‘Somehow, Crystal’ by Yasuo Tanaka (Review)

While my first Japanese journey for July involved some serious time travel, last week’s trip was slightly more contemporary, involving a number of encounters with a man looking for love.  Now we’re going back in time once more, with today’s book set in Tokyo in 1980, a short novel proudly displaying its origins on its sleeve (not to mention its cover).  As you’ll see, it’s actually an unusual little work, but somehow it manages to bring together two very different ideas to form a story that’s fun to read…

…crystal, even 😉

*****
Yasuo Tanaka’s Somehow, Crystal (translated by Christopher Smith, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press) won the Bungei Prize in 1980 and was a finalist for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize the following year.  The story is simple enough, following a young woman living a carefree life in 1980, with Megumi Sugizaki’s fun cover illustration providing you with a fair idea of what the main character gets up to.

Yuri is a university student and part-time model cruising through life, and she’s not really one to ponder the big picture:

For some reason, bad hair days get me really irritated.  In the same way, when I don’t shower, I somehow just can’t get in the mood for anything.
I guess I’m living to these “somehow moods”.
Some might say that such a degenerate lifestyle so lacking in agency is disgraceful.  But for me, born in 1959, “moods” drive my behaviour more than anything else.
p.30 (Kurodahan Press, 2019)

The story begins with her waking up in bed and deciding to skip class (a feeling I remember all too well from my own uni days…).  She decides to call her friends, looking for someone to hang out with, and when she’s unable to get in touch with anyone, she eventually comes across a name and number scrawled in a box of matches.  Masataka is a good-looking boy she bumped into at a nightclub, and as easily as that, she has a plan for the day.

There isn’t really much of a plot to Somehow, Crystal, with the first half following Yuri as she catches up (and sleeps) with Masataka.  After that, she’s just killing time until her boyfriend, Jun’ichi, returns from touring with his band, and when he does, we get to hear about a double date they go on at an amusement park.  And that’s pretty much it…

So why was the book so successful, and controversial?  That’s partly down to how Yuri lives her life.  It all seems fairly tame now, but to a fairly traditional Japanese society, the idea of a young woman living with a young man, sleeping around and existing on a diet of coffee and designer clothes may have been a little confronting.  Given her cosmopolitan upbringing in London, Yuri isn’t exactly your archetypal J-Lit heroine, and with her parents in Sydney and no relatives to tie her down, she’s free to do as she pleases, a new woman in a society on the cusp of change.

It might surprise you to learn that the crystal of the title is not a name, but a philosophy.  The expression comes up during a post-coital conversation between Masataka and Yuri, when the two realise their approach to life is very similar:

“It’s crystal, that lifestyle.  Not worrying about anything, nothing to worry about in the first place,…” (p.82)

The two are representatives of a generation that have decided to take it easy and avoid stress.  Nothing is more important than living your life without worrying what other people think (which is very unjapanese…).  This rather ‘selfish’ perspective obviously touched a chord with the youth of Japan, accounting for the book’s massive success.

The real ‘controversial’ part of the book, though, is its reliance on notes – Somehow, Crystal is actually a book with a split personality.  The even-numbered pages follow Yuri through her uneventful days while the facing pages provide notes explaining some of the vocabulary and ideas featured in the narrative.  In effect, they provide the reader with an alternative story, or more accurately, another slant on the main text.

The majority of these notes are simple glosses of brand names, shops and places in Tokyo (of which there are a lot), but it gets more interesting when the writer allows his personality to intevene, providing more of an opinion than a description, with a fair dollop of irony on occasion:

6 Writing Desk: If you think of yourself as writing at a “writing desk”, you’ll feel like you’re writing better sentences than you would if you were just writing at a regular desk.

Some are random nuggets of absurdity:

50 Sendagaya: The name of a place in the northeast part of Shibuya-ku.  The rate of mistresses living there is surprisingly high.

However, the most interesting additions have the writer intruding into the narrative, such as when Yuri applies lipstick before leaving her apartment:

215 Lips just slightly pink: Just what is she expecting to happen?

These supplements to the text enhance the story, and make what seems like a simple narrative into something far more interesting, widening the scope from one young woman to an ongoing change in Japanese society.

It all sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure Tanaka really succeeds in what he’s set out to do.  The main story is a little too bland, especially for the first half.  Yuri generally comes across as an empty-headed doll, and the endless descriptions of clothes and brand-names are nothing less than annoying.  The writer delights in dropping names of celebrities, western bands, shops and products, and what may have seemed daring and exciting then now comes across as rather dated.

Strangely enough, though, it’s the notes that I was more disappointed with.  It’s a clever idea, but it’s almost as if the writer didn’t really trust himself to go all the way with the concept of the schizophrenic novel.  Far too many of the notes are straight informational descriptions, with the real gems scattered too far apart, leaving the reader with the sense of a missed opportunity.  A braver writer would have used this concept to explore his character’s behaviour and lifestyle in more depth by producing a set of notes that really could be read as a different story.  Instead, we only have an occasional glimpse of what the book could have been had Tanaka decided to spend more time beefing up this second strand and playing the two approaches off one another.

Which is a shame because there is a lot to like about Somehow, Crystal, and the second half of the main story shows that there’s more to Yuri, and her real-life counterparts, than food and fashion.  Even if her connection with Jun’ichi is mainly based on compatibility below the waist, she realises that her life is only just beginning and that having the right person by her side will make the journey more enjoyable.  The last part of the narrative, with Yuri wondering how her life will turn out, shows that the writer thinks the kids are alright, really.

However, the book has one final twist.  The last two pages provide statistics on the downward trend of the Japanese population, and the devastating effects this may have on the country’s future (figures which have actually proved to be more optimistic than the reality).  Playing around instead of getting married and having kids might mean that future generations won’t be as lucky as this one – perhaps the ‘crystal’ lifestyle isn’t quite as harmless as Yuri and Masataka seem to think…

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