The Mundane and the Strange

John W. W. Zeiser reviews two new Japanese translations

Spring Garden
By Tomoka Shibasaki, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton
Pushkin Press, February 2017

Record of a Night Too Brief
By Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Lucy North
Pushkin Press, February 2017

A neighborhood is a place that becomes in many ways an extension of one’s home. It is full of things that one grows comfortable with, places with which one gains great familiarity. Its routes and paths become part of a routine. Neighborhoods are also constantly changing, reflecting and representing shifting social forces like property value, social capital, tourism construction, demographics, and a whole host of other things. There is something mesmerizing, if not more than slightly disconcerting, about watching this process of neighborhood change. The daily trudge to the train station begins to look different. Your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant is now just hanging on. The homeless woman who has been like a gargoyle on the bus bench disappears one day and never returns.

Tomoka Shibasaki seems acutely aware of this process in Spring Garden, a novella recently translated by the Osaka-based, British-born Polly Barton. The protagonist Taro is divorced, but it is clear that the death of his father has had a more profound effect on his life. We rarely hear about his ex-wife, but his father’s presence haunts the novella: “Even now, Taro sometimes had the feeling that his father wasn’t dead, but had just gone out. The sensation was a bit like having a dream and forgetting the story halfway through.”

Taro has been living for three years among the dwindling number of residents in the View Palace Saeki III, a Tokyo apartment block slated to be torn down. There, we meet his neighbors, getting to know them along with Taro even as they and his neighborhood slowly disappear.

There was another plot of razed land diagonally opposite from that house. Taro could not remember what had been there before either. In yet another plot, which had been vacant for as long as he could remember, construction work had now begun. He suddenly began paying attention to signs announcing demolition, or announcing who had commissioned forthcoming construction on the site.

Later, on his daily commute to the train station, “[h]e caught sight of what was left of a wooden house, loaded onto the back of a truck.”

A sense of slow, mundane flux pervades the novella. The narrative is languid probably because “[a]voiding bother was Taro’s governing principle. It wasn’t that he was a stick in the mud. It was just that, rather than putting himself out in order to get the more pleasing or interesting things he stood to gain, he always opted for the least bothersome option. Bother still seemed to find its way into his life, however.” Taro’s current bother comes in the form of Nishi, an illustrator who lives in the View Palace Saeki III.

Taro first encounters Nishi, who lives in the Dragon Apartment—each of the apartments has an animal of the lunar calendar in place of numbers—as she stands on her balcony looking towards the sky-blue house situated next to the View Palace. Eventually, Taro learns that Nishi is obsessed with the building:

It was built in 1964, the same year as the Tokyo Olympics. It’s totally got that look of the sort of house ‘a person of culture’ around that time would have built, but it seems a bit lacking in taste now, the way they’ve crammed so many different elements in.

The former residents were a pair of celebrities, an actress and director who were married briefly. When Nishi sees pictures of the house while apartment-hunting online, she becomes enamored with it, eventually discovering that the couple had released a limited-edition book of photographs taken at the house, Spring Garden. Realizing that she cannot afford the three hundred thousand yen a month to rent the house, Nishi decides the next best thing is to rent a small apartment with a view of the sky-blue house.

When I think of the times I have passed by interesting-looking houses or apartments and wondered what lies behind their doors, gates, curtains, Nishi’s obsession is immediately recognizable. Who doesn’t want to know the interior lives of their neighbors or strangers? The popularity of real estate and interior design blogs or the rise of Pinterest speaks to this desire to see what is on the other side; albeit into a sanitized, staged interior.

Taro has some reservations about the sincerity of the photos: “The exquisiteness of all the aged furniture and the low table with exactly the right amount of clutter seemed to Taro too perfect to be trusted.” However, one of the photos of the director digging in his garden eventually catches him in the spell of Spring Garden and the sky-blue house, which is now occupied by a young professional family, the Morios, whom Nishi eventually befriends.

These moments when Taro is observing the nature of buildings, of the slow evolution, the built environment are captivating. They reflect on a perspective tuned in to routines, and to how geography and the movement of capital through the urban landscape can be noticed if one looks closely.

Spring Garden is a short book and its length both works to its advantage and restricts it. Shibasaki’s gaze remains very narrow and much that we want to know is kept from us. Both Taro and Nishi supposedly lead complicated lives, and they keep each other at arm’s length. This is understandable. How often do neighbors really move beyond the friendly stage with one another? This is where the two remain. The threat of adventure lurks everywhere at the outset, but the novella is almost like a character sketch, chugging ahead without letting too much muddle up the narrative.

Yet at the end, this quotidian atmosphere feels like one of the novella’s triumphs as Shibasaki expertly weaves a sense of foreboding without the sinister connotation. Something is bound to happen and when something does, it too is relatively mundane, but feels much more important. Shibasaki seems to be telling us not to expect too much lying behind any of the doors.

The neighborhoods in Hiromi Kawakami’s short-story collection Record of a Night Too Brief, first published in Japanese in 1996, show nothing like the slow changes Taro watches. Hers are slippery and unfamiliar places where logic is internal and surreal, and everyone seems to be disappearing and reappearing without rhyme or reason. Kawakami treats all this matter-of-factly and it gives the reader the strange sense of being led through a collection of dreams.

In the title story, a young woman goes through a series of adventures in a world dominated by the night, which takes on a physical form, dripping and oozing and spreading throughout the piece. Right from the outset the night is given qualities one might never associate with it: “What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And then I realized that it was the night—the night was nibbling into me.” This entity follows the protagonist as she encounters the strange dreamscape and falls in love with “a slender girl with short hair” who accompanies her: “Now a part of the chaos, alongside the girl, I entered the night.”

As we follow this pair, the narrator comes across all manner of strange situations and creatures; her journey will be vaguely recognizable to anyone who has had a dream. She stumbles upon a group of gentlemen holding a huge banquet, and when invited to join cannot taste the food; she turns into a fish; time stops and starts fitfully. All the while, the slender girl becomes more entwined in her life. 

The infinite number of girls descended my throat, passed down into my stomach, and were transmitted through my veins to all parts of my body. Waves of explosive pleasure rushed over me. Then I realized: my hair had started to grow. And time, previously at a standstill, had started to flow again.

Record of a Night Too Brief is probably not for everyone. Its commitment to its own internal logic is admirable, and the task of translating Kawakami’s surrealism must have been a tall order for Lucy North, but it can feel repetitive and difficult to follow. The rules of Kawakami’s make-believe keep changing, not unlike one’s dreams, and she keeps the reader unsettled by providing places that look just familiar enough to enter, but not to make sense of. In “Missing,” the narrator lives in a world where family members disappear almost without remark. The narrator’s own Brother No. 1 vanishes after his betrothal to Hiroko, whose family has its own strange traditions. 

Dreamworlds are one of the most difficult things to represent with precision. Almost without exception, they are wholly personal. Listening to your friend recount her dreams is one of the most boring things imaginable, unless you are your friend’s therapist. They are personal in the extreme and make little sense to someone outside of them. Too often Record of a Night Too Brief drags because of this. There are narratives hidden within these dreams, and deep longing felt by the characters, but too often they are obscured by the bizarre. Better to stick with a nap in the sun.

These two books present readers with very different moments in Japanese history, literary and otherwise. Kawakami’s shorts were written in the mid-1990s, while Shibasaki’s novella first appeared in 2014, winning the sought after Akutagawa prize. The ’90s are known in Japan as the Lost Decade, which many now argue was more like two decades. It was a period of economic malaise accompanied by technological innovation and fears over a rapidly aging population, and it is easy to read Kawakami’s stories as a desire to escape inwardly, to places where the logic of the market does not go. The Lost Decade is clearly formative for Taro, and Spring Garden explores what waking up from Japan’s long malaise looks like. To publish these two books as the first in a series of Japanese writing is an astute move on the part of Pushkin Press, providing unique slices of literary history that may serve as bookends for further explorations in translating the literature of this period.