Kafu Nagai was an unapologetic sentimentalist, always an era out of step with the times. Born in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), he lamented the good old days of the Edo Period (1603-1867); once in the Taisho Era (1912-1926) he looked plangently back on the qualities of Meiji. The Showa Era (1926-1989) brought forth a longing for Taisho.

A Strange Tale from East of the River, by Kafu Nagai.TUTTLE, Fiction.

The stories in this anthology, first published in 1937, are personal evocations of that mood. Nagai's title story was frowned upon by the authorities for its failure to support the Japanese war effort. Set in the long-gone Tokyo working-class, red-light quarter of Tamanoi, present-day Higashi-Mukojima, Nagai's depiction of the prostitutes in the area are, like his nostalgia-soaked writing, reminders of a lost age. Even the dereliction of an area like Tamanoi, with its foul canals, tainted by the industrial filth from nearby smokestacks, could stir poetic longing. Of O-Yuki, the prostitute at the center of this story of loss and partial retrieval, he wrote that she was a "skillful yet inarticulate artist with the power to summon the past."

In a confessional frame of mind that surely embodies the voice of Nagai himself, the narrator of this tale tells us, "I have from time to time, fallen into the error of emphasizing background at the expense of characterization." It is a shortcoming we should be grateful for.

Each week "Essentials" introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile. (Note: The version reviewed is out of print but a new translation titled "Something Strange Across the River" (pictured) is available from One Peace Books.