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Review: The Book of Tokyo
August 28, 2015

The Book of Tokyo

Edited by Michael Emmerich
Jim Hinks
Masashi Matsuie


A very welcome collection of ten contemporary translated Japanese short stories, The Book of Tokyo captures the modernity and expansiveness of the city and its inhabitants. The stories range from the quiet and contemplative to the monstrous, but unlike many collections that can be uneven, these stories are consistent in quality, translation, and editing. In short, they play well together.

The first two stories exemplify the differences in style and theme. "Model T Frankenstein" (Hideo Furukawa, translated by Samuel Malissa) begins at the furthest reaches of Tokyo, on one of the Izu Islands. Reaching far into the Pacific, the island chain is administered by the Tokyo regional government. Written in second and third person, the narrator points out that "you" see a goat soon after landing on the island. The story begins with clipped, almost haiku-like phrases.
Now you realise that there are more than just five or six goats.
The ones that had been lying down have stood up.
You appeared, and so they had no choice but to stand up.
You find this overwhelmingly sad. Unbearably so.
As the story (and goat) moves to Tokyo, the goat becomes more than it appears. The suspense and violence are palpable, and the writing also ramps up into pure fantasy and horror. The narrative drive becomes the question of who or what will stop the goat/monster?

"Picnic" (Kaori Ekuni, translated by Lydia Mo?d) on the other hand, is the story of the often quiet moments of a marriage where the real, unspoken emotion exists. In the case of the narrator and his wife, these moments often occur during their weekly picnic.
When I mention that picnicking is my wife's hobby and that she and I often go for a picnic - every week, weather permitting - most people are surprised. When they get over their surprise they smile at me oddly and say that it's great, or that they're envious or something. If they really feel like that they should try it themselves.
In those quiet moments, whatever trouble, or imagined trouble, is buried in the marriage more easily bubbles into consciousness. Why does the narrator's wife never whisper "sweet nothings" to him, or sometimes even forget his name? And most importantly, will they survive as a couple?

The most well-known writer in the collection is Banana Yoshimoto, one of the present generation of postmodern Japanese writers. Her story "Mummy" (translated by Takami Nieda), is about a young woman, one of those "on the brink of her twenties who will often carry on as though she's figured out the entire world in her tiny little head; I was certainly no exception." Even as she expects little from life, she encounters a man who she has little in common with, and who may even be dangerous.
The two of us came together by chance, he responded to my strange inner world with the same energy, triggering something like a chemical reaction, and we both dove into a different realm from reality. Some bewildering intense power must have been at work.
My favorite story of the collection is "An Elevator on Sunday" by Shūichi Yoshida and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The main character, Watanabe, has just passed into his thirties and his life has been going slowly downhill for a decade. The highlight of his week seems to be taking his garbage sacks down the elevator on Sunday. Even in this lowly state, he becomes romantically involved with a young woman, Keiko. She claims o be in nursing school, but she has more than one secret.
An elderly couple, who came into the bath after them, had asked, "Are you two just married?" Watanabe couldn't recall what he'd said in reply, but after they'd gone back to the changing room and were putting on their yukata robes, he'd muttered, "I can't believe they still have baths together at their age!" to which Keiko had replied, appalled, "Look, the bath isn't supposed to a place for necking." Her moist shoulder, glossy in the dim lamplight, was still etched onto his mind's eye.
Of course, Tokyo figures in all the stories, either directly or indirectly, but mostly the latter. One of the editors of the collection describes this as "a fairly pronounced tendency, at least in one prominent strand of contemporary Japanese literature, to turn away from an engagement with the particularities of Tokyo's urban landscape - to retreat altogether, indeed, from the realities of place." For example, in "Vortex" (Osamu Hashimoto, translated by Asa Yoneda), the main character, Masako, describes Tokyo she remembers growing up, a Tokyo she no longer recognizes, as if it has been sucked into the shadows.
Tokyo itself wasn't an especially fashionable location yet, just a town where people lived, not very different from the other, regional cities of Japan. Because the residential areas made up a relatively large proportion of it, its character as a city was somewhat vague. Tokyo was just Tokyo, and it neither had any noteworthy features nor posed any special hardships. A miraculous transformation might have been taking place, somewhere, but it was the sort of thing that happened outside of the world a child could know.
I read some of these stories twice, enjoying them more and getting more out of them. The Book of Tokyo is a highly recommended short story collection, one that should be kept close at hand to reread.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 1
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Lee Witte
I've been looking for a good collection of short stories. Thanks for the tip!

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