Individuals, Juxtaposed: Shuichi Yoshida’s Parade

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Shuichi Yoshida (author), Philip Gabriel (translator), Parade, Vintage, 2015. 230 pgs.

Juxtaposition is arguably part of the big city charm. Tokyo in itself is already a city of juxtaposed buildings and streets and as Shuichi Yoshida zooms in on a handful of urbanite youths living together, we see that within the confines of an ordinary apartment, they too, are juxtaposed. Parade is a dark thriller that packs a discreetly hard-hitting plot and a thought-provoking picture of urban life, where social structures, just as much as physical ones, are essentially superficial and temporary.

The novel is an engaging immersion into the lives of five different Tokyo urbanites. Despite the confined living space shared by five individuals and their together-ness as roommates, themes of loneliness and detachment are prominent through each character’s narrations. While the characters deliver edgy monologues on interpersonal relations, city life, and apartment living, we almost forget that the novel is a psychological thriller. Yoshida’s prose, translated by Philip Gabriel, is gripping all throughout, making this a fast read with some sneaky misdirection on the novel’s plot to set up a sucker-punch ending that comes flying out of nowhere.

The story is told through five chapters, each with a different narrator. Kicking things off is the narration of Ryosuke, 21, a college student. He works a part-time job at a Mexican restaurant during evenings and is romantically pursuing Kiwako, the girlfriend of a university upperclassman. When he is not outside, he mostly hangs around the apartment with Koto, a 23-year-old woman from Sapporo. Koto, narrator of the second chapter, normally spends her entire day by the phone, waiting for her television drama actor boyfriend to call. Whenever they have a date, she and he would arrange for quick trysts in hotel rooms.

Early on, Ryosuke and Koto each sense something strange going on in the next door apartment. Ryosuke had seen on separate occasions at least two young girls emerge out of it in tears and Koto had spied a politician enter it as well. The two of them would devise a plan to investigate this while some more mystery builds up in the background. Reports surface on television of an attacker at-large within the neighborhood. Several women have already fallen victim to the attacks, with gruesomely bashed-in faces. Police have even started going door-to-door to issue warnings to neighborhood residents. This sub-plot silently brews as the characters barely take notice of this and continue on with their own businesses.

One morning, Koto encounters 18-year-old Satoru emerging from the bathroom, assuming he is one of Ryosuke’s university friends. Satoru plays along but when the roommates discover that he doesn’t seem to be who he says he is, they start suspecting that they had let a thief unimpeded into the apartment. It turns out that it was Mirai, a 24-year-old illustrator and manager of an imported goods boutique, who had ferried in this young wayfarer on one of her countless drunken nights out. Mirai is brutally honest and provides a refreshingly cynical perspective. She regularly hangs out at gay bars and this is how she encounters Satoru, who had been homeless until he ended up in the apartment.

Satoru makes a living as a male prostitute by night but by day, he occasionally shoots speed and breaks into other people’s residences. That much we know through his narration but as for what he tells the other characters, Satoru plays a bit of camouflage. Mirai however, sees right through his fraud: “He simply has no respect for the past…these false histories he was spouting were becoming way too convenient.” But having been homeless previously, Satoru knows that selectively molding one’s image to others is fundamental to survival in the city. “I mean it’s all made up anyway,” he tells Mirai when she suggests he talk about his childhood memories.

The eldest roommate and the novel’s final narrator is 28-year-old Naoki, a professional at a film company. He has been an original occupant of the apartment with his now on-off girlfriend Misaki, until Mirai, and then Ryosuke moved in. Misaki eventually moved out to live with a middle-aged boyfriend instead and that’s around the time Koto moved in. Naturally, the younger members treat him as an older brother figure. Other than that, Naoki is a protein-shake-drinking health nut and spends his free time jogging around the neighborhood.

The five roommates keep loose and casual relations with one another but surely, this was to be expected for any group of individuals living together. Each of them came to the city from different backgrounds, carrying different burdens and secrets, and fighting different personal battles. Koto compares their living arrangement to that of an internet chat room and as Mirai observes, everyone is merely putting on situation-appropriate faces. For Satoru, the apartment is all a stage for “people-playing-at-being-friends.” It’s true that each roommate, in a certain sense, role-plays for the sake of living in harmony but in doing so, they also foster indifference in their lack of emotional investment in one another.

The roommates merely share an apartment and the occasional meal; otherwise, everyone is left on their own. At this point, that simple two-bedroom apartment becomes a sort of microcosm of a city, at least on the level of the individual. Paradoxically, despite the city—an artificially vast landmass of a dense web of streets and lofty skyscrapers— being a space that lots of people populate and share together, indifference and loneliness hang heavy in the air. This becomes the norm in a place where everyone bustles along with his or her own agenda. In such environment, detaching oneself and alienating others become equally easy. In the story’s late stages, one of the characters feels heavy isolation, ignored by everyone else (“unjudged, unforgiven, null and void”). It’s in this scene where even the perceived sense of alienation is chillingly oppressive.

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The Night Also Dreams: Haruki Murakami’s After Dark

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Haruki Murakami (author), Jay Rubin (translator), After Dark, Vintage, 2007. 244 pgs.

A few years back in high school, After Dark served as my official introduction to Haruki Murakami’s fiction. As a less mature reader at that time, it initially ran counter to my expectations of it being some edgy urban thriller. Reading it a second time a while back, I found a whole new appreciation to it, as it has easily become one of my favorite Murakami novels due to its simplicity and subtlety. Recently, I gave it a third read and thought I should write a review to gather my thoughts and make an analysis.

After Dark zooms, pans, and watches over late night Tokyo over a roughly seven-hour time frame, beginning just before midnight and ending at sunrise. Murakami observes and explores the urban setting during these nocturnal hours while digging for the surreal in deserted offices, bathroom mirrors, and television screens. His typical artful mix of realism and surrealism creates an overall dreamlike affair within a well-paced and efficient narrative. Elements of Murakami’s characteristic style—magic realism, pensive characters, jazz music—are ever present, if not subdued. In After Dark, it’s the night that takes center stage.

From the opening, the night is kept alive as the city pulses: “Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.” Across the narrative, we get to tour around a certain city district, visiting places that contribute to that “basso continuo” of the nighttime: A Denny’s diner, a love hotel named Alphaville, an all-night convenience store, among others, not to mention the souls that stay awake during this time, for various reasons.

It’s also a rare Murakami novel that is narrated in the third person, with particular significance. The narrator is an abstract point-of-view, taking on a role equivalent to that of a camera director of a television broadcast. Like it or not, we are part of this abstract being comprised of the narrator and the reader. “We” and “our” are used often by the narrator/observer for emphasis: “Redundant though it may sound, we are sheer point of view. We cannot influence things in any way.” This sense of voyeurism (and our apparent participation in it) is a recurring theme in the novel.

The focal point of the narrative is the Asai sisters—nineteen-year-old Mari and twenty-one-year-old Eri—who couldn’t be any more different. We first encounter Mari reading a thick novel while sipping coffee at a Denny’s until an old acquaintance, Takahashi, joins her at her table. This young man Takahashi and Mari had been paired up in a double-date before, which also involved Eri and her then-boyfriend. The two of them briefly chat about Eri and other topics while Takahashi downs a quick meal. When he leaves, Mari  then gets sucked into a brief adventure of having to translate for a bloodied and beaten-up Chinese prostitute at a love hotel. This gets the ball rolling as Mari jumps around the late night establishments, with a revolving door of characters engaging her in dialogue, including the owner and an employee of the Alphaville love hotel.

In her several conversations across the night, Mari often mentions how she and Eri “live in different worlds.” To put it simply, Mari is the brainy type—studious, fluent in Chinese—while Eri is the pretty face with a modeling career. Though these differences in characteristics and personality are merely superficial, the rift between the two sisters runs a lot deeper, reaching into an emotional level. Both sisters yearn to close this emotional gap between them but both seem not to know how.

There’s reason for why Mari is out in the streets at nights. She couldn’t sleep and doesn’t want to go home because she couldn’t bear her sister’s condition—Eri has been sleeping at home for two months. As point-of-view, we get to observe Eri’s room every now and then. This is mainly where Murakami plays around with his signature surrealism. “Clearly, something here is incompatible with nature,” the narrating observer teases. There’s a mysterious television set in the room, where a masked man is displayed on screen, seemingly watching over Eri’s sleep. At one point, Eri gets transported into some other world inside the television. This whole sequence is cryptic, although its apparent metaphorical value is hinted at:

“Around us, cause and effect join hands, and synthesis and division maintain their equilibrium. Everything, finally, unfolded in a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light.”

Perhaps it really is unnecessary to explain these strange events, just like how dreams also go beyond explanation. When we dream, an infinite number of realms open up and arbitrariness is imposed upon us. In After Dark, Murakami tastefully imagines this notion into the nighttime setting. There’s something about the night’s own spirit that welcomes the uncanny and the surreal during the most untimely hours, lurking around both those asleep and awake. As one character mentions, “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.” In Murakami’s nocturnal Tokyo, the night also dreams.

Review – Keigo Higashino’s Naoko

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Keigo Higashino (author), Kerim Yasar (translator), Naoko, Vertical, 2004. 288 pgs.

Perhaps it is his engineering background that makes Keigo Higashino a great writer, with his masterful ability to engineer intricate plots that frame mind-bending mysteries. His craft in plot-making is why he has countless works that have been adapted for TV dramas and movies in both Japan and Korea. It seems his stories are just too good to not be made into screenplays that are just as equally good. His standalone novel Naoko, his first work to be translated to English, has both film and television adaptations in Japan, not to mention also being a winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Award at the time of its original publication.

Although Naoko isn’t as intricate as, say, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is in terms of plot, Higashino downplays the mystery aspect of the story in lieu of melodrama and poignancy, indeed proving his versatility as an author. While his novels aren’t known for literary depth and being more famous for his detective mysteries, Higashino goes on an excursion by working with a supernatural concept as his premise while keeping one foot within his mystery niche.

A middle-aged man Heisuke Sugita has his ordinary and quiet life rocked when he sees a television news report about a fatal accident involving a Nagano-bound bus his wife Naoko and daughter Monami had boarded. Everyone on board was killed except for Monami, who is in a coma. When she wakes up, she seems to have taken on her mother’s spirit—Monami mysteriously has Naoko’s memory and mind. Essentially, Naoko has taken over Monami’s body. Heisuke and Naoko become confused, living double lives as husband-and-wife in private, and as father-and-daughter in public. Meanwhile, Heisuke one day runs into Seiko Kajikawa, the bus driver’s wife, leading him to pursue the truth behind their family. It’s not a Higashino novel without a mystery to unfurl.

In essence, the novel focuses on Naoko’s “second go” at life, as she starts anew in a prepubescent body but carrying on her grownup wisdom. As a mother, she tries to live as fully as Monami would have wanted by pursuing a career as a doctor. There are quite a number of laughs as she and Heisuke come to grips with the new dynamic of their relationship as a couple. Eventually, they begin to struggle, first with the lack of physical intimacy. Naoko reaches Monami’s adolescent years while attending a co-ed high school, further straining her relationship with Heisuke as she starts a habit of coming home late and even flirts with a boy. Heisuke is left in a painful conflict having to choose between being a loving father or a loving husband to one person. It’s quite surprising for a mystery novel to evolve into such a touching story with tender moments and that’s exactly what has been achieved here.

Even though the melodrama lasts all the way to the late stages, the story goes full-circle at the end. Without giving away too much, an unassuming clue to the whole puzzle is the novel’s original title in Japanese, Himitsu (秘密), meaning “secret.” While the novel revolves around the character Naoko, at its very core is secrecy. Although the whole business of Naoko’s soul living in Monami’s body is an openly established secret between her and Heisuke, there’s a far less obvious one that brings a shock conclusion to the story. Higashino baits the reader with incredible misdirection in a similar fashion to the way he did in The Devotion of Suspect X.

Keigo Higashino is a true master of the Japanese mystery novel. In Naoko, he proves that he can do away with the usual affair of crime, genius professors, and detectives that most of his readers grew fond of. He exhibits versatility and stays true to his roots by delivering a tear-jerker and a mind-bender in one package.

Two new Higashino novels, Newcomer and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are scheduled for release this year. The former is part of the Detective Kaga series (Malice) while the latter is a standalone. He’s a prolific writer in Japan yet only has six novels translated to English at the time of writing, so I’m anticipating the pair. While I wait, I might go check out those film and TV adaptations of his works.

Review – Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop

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My review of Hiromi Kawakami’s latest English-translated work has been published in the Ninth Anniversary Issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Read more here.


The Nakano Thrift Shop was a light read and as I implied in the full review, it’s a novel with a continuous plot told in a short-story-collection-like structure, which is very similar to Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase. This is a novel brought alive by eccentric characters, often in peculiar circumstances. While the plot may seem aimless, it nonetheless meanders smoothly with great execution by Kawakami and translator Allison Markin Powell.

Keeping to the Script: Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai

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Osamu Dazai (author), Allison Markin Powell (translator), Schoolgirl, One Peace Books, 2012. 103 pgs.

Osamu Dazai’s 1939 novella is a young girl’s narration of a day in her life as she reflects on finding her place in the world. Schoolgirl is essentially a self-portrait of a student engulfed with adolescent angst and despite the roughly seventy-year gap between its original publication and its first English translation by Allison Markin Powell, is timelessly relatable and familiar to anyone who has ever wondered, at a tender age, about the individual within society.

As the unnamed girl takes the reader through her inner monologue of random musings and daydreaming across an ordinary day, she takes on a generally sad disposition and is voluntarily forthcoming of her unpleasant traits. “I really am a horrid girl,” she says, referring to how she hates lots of things, including her “pathetic” crippled pet dog. Over dinner, she looks cynically at her mother’s house guests the Imaidas, calling Mrs. Imaida “unrefined” for her excessive laughter. The girl’s loneliness mainly comes from missing her deceased father, yearning for her older sister who had already married and lives in Hokkaido, and having a mother who spends most of her time away from home or is busy entertaining friends and acquaintances. But beneath our schoolgirl’s cynicism and self-loathing is an acknowledgement of her weaknesses and shortcomings. With her father gone, the girl feels burdened at having to be her mother’s pillar, just as much as her father was, but is regretful for still being an immature daughter: “I only ever think of myself, I thought, I let myself be coddled by her to my heart’s content, and then take such a reckless attitude with her.”

Aside from her familial relations, the girl ponders about what it means to be a member of society. Unlike the typical soul-searching adolescent, she seems to already have a fair grasp of her identity. In fact, she’s reluctant at having to let herself go. Many times she challenges the need for conformity and the limits of living an authentic life. She desires to embrace her individuality but she is also aware of the pressures of needing to belong and having to comply with society’s standards. That is where the brunt of her frustration lies. “The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality, and I hope I always will, but fully embodying it is another matter.”

Whereas some teenagers who struggle with the same questions of personal identity turn to rebellion that manifests physically, the girl keeps it all to herself, bottled up but somehow exerting no real pressure. We never really get a sense of pent up, on-the-edge adolescent frustration that boils tantalizingly close to the surface. Our schoolgirl’s inner turmoil is somewhat controlled. No matter how subversive her thoughts become, she never lashes out, keeping herself in check. While serving dinner to her mother’s house guests:

“Despite my feelings, I forced myself to bow and smile and chat, saying how cute Yoshio was and giving him a pat on the head. Since I was the one lying outright and tricking them all, maybe the Imaidas were more pure and innocent than I was.”

She has enough maturity to act appropriately but she is equally aware of the superficiality of her actions. It bothers her that she has to put on the “happy face” that people around her expect to see because deep inside, she wants to act her own way. But her rebellion is all in her mind and never breaks surface mainly because our schoolgirl harbors sorrow more than anger. Several times over the course of the day, she wanted to cry but even her tears never fall. Arguably, the girl feels entrapped, claustrophobic not only within the society that she is part of but also within the person that she is or rather, the mask that she wears.

Her feelings are contradictory, in that as much as she dislikes acting superficially to meet accepted norms, she finds comfort in conformity. She regularly uses the word “obsequious” to describe herself and the people around her, revealing how she honestly sees society. As Shakespeare once wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” So our schoolgirl sticks to her script, acting accordingly to how she is expected to act around people, be it in school, while riding public transportation, or at home while entertaining guests.

The girl possesses a precocious, piercing, aggressive vision of the world around her—on society and nature. She gawks at passengers on the train going to school but on her way home, she takes a slow walk down the country road and lies down on a meadow, remembering her late father. Allowing the afternoon haze to embrace her while gazing at the blue sky, she becomes awestruck at the beauty of this scene and encounters a spiritual experience. “I want to live beautifully,” she says.

Later in the night before going to bed, she gives her mother a massage as they share a tender moment. She receives praise from her mother. “I was thrilled by the possibility of a new, calm me, one who had emerged after I had simply accepted my place,” says our schoolgirl. In the midst of her confusion and loneliness, she encounters hope.

Book Review – Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

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Book review originally published on August 29, 2016 in my Goodreads account. Also posted on September 1, 2016 in my first blog.

Is it logical for one to fall in love with a book that also broke one’s heart? Banana Yoshimoto’s masterpiece of Japanese fiction was a short, sentimental, and satisfying read for me. As someone who aspires to write short fiction but hampered by a lack of creativity or inspiration, I realized that with Kitchen, I ended up reading what I wanted to write. Not that I want to write something sad but I really admire Yoshimoto’s writing and delivery of a slice of life story driven more by characters rather than plot. I could see myself revisiting this exquisite work again and again.

Kitchen consists of two novellas (the eponymous story and a shorter one, Moonlight Shadow) that explore love and loss. Both novellas involve young characters in the midst of vulnerable times as they attempt to cope with deaths of people they become attached to, mending wounds created by the loss of loved ones. Kitchen has believable, relatable characters, each of them pitiful, tinged with depression of varying degrees but despite their vulnerability, there is still latent strength within them, evoking senses of hope and optimism. Its only weakness is that the tone sometimes turns a tad preachy, generating lines akin to Paulo Coelho quotes. But these flat points are few and far in between in an otherwise strong work. At times sharply sad, the book never becomes overly depressing, and room is left for a gentle mix of light humor along with the sentimentality. Add in a little magic realism, which offered a reassuring familiarity for Haruki Murakami fans like me, and this book has delightfully turned out to be my cup of tea.

The English translation by Megan Backus brought out Yoshimoto’s skilled writing and I’m confident that the original text in Japanese was superb. I took my time with this relatively thin volume of only 150 pages, savoring every word and sentence as if reading poetry; and Yoshimoto’s prose is quite poetic. She is very masterful in painting the scenes that surround her characters and I’m most impressed by how she makes gloomy winter scenery appear vivid and striking. Yoshimoto constantly uses the sky and the weather as image motifs across the two stories. The various details such as the bite of a cold wind, the blueness of the night sky, the falling snow, among others, are of close relation, almost reflections, of the characters that they surround. Her descriptions of scenery are easily my favorite parts of the book.

I discovered that Kitchen is the favorite book of one of my former college professors, as well as a fictional character’s in a Japanese television drama, so I’m glad I finally picked up a copy after I was left convinced. I’m also glad that it’s a widely acclaimed international bestseller, so there is legitimate hype surrounding the book. Considered a representative work of contemporary Japanese literature, I think it deserves its lofty reputation. Based on my literary tastes, Kitchen was a quintessential little book in numerous aspects of fiction, especially Yoshimoto’s prose and handling of characters. This was some fine contemporary slice of life fiction sprinkled with magic realism that made it dazzlingly alluring.

Book Review – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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Book review originally published on January 24, 2016 in my first blog. Posted on my Goodreads account.

I’ve read the majority of Haruki Murakami’s English-translated bibliography and I could say that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is his saddest tale so far. Yes, I actually found this more emotionally piercing than Norwegian Wood. While the story primarily occurs during titular character Tsukuru Tazaki’s late thirties, it is in essence about a strong and innocent friendship between five teenagers, Tsukuru one of them, who met in high school and how something as pure and perfect as such succumbs to the relentlessness of time. The five young men and women form an unconditional bond with one another—a bond so intense that the friends seem to be, as one character surmises, caught in its perfection. But as young high school students, they’re certainly still oblivious to the insidious passing of time—that anything swept up against it, even something as pure as friendship among adolescents, is left powerless.

What unfolds is a pensively tragic story that has the capacity to pierce the reader at a personal level, tugging at one’s own memories of friendships formed and lost. It is nostalgic, and of course, melancholic. The book has emotional appeal with its storyline and it belongs close to the realistic end of the realism continuum of Murakami fiction.

On his sophomore year in college, Tsukuru was inexplicably exiled from his group of friends and was driven to depression for a few months thereafter. However, he overcame that yoke as he met a young man named Haida, who subsequently disappeared just as Tsukuru started to form a close friendship with him. Sixteen years after these events, Tsukuru is now in his late thirties and leads a lonesome straightforward life, almost like a reflection of his profession as an engineer of railway stations. He has a girlfriend, Sara, who notices that he still seems emotionally affected by his past, still carrying the scars of being exiled from a tight bunch of friends. She suggests (or implores) Tsukuru to revisit his former friends and confront not necessarily the “past” but rather “history” as Sara puts it. Tsukuru heeds her advice, albeit with a tinge of reluctance, and embarks on a classic Murakami-designed quest, shades of Sputnik Sweetheart, searching for answers to unanswered questions and explanations for the unexplained.

Colorless Tsukuru’s realism draws up to par with Norwegian Wood but the book also teeters into the surreal with its exploration of dreams and the human subconscious. In some ways, it draws similarities to After Dark, starting with the fact that both stories were written in the third person. While After Dark’s surrealist elements revolved around sleep, Colorless Tsukuru utilized dreaming to toe the line between real and unreal. Can dreams infiltrate reality? It’s a typical Murakami exploration into the surreal—the author’s niche—driving miles into psychological territory, delving into the human subconscious. Beneath all the superficiality of human relationships, Murakami ponders about the unseen and the intrinsic, experimenting with possibilities that deep down, in a whole different dimension, one’s subconscious can be connected and even interconnected with others’ own. Spread throughout the novel, Murakami’s metaphysical musings play around and dissect experimental conjecture, and it reminded me of his fellow contemporary Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe’s own speculative reveries in A Quiet Life, for example.

I stretched my reading time for this, even setting it aside for a couple of other page-turners, and it worked perfectly fine as I think the novel needed a calm, introspective pacing despite its relatively shorter length in Murakami standards. It’s an emotionally charged novel with interesting philosophical insights in between. Murakami explores the fragility of human relationships, the fleeting moments and episodes in one’s life, and the human longing for permanence, which is paradoxically unattainable. Time continues to tick and life goes on, waiting for nothing and no one.