when different people state radically different “facts” about the same issue, the validity of said facts is obviously called into question.

(2) The bad economics. Aside from a class in eighth grade and a class in my freshman year of college, I have never formally studied economics. I do not claim to be an expert on economic theory or practice. I genuinely respect people who do have this expertise. That being said, I don’t think telling an entire country of people how to behave constitutes a sound economic policy. An overwhelming number of the essayists in Reimaging Japan suggest that the Japanese economy will be revived if only “the Japanese” begin behaving in a radically different manner. There are some really strange examples of this type of thinking scattered throughout the book, such as when Pico Iyer obliquely blames the decline in Japanese economic productivity on women wearing makeup (with young women wearing makeup and older women wearing makeup being two separate economic issues, of course).

(3) Unchallenged assumptions. In an essay titled “Cool Is Not Enough,” Christopher Graves makes the following statement about Japan’s contents industry: “If Japan truly exports its wide array of anime and manga, foreign fans will discover that the content ranges from kawaii (super cute) to hentai (sexual perversion) interlaced with violence and dark apocalyptic visions. Real manga is not at all childlike and could cause an uproar in countries like the United States, whose people are likely to be outraged by scenes of rape or sex with an octopus.” In other words, most anime and manga in Japan is violent pornography, and Americans only tolerate Japanese popular culture because its true nature is hidden from them. I wonder, does Graves live in an alternate universe from our own, in which the vast majority of manga in Japan is indeed intended for a young audience, while a wide range of stories and genres are highly successful in America? How does the global CEO of a big-name international public relations firm make such silly and obvious mistakes, and why does anyone think it’s okay that his opinions and policy suggestions are based on such obvious and silly mistakes? These are questions I could ask regarding any number of the essayists in this book, who base their opinions on similarly ridiculous assumptions that they never question. A great deal of these assumptions come with no citations or corroborations, which is obviously problematic not just from an academic perspective but from the perspective of public and economic policy as well.

(4) An almost complete lack of concern over the environment. In an essay titled “Japan After People,” Alex Kerr goes off on one of his signature rants about how Japan is spoiling the beauty and sanctity of its natural heritage by lining its rivers with concrete and covering its mountains with sugi cypress trees. In the same essay, he laments the shrinking cities and rural depopulation caused by the country’s low birthrate. These two opinions, when placed side by side in a short essay, come off as somewhat contradictory. The last time I checked, fewer people means less strain on the environment, and more people along with less environmental destruction sounds an awful lot like having your cake and eating it too. Such environmental paradoxes appear throughout the book. Another remarkable contradiction is contained in the assertion, repeated across multiple essays, that Japan should emulate China. Not only are Chinese business practices not healthy on a social level, but they’re also terrifyingly destructive on an environmental level. The effects of global warming, such as extreme temperatures and drastically changing patterns of rainfall and drought, are very real and have a strong impact of economic stability. One might think that the incident at the Fukushima reactor would cause people to start taking environmental issues seriously, but all Reimagining Japan can offer is admiration of Chinese vitality and a call for more Japanese babies.

(5) Gender disparity. There are far, far more essays written by men in Reimagining Japan than essays written by women. While this may seem like a petty complaint on the surface, it becomes somewhat more troubling when one realizes that many of the issues addressed by these male essayists directly concern women. For example – where do all of those new Japanese babies that everyone wants come from? Also, I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to answer demands for a diverse and stable workforce if Japanese corporations made it easier for the female (more-than-)half of the population to be full-time employees. One might argue that, in an essay collection representing the opinions of industry and opinion leaders, that there are simply not enough high-profile women to go around, but this is simply not true. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that something so obviously useful as female opinions on gender issues would be overlooked by the editors.

There are a few diamonds in the rough (such as the essays by John Dower and Kumiko Makihara), but this collection as a whole is repetitive and a bit ridiculous. I don’t enjoy writing such negative reviews (and in fact I almost trashed this one unposted), but I thought someone should stand up and say that the sort of intellectual laziness that pervades Reimagining Japan is not okay. Let me repeat that: this is not okay. Still, there is enough that is good and interesting in this collection to make it worth browsing just so long as one remembers to think about what she reads instead of simply taking it at face value.

ETA: I really enjoyed reading this review of the collection, which echoes many of my criticisms but contains more information about the actual content. The author of the review seems to have enjoyed some of the essays I found particularly problematic (mainly because of their inherent sexism), but he does an excellent job of detailing the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

Gold Rush

Title: Gold Rush
Japanese Title: ゴールドラッシュ (Gōrudo Rasshu)
Author: Yū Miri (柳 美里)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2002 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Pages: 286

I recently stumbled across an article titled Reading List: Books to Help You Understand Japan, which is a transcript of a conversation between NPR’s Neal Conan, the Brooklyn-based poet Kimiko Hahn, and Donald Keene, who recently retired from Columbia University in order to live in Japan. When Hahn and Keene were asked to list their top five works for understanding Japan in the wake of the recent disasters that have beset the country, they fired off titles like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness. This bothers me for three reasons.

The first reason is the blatant cultural essentialism, or the idea that one can understand everything about contemporary Japan by reading texts written in the Heian period, as if nothing has changed in the past thousand years. It’s like saying that one can understand everything about contemporary America by reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Japanese people live (and have always lived) in harmony with nature and posses (and have always possessed) an innate understanding of the beauty of impermanence – and Americans are all God-fearing Puritans who stifle their artistic creativity and capitalistic interests in order to serve their small agricultural communities.

The second reason is the academic elitism. The Tale of Genji is indeed a great monument of Japanese literature. It is also more than a thousand pages long, written in a style that is frustratingly elliptical, and set in a time period and society that are fairly alien to anything a contemporary American (or Japanese) reader would be familiar with. Reading The Tale of Genji is hard, and reading it without guidance is even harder. To assume that even a highly educated and intelligent reader could just pick it up and understand the unadulterated beauty of every word is somewhat presumptuous. Hahn’s recommendation of two literary anthologies is even more baffling. It’s like saying, hey, if you can’t crack open a 421-page anthology of medieval literature and read it in one sitting, there must be something wrong with you.

The final reason is the utterly bizarre assumption that, in order to understand the contemporary Japanese imagination of disaster, one need not read anything either written or set later than 1945. This is doubly strange to me, as Donald Keene recently published an excellent translation of Oda Makoto’s 1998 novel The Breaking Jewel (Gyokusai), which depicts a Japanese soldier’s harrowing experiences during the last few weeks of the Pacific War. Moreover, even if tales of firebombings and severe food shortages and suicide attacks and two atomic bombs and total defeat and occupation by a foreign power wouldn’t give us any insight into postwar and post-earthquake Japanese society, perhaps something like Murakami Haruki’s After the Quake, written in the wake of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, presumably would. To suggest that we can best understand Japanese anxieties regarding nuclear power by reading the poetic travel diaries of Bashō is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

I think Yū Miri’s novel Gold Rush is a perfect antidote to the sort of essentialist thinking demonstrated in the conversation on NPR. Gold Rush is set in Yokohama’s Kogane-chō neighborhood, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of neighborhood filled with small bars, cheap restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. When most people think of Yokohama, they probably picture the swanky and high-tech Minato Mirai waterfront area or the upscale Motomachi shopping and residential district that serves as the setting of several Tanizaki and Mishima novels. Kogane-chō, however, is a grungy, run-down pleasure quarter that has seen better days, as is the neighboring Isezaki-chō. The streets are dirty, the Ōoka River is dirty, the karaoke bars are dirty, the train station is dirty, the cheap hotels under the railway bridge are dirty, and I imagine that even the many soaplands that dot the area are dirty. Gold Rush begins when four middle school boys pick up a high school girl in this neighborhood. They get her drunk, have her come with them to one of their houses, and then rape her. To be more precise, three of them rape her, and one of them watches.

The one who watches is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kazuki, and abetting a rape is just the beginning for him. If trigger warnings were applied to mainstream fiction, Gold Rush would be slapped with all of the big ones. Rape, violence, child abuse, murder, more rape, more child abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, sexism, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, more child abuse, and then more rape. There is also a particularly nasty scene in which Kazuki kills a dog with a golf club. One might question the existence of a plot buried under all of these triggers, but the plot isn’t really the point of the novel. The reader is instead engrossed in following Kazuki’s slow psychological deterioration from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. Kazuki is like Holden Caulfield on crack, and the reader can’t help but identify with his adolescent frustration at the realization that his life and his destiny are not entirely his own, even if he continually takes his rage one step too far. The people who surround Kazuki aren’t much better than he is in terms of acting like decent human beings, and the world they all live in is a bitter, nasty place. In a way, though, Gold Rush is also a twisted sort of love letter to Kogane-chō and the low city charm that permeates it.

Reading Gold Rush is like reading a full-length Ionesco play like Rhinocéros (or a Bret Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho) in that it’s trenchant and biting and brilliantly absurd, but difficult to actually read for the very same reasons. It doesn’t help that Gold Rush is two hundred and fifty pages of ultraviolence unmitigated by chapter breaks. If there’s a reason the novel won the Akutagawa Prize, however, it’s because the writing is excellent. Perhaps it’s also because the physical and psychological spaces written by Yū Miri are more than a little familiar to Japanese readers. So yes, classics like The Tale of Genji are very Japanese, but so is Gold Rush, which is written by a zainichi Korean telling a story about juvenile delinquency in a decaying neighborhood of a seedy commuter city. Yū is a good writer, she tells a good story, and Gold Rush is good Japanese literature. It might even give the reader some small insight into contemporary Japan as well.

Lala Pipo

Title: Lala Pipo
Japanese Title: ララピポ
Author: Okuda Hideo (奥田英郎)
Translator: Marc Adler
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 284

Lala Pipo is absolutely and utterly tasteless. If banality could have a nadir, Lala Pipo would be hovering somewhere just above it. Never have I read such a book that delights so much in its own complete lack of decency.

This is a good thing, obviously.

This collection of six stories starts off with the tale of a social dropout who stands on a chair to listen through the ceiling to his upstairs neighbor having sex. His biggest problem, namely, how to clean up the come that invariably winds up on his bedroom floor, is soon eclipsed by his overwhelming desire for bugging equipment from Akihabara. Everything goes downhill from there into even greater depths of depravity. I have no idea how the author manages it. I bow in awe before his mastery of the literary art form.

All levity aside, though, Lala Pipo is actually quite brilliant. As the back cover of the book tells us, its six stories are loosely connected. What it does not tell us is how. Sure, they’re all set in the same location – in the swollen and festering underbelly of Shibuya. Sure, they all end in the same way – with abrupt and heartbreaking and hilarious tragedy. And sure, they all share the same theme – laziness and poor judgment leading to bad things happening to not-so-good people. But the main connection between the stories is that an extremely minor character of one story always becomes the protagonist of the next. Although this may sound like a cheesy gimmick, it’s remarkably well played. In fact, it’s so well played that I hesitate to spoil it by describing the stories in any detail.

I must make an exception for the third story, “Light My Fire,” which stars an aging housewife whose boredom has lead her to a career in milf-themed pornography. This woman lives in a house of amazing filth and decrepitude, which she deals with by dusting cockroaches under the bedding and spraying cleaning solution up the stairs towards the second floor. Since she has grown tired of picking up after her husband, she has him sleep on the kitchen floor, where he can easily pick up after himself – or not. When she’s not forcing herself on her agent in a love hotel or idly masturbating on the sofa in front of the television, she amuses herself by reading her neighbor’s mail, which she surreptitiously opens using the steam from a tea kettle. Her neighbor starts to receive anonymous hate mail from someone who is annoyed by her dog, so she decides to play a prank on her neighbor by signing the name of her best friend to the letters. As the letters become progressively more deranged, however, even our resourceful heroine begins to harbor worries. Underneath the sordidness of stringy mucus and crusty vibrators runs a strong narrative propelled forward by several mysteries. Who is sending the letters? How long will the housewife be able to continue her career in pornography? Why is her house so filthy? What has she got up there on the second floor? Like all of the stories in this collection, “Light My Fire” is skillfully set up to draw the reader into the narrative despite the disgusting characters who people it.

Some people might dismiss Okuda’s work, filled as it is with engorged members and spoiled schoolgirls, as being blatantly misogynistic. To those people I give a gold star and a pat on the back, because yes, Okuda is openly misogynistic. He is also openly misanthropic in general, but that’s no reason to not read and enjoy Lala Pipo. Even now, almost two decades after the economic bubble burst, an outdated public discourse regarding home, family, and work is still going strong. People like sociologist Mary Brinton are still analyzing how ideas like “women need to be housewives and mothers” and “men need to find full-time employment at a company” are created and perpetuated through the education system and in the labor market. Buzzwords like “equality” and “flexibility” often emerge in organizational mission statements, but the underlying structures have yet to undergo the necessary evolution. Lala Pipo takes all of that cultural garbage and swiftly trashes it. The men in these stories are not productive and industrious. The women in these stories are not nurturing and self-sacrificing. Authority lies in the hands of the people who absolutely should not wield it, and society as a whole is portrayed as rotting solipsistically away. Okuda Hideo is a popular writer, and he’s a fun writer, but he’s dealing with some pretty heavy stuff here. If nothing else, Lala Pipo is a welcome break from the home drama and flower imagery of more “literary” Japanese writers.

To those of you who read In the Pool (translated by Giles Murray and released by Stone Bridge Press in 2006) and weren’t impressed – I wasn’t impressed either, but Lala Pipo is much, much better. To those of you who read In the Pool and thought it was awesome, Lala Pipo is more of the same but much, much better. Just so you know.