The Last Children of Tokyo

Title: The Last Children of Tokyo
Japanese Title: 献灯使 (Kentōshi)
Author: Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子)
Translator: Margaret Mitsutani
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2018 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 138

In the future – but not long in the future – Japan has secluded itself from the rest of the world. The environment is saturated with toxic substances, it’s dangerous to go near the sea, and most animals have disappeared from the wild. Humans still live on the Japanese archipelago, but their society has changed. Adults born in our own time live long lives and continue working well past their hundredth birthdays, while children born in the present of the novel have trouble retaining nutrients from food and are often too weak for sustained physical activity. Young and healthy people in their sixties and seventies do everything in their power to immigrate to Okinawa or the north of Japan, where agriculture still thrives, while Tokyo suffers from depopulation.

A novelist named Yoshiro still lives in Tokyo, where he cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei is fascinated by pictures of animals that have recently gone extinct, while Yoshiro similarly spends his time looking back on the gradual shifts and changes in Japanese society. Each of Yoshiro’s memories is a sustained flight of magical realism that often has very little to do with the conventions of science fiction or dystopian fantasy. The Last Children of Tokyo is not about social critique through the medium of apocalypse, nor does it have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of everyday life in contemporary Japan in a mirror that’s mostly accurate but has a few interesting distortions.

Some of these distortions offer a speculative interpretation of how daily life has changed as a result of Japan’s recent demographic shifts.

The names of some of the older holidays were changed: “Respect for the Aged Day” became “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” while “Children’s Day” was now “Apologize to Children Day”; “Sports Day” was changed to “Body Day” to avoid upsetting children who were not growing up big and strong; so as not to hurt the feelings of young people who wanted to work but simply weren’t strong enough, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.” (43-44)

Other distortions magnify current practices out of proportion, making them seem like harbingers of social collapse.

He heard the phrase “Baby Carriage Movement” from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mothers who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they’d had the night before, or because being cooped up all day with a squalling infant stimulates memories of the mother’s own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a “baby carriage mark” in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to. (67)

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still a center of population, and Yoshiro can’t bring himself to leave the city as social services crumble, public transportation breaks down, and people resort to eating weeds. Even in decline, it seems, Tokyo is still home to many vibrant communities.

Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realize that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though their houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo. (60-61)

In The Last Children of Tokyo, the city of Tokyo is less of a physical location than it is a collection of people who, as a society, have developed a fascinating set of collective quirks. The novel has very little plot to speak of, allowing the reader to take in the sights as its narration slowly meanders between times and places. The last forty or so pages shift to Mumei’s perspective as he becomes involved in a secret plan to leave the Japan, but there’s no sense of urgency regarding the matter; and, like the rest of the novel, the ending is meant to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. Tawada’s writing is given form by its abstractions, most of which can be interpreted by the reader in multiple ways and pursued in multiple directions. As a result, The Last Children of Tokyo is neither a particularly hopeful nor a particularly grim novel. It’s an odd book and an entertaining thought experiment, and Tawada playfully invites her readers to join her on a journey through a Tokyo that doesn’t exist – at least, not yet.

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 Graveyard Apartment

the-graveyard-apartment

Title: The Graveyard Apartment
Japanese Title: 墓地を見おろす家 (Bochi o miorosu ie)
Author: Koike Mariko (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 325

Kano Misao and her husband Teppei have found the perfect apartment. It’s quiet and spacious with southern exposure, and it’s in a new, modern building. Sure, this building happens to be right next door to a graveyard, but it’s the 1980s, and the pleasant proximity to an open green space outweighs any sort of silly superstitious stigma. The only problem is that strange things always seem to be happening in the basement. It might be that the building is haunted, but why? And what would the ghosts want from Misao and Teppei?

Like many other haunted house stories, The Graveyard Apartment is, at its heart, a family drama. Misao and Teppei are happy together with their five-year-old daughter Tamao and their dog Cookie, but the bright little family is trailed by the dark shadow of Teppei’s first wife Reiko, who was driven to suicide by her husband’s affair with Misao. When the stress of the paranormal activity in their new apartment places stress on Misao and Teppei’s relationship, the fault lines of their marriage begin to crack. The novel opens inauspiciously with the death of Tamao’s pet bird Pyoko, who the girl claims now visits her in dreams. Misao and Teppei’s disagreement over how to handle their daughter’s insistence on the reality of the supernatural is the first of many arguments, which gradually escalate over the course of the story.

The Graveyard Apartment is not The Shining, however, and the ghosts troubling the family are not manifestations of buried psychosexual traumas – they are, most assuredly, actual vengeful spirits. The horror of the novel derives from the fact that, despite the lingering guilt over Reiko’s suicide, the malice of the building’s ghosts could not be directed at a more normal and easygoing family. If a sweet young mother and fledgling illustrator like Misao can find herself trapped in a claustrophobic basement while unknown things approach unseen in the darkness, it could happen to anyone.

It turns out that the apartment building is a remnant of a failed development project from the 1960s that would have resulted in an underground shopping plaza connecting the basements of several office and residence buildings to the local train station. The neighborhood temple resisted this development and refused to sell or subdivide its land, however, and so the tunnel under the graveyard was left unfinished, with the Kanos’ building the only part of the project that came to fruition. The link between the temple graveyard and the ghosts in the basement is extremely tenuous (especially since the point of Buddhist funerary rites is to pacify angry spirits), but the haunting can be more easily understood as the consequences of the era high economic growth, which has finally started to claim victims as the bubble economy begins to collapse in on itself.
The Kanos were led to believe that they could have it all – Teppei could divorce his old-fashioned wife and marry for love, Misao could have both a child and a freelance career in a creative field, and they could find a reasonably priced apartment in a convenient location to house their happy family. It had to be too good to be true, right?

Originally published in 1988, The Graveyard Apartment is a reflection of the anxieties concerning the optimistic consumerism of the 1980s, in which an ideal middle-class lifestyle was widely considered to be glossy and attainable as the magazines Misao illustrates. Although the real threat to families ended up being overinflated property values, Koike’s ghosts are creepy enough on their own even without any sort of economic allegory, and the end of the novel is genuinely disturbing. The Graveyard Apartment is a satisfying slow burn of a haunted house story perfectly suited to its setting in Tokyo, and I highly recommend it to my fellow fans of horror fiction.

( Review copy provided by Thomas Dunne Books. )

Strangers

Strangers

Title: Strangers
Japanese Title: 偉人たちとの夏 (Ijintachi to no natsu)
Author: Yamada Taichi (山田 太一)
Translator: Wayne P. Lammers
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1987 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 203

A 48-year-old television script writer named Harada is having a tough time of it. Having divorced his wife, he now lives by himself in a small apartment in a mostly empty building. A drama series he was supposed to work on has been canceled, and a friend and colleague has announced his intentions to pursue Harada’s ex-wife. After Harada’s friend informs him that they can no longer work together, he wanders in a haze until one day he decides to return to the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo where he grew up. On a whim he enters a rakugo performance, where he catches sight of a man who looks just like his late father. When the man goes out for a cigarette, Harada follows him and ends up being invited to the man’s home, where a woman who looks exactly like his late mother is waiting for them.

Around the same time, Harada has a strange encounter with a woman in her thirties whom he has nodded to a few times in the lobby of his building. Late one evening she shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne, remarking on how it’s eerie that the two of them are the only humans in the building. Because he’s still reeling from the emotional impact of his friend’s pronouncement regarding his wife, Harada tells her that he’s busy. When he calls her a week later, however, she gladly comes over. She makes romantic overtures and says she’ll sleep with him on the condition that he promises not to look at a mysterious wound on her chest. Is she just shy, or is something more sinister going on?

Harada’s ghost parents are charming and hospitable, so he continues visiting them. Harada’s father, a sushi chef, exhibits the charming gruffness and bluster of a stereotypical tradesman from the Shitamachi “old Tokyo” area in east Tokyo, and his mother is a sweet and gentle woman who loves her husband and son despite their flaws and amuses herself by playing old-fashioned games with hanafuda cards. Unlike Harada’s barren neighborhood in Shinjuku, Asakusa is full of warmth, and returning to his parents feels like stepping back into an idealized past in the postwar era.

Harada feels more alive than he has in years, but the people around him keep remarking on how terrible he looks. His new girlfriend seems especially concerned, and the intensity of her emotions is almost frightening. What does she want from him? What do his deceased parents want from him? Will he live long enough to find out?

Although Strangers plays with an interesting set of themes, the novel feels somewhat shallow. Harada is introspective but never arrives at any striking realizations about himself, and he’s too self-absorbed to make any serious attempts to understand the behavior of the people around him. Unfortunately, this Harada’s position as the point-of-view character renders the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes. Why do Harada’s parents return to the world of the living to see him? Because all parents love their children, of course. Why does Harada’s ex-wife pick fights with him? Because all women are crazy, of course. Why doesn’t Harada’s college-age son want to talk to him? Because all young people are ungrateful and temperamental, of course.

To me, Harada came off as an embodiment of male entitlement, and the books ends with his preconceptions justified and his place in the world reaffirmed. His seeming inability to change himself as the world changes around him is presented in a romantic light, as are the noble struggles of middle aged dudes everywhere. I didn’t find this story particularly engaging, but perhaps I’m simply not the intended audience.

Strangers is neither grisly nor subversive enough to inspire chills, but as a ghost story it offers an interesting theory on how different parts of Tokyo are haunted.

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.

Marshmallow Bungaku Girl

Marshmallow Bungaku Girl

Title: Marshmallow Bungaku Girl
Japanese Title: ましまろ文學ガール (Mashimaro bungaku gāru)
Alternate Title: Mädchen Marshmallow Literatur
Artist: Amano Taka (天乃 タカ)
Publisher: enterbrain (エンターブレイン)
Publication Dates: 6/27/2011 – 2/15/2013
Volumes: 2

In the late Meiji Period, as Japan undergoes the process of modernization, Hoshino Mone is a student at an all-girls private high school in Tokyo, where she lives with her male guardian, Sei. Although a young woman’s duty is to be beautiful and modest so as to become a suitable bride, Mone has a different dream – she wants to write literature! Literature (the bungaku of the manga’s title) is believed to corrupt women, so Mone cuts off her braids, dons schoolboy clothing, and joins an all-male literature club. Although she must face a bit of drama concerning her choices, the friends Mone makes help her hone her talents and offer her inspiration as they take her on adventures around town. The handsome young literary illustrator Nasuhito knows Mone’s secret but believes in her potential. Nasuhito’s respect for Mone as a fellow artist is not the only source of his warm feelings for her, however.

Although Bungaku Girl was published in the seinen magazine Fellows! – the former name of Kadokawa’s prestige-format monthly serial Harta (ハルタ) – it reads like a shōjo manga from the 1990s, when the influence of series such as Fushigi Yûgi and Cardcaptor Sakura injected elements of gender bending and bishōnen harems into even the most prosaic romance stories. All of the young men in the literature club are impossibly gorgeous, and everyone is decked out in immaculate period dress. There’s a hint of yuri provided by the radiant high school princess Sono, another literature fan who becomes enamored of Mone’s courage and independent spirit, but there are no elements of the male gaze to be found in the manga’s story or art. Instead, there are touches of Mori Kaoru in the close attention paid to historically accurate fabrics, interiors, street scenes, and city vistas.

Bungaku Girl is less about Mone’s cross-dressing and gender identity than it is about her commitment to doing whatever it takes to find a supportive community for what she loves. Many of the story’s most powerful moments occur when the characters are being creative – when Mone is writing, or when Nasuhito is drawing, for instance – and these moments are reinforced by being framed within the sense of belonging to a group of people all working together to share their ideas and produce something tangible. For us nerds who have studied modern Japanese literary history, there are pleasurable echoes of the student groups, coterie magazines, and research trips into pleasure districts associated with real-life literary figures.

This two-volume series is only available in Japanese, but it would be really cool if someone were to license it in North America. The story is simple and charming, the characters are adorable, and the art is clean and attractive. Bungaku Girl offers love, drama, and interesting imagery, not to mention encouragement to leave your comfort zone and live your dreams!

Bungaku Girl Volume 1 Page 23

I… want to join your literature club!