Books / Reviews

The Tokyo guide for Tokyo-lovers

by Arturo Silva

A View of the City, by Donald Richie, with photographs by Joel Sackett. London: Reaktion Books, 143 pp.

No one is indifferent to Tokyo. Most people dislike it. It’s huge, it’s ugly, it’s loud, the water’s metallic, and movies arrive six months late. But a few people like Tokyo.

I love it. So does Donald Richie.

And although it is recognized as one of the world’s great cities, cited as a model of the postindustrial late capitalist/postmodern metropolis — whatever those dreary terms might mean — the library of Tokyo books remains small.

This, however, is Richie’s second book on the city. The first, “Introducing Tokyo” (Kodansha, 1987), while fine, is visitor-friendly, a kind of PR job, a tourist item that one carries home to Aunt Minnie back in Duluth. (In both books, Richie has been fortunate to have his text accompanied by superb photographs — in the earlier volume by Ben Simmons, in this one by Joel Sackett.)

This book — one long, single essay, really — is entirely different. But it too lives in the shadow of predecessors. The first is Edward G. Seidensticker’s two magisterial volumes “Low City, High City” (1983) and “Tokyo Rising” (1990), and the second Paul Waley’s “Tokyo Now and Then” (1984).

The former provides the social, cultural and political history — characters and crimes, entertainments and earthquakes, and the latter, the nuts and bolts of Proustian place-names, arcana that exist only in memory now.

Until now, these two books have formed the foundation for anyone who takes the city seriously. But they have never been enough.

Necessarily focused — chronology, sites, names, events — they did not have the luxury to simply wander, to reminisce, to speculate. Seidensticker and Waley had to rein their passions in. Not so Richie, who here gives us the imaginative meditation the city has so needed.

This is the Tokyo book we have been waiting for.

(There are a few other books on Tokyo, of course, but they are almost all disappointing what with their specific agendas, from the sociological to the architectural; or styles from the exclamatory to the boring. I should mention too that Richie also draws on one of the best pieces ever done on Tokyo, the 1987 special edition of “Japan Echo.”)

Speaking of wandering, here’s a good bit. One of the most often-heard complaints about Tokyo is that it possesses no order. As if a city had to have one! Richie shows that it does (Edo was very carefully planned, and that order can still be discerned), but he also dismisses this hankering for order — “It’s like a cow’s path!” — by invoking Lewis Mumford: “The cow’s habit of following contours usually produces a more economical and sensible layout than any inflexible system of straight streets.”

One could take this even further and call on Jorge Luis Borges, who reminds us of some mystics’ belief that if we could trace the patterns of all the footsteps we take in a lifetime we would have spelled the name of God.

Another common complaint is that Tokyo offers no views or vistas. Richie dismisses this in a sentence: “A vista is a municipal construction, and this is of little interest to the people going about making their livings and living their lives.”

Likewise promenades: “If Edo had no promenades it was because one was meant to see and be seen only in private. . . . Walking about for the entire populace to gape at would have been considered ill-bred.”

Given a view of Japan that Richie has been expressing for half a century now, the reader should not be surprised to find that time and again he calls Tokyo “human” and “natural.” With these come his perennial themes of innocence (read anything from cute to sexual permissiveness) and the presentational (the true Tokyoite possesses little “psychological depth”).

Besides such sober city speculators as Mumford and Hidenobu Jinnai, Richie also wisely explores Tokyo via urban dreamers such as Borges, Italo Calvino and Henry James.

Great lovers are immune to the beloved’s faults. Accordingly, Richie matter-of-factly admits that Tokyo is “unusually ugly” and leaves it at that; as for the lack of greenery in the city, he simply points out that it has more than Osaka.

Richie agrees with the often-voiced view that Tokyo is a collection of villages. This further allows for that special Tokyo duality of intimacy and anonymity. Where Seidensticker states that “Tokyo is a city where one learns to gaze only at the immediate prospect,” Richie writes of a “cultivated kind of partial vision” that edits the impurities out. And where Seidensticker speaks of a “changing, changeless city,” Richie refers to a “constant sameness within constant change.”

But Richie takes this notion far further than the man to whom he dedicates his book. In a vertigo-inducing view of liberated time, he says that the Japanese sense of impermanence “creates what small permanence the Japanese observe. . . . Tokyo’s buildings are consequently always new, and yet, in this sense, always the same.”

Richie has no problem with the hodgepodge of architectural styles here (he calls it “a congenial variety”). It’s practical and fun and human after all, and besides, a Tokyoite is blessed with partial vision. More amusingly, he sees all these delirious buildings as forming a huge film studio back-lot.

Like the bovine writing the divine name, Richie wanders throughout. In his brief foreword, he says that he will follow the city in the way it was built up, starting at the castle and then winding round spirally. I don’t think he quite follows this plan, though he does make stops at Asakusa, Ginza and Shinjuku, and then suddenly closes the book with a page on the western edges of the city. He also takes a few major detours.

There is a long section on Tokyo as a sexual wonderland, and another on the city (indeed, the entire country) as a sort of Disneyland. Another excursus on fashion (claiming that conformity is in fact rebellion) doesn’t quite wash. Richie also wanders about his own oeuvre. Thus such classic pieces as “Walking in Tokyo” and “Tokyo as Disneyland” are drawn on, as are excerpts from his legendary “Japan Journals.”

There is more, much more ground that Richie covers and that cannot be touched on in the limited space of a review. Suffice it to say that this book is quite as magisterial as Seidensticker’s and Waley’s.

Again, no one is indifferent to Tokyo; accordingly, in any argument over the city, all the ideas and information one will need will be found in those authors, and now in Richie. For anyone fascinated or repelled by the city that both Donald Richie and myself would call our real home, this book is essential reading.