Isolated Men and Fractured Women in 1980s Japan
If they hadn’t come from different publishers, I’d swear these two Japanese novels appeared in English as companion pieces. Despite great prestige racked up in their homeland, neither the names Keizo Hino nor Choukitsu Kurumatani ring many bells in literary Anglosphere. Both Hino’s Isle of Dreams and Kurumatani’s The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, attempted double-suicide) star unattached fellows at a self-imposed distance from humanity. Both protagonists have their relaxed journeys toward nonexistence interrupted and their ever-narrowing worldviews distorted by complicated young women with dangerous lifestyles trailed by little boys who carry themselves as if they’ve seen too much. Both stories take place in the early 1980s, when the already fast-modernizing Japan shifted into an even higher, ostensibly world-surpassing gear. Both proceed inexorably toward a death.
But having only read three or four dozen Japanese novels in my time, I may have just latched onto qualities more experienced readers find everywhere in that country’s modern literature. Kobo Abe, one of the best-known Japanese novelists of Hino’s World War II generation, wrote his fair share of loners running into cryptically behaving ladies at society’s margins, and Haruki Murakami, certainly the best-known Japanese novelist of Kurumatani’s postwar generation, has just about unified his work with such characters. Now comes the perfect opportunity to let loose a few broad pronouncements on national artistic character, but forgive me if I let it slip through my fingers. Broad pronouncements can tire a writer, not to mention a reader, and besides, the fascination of these two novels all comes in their particulars.
Isle of Dreams’ middle-aged widower Shozo Sakai finds himself inexplicably drawn to a pile of trash. Built on some kind of floating landfill, the titular Tokyo Bay island would seem to fulfill only the dreams of a refuse department, but Shozo nonetheless draws nearer to it on a daily basis. A longtime employee of Japan’s busy construction industry, he first strays just outside his beloved nest of gleaming high-rises, eventually making his way to a patch of reclaimed land where leather-clad bikers congregate at dusk to buzz around in circles. One biker in particular captures his imagination, not least because her shell of gear muddles his expectations. (Yes, the old turns-out-there’s-a-woman-under-the-helmet-and-all-that-black-stuff, but I’ll hold my grumpy digressions about cliché in the interest of briskness and in light of Hino’s use of so little threadbare material otherwise.) One night she wipes out right in front of him, presenting an ideal opportunity to get to know her better.
Whether she takes a unique role in Shozo’s life depends on what kind of line of ontological distinctness you draw between her—the text just calls her “the woman”—and Yoko Hayashi, a mannequin-display professional whose work Shozo keeps spotting on one of his walks through the city. Taken with the haunted humanity she injects into storefront windows, he finds she looks, but doesn’t act, just like the woman on the motorcycle. We Superman-and-Clark-Kentishly never see Yoko and “the woman” together, and a patch of late-text narration from Yoko/”the woman” herself recounts the resolution of some sort of split-personality deal, but none of that reads as interestingly as Shozo’s developing parallel relationships with each woman, or each side of one woman, or each persona—whatever you need to call it.
While Yoko the mannequin-arranger whips out a host of oblique, unsettling tactics to rebuff Shozo’s curiosity, “the woman,” by way of an invisible raft to ride and with a preternaturally calm kid in tow, brings him on a series of night trips to an isolated, abundantly vegetated region of the trash heap. This veritable jungle grows, dies, and seemingly regrows with the elaborate consciousness and purpose of some life form out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie; no telling if the entity approves or disapproves of the trio’s presence, but it doesn’t particularly get along with modernity. Indeed, a Miyazaki-reminiscent environmentalist’s ethos makes itself felt throughout the book, as when mankind’s trash-strewing ways somehow lead to the mass deaths of herons all over this secluded junkpile. This sight strikes a chord in Shozo, who fatefully decides to manually dispose of all the bird corpses.
Shozo’s connection to society, such as he has them, comes only faintly, interpreted through the built and natural environments around him. Ikushima, the narrator of The Paradise Bird Tattoo, doesn’t even have that. Abandoning the novelist’s life for that of a penniless vagabond, he wanders his way to Amagasaki, which, for all its possible charms, comes off in his description as bleak hole breeding every variety of amorality. Landing in a dilapidated boarding house with a chanting prostitute on one side of him and a nihilistic tattoo artist on another, Ikushima works his days away taking deliveries of organ meat, putting the meat on skewers, and then sending the skewers to a restaurant. Just as the biker who had intrigued Shozo suddenly roars directly into his path, Ayako, an alluring flatmate of the tattoo artist turns up in Ikushima’s room one night, demanding sex. I’ve read worse catalysts for a plot.
And though Kurumatani gets much more plot going than does Hino, I report with relief that its mechanics don’t dominate the book. As Ayako’s unpredictable wishes become Ikushima’s commands, he comes to suspect that she leads an even more troubled life than her surroundings would indicate. Here Ikushima had worked for years toward his own kind of lone-wolf self-abnegation, and this woman introduces him to the web of complexities in which she writhes. Prostitution saturates Ikushima’s corner of Amagasaki, but this girl with a past—call her Ayako, or call her Aya-chan like Ikushima does, or call her by the name she went by in her homeland, Yi Munh-hyong—has fallen into an even worse situation than the sexagenarian former working girl who provides Ikushima’s lodging or the series of even more miserable current ones who briefly rent out the house’s other rooms.
Kurumatani presents what at first seems like a swirling cast of random lowlifes, but as Ikushima gets more involved in their dealings, little by little, the single network of thuggery that connects them all starts to show. All the shifty youngish men in the book, though only a few take on prominent presences, become difficult to tell apart. But as a whole, you’d never mistake them for the slick yakuza of classic Japanese gangster films, or even the two-bit hoods of more recent ones. Like insects, these guys operate on pure instinct, doing whatever their grimy ecosystem dictates as necessary for survival. As Ikushima finds, this involves everything from making clandestine money handoffs to sticking rivals into barrels of concrete to cutting off the tips of their own fingers to selling their sisters into sex slavery.
Whether through a skirmish in the war between man and nature in Isle of Dreams or one in the war between man and man’s nature in The Paradise Bird Tattoo, both protagonists wind up in what feel like impossible situations. Shozo, the woman, and the boy find periodic sanctuary within the angularity of concrete and steel only on an outgrowth of that world’s trash, but where do they go from there? Not to mention the intensifying psychological disturbances that separately—yet, of course, very similarly—affect the woman and Yoko. Ikushima and Ayako, on the run from their own obscure demons but also from the very concrete (as it were) threat of her criminal brother’s associates and competitors alike, grow convinced that they can find freedom only in their simultaneous deaths. But they’ve got a good thing going, in its twisted way—can they really bear to end it all?
Okay, perhaps one broad cultural pronouncement: Japanese drama seems to love impossible situations, of these kind or any other. Even in novels from Abe and Murakami or films fromYasujirō Ozu or Shohei Imamura, you see characters getting into near-existential fixes utterly bereft of unambiguous solutions again and again. A certain stripe of reader or viewer—my stripe of reader or viewer—finds this lack of traditional narrative satisfaction very satisfying indeed, or at least very true to their own psychology. Instead of delivering their characters from these grand internal and external conflicts, Hino and Kurumatani slip artfully out of their confines, building the substance of their books not out of the big questions—or, worse, the big statements—but out of fine physical grain.
Whatever issues these books come up against, they get there by the stench of organ meat, a woman’s thickly smudged eyeshadow, the hum of near-sentiently dense plant life, the groan of pain from under tattooers’ needles, and the color of a kimono scrap sprouting from society’s waste. Think of it as a “bottom-up” construction, which may or may not arrive at a set of big themes by way of small details, rather than a “top-down” construction, where an ostensible authorial interest in certain themes leads to the details presented. I’ve got plenty of room in my reading life for both kinds of fiction, but having grown up surrounded by the West’s great top-down novels, I feel the need to balance things out. Those who’d like to sate the same impulse without relying on the usual set of Japanese literary titans long at hand in English could do far worse than starting here.
Colin Marshall hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. He also blogs at The War on Mediocrity.
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