Category Archives: Kawakami Hiromi

Manazuru (2006) – KAWAKAMI Hiromi

作家:川上 弘美

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a Japanese Government program dedicated to promoting Japanese literature in translation. A noble goal, to be sure, but if this novel is anything to go by, they might want to rethink the texts they’re putting on their recommendation lists.

Unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband went missing thirteen years ago, Kei is drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru, where she hopes to find answers. In doing so, though, she comes dangerously close to losing those that are most important to her.

Kawakami taps into that very modern strain of Japanese literature made so popular world-wide thanks to He Who Shall Not Be Named, a genre in which bizarre things happen to people, leaving them isolated and alone in modern Japan. It is not a sub-genre that I can particularly get behind, so the quasi-fantasy setting, along with a very weak ending, did nothing for me.

The most intriguing parts come from the discussions between Kei and Seiji, in which he beates her for not being able to let go of her missing husband. Of course, this is probably wildly unfair, particularly when Seiji himself is still married with children—not exactly a model of commitment. Seiji is, annoyingly, correct though—Rei is living half a life, unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband has been missing for so long. In many ways, it would be better if he had been found dead—at least, then, she could find some kind of closure.

Kawakami, though, refuses to give her character (or her readers) any closure. About halfway through, there’s a slight hint that, actually Kei already knows what has happened to her husband, but is subconsciously choosing to repress the memory. Which is fine, but after about three pages, it’s never mentioned again.

Combined with this inability to move on is the very real fact that her daughter, Momo, is growing up and very much moving on with her life, as only teenagers can. Rei finds herself increasingly unable to understand her daughter’s actions. It is perhaps this isolation that drives her to the seaside town of Manazuru, sent by a gut feeling and, as it turns out, a mysterious spirit woman who seems to be able to communicate from beyond the grave.

I have no problem with fantasy, or even magical realism—and I get why Kawakami is using it here—but that doesn’t preclude it from being mind-numbingly dull here. There’s enough material here (from Kei’s meditations on family and motherhood, to the increasing isolation between mother and daughter—over two generations) to not have to rely on these cheap parlour tricks. Instead, though, we have another novel written in the wake of He Who Must Not Be Named that thinks his style is the only way to write a contemporary Japanese novel. Which is just plain wrong.

Just one final fun fact before I end this. I looked up Manazuru to see if it was a real place—it is. But in my research, I also discovered that another author, Shiga Naoya (志賀直哉) wrote a short story in 1920 also called Manazuru, about a young boy who falls in love with an older woman. I can’t find a lot of information on it, other than a few blog posts, but if anyone knows more about it—and the relationship to this novel—I’d be super interested to hear.

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The Briefcase (2001) – KAWAKAMI Hiromi

This is the last review I’ll be posting as part of the Shadow Jury for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. Sorry for the delay—these last few weeks have been a little hectic, and I haven’t had time to write these up.

As Tsukiko is eating dinner one night in a cheap diner, she realises that the man she is sitting next to is her old high school literature teacher. She strikes up a conversation, and the two reminisce about old times. Over the next six months, they meet again and again, forming a relationship that rapidly becomes hard to define.

It’s hard not to compare The Briefcase to Ogawa Yoko’s work , The Housekeeper and the Professor. They even came out at a similar time—Ogawa’s in 2003; Kawakami’s in 2001. Both tell the tale of an unlikely friendship between an older man and a younger woman. Neither have any hint of romance in them, and in many ways, both are actually more about the man than the female narrator.

What I love about The Briefcase, though, is its simplicity, and Kawakami’s almost stubborn refusal to try and spice up the plot with some action or huge conflict. These two people—Sensei and Tsukiko—meet up every now and then, usually not on purpose, and share small parts of their lives. For Tsukiko, this is a chance to leave her otherwise isolated life (she lives alone, and finds her family a little annoying), to take part in conversation with someone. People talk about Murakami Haruki being the great chronicler of isolation in contemporary Japan, but he is not alone in this. It’s a project undertaken by many modern Japanese authors, who often do it—dare I say—much better than Murakami ever could.

There is no coherent through-line to follow. Instead, each chapter is a different encounter—I’d call them dates, but that doesn’t seem quite right, particularly since hints of romance don’t really appear until much, much later in the novel. But with each encounter, some more of the hidden background of each character is revealed.

With Sensei, for example, there is a sense, right from the beginning, that he is a widower—when Tsukiko visits his house for the first time, she remarks on his beautiful garden. When he replies that it was his wife, the implicit subtext is that his wife is dead. I mean, come on—elderly man refusing to talk about his wife? The obvious answer is that she passed away, and that he loved her very much. When we find out several chapters late that she actually left him, it comes as a bit of a surprise. It leads us to re-evaluate our understanding of the character—if she chose to leave him (already surprising in a country whose divorce rate is something like 10%), then why? What is it about him that she couldn’t stand?

The Briefcase is a novel about the smallness of human connection, and the huge importance of that smallness. It is about two people finding love and comfort in the most unlikely of places. It is not large, it is not showy, but it is a deeply humane book.