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.

Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness

Title: Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness
Japanese Title: キーリ ― 死者たちは荒野に眠る
(Kiiri: Shishatachi wa kōya ni nemuru)
Author: Kabei Yukako (壁井 ゆかこ)
Illustrator: Taue Shunsuke (田上 俊介)
Translator: Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 228

Kieli is one of those hauntingly pretty girls whose special blood and pure heart allow her to see things unnoticed by others. Harvey is one of those chiseled copper-haired boys who is seventeen and has been seventeen for a long time. When their paths cross seemingly at random, Harvey finds himself charmed by Kieli, and Kieli finds herself dazzled by Harvey… Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

What’s special about this novel isn’t its love story, however, but rather its setting. In her “Afterword,” the author says, “Wasted planets, steampunk, old-fashioned radios, rusty machines, old oil. It would make me as happy as I could be if all of you who like dilapidated things and react to that kind of vocabulary like this book.” I hope the author is indeed as happy as she can be, since her book is perfect for anyone who enjoys the atmosphere conjured by such words. Kieli is set on a dying planet where society still functions to a certain degree as life crumbles to dust in stages. This decay pervades every corner of the novel:

The next morning, when Kieli opened her eyes she was lying on a sofa with broken springs in the waiting room, wrapped in her coat and a dusty old blanket.

The clinic had completely fallen to ruin. Yellow sand and dust had settled below the crisp, clear, cold morning air, and the once clean, white paint on the walls had faded to yellow and peeled off in places, showing the concrete wall underneath.

Kieli spent a while walking through the deserted house, looking for Harvey, the floor creaking with every step she made. When she went up to the second floor, the plants that decorated the balcony had withered to nothing, and only the cracked pots remained under the nebulous morning light.

Everything in Kieli’s world is slowly falling apart. Isolated cities are separated by vast stretches of desert, small villages that serve as way stations along the side of railway lines are slowly shrinking in population, and the wasteland outside habited areas is still littered with the detritus for a war over natural resources that petered out a hundred years ago. Kieli is strangely suited to life in this world, as she possess the unusual ability to see and interact with the ghosts of the dead, who are seemingly more numerous than actual living people. Through the mischief of her dead roommate, Kieli encounters Harvey, who used to be a soldier in the war. Harvey is a creation known an as Undying, a class of artificial beings powered by mechanical cores of pure energy. Aside from his bad attitude, Harvey seems mostly harmless until he unwittingly drags Kieli into a conspiracy concerning the Church that governs Kieli’s world. The two are accompanied by the ghost of an older man known as the Corporal, who resides in the shell of an old radio and provides both insight and comic relief. In an environment where everything is dead or dying, Kieli and Harvey shine brightly as they find adventure and new life in each other’s company.

Since Kieli is a light novel, it receives the full graphic treatment, with eight full-color anime-style illustrations at the front of the book and a number of black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book’s chapters. The tropes of the novel are not specific to Japanese popular media, and they should appeal to a wider audience for young adult fiction. Kieli is an orphan who lives in a boarding school, where she is misunderstood and unappreciated by her peers. Harvey is an angsty, brooding badass who has a soft side that he keeps hidden in order to survive in a harsh world. The spirit of the Corporal residing in Harvey’s radio is a grumpy old man who cheerfully dispenses humorous complaints. The Church is mysterious and sinister, and its agents are genuinely frightening.

A shortcoming of many light novels published in translation is that their language is more manga-like than literature-like, by which I mean that its primary purpose is to shoot the reader forward as quickly as possible through a series of increasingly improbable events. Kieli occasionally suffers from this style of narration, but it usually allows the reader time to linger over events and absorb the story’s atmosphere. The translation of Kabei’s prose is lucid and engaging, inviting the reader to enter Kieli’s world without fussing over translation notes and awkwardly translated dialog. Occasionally a character will bow to another character, but the novel otherwise has very little “cultural odor.” Because of the quality of the translation, I found myself reading not just for the story but also for the pleasure of reading such straightforward and well edited language. I also feel the same way about the translation of the Spice and Wolf light novels, and I can’t help but offer my most profound thanks to the editorial staff at Yen Press for doing such an excellent job with their releases.

Kieli ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, but its sequels have already been published by Yen Press, which seems to be keeping up a steady release schedule. I don’t know why I waited so long to start reading this series, because it’s really quite good. I can’t wait to read the next volume!