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Decadence in the time of evil encounters

by David Cozy

Special To The Japan Times

For most of us the notion of life in a tight-knit village is pure fantasy: We have lived our whole lives in and around cities. One would think, therefore, that we would have grown comfortable with the anonymity and the promiscuous mixing with strangers that define city life. Novels such as Hisaki Matsuura’s “Triangle” suggest, however, that cities, particularly those as multifarious as Tokyo, still make even seasoned urbanites nervous. Rich with possibility, cities are also rich with peril: They are places where anything can happen.

Triangle, by Hisaki Matsuura Translated by David Karashima.
Dalkey Archive Press, Fiction.
Rating: ★★★★

We might, for example, when walking through a city at dusk — “known as omagatoki, ‘the time of evil encounters’” — run into, as Matsuura’s protagonist does, a faintly antagonistic acquaintance who, wearing an undershirt and boxer shorts, appears to be waiting for us. Our encounter with this acquaintance might then propel us into a nightmare that will include a hidden garden containing a steamy conservatory in which a sinister philosopher/pornographer holds forth on the cyclical nature of time, and the machinations of this cracked aesthete may eventually lead us underground, to rivers that run deep under the metropolis. Reading “Triangle” we might, following Matsuura’s protagonist, enter a psycho-geographically informed version of city life, the darkness of which will remain unresolved at novel’s end.

Matsuura, a professor in the French department at Tokyo University, is clearly comfortable in the place where the gothic and the decadent meet. On the gothic side he gives us the sinister philosopher, Koyama, who may be a master calligrapher; a damsel, Tomoe, who may be in distress; and an estate that, though in the midst of Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown) in the mid-1990s, feels remote both in place and time and includes secret passages as well as the overheated conservatory, rank with tropical decay, where the aesthete holds forth.

Decadence enters the novel in the person of the protagonist, Shun Otsuki, an enervated junkie, two years clean, whose addiction is far from being his darkest secret. He’s aimless, anonymous, and powerless, it seems, to resist the urgings of the urban tide, including the suggestion made by Sugimoto, the fellow in undershirt and boxers he runs into during “the time of evil encounters.” He lets Sugimoto take him to meet the sinister aesthete, Koyama, who apparently wants to offer him a job, but who first shows him a film in which close-ups of insects fade into scenes of the possibly distressed damsel — who may be the aesthete’s granddaughter — engaged in “less the erotic act of lovemaking than a close-up of genitals having sex.” While Otsuki watches the film he notices that, “at the exact moment that there was a close-up of the moon on the screen, outside the glass conservatory the clouds parted to reveal a real full moon.” The film, he comes to feel, is somehow dictating his life. That Otsuki is hired to complete the film which exerts such force over him adds a further twist.

The footage that Otsuki produces — Koyama tells him it will be incorporated into the genitals and insects film — seems, in an art-house sort of way, vaguely interesting. He spends a week filming Tomoe, who is floating in a tank of water, “as she hung upside down, by the crook of her knees, swinging trapeze-like as her hair trailed through the water … [and] as her face slowly emerged from under the water.” Filming her face emerge, Otsuki plunges deeper in.

“Triangle” incorporates elements of noir thrillers, but Otsuki is no detective. Detectives in the classical mode move through the city with unrelenting focus. Truth is out there, and they will find it. The mysteries they investigate will be solved. Otsuki, on the other hand, is a piece of urban flotsam tossed here and there by forces more powerful than he is, a character in a plot concocted by others. He is not, however, without agency: he does try to figure out the life he has fallen into. He tries, but he fails. Tomoe’s face never quite emerges.

Early in “Triangle” we can only believe that she is a victim of her perverted grandfather. Otsuki believes this, too, but of a later encounter with her he notes: “I was face-to-face with a beautiful girl, yet staring into the compound eyes of a filthy fly. Could these eyes really belong to a human? Up until that moment, I’d thought they were beautiful and innocent. Had I really been such an idiot all along?”

That the mysteries of “Triangle” are not easy to resolve will be, for some readers, frustrating. Others, however, will find that Matsuura’s willingness to eschew facile resolution at the novel’s end, and to allow, instead, the mystery to remain is what makes this one of those rare novels that one wants to reread as soon as the last page is turned.