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.

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.