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BOUND TO PLEASE / Tokyo short stories shine new light on capital

By Ayako Hirayama / Japan News Staff WriterThe Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction

Edited by Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks and Masashi Matsuie

Comma Press, 180pp

What are the standard images of Tokyo? Efficient public infrastructure, skyscrapers, crowded trains and neon lights probably come to people’s minds, but these are only the physical aspects of the Japanese capital. “The Book of Tokyo” showcases the lesser-known diversity of the city’s people.

Part of the “Reading the City” series by Comma Press, “The Book of Tokyo” is an anthology of 10 short stories set in Tokyo. Each was authored by a different award-winning Japanese writer, and translated by a different person as well.

Editor Michael Emmerich writes in the introduction that a sense of detachment from the physical cityscape pervades this collection, as the writers create a Tokyo of their own. “You might say that the stories of this anthology unfold within a landscape more imagined than real,” he says.

We see this right from the opening story, “Model T Frankenstein,” in which Hideo Furukawa creates an abstract world, conveying the city’s moods through the eyes of a monster. The story is hardly an easy read, as the narrator shape-changes from a goat to a human who eventually becomes a mass murderer.

In contrast, “Picnic” by Kaori Ekuni is a page-turner centering on a married couple who has a weekend picnic at a park. There is darkness within the story’s peaceful setting — viewing his wife as a “witch,” the main character suspects she has a hidden motive behind the picnicking.

Banana Yoshimoto and Hitomi Kanehara provided odd stories: In Yoshimoto’s “Mummy,” a female university student is kept captive by a neighbor. She thinks he wants her to turn into a mummy, but she’s unafraid even so. This ambivalence is well expressed by Yoshimoto’s unique prose.

Kanehara’s “Mambo” depicts a woman’s peculiar obsession with sex. Her chance meeting with an older man leads them to reveal their peculiar thoughts to each other in a taxi.

A random encounter is also key to “The Owls’ Estate” by Toshiyuki Horie, in which a man who was mistaken for a French speaker finds himself in a building where foreign women live.

Independent-minded women will likely sympathize with “A House for Two” by Mitsuyo Kakuta. A 38-year-old shopping addict who enjoys her single life comes to reflect on herself through her relationship with her mother.

“Dad, I Love You” by Nao-Cola Yamazaki and “Vortex” by Osamu Hashimoto share themes of family ties and social obligations. Their subject matter is more familiar, featuring ordinary, middle-class characters who become aware of the joy in the little things in their everyday lives.

Tokyo’s shitamachi atmosphere can be felt in “The Hut on the Roof” by Hiromi Kawakami. The tale presents the human connections in a friendly shopping arcade where neighbors hang out at an izakaya pub. They develop cozy relationships but maintain a distance to respect each other’s privacy.

The closing story, “An Elevator on Sunday” by Shuichi Yoshida, may leave readers somewhat bitter, as it describes the complex emotions of an unambitious man who recalls his ex-girlfriend who damaged his self-esteem.

“The Book of Tokyo” readers may find themselves no longer sure what Tokyo is actually like, and feel lost in a maze where people’s lives are random, weird, complex and uncertain. But that disorientation is, to borrow Emmerich’s line, “one of the great pleasures of being in Tokyo.”

Where to read

Anywhere you’re eating, as “eating good food makes me feel as if all is right with the world.”

Maruzen price: ¥2,939 plus tax (as of Oct. 14, 2015)

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