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Odd tales, torments

by Steve Finbow

In the 120 years since Lafcadio Hearn first arrived on these shores, Japan has traded superstition for Super Mario. Were Hearn to disembark in Yokohama today and travel through the country, would he be able to compile contemporary “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” or “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things?”

LITTLE PIECES: This Side of Japan, by Michael Hoffman. Virtualbookworm.Com Publishing, 2010, 206 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Through films, television, manga, and technology, Japan is as familiar as Hello Kitty, Haruki Murakami, Takeshi Kitano, Wagamama, and Yo! Sushi. Gone are the “Shadowings,” replaced by the neon brightness of Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Susukino.

Michael Hoffman’s collection of short stories goes some way to putting the weird back into familiar Japan. “First Snow” concerns a woman who, by chance, meets the young boy for whom she babysat 30 years earlier. She is now a lonely housewife who dabbles in jazz, while he is a disenchanted journalist who has recently quit his job. They have dinner at her house, drink and reminisce. The story turns on a startling confession — and the man finds himself alone in the house and then out in the snow dreaming of India.

In “Dragonflies,” an author attempting to write an essay on Ryunosuke Akutagawa finds himself questioning the quality of Akutagawa’s short stories, arranges to meet an old childhood friend to discuss what they found so exciting about the work. In the process, they get drunk and the author examines his life, his marriage, his writing, while his friend enjoys himself drinking, living with a woman half his age, and having affairs with his students. The writer dreams he goes into the street and murders people at random. The underlying violence darkens the man’s relationship with the world and with his wife and friend.

Emi — constantly mistaken for the idoru Yuri Kawai — falsely admits to a young man that she is the star, gives him her fake autograph and arranges to meet him later. On edge because of a neighbor’s dog that keeps her awake at night, the unseasonable heat, her senile mother, and her wayward boyfriend, she tries to forget her life, thinks back to her happy time abroad, and seeks solace in her church (many characters in the stories are Catholic). The young man dreams of being a missionary, but Emi has another mission in mind: “The Miracle” that will — at last — bring her peace.

In “Sonoko,” a young woman tries to live a private life away from the paranoid mother, finding escape in her small deceptions — the “Akashi” chapter in “Tale of Genji” becoming her own place of exile.

In “Concussion,” an elderly man finds himself lost in a Kafkaesque nightmare after falling and hitting his head. Is the hospital he wakes up in real or is the cell in which he awaits his jailer the more solid reality?

In the title story, “Little Pieces,” two sisters live out an absurd play of shifting emotions, madness and lust, where even the priest is an ex-clown, their young lives tugged hopelessly toward violence. Set in Hokkaido, the stories provide glimpses into the apparently normal lives of residents who live in towns along the Sapporo to Otaru railway line. However, as in Lafcadio Hearn’s tales, nothing is quite what it seems.

Madness, violence, and sex control the lives of these people and, as much as they seek reassurance in the church or in each other, they find themselves abandoned, left to deal with life alone; the writer arguing that salvation exists but the route to it is a strange one. Hoffman shows a deft touch in mapping a story’s changing perspectives in these contemporary Japanese tales of the unexpected.