LALA PIPO by Hideo Okuda, translated by Marc Adler, New York: Vertical, Inc., 2008, 288 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Their recent list of contemporary Japanese fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels is making those Japanophiles at the New York publishing house Vertical Inc. Nihon otaku among Western publishing companies. The books are beautifully produced and many, including this one, have covers by that genius of book designers — Chip Kidd.

The six interesting tales in “Lala Pipo” — all with borrowed song titles for story titles — tell of a Tokyo far removed from cherry blossoms, Sony and the Imperial Palace. Arguably, the book could have been marketed as a novel. The stories are interrelated and many of the same characters appear in the different tales.

Freelance writer Hiroshi Sugiyama and erotic-novel transcriber Sayuri Tamaki top and tail the collection, their relationship becoming more complicated and confused, more obsessive and postmodern as the tales progress.

Other characters such as wannabe gangster and scout for erotic bars Kenji Kurino and Koichi Aoyanagi (an unhappy social misfit who works in a karaoke box) provide social commentary on the changing face of Japanese culture, particularly the dreams and aspirations of the younger generation.

Hideo Okuda’s Tokyo is a city of losers. A sex-obsessed slovenly middle-age housewife makes porn movies and, through a series of mishaps and coincidences, ends up performing a lesbian scene with her own daughter; the daughter is a feckless and malleable 20-something, almost zombie-like in her quiescence. Keijiro Saigoji, a writer of erotic books, is a bitter husband and aspirant literary novelist. Emasculated at the hands of both his wife and publisher, he finds solace in the rather more attendant hands of high school girls who frequent the karaoke box-brothel. The self-reflexive twists to the stories give the book a metafictional almost playful feel and, in this manner, distract the reader from what could have been a very depressing book.

“Lala Pipo” deftly mixes satire with farce, comedy with tragedy, and eroticism with social commentary. At times, the book reads like a fusion of “The Usual Suspects” and Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” playing, as it does, with memory, unreliable narrators and complex plotting. The stories “Light My Fire” and “Gimme Shelter” — in part — relate the exact story but from the viewpoint of two different characters both aggrieved at the noise their mutual neighbor’s dog makes, so providing the reader with a “Rashomon” effect.

In the stories, the reader encounters all forms of sexuality and sexual practices: sadism, masochism, vibrators, schoolgirl prostitutes, predatory pimps, porn movies — both professional and amateur — BBWs, sodomy, oral sex, masturbation, soap lands, and “no-panty” pubs. But the subject matter is not used for titillation and is not pornography, per se. Hideo Okuda gives us a fresh approach to the sleazy side of Tokyo, showing us the seedy parts of Shibuya beyond the shopping centers. I was a little surprised that Hachiko the dog (whose statue fronts Shibuya station) failed to make an appearance in some strange fantasy bestiality movie.

“Lala Pipo” is a well-written, humorous and timely book. Vertical Inc.’s publications offer a wider, more contemporary view of modern-day Japan beyond the cliches and the tourist propaganda. We should welcome such a brave contribution to publishing and look forward to more translated works by younger Japanese authors. If you’re wondering what the significance of the title Lala Pipo is, then you’ll have to buy the book and find out. Let’s just say I hope that the title reflects the number of readers who could make this collection a best-seller.

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