This review first appeared in the online journal The Literateur.
Take a map of the world, turn it 90° clockwise and you have the designer Kenya Hara’s vision of Eurasia as a pachinko(pinball) machine: Rome at the top, Japan as the ball-catch at the base. In his essay ‘The Origins of Japanese Design’, Hara describes pre-17th century Japan as a receptacle for cultures from across the world: propelled from Rome, the ball might slip through the Silk Road via India and Southeast Asia, or bounce off Moscow, dropping headlong through Siberia to be caught in the curve of the Japanese archipelago. Japan closed its ports to foreigners in 1639 in an attempt to eject this clutter of cultures. Over the next three centuries it was to perfect the aesthetic of what Hara terms ’emptiness’.
Instead of being filled by objects, images and external influences, emptiness invites the infinite possibilities of the imagination. A room furnished only by a vase of flowers and a scroll might just as well be surrounded by boughs of cherry blossom or crashing waves. The empty triangle of a yashiro Shinto shrine may contain a whole pantheon of gods, or none at all. This tension between enclosed space and sprawling possibility unites the 10 newly translated short stories in The Book of Tokyo, the latest in the Reading the City series by Comma Press.
As editor Michael Emmerich explains in his introduction, short story writers have gained a certain freedom in a market where literary prizes tend to favour novellas. No longer confined by the need to create sellable storylines or logical sequences, the texts in this collection read as zuihitsu: fragmentary thoughts at the stroke of a brush, responding to their surroundings with a peculiar rootlessness. Although the book is presented as a sketch of the city you’d be hard-pressed to locate these stories on a map — or even a pachinkoscreen. Instead, Tokyo becomes a city of the mind, defined by a topography of encounters and isolation.
The opening story ‘Model T Frankenstein’ by Hideo Furukawa locates the reader in the ‘tertiary Tokyo’ of the Izu archipelago. Observing a herd of artificial goats on the southernmost island, the narrator struggles with the idea that he, and the readers he addresses, are still technically in Tokyo. Over 100km south of the mainland, this is a Tokyo so obscure that it reduces us to insignificant spirits: first confused, then indistinct, then entirely transparent. By the time the largest goat has been loaded onto a truck and transported by ferry to Tokyo Bay, the narrator’s voice has shifted from the second to the third person and our presence is wiped entirely from the story. The goat (now running wild in urban Tokyo) is left to transform first into a man, then a mass murderer. After all, in a city without limits and a story without a clear point of view, why shouldn’t the central character be a shapeshifter? We are politely asked to ‘give this tale the respect it deserves in the mythology of tertiary Tokyo’.
It is easier to express a city’s multiplicity than to distinguish its defining features. In his 1983 film Sans Soleil, the artist Chris Marker rejected the ‘cheapest image of Tokyo: overcrowded, megalomaniac, inhuman’. He spoke instead of a desire to decipher the city ‘like a musical score’, to see ‘rhythms, clusters of faces … as different and precise as musical instruments’. That might be the artistic ideal, but these short stories remain suspended between precision and abstraction. In ‘Model T Frankenstein’ we are informed of the distance from Tokyo International Airport (50 minutes by plane), the highest point of the Izu archipelago (a dormant volcano 854 metres above sea level) and the exact route by ferry back to the mainland. Once in central Tokyo any attempt at precision is discarded and the plot descends into surreal slaughter. Other stories impose a similar disorientation. When the nymphomaniac narrator of ‘Mambo’ by Hitomi Kanehara attempts to follow a man to ‘Seaside Park’ she discovers there are several Seaside Parks across the city — in any case, the man changes his mind and stops off at Sunshine City Aquarium. In ‘The Owl’s Estate’ by Toshiyuki Horie a hapless bookseller finds himself surrounded by ‘horse-faced’ western girls in a ‘dusky residential district’ —dimly lit, as though to forget the horror.
Things are no clearer behind closed doors. The Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier found an ‘immateriality repeated again and again’ in the ‘bloodless perfection’ of the Japanese interior, and in ‘Picnic’ by Kaori Ekuni a woman realises she can see her husband more clearly when they eat outdoors. In ‘A House for Two’ by Mitsuyo Kakuta an ageing daughter is kept captive by a loving mother. Unemployed and addicted to shopping, she spends her time buying food and exotic lingerie. Back home, she parades her wares in front of her mother who coos in delight and comments on her ‘impressive physique’. ‘A House for Two’ is a gilded cage in which two women age; meanwhile, bachelor pads tend to be dark, depressing and cluttered. When the narrator of ‘Mummy’ by Banana Yoshimoto is abducted by geeky Tajima, she enters a house full of dusty Egyptian artefacts. In ‘An Elevator on Sunday’ by Sh?ichi Yoshida the unambitious Watanabe lives in a flat littered with half-cooked meals, storing his underwear on the kitchen shelves and sweaters in the space under the sink.
In all four of these stories a character plays with the idea of seeing their loved one dead. In ‘Picnic’ the husband starts to resent his delicate ‘witch’ of a wife, assuming she sees him as a ‘contaminant’ to be aired outside ‘like a futon’. He lies on top of her, pressing her into the grass with all his weight. When the daughter of ‘A House for Two’ contemplates her mother’s death she envisages her own pallid flesh in expensive new lingerie, and death is momentarily fetishised in ‘An Elevator on Sunday’ and ‘Mummy’. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror Watanabe pictures his girlfriend in a car crash, a thought which causes him to ‘snort with laughter and brush his teeth harder’. When the narrator of ‘Mummy’ looks back on her days as Tajima’s sex slave, she fondly imagines ‘the Tajima who died, destroyed by my suffocating love, his head cracked open’. Killing a loved one is a way of gaining authorial control over the space in which they both reside, envisaging a life of automatous emptiness.
For Kenya Hara, the principle of emptiness allows not only for infinite possibility but also for creative misunderstanding. He cites the example of the rebuilding of the Ise Grand Shrine every two decades, a ritual which has taken place for more than 1200 years. Each rebuilding requires a completely new blueprint, and minute mutations across the centuries have seen the original Polynesian architecture evolve into a classical Japanese style. In Japan, mutation is assimilated into the aesthetic of emptiness. When interpreted by the west it can quickly become grotesque. Although linguistically masterful and highly enjoyable, these translations occasionally seem too keen to emphasise the disorientating quality of the stories, casting their reader in the role of the ogling tourist. Images are occasionally lost beneath a slough of sound and verbal texture. A paragraph in Dan Bradley’s translation of ‘Mambo’ opens with: ‘Buttons. Nipples. And clitoris. I can’t stop moulting. My lint. Lint. And clitoris.’ By the time we’ve reached the sentence ‘I think it would feel great if, one day, my eyes popped out and were snatched out like lint’ the words have lost their tactility, smoothed out by an expectation of the surreal.
While the language is occasionally overwrought, the stories manage to avoid seeming self-conscious. Scenes which might otherwise appear gratuitously kooky are justified by an unspoken system of internal logic; the writers observe the etiquette of the form whilst delicately undermining it. Just as it would be ‘inappropriate’ to say the Izu islands are not in Tokyo, it would be frankly impolite not to take the reader through each dish of a carefully prepared meal, indicating distinctive qualities and specialist ingredients. To return to Chris Marker’s ideal in which faces are picked out from the crowd, The Book of Tokyo never quite crystallises a single aspect of the city, nor does it create an all-encompassing vision. As far as ‘reading the city’ is concerned, this is a map to be misread. As such, there are few better guidebooks.
The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by Jim Hinks, Masashi Matsuie & Michael Emmerich
Read the review in The Literateur.