Indian Summer

Title: Indian Summer
Japanese Title: 小春日和(インディアン・サマー)
Koharu biyori (Indian samā)
Author: Kanai Mieko (金井 美恵子)
Translators: Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Cornell East Asia Series
Pages: 149

Nineteen-year-old Momoko has managed to pass the entrance exam of a university in Tokyo, and her mother has decided that she will stay with her aunt, a middle-aged novelist who lives in the Meijiro neighborhood of West Tokyo. Momoko’s aunt is a free spirit with a difficult personality, but that’s just fine with Momoko, who is more than a little quirky herself. Momoko occasionally goes to class or goes out drinking, and her aunt occasionally gets her act together and publishes something, but mostly they hang around the house together being useless.

Kanai Mieko is known for her surreal and often disturbing fiction, but there are no dark or upsetting themes in Indian Summer. In their introduction to the novel, translators Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley describe it as “girls’ literature,” meaning “not simply the new or older ‘chick lit’ or the juvenile fiction and romance targeted at female audiences but more widely any literature that has attracted the sustained interest of (and has often been produced by) ‘girls’ (young women and their sympathizers).”

Indian Summer was published in 1988, the same year as Yoshimoto Banana’s famous girls’ literature novella Kitchen, and both stories reflect the heady energy of the consumer culture at the end of the bubble years. Unlike Kitchen, however, Indian Summer has more of a satirical bite, with Momoko expressing a lazy disdain for the sort of concerns celebrated by women’s magazines, such as clothing and romance. One target of Momoko’s annoyance is her divorced father, who lives in Tokyo and works as a hotel manager. He makes a series of clueless attempts to bond with his daughter by taking her out to nice stores and fancy restaurants and offering fashion advice, but Momoko is not impressed. Her main concern is avoiding the girlfriend for whom her father left her mother, but this “girlfriend” turns out to be a beautiful young man. To Momoko’s complete lack of surprise, gay romance turns out to be just as tawdry and boring as straight romance, for which she has zero patience.

Momoko lets off steam with her college friend Hanako, whose father is also an embarrassment, especially in his insistence that his precious daughter is too good for things like a part-time job. Neither of the girls particularly cares what any men think of them, however, and in their lack of concern they are passively supported by Momoko’s aunt, who just wants to drink and write. These three women drift through their days together, not marching to the beat of any drum at all as they enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes they talk about their lives, and sometimes they talk about books and movies, but mostly they just chill out. Because of the charm and wit of Kanai’s writing, this is a lot more interesting than it sounds, but there’s no denying that Indian Summer is a light and refreshing novel that isn’t meant to challenge its reader.

Interspersed between the chapters of the novel are Momoko’s aunt’s essays on everything ranging from motherhood to abortion to Roland Barthes to the foibles of bourgeois women. These short interludes are inspired by the aunt’s day-to-day life with her niece and provide a sort of parallax view on the events of the story. While Momoko tends toward a negative assessment of the world around her, her aunt’s opinions are more tongue-in-cheek, but the two women are still very much alike in their casual nonchalance.

Because of its inclusion of these “non-fiction” essays, and because of its lack of a clearly definable plot, Indian Summer is a strange little book that’s difficult to categorize. That being said, Kanai’s writing is a lot of fun and genuinely humorous. I would recommend this short novel to people who enjoy the breezy sort of fiction characteristic of 1980s Japan but who would appreciate something a bit more grounded and intelligent than the romance and science fiction from that decade that had previously appeared in translation.

Moshi Moshi

moshi-moshi

Title: Moshi Moshi
Japanese Title: もしもし下北沢 (Moshi moshi Shimokitazawa)
Author: Yoshimoto Banana (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 209

A year after her father dies in a suicide pact, twenty-something Mitsuharu Yoshie moves to the hipster neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, where she works part-time at a small bistro. Everything is going reasonably well for her until her mother suddenly decides to move in with her. Yoshie had been looking forward to leaving the nest and striking out on her own, but her mother claims that her father’s ghost has begun to haunt their old apartment, so what can she do?

Moshi Moshi is like a glossy lifestyle magazine in the form of a novel. Yoshie and her mother float through their days in Shimokitazawa, eating delicious food, buying nice things, and gradually getting to know their neighbors. Yoshie is serious about her work in the Les Liens bistro, and her mother is serious about pulling herself out of the mire of her former role as a housewife, but they have no money worries and are quite comfortable together.

The only shadow on their bright days is the death of Yoshie’s father Imoto, who played keyboard in a rock band. The official story is that he committed suicide with a much younger woman, but neither Yoshie nor her mother has any idea why an otherwise grounded and stable man would have consented to such an extreme act of desperation. One day, Yoshie randomly runs into a frequent diner at her bistro. The man’s name is Shintani, and he happens to own a club where Imoto’s band often played. Shintani takes this opportunity to tell Yoshie that there was something very strange about the woman her father ran off with. He also tells Yoshie that he’s falling in love with her.

Shintani is a typical Yoshimoto male love interest who could have walked straight out of the pages of a shōjo manga magazine. He is gentle, kind, and attractive in a nonthreatening way:

Shintani-kun still ate beautifully, and the pot-au-feu disappeared into his mouth with dreamy alacrity. As he ate, he looked out the window peacefully. He always wore nice shoes. (96)

Once they start seeing each other, Yoshie and Shintani bond in the same way that Yoshie and her mother do, namely, by visiting cool restaurants and bars and eating tasty and unusual dishes. It is their shared consumption of trendy food and chic clothes and music that brings them together, and Shimokitazawa is the perfect backdrop for this featherlight drama of consumerism. Yoshie’s mother is also healed by her immersion in hipster paradise:

When I saw her reading manga with her belly out, shedding tears while murmuring, “I understand, of course you want to go back and live in the cave,” I was filled up with the thought that this woman hadn’t done anything wrong, and didn’t deserve any of this.

Yes, Shimokitazawa was a little like a mountain cave in the outlands, where people who found it difficult to keep up with the vagaries of the world could live quietly, as they wanted. Even people who’d been left behind, like me and Mom. (88)

This laid-back atmosphere is occasionally juxtaposed against Yoshie and her mother’s former home in Meguro, a pricey neighborhood just south of Shibuya. Meguro is too upscale for the two women to be true to themselves, but they’re finally able to relax and find a comfortable community in Shimokitazawa, which welcomes sweet and slightly quirky people into its patchwork of quaint stores and cafés. The last sentence in the author’s Afterword aptly sums up the message of the book: “I only pray for the survival of all the many fine shops that still quietly continue to exist” (206).

Moshi Moshi has something vaguely resembling a plot, but the story isn’t really the point of the novel. Rather, the reader is bathed in the warm flow of Yoshimoto’s words while experiencing of the charm of the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. The novel is comforting, like drinking hot chocolate on a cold day. Just don’t expect any bold or complicated flavors, and you won’t be disappointed.

The Lake

Title: The Lake
Japanese Title: みずうみ (Mizuumi)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Melville House
Pages:188

I have been waiting for this book to come out for months. When it finally did, I read it in one sitting. As with many of Yoshimoto’s novels, it was occasionally frustrating, but I liked it. I guess one could say that The Lake is typical Yoshimoto. Allow me to explain.

The novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Chihiro, comes from a non-traditional family, works in a non-traditional profession, never worries about material things like money or the future even though she’s almost thirty, and seems to float through life, although she has hidden depths:

It’s like when you decide to build a house: some people want to go and find the land first, then hire an architect to help them draw up plans, and then choose the materials for the walls and everything on their own. I’m not like that. I prefer to wander around until I stumble across something, then I do the best I can with it, scrutinizing this thing I’ve discovered, getting to know it for what it is.

The heroine meets her love interest in an offbeat and untraditional way – in this case, he lives across the street from her, and they wave to each other from their respective windows until he talks to her on the street and casually starts showing up in her apartment. This love interest, Nakajima, is a grad student (first warning sign) and a stereotypical herbivore male:

I got the sense that he wasn’t really into sex, and he was shockingly thin, and although there were days when he would consume an astonishing amount, ordinarily he ate almost nothing, so overall he didn’t seem very energetic.

Nakajima is a little weird. Besides not having any friends and never wanting to sleep with our protagonist, he also exhibits behavioral quirks, such as his insistence on keeping detailed tallies of the money he owes Chihiro for using water and electricity when he stays over at her place. But Chihiro is still in love with him:

Whenever Nakajima said my name, every single time, it sparkled like a treasure. I had no idea why. Wow – did you see how that flashed? Say it again for me, please!

Chihiro gradually comes to realize that there is something seriously wrong with Nakajima; but, since she’s become attached to him, she decides to take it slow. As she ever so articulately explains to a friend:

“Anyway, he’s not like other people at all, it’s like, I don’t know how to describe it, like he’s living in the clouds, maybe. Like when people talk about someone having transcended it all – he’s like that, I guess. So part of me thinks it’s just in his makeup, and he would have been this way even if nothing had happened. For the time being I’ll just keep watching, I won’t rush it.”

Finally, Nakajima asks Chihiro to go with him to visit two old acquaintances who live in a cottage by a lake. Chihiro has been worried that Nakajima will leave her, either physically (by suddenly disappearing from her apartment) or psychically (by entering a long-term catatonic trance). She’s also bothered by his plans to leave Japan and study in Paris, which don’t seem to include her at all. She thinks about her anxieties as she walks around the lake with a trembling and profusely sweating Nakajima, but she still supports him, because:

He was an adult, perhaps thirty-five or so, and yet he was extremely small, like a child. His face seemed kind of shrunken, giving him the look of a bulldog. His eyes were sparkling, though, and there was something noble in the way he carried himself.

Do you feel like you’re reading a shōjo manga yet?

The narrative is driven forward by a twinned pair of mysteries: who are the people who live on the lake, and what is Nakajima’s damage? Both mysteries are solved when Chihiro returns to the lake on her own around thirty pages before the book ends; and, to give the author credit, they are resolved quite nicely and sufficiently satisfied my morbid, look-at-the-car-wreck curiosity. Still, I wasn’t too terribly invested in figuring out what was going on (the blurb on the book jacket sort of spoils it with its overt mention of religious cults), and I didn’t really care about the relationship between Chihiro and Nakajima, which was more hurt/comfort than actual romance.

What was interesting to me were the descriptions of small-town politics. The majority of the story is set in Tokyo, but Chihiro comes from a small town where her father wasn’t allowed to marry her mother, who worked as the mama-san of a small bar. Chihiro’s assessment of her father’s family, the patrons of her mother’s bar, and the atmosphere of the town in general are acerbic and insightful. Also, Chihiro works as a muralist, and one of her friends commissions her to create a mural on one of the walls of a run-down community center in a small neighborhood in Tokyo in an effort to save the structure from being demolished. The interplay between Chihiro, the community center, the local government, and a potential sponsor of the project is dramatic in a quiet sort of way, and Chihiro’s explanations of her creative process as she interacts with the people who watch her work are also interesting.

If you like Banana Yoshimoto for her quirky characters, fragmented yet loving families, and universes almost like our own but one step closer to the supernatural, then you’ll like The Lake. If you dislike Banana Yoshimoto for the lack of adult judgment in her characters and her rambling, juvenile prose (which is tight like a handful of squirming hamsters), then you probably won’t like The Lake. For the record, I like the book, and I also think Michael Emmerich did an excellent job of translating it.

Solanin

Solanin

Title: solanin
Japanese Title: ソラニン
Author: Asano Inio (浅野いにお)
Translator: JN Productions
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 428

Is manga literature? In some cases, like Urasawa Naoki’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, one could make a very strong positive argument. Some manga, however, like Bleach or Yuzawa Ai’s Nana series, are nothing more than once promising but now over-bloated cash cows. On the other hand, many of my favorite manga, like Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&!, are not literature simply because they are masterpieces of a completely different art form.

But Asano Inio’s 420 page work Solanin is literature, no doubt about it. Like many Japanese narratives, it is driven not so much by plot as by character development and a fascination with the beauty of everyday life, which sounds like a Hallmark greeting card but is actually quite gritty and satisfying. Unlike a great deal of manga, Solanin deals with the problems of Japanese young people who are not sailor-suited schoolgirls and have already passed through their fun and fancy-free college years. In other words, the protagonists of Solanin have already grown up, or at least are trying to. I suppose that, in this way, Solanin is like a more focused and mature version of Umino Chika’s popular shōjo manga Honey and Clover, which chronicles the struggles and heartbreaks of a group of friends who have just graduated from art school.

As I said, there isn’t much to discuss in terms of plot (although there are some fairly gut-wrenching twists in the story), but the basic premise of the manga is that the protagonist, Mieko, who has just graduated from college and moved in with her boyfriend, has gotten sick of her boring office job and creepy boss and decided to quit working for a few months. During this time, she focuses on her friends and boyfriend, who had formed a rock band together in college. Mieko wants her guitarist boyfriend Naruo, who also feels suffocated at work, to get the band back together and be more serious about his music and his dreams, which drives the story forward but causes tension between the two. What ends up happening is way beyond what the characters – or the readers – suspect. The ending of the manga isn’t happy, necessarily, but it is fulfilling.

Although the focus of the narrative is on Mieko, occasionally chapters will be told from the point of view of another character, like Mieko and Naruo’s friends Rip (the drummer) and Kato (the bassist). These chapters rarely have anything to do with the main story but are still interesting, especially in how they highlight different aspects of the group dynamic within the circle of friends. The alternate narrative chapters also provide the majority of the manga’s comic relief, which is actually quite funny in a quiet sort of way.

Although the characters and narrative style alone make Solanin worth reading, what really made me pick up this book and buy it was the artwork. The character designs, though simple, are very appealing. I also feel that, within the limits of Asano’s personal style, they are realistic in the way they depict different body types and facial expressions. The background art is wonderfully realistic, which is extraordinary when you realize how much of it there is. Unlike most manga, which only provide a panel of background art every page or two, Solanin is filled with beautiful drawings of the scenery and landscape of the Tokyo suburbs. Even if you think Solanin’s story is just basic Banana Yoshimoto style angsty emo crap (although, in my mind, it never gets that bad), the artwork makes the whole thing worthwhile. Really, it’s gorgeous.

So, although the cover isn’t that appealing, and although the $17.99 price tag is pretty hefty, I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m really happy I gave it a chance, despite my misgivings.

Just to give a feel for the art style, I’ll post some images from the manga. I apologize for the poor scanning quality…

Solanin Page 1

Solanin Page 2