“To not have written a book on Japan is fast becoming a title of distinction,” wrote Basil Hall Chamberlain more or less 100 years ago. “Kuhaku & Other Accounts From Japan” is prefaced by Mark Twain in a similar mood: “When I think how I have been swindled by books of oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast.”
“Kuhaku,” then, is an attempt to gather a group of artists, diarists, essayists and fiction writers to, in the editor’s words, focus “on how things are, not as yet another Westerner thinks they should be.” This “imperfect, democratic book” arrives impressively packaged: clothbound, foil-stamped, ink-screened and printed, obscurely, in Iceland. Beautifully designed by Craig Mod, it looks and feels weighty, definitely serious, informed, literary, and, of course, concomitant with the last, old.
“Kuhaku” comprises essays, stories and “accounts.” The last seems to be a catchall label, including an indignant piece on the difficulties of garbage collection that blindly contradicts the editor’s rules when the author, “yet another Westerner,” sulkily holds forth on the race in general. “If the Japanese really wanted to be environmentally responsible, they’d stop burning all their plastic garbage. They’d stop suffocating every purchase in countless layers of wrapping.” Heard it all before? A few lines down the author confides she’s got an entire room filled with garbage she doesn’t know what to do with.
Elsewhere, these “accounts” include a couple of intriguing translations of unfaithful housewife confessions, wherein the speakers both condemn and emancipate themselves on the page, their monologues mind-bendingly precious yet quite touching in their claustrophobia.
Turn a few pages and the Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife designer team Kozyndan’s color illustration of a beautiful, skewed Tokyo streetscape, precisely and surreally detailed, stretches five double pages from a McDonald’s to a sagging udon store caught in lovingly broken perspective.
Above this fantastic illustration, however, a dissatisfied gaijin bleats, “There are no eighteen-hundred-year old pine trees lining this goddamn street, which is seven strides wide and has no sidewalks.” A little bit of typographical play makes the assertion clear: This is a “poem.”
Similarly, a guide to the appreciation of canned coffee is presented with color illustrations, the text in winespeak this time, the high school humor wrung utterly dry: “Initial band-aid overtones ease into a surprisingly smooth finish with hints of charcoal.”
In a piece on pensions for dog owners, which sounds both desperate and despairing, the writer notes that the owners know only the dogs’ names, not each other’s, and gets drunk and makes a fool of himself at the officious final “dog show.” The final nonfiction piece deals with a group of pseudo-spiritualists shrine-sitting, comparing their Zen levels, and yep, no matter how long they’ve been in the country, how nearly “enlightened” they might be, getting drunk and making fools of themselves, too.
The overall impression from the foreign pieces is that life for gaijin in Japan is both precipitous and tiresome. As many times ignorant as they are indignant, they deal with their alienation with blog humor and self- or gaijin stereotype-deprecating sarcasm. Despite its epigraph, its worthy manifesto, its occasional gems (usually the Japanese contributions) and for all its permanent physicality, its “countless layers of wrapping,” its poise and expensive dress, “Kuhaku” is a magazine on a 90-day tourist visa.
Why does Tokyo seem so unimagined in literature written in English? Is it because of some quality captured in the fractured “Kuhaku,” the sense that for every inhabitant there is another Tokyo — countless Tokyos overwriting one another too fast to be thought out, built up and set down?
In the preface to the five short stories of “Tokyo Fragments,” the intrepid Giles Murray claims another ambitious manifesto: The book “is designed to present the microcosm within the macrocosm; to help the reader build up a composite picture of the whole city from its constituent parts.”
The five stories were commissioned by literary agent Corinne Quentin as part of a French series of 19 books, “Romans d’une Ville (City Stories),” where five well-known writers were asked to “produce a short story reflecting their vision of a particular neighborhood.”
In the nonfiction genre, Donald Richie’s “Tokyo: A View of the City,” in the Topographics series of long essays, bravely and with much love tries to build a similar composite picture.
“Tokyo Fragments” is best read without such high hopes. The bright shining light of the collection is Chiya Fujino’s “The Housewife and the Police Box.” More in common with Chekhov than deracinated Haruki Murakami, the story is a nasty, loving satire of a paranoid and claustrophobic housewife and her prodigious daughter, roaming the splendidly detailed suburbs of Shimo-Takaido in western Tokyo. The translation is spot on, the vocabulary rich with Japanese place-names and nouns, and the occasional explanatory English parentheticals well-placed. A delight.
In intent, intensity and achievement, Ryuji Morita’s “Fruits of Shinjuku,” although highly praised elsewhere and dealing with very similar material, does not compare favorably with Ryu Murakami’s extraordinary “Almost Transparent Blue.” Two high school dropouts sniff glue in and out of Kabukicho, and wind up in trouble with a pimp over a predictable crush on a teenage Filipina prostitute.
Naoki Prize winner (and perhaps the most famous writer in this collection) Tomomi Muramatsu’s “Yumeko” is set in Shitamachi’s famous Fukagawa, the ex-red-light district, and follows the conversation of a group of old regulars at a sunakku pub, discussing a mysterious woman and analyzing one another’s social plays and ploys. Meandering talk on this mysterious woman, and judicious detail, build a clear tableau of a dying neighborhood and those too old to save it; ennui disguises a despair too deep to discuss. The story is assured and paced so authentically that there is the tiniest of risks you might just fall asleep.
The two other stories in the collection are thinner: Mariko Hayashi’s “One Year Later” dovetails nicely with the stories of wedded life in “Kuhaku,” providing a sort of microdietlike before-and-after commercial of the various disasters of contemporary Japanese marriage. On the hunt for a trading-company husband, and impressed with all things Tokyo, Tochigi-born Eriko starts a relationship with an absolute blank page of a man whose girlfriend is studying in America. He agrees to date Eriko on the condition that they will see each other for just one year. Of course, “it ends in disaster,” though she is perhaps spared, at least for now, the fate of “Kuhaku’s” housewives.
Makoto Shiina’s protagonist in “The Yellow Tent on the Roof” is strangely relieved when his apartment is damaged in a fire, and winds up living in a tent on the roof of his Ginza company. A friend of mine has a Tokyo joke: The only way you recognize the homeless is they’re wearing last season’s suits. The arc of this story is that of the salaryman’s incipient individualism which, however brave in person, on the page is underwhelming, even satirical.
Despite the problems “Tokyo Fragments” may have, it is unfortunate that some of the foreigners writing about Tokyo don’t display more of the restraint, sensitivity and generous humor found in these Japanese writers, the majority of them published in English for the first time. Professor Chamberlain’s complaint is apropos: ultimately, the more published, the better.
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