Keizo Hino, Isle of Dreams, Trans. by Charles de Wolf, Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.
"Though it has a lovely name, the real "Isle of Dreams" is a hunk of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay where the city dumps its garbage... and yet, Shozo Saka, a middle-aged widower, does indeed find the place beautiful: gravitating more and more, since the death of his wife, toward the Island's massive piles of trash. One day, however, his refuge is invaded by Yoko, a mysterious woman in black, who visits the Isle on her motorcycle for no other reason than to treat it as her own private obstacle course. Soon Yoko has lured Saka away from his garbage-paradise, leading him back into a Tokyo far less benign than the things it's thrown away. Acclaimed on its first publication, Isle of Dreams is a sinister satire on urban decay."
"In this novel, the metropolis of Tokyo is a living creature. Within its inner workings, skyscrapers and massive overpasses alike are born and grow, continually breathing, panting, trembling, maturing, and developing cracks." - Masha Miura
"In Hino's acclaimed 1985 novel, translated into English for the first time, Tokyo is both a setting and a living being, at once evolving and dying in the eyes and mind of Shozo Sakai. Sakai is a middle-aged widower working for a Tokyo construction firm, whose life, while satisfying, is mundane. His true passion lies within the high-rises his company constructs, and he finds himself drawn to a piece of reclaimed land, the landfill island that gives the book its title. There he meets Yoko Hayashi, a mysterious young beauty. Sakai immediately becomes fascinated with her and allows himself to be drawn into her intriguing life, discovering a Tokyo he's never known. As inventive as the late author's efforts to anthropomorphize Tokyo are, they consume his focus; the human characters never develop and attempts to parallel two stories don't come together. Hino's illustration of the heartbreaking desecration of a Tokyo still haunted by its past is a real achievement, though, and readers will feel genuine empathy for the city." - Publishers Weekly
"Like a haiku poem, this eloquent novel packs vast quantities of beauty and meaning into a mere 168 pages. Acclaimed in Japan 25 years ago, I’m grateful it has finally made it into English. Brilliant.
There are so many layers to explore and think about in this book, it is a true literary treasure. If you’re the type of person who enjoys existentialists works and classic European movies, this one is tailor made for you. Even if you’re not that type, this book still deserves your attention.
Of course I have no idea how Isle of Dreams read in its original Japanese, but Charles De Wolf’s translation certainly felt right:
landfill dumps take on rare beauty, nature writhes with intense sensuality, even concrete skyscrapers come alive.
Sleep walking each day
Unaware that everywhere
Life and death entwine.
OK, that’s my poor haiku verse that tries (and certainly does not succeed) to encapsulate the core of this lovely novel. This is a rare gem that deserves to be read far beyond courses in Japanese Literature." - Rikki Boyce
"In Donald Richie's short novel "Tokyo Nights," two characters discuss authenticity:
"Nothing is original — ever. Things seem to be changing but they are always the same."
"Like Tokyo," said Hiroshi.
"We dote on the new, not sensing the old . . ."
In "Isle of Dreams," 50-year-old construction worker and widower Shozo Sakai enjoys his lunchtime walks in the canyons between Tokyo's tall office buildings. To him, these glass, steel, and concrete edifices are things of reverberation and presence, reflecting each other while creating depths from surface, made real by his image of them as multiple-exposure photographs, the solidification of the peripheral. On one of his walks, this architectural sensitivity triggers a hallucination transporting Shozo back to his postwar student days and his visits to the Soviet Cultural Center that stood in the present space.
What has protruded into his everyday life? Tokyo — a perpetually changing dream in which memory, history, and "reality" elide, dislocate, and/or drift.
On his days off, Shozo takes buses around the city looking for and then exploring any buildings that interest him.
On one such journey, he finds himself on Harumi Island with thousands of schoolchildren attending a Comiket-like event. Looking back at the Tokyo skyline, he sees the city in flame — either a vision of the future or a flashback. As he is leaving, a mysterious woman motorcyclist nearly runs him down. He begins to feel "quite alien to the world he had previously known and experienced" and is drawn to the artificial island, part of the force transforming the megalopolis.
On a trip to Odaiba, he has another hallucination; this time, a violent and sexual response to a piece of red kimono material among the garbage, this, in turn, causes a psychosexual memory conjuring a nightmarish black ship.
One Sunday, at a refuse dump on Odaiba, Shozo rescues the mysterious young woman (Yoko Hayashi) injured in a speed-tribe motorcycle duel. He takes her to hospital where she warns him he will never get back to his original self. When she disappears, Shozo tracks her down and finds another woman, an equally mysterious mannequin designer, who warns him against looking for Yoko.
Shozo's obsessions multiply — buildings, reclaimed land, refuse dumps, mannequins, the two women (doubles?).
His addiction to the interstices "(b)etween nature and artifice, between day and night, between reality and fantasy" grows and he is drawn deeper into the young women's world. With Yoko, he visits an off-limits island, an old battery dating to the time of Commodore Perry's Black Ships. What appears a very Freudian semi-paradise, with historical ruins surrounded by primeval forest, soon transmogrifies through a fungal unconscious into a horrorscape of dead herons.
Plutarch wrote of Heraclitus' river, "So sharp and so swift its change; it scatters and brings together again.... even while it is being formed it fails, it approaches, and it its gone. Hence becoming never ends in being, for the process never leaves off, or is stayed."
Tokyo, like J. G. Ballard's London or Steve Erickson's Los Angeles, is an ever-evolving, expanding narrative in which demolished buildings shimmer ghostlike in the memories of the skyscrapers that now inhabit their space.
The city generates its own reality, its own myths, a place and space where refuse dumps, plastic bags, discarded pantyhose have their own life, their own story to tell; the islands in the bay seeping time, slipping time, a megalopolis of irretrievable history birthed by the very things it discards.
An eerie, contemplative novel, full of hallucinations and history, obsession and possession, the urban surreality of "Isle of Dreams" is part eco-slipstream part-Japanese ghost story." - Steve Finbow
"Pop Quiz: The title, Isle of Dreams, refers to:
A.) Japan’s newest slapstick game show, featuring contestants attempting to escape from an imagined island full of bizarre obstacles;
B.) An ancient Japanese epic-poem about a sailor whose fidelity is tested while stranded on a magical island full of lizard-monsters and seductresses;
C.) A giant garbage dump in Tokyo Harbor that has become the foundation for a new strip of land annexed from the sea.
All three of these answers appear equally far-fetched, but the correct answer is C. Isle of Dreams is indeed about a giant garbage dump visited only by sanitation workers, motorcycle-riding derelicts, and a middle-aged widower strangely obsessed with this stinking edifice. This is the setting and inspiration for Keizo Hino‘s of 1985 novel, now translated by Charles De Wolf and available in English.
The book’s protagonist, Shozo, is a middle-aged widower absently sleepwalking through life at a Tokyo construction firm. Dramatic tension is gradually introduced into the book when he wanders onto the Isle of Dreams. Here, he is nearly run down by a leather-clad biker, Yoko, a hot babe half his age. Shozo becomes obsessed with Yoko and the island. A melancholy and mystical relationship develops.
While the Walter Mitty-meets-Jezebel plotline certainly seems western enough, Isle of Dreams defies western storytelling norms in other ways. Isle of Dreams is a sparse book: only 150 pages, much of it void of dialogue and plot. It is stocked with adjective-rich sentences about what Shozo is seeing and feeling. In place of real action, Hino offers sentences like, “He intuitively sensed a mighty power, an uncanny force of nature surpassing his understanding.” For decades, American community college teachers have scolded young authors to “show” and not “tell;” Hino was not schooled in an American community college.
The most interesting element of Isle of Dreams is its intermingling of the real and the unreal. Shozo’s Tokyo is very real—warehouses, apartment flats, skyscrapers—but the Isle of Dreams is not quite real, or perhaps it is more than real. People change when they come to the island; over the course of the book, the island grows and changes. Appended to the Isle of Dreams is an additional and even more mystical island, a polluted and densely overgrown hunk of rock where a fortress once stood prior to Commodore Perry “opening” Japan. This is the site of the book’s transcendental climax.
Although largely “westernized,” the Japanese have adopted western institutions with surprising results. They put squid in ice cream and insert bowing into baseball. So too, Japanese novels (that quintessentially western literary form) are derivative of western literary convention only to a point.
Hino’s Isle of Dreams is illustrative: Its conventional novel form and plotline is superseded by a striking co-mingling of the mundane and mystical, and a modifier-laden writing style that tells all and shows little. This may be off-putting to the typical American reader. While some Japanese novels have been deservedly praised as masterworks (i.e., Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, Ooka’s Fire on the Plain), others may be perceived as equivalent to squid-flavored ice cream." - Michael Adelberg
"Isle of Dreams/Yume no shima was first published in Japan in 1985, just preceding the economic boom which in turn led to the overinflated valuation of property prices which would ultimately lead to the economic downturn at the end of the last millennium. The central character of Isle of Dreams, Shozo Sakai, aged 50 and widowed, is of the generation that witnessed both the poverty of the immediate post war years and a spectator to the economic ascension. At the beginning of the novel he is quietly in awe of the new Tokyo architecture which his company is constructing, Hino observes the shift in perspectives between the generations, ‘For Shozo and his contemporaries, buildings of steel and concrete were a goal in life, but for the next generation, they were no more than a starting point’. Often Shozo will get off the bus before reaching his destination to go back to examine a building more closely. Finding himself in one spot he reflects on the effects of the Tokyo bombing during the war, being slightly too young to remember it at first hand, he imagines the modern buildings engulfed in flames, Tokyo Tower collapsing in the immense heat. As Shozo traverses around districts of Tokyo; the Ginza, Tsukiji, and Tsukishima he encounters a manga convention,where the young participants are dressed up as their favourite characters, seeing them he reflects; Had Tokyo's neighbourhoods become such dreadful places that it was only here,on this artifical island,that these children could act out their fantasies? It was after all, he and his contemporaries who had produced that same metropolis. Another area Shozo is drawn to is the reclaimed land around Tokyo bay, walking there one day he is nearly knocked down by a motorcyclist dressed in black who when taking off her helmet Shozo discovers is a woman, incredulously to Shozo she offers him a lift. Walking again around the city another place that becomes an object of his curiosity is a shop window full of mannequins; the assistant arranging them has a familiarity. Shozo finds that his Sunday walks out on the reclaimed land offer him an opportunity to tap into his subconscious thoughts and desires, he feels detached from the past, his thinking is interrupted this time by a biker gang racing around, one falls off but the rest speed off leaving the fallen rider, approaching the body lying motionless Shozo recognises that it’s the woman who nearly ran him over, he hovers over her prostrate body caught in a moment of indecision, but hails a cab and takes her to a hospital. The next day he revisits the hospital to discover she’s signed herself out; he pays her bill and discovers her name, Yoko, and also her address.
Finding himself at the address, surprisingly the woman from the shop with the mannequins answers, is she Yoko’s sister? , as there’s a resemblance. Wandering out on the reclaimed land he’s not surprised when he encounters Yoko again, although this time she has a boy on the back of her bike, ‘Are you ready to go?’ she asks, they lead him to an island on the other side of the reclaimed land away from Tokyo Bay, walking through the overgrown bushes and trees Yoko cuts her head badly. Although not at first talkative, once on the island the boy demonstrates an almost extra sensory oneness with the nature of the island. This part of the novel’s setting is in complete contrast to the steel and concrete of the architecture at the beginning of the novel, amongst the overgrown trees and vegetation of the island Shozo makes out old houses and harbour buildings that probably date back to the time of Commodore Perry, which highlights one of the central themes of the novel, the transience of civilisations and the battle of man vs. nature, the novel also carries an allegorical environmental message which is conveyed in the fate of the birds of the island. The attention shifts focus of the main character at the closing of the novel, which reveals a few enigma's within the text. Hino’s writing is noted for being similar to J.G Ballard, reading this novel also brought to mind William Golding." - Nihon distractions
"The central figure in Isle of Dreams is Shozo Sakai, a widower in his fifties who lives in the construction-booming Tokyo of the 1980s. He works for a construction firm, too, and enjoys wandering around and watching the changing cityscape. One weekend he heads out to Harumi Wharf, for the spectacular view of the city from there, the first of a series of adventures to 'isles of dreams', artificial islands in various states that lead him to reflect on the shifting nature of Tokyo ("Tokyo lives", it dawns on him at one point) -- and of reality.
Going to Harumi Wharf he finds himself in a sea of children and adolescents, all on their way to a fanzine bazaar, many costumed. There are no adults, and even he barely seems to exist in the alternate reality there - no one takes notice of his presence - and he wonders:
Had Tokyo's neighborhoods become such dreadful places that it was only here, on this artificial island, that these children could act out their fantasies? It was, after all, he and his contemporaries who had produced that same metropolis.
The isles he visits are increasingly removed from the city proper. One is the area beyond Reclaimed Land Site #13, a landfill in the process of being filled that will eventually serve as the foundation for more expansion of the city. As Shozo explains to a colleague who arranges for him to visit the area:
But recently I've had the strange feeling that I need to verify some sort of starting point. We've been working like madmen for thirty years. Who are we, and what have we been doing?
Eventually he winds up in an even more isolated spot, among the rotten remains of an old, deserted outpost in the bay from the time when Admiral Perry arrived to open Japan to foreign trade, a symbolic place (in a variety of ways) that is an intersection (and nightmarish vision) of Tokyo's past and its future.
Along the way, Shozo encounters a mysterious woman, Yoko Hayashi - and a woman whom he takes for her sister (but each denies she has a sister...). One straddles a huge motorcycle which she races at high speed, the other is an artist who creates window-displays; Shozo is fascinated by these elusive, split personalities and repeatedly seeks them out; they, in turn, help him expand his horizons.
Hino masterfully conveys the different city- and landscapes, right down to the harrowing final island scenes. Shozo's receptiveness to more down-to-earth experience - in a world where "earth" is hardly stable, and much of it reclaimed from the detritus of the (often very recent) past - makes for an evocative and quite powerful vision of urban growth and decay, and how vicious and immediate that cycle can be. The woman complicates matters: a useful, intriguing mystery figure, Hino demystifies too much in the conclusion, wrapping up his story too conventionally neatly and thereby undermining even the strong touches he offers there (such as the image that: "in his eyes Tokyo was mirrored -- upside down"). Nevertheless, the novel, and its vision, is a haunting one." - M. A. Orthofer
"In Keizo Hino’s novel, originally published in Japan in 1985, Shozo Sakai, fifty and widowed, drifts through the days working for a construction company, and through the nights drinking with co-workers and clients. On his days off, he drives around looking at buildings. He is especially drawn to an island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay where also the city dumps its garbage. From there he can see the city skyline in one glance. Ironically, this manmade island is called the Isle of Dreams.
Shozo visits the Isle every Sunday where he “felt that it was during his wanderings about the reclaimed land that he was his true self, while during the week he was someone else.” Strangely, he finds that the fresh trash, particularly pieces of clothing, “kindled in him a feeling bordering on the sexual, something which, since the death of his wife, he had thought irrelevant to him.”
On one otherwise quiet and contemplative Sunday, he is nearly run over by a speeding motorcyclist using the empty asphalt and trash piles as a race track. The rider stops when Shozo yells he was nearly hit. The rider takes off a black racing helmet and Shozo discovers the rider is a young, attractive woman. After a lengthy non-apology, blaming Shozo for “loitering”, the woman drives off.
Put off and intrigued by the woman’s brash behavior, so opposite of his, he becomes obsessed with seeing her again. Some weeks later, he happens upon several motorcycles roaring through the area. The last motorcyclist gets in an accident and the others continue on unaware of the mishap. Shozo goes to the rider’s aid, and it happens to be the woman. She is alive but in pain. He flags down a taxi and they take her to a hospital.
When he returns the next morning, she has already checked out and stuck him with the bill. But at least he has her name now: Yoko Hayashi. Rather than discouraged, the encounter leaves him energized: “He was well aware of some inner stimulation. It was as though his spirit were acting quite on its own.” When he tracks down Yoko, he discovers she is not who she seems, but then it is too late for him.
Isle of Dreams is a haunting, edgy, and surprising novel. The feelings of dread and blind obsession it evokes is indicative of the current times, as we try to build an economic recovery on the garbage of greed and overconsumption. The intensity of the ending sends out a warning to guard one’s soul, whatever that may actually be." - Todd Shimoda
"For all of you not wasting away in concreteland, the Isle of Dreams is here!"
I was instantly enticed to read Keizo Hino's Isle of Dreams by the blurb on the back cover:
Though it has a lovely name, the real "Isle of Dreams" is a hunk of reclaimed land in Tokyo bay where the city dumps its garbage... and yet, Shozo Sakai, a middle-aged widower, does indeed find the place beautiful: gravitating more and more, since the death of his wife, toward the isle's massive piles of trash'.
How wonderful! I'd spent a lot of time in Odaiba, that reclaimed land site now filled with shopping malls (whose ceiling is decorated with clouds and features lighting which changes from day to night in an hour), TV studios, beaches and scale-models of the Statue of Liberty, reached by automated elevated monorail, and thought the place strange, but went nowhere near actual rubbish, only this simulated cultural kind. Also, it's published by Dalkey Archive Press, my new favourite publisher.
There's comparisons to be made between this little-known novel by little-known author with the work of Osamu Dazai (featured below) and similarly pessimistic Japanese writers, particularly as articulated through a close understanding of physical artifacts and modern urban detritus. This is especially present in Hino, in an almost metaphysical sense: that the inanimate matter of contemporary society has eclipsed human life, and that human society is doomed to be overrun by its own waste.
With its blurring of the boundaries between dreams and waking life, inanimate objects and living beings, past and future, Isle of Dreams is also a lot like the later films of David Lynch, but given that Hino wrote it in 1985 its incredible how contemporary it reads. The manner in which the lead character, the widower Shozo Sakai, wanders haphazardly into strange, otherworldly scenarios also recalls the dream(y) sequences of Kazuo Ishiguro, specifically the battle scene of When We Were Orphans and the whole of The Unconsoled. Hino however is the less straightforward writer, creating more enigmatic scenes, and allowing his story to conclude without clear resolution. These are all commendable traits, and are brilliantly executed, and Isle of Dreams is among the most haunting and genuinely thrilling (in the sense of being energised by Hino's fictitious creations) novels I have read.
The narrative follows the gradual unravelling of Sakai, an office worker for a construction firm, from his harmless, lonely wanderings looking at modern buildings, through his growing obsession with the reclaimed land of Tokyo, to his nightmarish nocturnal excursions with a female motorcyclist and her son through bombed out relics of Tokyo bay islands. Mannequins appear to come to life, and window displays posses more reality than the 'real' scenes around them.
Hino's pessimistic philosophy is expressed through the thoughts of Sakai when charged by these new encounters, 'charged' in much the same way as the protagonist in Tom McCarthy's Remainder when experiencing reenactments, and presented in the book in italics. The most pointed of these occur when Sakai first visits the waste disposal site at Reclaimed Land Site #13:
Tokyo was expanding (vertically, having already reached its horizontal limits), brimming over with commodities (devoid of either the light or shadow of history), the ever-increasing refuse (with many items unnecessarily discarded) brought to life again between the water and the light (with glittering plastic bags and the wheezing cacophony of garbage)...
Tokyo Lives, thought Shozo. No, he pondered further, as he recalled the view he had just seen of the distant, smog-enshrouded city from atop the mound of refuse, "Tokyo" is only what we call a quivering, breathing, expanding presence, a shape maintained by the endless belching forth of waste, exhaust, sewer water, heat, radio waves, noise, and idle chatter; a circulatory mechanism, invisible but powerful, created and controlled by no one... And when I too have been twisted to the breaking point and cast upon the rubbish heap, will I too acquire light and shadow and begin to tell my story?
And later, upon entering a mannequin manufacturing warehouse:
The thickness of the hard concrete, the intersecting iron reinforcement bars, a steel frame holding up the broad, high roof... Shozo had walked around construction sites more times than he could count, but this was the first time he had felt so directly over the entire surface of his body the presence of cement and metal - their roughness and weight, their crushing oppression, the cracking sounds, the piercing smells, the colours of ash and rust, the bone-chilling cold... It is we who have bestowed on our country this hermetically sealed darkness, desolate and dead, where even the strange smelling air is stagnant.
Isle of Dreams is full of these quotable observations, all of which seem to perfectly embody contemporary hanutological musings and psychogeographic thoughts on non-spaces. Hino's supposed to be similar to Ballard, in which case I'd better read more Ballard. It's intoxicating, this uniquely Japanese cynicism and melancholia, and Hino adds to this by attempting to explore beneath this bleak surface, capturing the rotten, soul-destroying essence of contemporary society, and its in-built future destruction. I've been prattling on about this book to anyone who will listen, it's marvellous, and I hope Dalkey Archive, or anyone, translate his other works." - Joshualine
"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
When our consciousness begins to change, for better or for worse, events around us seem to fall into line, starting with mere coincidences, hardly worth noting. Of course, how could it be otherwise?
It was just after noon on a clear day in early spring. The trees along the avenues of the business district, in the center of the metropolis, not far from Tokyo Bay, had not yet sprouted any visible new growth. Sunk in shadows between the high-rises were still traces of cold air, but out in the sun, particles of light had begun frolicking with all the exuberance of life restored. A southerly wind sweeping through the streets stealthily brought moist air to the creases and countless tiny holes in the hard, dry asphalt surface.
On the sidewalks, men and women office workers on their lunch break passed to and fro. The rays of the sun sparkled—particularly on the lively laughter of young female clerks and on the edges of the magnificent first-floor show windows displaying high-fashion clothing and accessories.
It was the first truly springlike day, but in that business district at noontime there was otherwise nothing out of the ordinary.
As always, Shozo Sakai had gone from the construction firm where he worked to eat lunch in the basement Chinese restaurant of a building two blocks away and then enjoyed a short walk. Although already over fifty, he had not yet put on an ounce of fat, nor had his digestive system weakened with age. He took his daily stroll not for exercise but rather for the uplifting pleasure of passing by the many high-rises along the way.
Tokyo had its large office buildings—drab, makeshift affairs—hastily thrown together after the war, along with the so-called second-generation constructions built with some idea of design in mind. Here, however, everything was new, each endeavor having its own touch of individuality. Shozo was not indifferent to the charm of the quaint and stately pre-war structures that had survived the air raids, but he was invariably struck by the beauty of contemporary buildings, sharply geometrical in form, devoid of superfluous décor, adroitly bringing to the fore a texture that was both mineral and metallic.
Particularly when at dusk, the rain having lifted, he happened to see the clouds suddenly part and the sunlight break through the air like streams of golden arrows to illuminate the walls and windows of the high-rises, row upon row, he found himself, quite involuntarily, trembling with emotion.
Now, the noon sun had nothing extraordinary about it, none of the unexpected light effects of morning and evening. Yet the buoyant mood imparted to him by the delightful clarity of this midday respite took him farther down the street than was his habit.
He thought of nothing in particular, nor did he reminisce. He looked up into the sky; already it had begun to relinquish its winter harshness. Then, having thrown a cursory glance at the profile of the show-window mannequins, their heads slightly cocked to one side, he peered at the reflection of a building in the polished hood of a black automobile. As he again looked straight ahead, the building itself suddenly appeared directly before him.
This was not everything that he saw. There were the rough reddish-brown walls of a trust bank, the golden arabesque pattern surrounding the thick glass door, the dappled bark of the trees lining the street, three female office workers walking by together in bluish uniforms…Though nothing appeared out of the ordinary, it somehow looked like a double-exposed photograph, another scene having been superimposed.
In the dull, weak light of impending dusk on a cloudy day, there are rows of dark-red brick buildings—all equally squat and solid. From between the walls jut cement-coated posts, ravaged by wind and rain, with likewise weather-blanched, gray granite steps at each entrance, flanked by round stone pillars. On each edifice there is a copper plate embedded in the redbrick wall; on one of them he can make out the words "Mitsubishi House #21."
Here one can read free of charge newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books from the Soviet Union. There is no large reading room; the windows are small. The yellowish light of a tungsten lamp illuminates the cool, coldly hushed and stuffy interior. He can see the cover of a large-formatted journal: unadorned, powder-blue, poor-quality paper. He recognizes the title printed in cobalt ink: ОКТЯБРЬ. Named for the October Revolution, it is the organ of the Soviet Writers' Union.
It took him by surprise, but not such as to leave him standing breathless on the pavement. As unexpected as the vision of the redbrick buildings and the dark-blue Russian letters had been, it had also seemed quite natural—and had vanished as quickly as it had appeared.