The Book of Tokyo

The Book of Tokyo

Title: The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction
Editors: Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks, and Masashi Matsuie
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Comma Press
Pages: 180

In his introduction to this collection of ten short stories, editor Michael Emmerich writes:

In a sense, you might say that the stories of this anthology unfold within a landscape more imagined than real – that they create a Tokyo of their own by drawing on a rather abstract sense of the moods of certain sections of the city, or on a vision of Tokyo and the smaller areas it comprises that is more conceptual than physical. (x)

This is a perfect description of The Book of Tokyo, which offers the reader less of a detailed illustration of an urban landscape than it does a vivid sense of the energy and potential generated by a city inhabited by 13.5 million people, every one of whom has a story.

In Furukawa Hideo’s “Model T Frankenstein,” a monster that may or may not be a shapeshifting goat escapes one of the Izu Islands on a ferry and makes his way to Tokyo to assume a new identity as a ‘Japanese.’ He has to kill a few people along the way, but he eventually makes a home for himself in Shinjuku. In “Picnic,” Ekuni Kaori sketches a relationship between a disaffected couple whose hobby is to have designer picnics in a park by their house, an activity that makes them marginally less alienated from one another. Kakuta Mitsuyo’s “A House for Two” is an ode to the trendy comforts of urban living. The pleasure the narrator derives from walking through the city has its roots in her relationship with her mother, whom she whom once bonded with over luxurious foreign clothes and who now commands a greater share of her affections than any man ever could.

The cosmopolitanism of Tokyo is on full display in Horie Toshiyuki’s “The Owl’s Estate,” in which the male narrator, a sushi chef and secondhand book dealer, finds himself in a strange rundown building in West Ikebukuro inhabited by foreign girls of dubious employ. In the end, though, there’s nothing particularly French or Australian or American about the way these girls enjoy drinking and laughing and being silly with each other. The single father protagonist of Yamazaki Nao-Cola’s “Dad, I Love You” must navigate his way through a maze of foreign brand names, cuisines, and business owners over the course of his day before coming home to his daughter, who encourages him to keep going with the joy she finds in things that transcend culture, such as how large the full moon looks in a clear night sky. The young woman who narrates Kanehara Hitomi’s “Mambo” doesn’t even care where she’s going when she gets into a taxi with a stranger; she’s just looking for adventure in the city.

Yoshimoto Banana’s “Mummy” encapsulates the theme of the entire collection, which is that every random encounter between strangers is accompanied by a galaxy of possibilities. A female undergrad agrees to be walked home by a male graduate student studying Egyptology. He cautions her that there’s a killer loose in the neighborhood, and it would be unsafe for her to go out alone. She suspects that he might be the murderer, but her physical attraction to him is so strong that she resigns herself to her fate. Although the grad student isn’t a criminal, he does turn out to be a complete weirdo, and the narrator has to forcibly restrain herself from judging him and the course his life takes after they go their separate ways. When surrounded by so many potential paths, she asks herself, how do you know that your own is “necessarily the correct and happiest one” (52)?

My favorite story in the collection is Kawakami Hiromi’s “The Hut on the Roof.” The main setting is an izakaya pub, where the divorced narrator, an English teacher, eats and drinks and hangs out with older men from her neighborhood. After becoming close to them through the process of exchanging casual but repeated interactions, she eventually learns the story behind the peculiar living arrangement of a local fishmonger who has befriended her. The story doesn’t have a plot, exactly, but it conveys an almost palpable sense of living your own individual life surrounded by people whom proximity has drawn into a loose yet friendly community.

Don’t let the cover fool you – despite the flying cranes and Shintō gate and temple and Chinese lanterns, the The Book of Tokyo is refreshingly contemporary. None of the stories translated for the collection was published before 2000, and reading them feels like walking through the twenty-first century just as much as it feels like walking around Tokyo. As Emmerich notes, it’s difficult to pin down the “Tokyo-ness” of these stories, but the reader who encounters them can’t help but be drawn into the living and breathing atmosphere of a huge and dynamic city.

The editing and story selection of The Book of Tokyo is excellent. I was so impressed that I ended up ordering several other titles in Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series, which include The Book of Gaza, The Book of Rio, and The Book of Liverpool.

Review copy provided by the wonderful people at Comma Press.

Vibrator

Vibrator

Title: Vibrator
Japanese Title: ヴァイブレータ (Vaiburēta)
Author: Akasaka Mari (赤坂 真理)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 155

Vibrator is not an easy book to read.

In the first twenty pages, the 31-year-old bulimic narrator describes her strategies for throwing up after meals. Apparently, the trick is to not allow the food to digest. Soda water helps too, it seems. Alcohol complicates matters, but it’s difficult to give up entirely, because it makes the voices go away.

As you might imagine, the narrator of Vibrator has Issues. The first third of the novel is occupied by her nerve-wracking, stream-of-consciousness jabber. What’s perhaps most disturbing about the narrator’s ranting is not that it so accurately reflects narratives of self-hatred and self-doubt, but that the circumstances she describes make her anxieties and self-destructive behavior seem entirely justified. Being an independent woman in a man’s world is hard, and the narrator knows that her beauty will fade as she grows older, thus depriving her of her only advantage over her male colleagues. Moreover, as a female journalist, the narrator is placed in situations in which she must comment not as a professional but as a representative member of her gender, which she finds banal and insulting. To anyone – male or female – who’s ever resented her job or lamented her relative lack of professional success, the narrator’s complaints will be painfully familiar.

One snowy night, after buying a liquid dinner in a Family Mart on her way home, the narrator almost runs headlong into a tracker-trailer on the edge of the convenience store parking lot. The driver, a twenty-something named Okabe, invites her into the cab. The narrator wants to spend more time observing the white world generated by the snow flurry, and she feels as if she has nothing to lose, so she accepts his offer. They talk while drinking, and before long they’re on the road to the northern Tōhoku region. Sex is involved, but more interesting than the smut is the intimacy of Okabe’s story about dropping out of high school to become a low-ranking member of a yakuza clan.

Vibrator is not quite a love story. At the end of the book, there’s no indication that the sudden relationship between the narrator and Okabe will amount to anything beyond the single ride they share. Still, it’s lovely to witness the garbled voices in the narrator’s head slowly fade as she is calmed by vibrations of the truck’s engine (the “vibrator” of the title) and Okabe’s placid self-assurance. Even if the narrator is unable to achieve any deep or permanent connection with Okabe, her escape from her own head and engagement with the landscapes flashing past the truck’s windows is satisfying and meaningful.

Vibrator may not an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worth reading, if only to witness the skill with which the translator, Michael Emmerich, has rendered its narrator’s many voices.

If you live in the United States, Hiroki Ryūichi’s 2003 cinematic adaptation of Vibrator is streaming on Netflix. The film features gorgeous long shots of the Japanese countryside, and the director effectively removes the characters from the narrator’s incessant stream-of-consciousness commentary, which creates an entirely different atmosphere for the story. Tom Mes highly recommends this movie, and it’s a beautiful interpretation of the novel.

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.

Manazuru

Title: Manazuru
Japanese Title: 真鶴 (まなづる)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 218

To return to the issue of sexism in literature (hopefully for the last time before laying it temporarily to rest), I think that, even as a book written by a man should not be automatically dismissed as sexist, so should a book written by a woman not be lauded simply because it was written by a woman. Take Manazuru, for instance. I love Kawakami Hiromi. For example, I think her 1998 collection of short stories, Kami-sama, was an imminently enjoyable exercise in magical realism, successful not only in its popular appeal but also in its critical reception. Her 1996 debut novel, Hebi o fumu, easily deserved all of the attention (like the Akutagawa Prize) that it won. Manazuru, on the other hand, is just plain boring.

The premise of the novel seems promising. Its protagonist is a writer named Kei, who lives in Tokyo with her mother and teenaged daughter. Her husband vanished twelve years ago, and now Kei finds herself inexplicably drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru. She is lead not only by her intuition but also by the ghost of a woman who occasionally appears and has conversations with her, albeit in a mostly antagonistic and cryptic way. Even though Kei is having an affair with a married man, she is still haunted by the memory of her husband, and she believes the key to his disappearance lies somewhere in Manazuru. Meanwhile, her daughter starts spending more and more time outside of the house, finally running away to meet someone whose identity she will not reveal. From this description, it would seem that several mysteries are afoot, each as compelling as the next.

Unfortunately, Manazuru is not the least bit interested in resolving any of these mysteries. What happened to Kei’s husband? We never find out. Who is the ghost that follows Kei around? We never find out. Who did the daughter run away with? We never find out. Answers are suggested in Kei’s garbled stream of consciousness narration, but then they are just as quickly dismissed. Did Kei kill her husband? Is the ghost that follows her around her husband’s dead lover? Did Kei’s daughter meet the ghost of her father? Maybe… But probably not.

In Manazuru’s defense, its plot is not its raison d’être. Its focus instead lies in the depiction of the mind of its protagonist in all of its complexity and confusion. Kei does not seem to know what she wants but is still searching for something, all the while immaculately and poetically detailing her experiences of drifting through life. Her thoughts give weight and meaning to the mundane, and she turns activities like riding the train into an art. Most of the novel is concerned with the details of her everyday life, like putting away her family’s winter clothes with her mother:

Handling so many different fabrics, heavy clothes, light clothes, makes my palms feel silky. I rise quietly, take the folded material from here to there. Bend down, lay it in a box. Fabric brushing against fabric, making the merest sound. Two women, one getting on in years, one starting to get on in years, pacing among the fabrics. With the tips of my fingers, I tear off the paper tag the cleaners stapled to the label last year. Replace the paper that lines the drawer, fold the old paper, throw it out. Straighten the new paper in the drawer, pile in the different materials, layer upon layer.

The same attention to style and detail is carried over into more dramatic moments, such as when Kei wanders around Manazuru, lead by a ghost in the middle of a storm. Such a narrative style drains such scenes of any sense of urgency, however, especially since Kei never seems to accomplish anything. The back of the book describes the novel as “a meditation on memory – a profound, precisely delineated exploration of the relationships between lovers and family members.” Indeed, if you’re into contemplative prose about the love and family lives of women, I suppose it doesn’t get much better than Manazuru.

Even if the front of the book didn’t declare it a “Recipient of the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature,” I think I still might have gotten the feeling that this book was published because of its close proximity to the stereotype of Japanese women’s writing: meandering novellas about the feelings of women who pay more attention than is absolutely necessary to flowers, plants, and the changing seasons. Kawakami has written work that is playful, creative, and fiercely intelligent. I wonder, then, why such a very very serious and very very emotional and very very “literary” (in a very, very outdated sense of the word) book of hers is the first to appear in English translation. Michael Emmerich is a brilliant translator, as always; but, after his 2009 translation of Matsuura Rieko’s wonderfully subversive The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, I feel that his talent has been somewhat wasted with a boring and rather vacuous book like Manazuru.

To return to the issue of fiction and gender, I was thinking about creating a new category for my reviews: “Women Writers.” However, reading Manazuru has convinced me that a writer should not be judged according to his or her gender; and, furthermore, that the reification of the gender of an author is not something I particularly wish to engage in and perpetuate. For the time being, then, I am going to hold off on the creation of this category and allow female writers to stand on equal ground with their male counterparts without being branded as “Women Writers” and having to bear all the cultural baggage that comes with the label.