Tag Archives: Japanese Literature

Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakmi (trans. Allison Markin Powell)

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Do you ever feel you’re not a fully paid up member of the Grown-ups Club?  I know I do despite being almost half way through my 40s; I regularly behave immaturely, have toddler type meltdowns or completely forget I’m no longer an invincible 24 year old.  Tsukiko, the narrator of Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo feels the same.  She seems to have regressed over time.

His behaviour was commensurate with his age….I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult….as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person.

Tsukiko is unsure about many things; how she came to be 37, alone, uncomfortable in her life and around others.  She is a loner and lonely.  One thing she becomes certain of is the importance of her friendship with Sensei.  Mr Matsumoto is Tsukiko’s old Japanese teacher from school, widowed and in his 60s, to her he is only ever Sensei – teacher.  They meet by chance in a bar and strike up conversation.  They continue to meet at the bar, but never by design.  Kawakami describes the development of their relationship through a series of short chapters outlining unspectacular excursions to markets, art galleries and amusement arcades until it is clear that this is no longer just a friendship, but love. Tsukiko declares herself early on and then immediately worries about it.

I had screwed up.  Grown-ups didn’t go around blurting out troublesome things to people.  You couldn’t just blithely disclose something that would then make it impossible to greet them with a smile the next day….It was somehow absurd.  Me declaring my love for Sensei to his face, Sensei taking it almost completely in his stride yet without responding to my declaration – everything seemed as if it was part of a dream.

The age difference between the two is never a huge concern; Kawakami doesn’t allow them to dwell on it instead she reminds the reader through the characters’ very sweet exchanges.  Sensei regularly teases Tsukiko and chastises her for unladylike behaviour and continued poor aptitude for identifying and reciting poetry.  He is reserved and she blurts things out without thinking.  He imparts his mature wisdom, making her feel even more childish and wonder at her behaviour.  She thinks he’s old-fashioned and deliberately behaves in a way she knows will irritate him.  Only near the end of the book does age become a concern for them both and they wonder how best to navigate around the issues they foresee – death and sex.

This book contains no sex (sorry for that spoiler), despite Sensei making it very clear to Tsukiko that physical intimacy is essential no matter how old you are, it’s extremely important but food plays a huge part in their story and I understood it as a literary substitute for sex.  Kawakami describes in great detail various dishes the two eat at the bar and elsewhere, different ways the dishes can be prepared and how best to source the best ingredients. The pair also drink an inordinate amount of sake.  Eating and drinking become the rituals that cement their relationship.

There is a dreaminess to Tsukiko’s narration and I was sometimes unsure whether she was sure of her reality.  Some of her dialogue is in quotation marks, some not – this made me wonder whether she was having some conversations in her head rather than speaking out loud.  She often talks to Sensei over distances, calls to him in the night, imagines a life with him.  She wonders at the stars and moon, she enjoys living in her own head which reinforces her childlike qualities.

I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, but what I have read, I’ve throughly enjoyed.  Strange Weather in Tokyo will now be added to my growing list of “Japanese books to haunt and admire.” There’s something quite comforting and satisfyingly challenging about the understated style, the magical realism and dreamlike quality of the writing from this region that pull me in.  The exoticism of a culture I’ve never experienced also intrigues me.  This short and gentle book about love that is destined to find its path was a beautiful place to start my reading year.

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Strangers – Taichi Yamada

StrangersStrangers by Taichi Yamada is touted as a ghost story.  Although the story does feature spirits, describing it as a ghost story is oversimplified; this is not a creepy or even remotely scary tale, it is much deeper than that.  In this book memories of things past and the loneliness they spawn manifest themselves as spirits, eating at the core of the main character turning him into a shell and shadow of his former self.  It is haunting, but not in a creepy or frightening way, it is more about the mental weight of grief and loneliness and how it can cause a physical reaction.

48 year old Harada has been an orphan since he was 12.  He is recently divorced, almost estranged from his 19 year old son and feeling some dissatisfaction with his work as a television scriptwriter.  He lives alone in his office/apartment in a block overlooking a busy highway.  During the day, the block is occupied by office workers, but at night there is only Harada and a strange young woman called Kai who live there.  Yamada manages to capture the eeriness of being practically alone in a large building really well.

…This feeling of too much quiet first came over me on a night near the end of July as I sat working at my desk a little after eleven.  A chill ran down my spine, and I felt as though I were suspended in the middle of a vast dark void, utterly alone..

Hmm, I’m not sure I would cope with that very well.

One day Harada decides to go back to the run-down district where he grew up.  Something draws him to a theatre where he encounters another customer who resembles his late father as the time he died, he feels very uncomfortable about the whole episode, but when invited to leave with the man, he follows.  Here begins the re-kindling of Harada’s relationship with his long-dead parents who look the same as they did the day they died in a motorcycle accident.  He knows this encounter is somewhat strange, but he is also overjoyed to see them.  He has missed his parents, he has been lonely without them and cannot help but visit them regularly.

At about the same time Harada strikes up a relationship with the only other night resident of his building, the mysterious Kai, who is as lonely as he is.  As he spends more time with Kai and his parents, he looses focus on his work, but he begins to feel less alone in the world, as though his life might be getting back on track.  Little does he realise his problems are only just starting.  Yamada adds great twists and suspense just at the point where you wonder where the story is leading.  I don’t know if it is a Japanese thing, but the ending is quite downbeat, not in a disappointing way, just leaving you wondering whether Harada could ever be happy again

This book is surreal at times, not least the thought of a grown, sane man entertaining the idea of spending leisure time with his dead parents.  However, there is something quite mesmerizing about this it.  The prose is sparse but pacey.  Yamada builds Harada’s story with authenticity, you can understand how his grief, loneliness and disappointments may lead him to unravel and become slightly unhinged.  I haven’t read that much Japanese literature, so I can’t make comparisons, but it reminded me a little in tone of Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills which I absolutely adored.  Strangers is equally as interesting and will keep you wondering long after the last chilling scenes.

I read this book as part of January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List

January in Japan