Having enjoyed several of Comma Press’ excellent series of city books (The Book of Rio, The Book of Gaza and the Chinese Collection Shi Cheng: Ten Cities), when I heard that a Japanese version was being published, I got very excited. Unfortunately, I had a rather long wait on my hands – while the book was originally announced for early 2014 (or maybe even 2013?), the finished article only arrived this month. So, was it worth the wait? Let’s find out…
The Book of Tokyo – A city in short fiction (edited by Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks and Masashi Matsuie) does exactly what it says on the cover. This is a collection of ten stories set in the Japanese capital – ten modern writers brought into English by ten different translators. The focus here is on contemporary writing, with something (hopefully!) for everyone 🙂
As a reader with a focus on J-Lit, I’d heard of most of the writers, yet I’d only actually tried a few of the authors before. Foremost among those was, of course, Banana Yoshimoto, and ‘Mummy’ (translated by Takami Nieda) is typical Banana fare (I’m sure fans will love it…). In this one, a young woman walks into a dangerous situation and gets out to tell the tale; the moral, if there is one, seems to be that ‘young people are stupid’. Luckily, Hitomi Kanehara’s ‘Mambo’ (tr. Dan Bradley) is a better take on a random encounter. This bizarre tale from the writer of Snakes & Earrings and Autofiction consists mainly of a taxi conversation between two strangers, one in which the two talk about sex and relationships far too intimately for such a casual encounter.
Another writer I’d encountered previously was Hiromi Kawakami (The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo and Manazuru), and her contribution, ‘The Hut on the Roof’ (tr. Lucy Fraser), was one of my favourites here. It looks at a woman living an inner-suburban life in a world of small shops, little intimacies and big secrets, with shopkeepers becoming friends through repeated encounters. While there are no major reveals here, it’s a slice of life away from the Ginza lights, warm and clever and one most readers would enjoy.
A few other writers with work out in English are also featured in The Book of Tokyo, with Shūichi Yoshida perhaps the best known. However, ‘An Elevator on Sunday’ (tr. Ginny Tapley Takamori) is not his usual thriller fare, instead telling a nostalgic story of a young man at a crossroads, his daily life interspersed with memories of his ex-girlfriend. It’s a portrait of a less common kind of Japanese character, a single young man living in a small apartment, working if and when he can.
Kaori Ekuni’s ‘Picnic‘ (tr. Lydia Moëd) is perhaps more typical of J-Lit with its picture of a married couple on weekly picnics. However, from the start, we get the sense that something’s not quite right:
“We are happy, I thought. I was suddenly enraptured by the soporific scent of summer and the bright open air. Kyoko’s cool fingers, the lively atmosphere around us, a full stomach. The words – ‘We are happy’ – came into my mouth and I just said them. After a little while I heard her say ‘That’s good’, in a soft, smiling voice. That’s good. Isn’t that a strange answer?”
‘Picnic’, p.17 (Comma Press, 2015)
Ekuni creates a surprising sense of darkness beneath the languid, lazy surface of a picnic in the park, unsettling the reader despite the lack of any real cause.
Of course, there are many new writers to discover here too. Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s ‘Dad, I Love You too’ (tr. Morgan Giles) is a day in the life of the famed Japanese salaryman. The main character is a hard worker whose wife has left him, yet he’s not a man to be worn down by the daily grind of Tokyo life:
“Just being alive – it’s great.”
‘Dad, I Love You too’, p.94
It’s a piece highlighting the joy of the little things in life, with something good to be found in each little action…
Some of the other stories are a touch more negative, though. Toshiyuki Horie’s ‘The Owl’s Estate’ (tr. Jonathan Lloyd-Davies) is a depressing look at western women in Japan through Japanese eyes (a little clichéd for my liking) while Mitsuyo Kakuta’s ‘A House for Two’ (tr. Hart Larrabee) is a creepy (and infuriating) story in which a grown-up woman fails to see how her mother is manipulating her.
The plight of Japanese women in a hyper-patriarchal society is best expressed in Osamu Hashimoto’s ‘Vortex’ (tr. Asa Yoneda) in which a middle-aged woman reflects on her life, a typical progression on the Japanese conveyor belt of life. She grows up as Tokyo (a fairly young city) does, and the story allows the reader an insight into Japanese family ties, touching on loyalties, obligations, cliques and the ever-present threat of judgement – all of which leaves little time to think about what people really want:
“The more she wondered what she wanted to do, the more the not knowing weighed on her. What she didn’t realise was that she’d never in her life done something because she wanted to. The things she needed to concern herself with had always presented themselves to her at the appropriate time. But there was no more to come.”
The final years of the woman’s life bring the realisation that she has been following someone else’s script. Having to live her life according to her own desires is a scary prospect…
…which is far too sad a note to end the review on, so let’s go back to the first story instead. In ‘Model T Frankenstein’ (tr. Samuel Malissa), Hideo Furukawa gets us away from the land of cherry blossoms and geisha, instead delivering a story of a Tokyo within a Tokyo, one with goats, an unexpected arrival in the big city and a monster that likes nothing better than separating people’s limbs from their torsos. Yep, twelve pages of bizarre antics which even include a love story – that’s a better way to wrap up the review 😉
The Book of Tokyo, then, diverges at times from what many might regard as ‘typical’ J-Lit, but it’s an excellent introduction to some great modern writers. Added features include an introduction by Emmerich, a noted translator from Japanese in his own right (cf., for example, my posts on Yasushi Inoue), and short biographies of all the writers and translators. All in all, it’s another little gem from Comma Press, one I’d encourage you to have a look at. And if you like it, of course, you can always go back and see where else Comma can take you – they have plenty of other armchair city tours just waiting to be discovered 😉