Folding & Unfolding a City

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Having visited Japan several times before, I tend to think of the capital, Tokyo, as an origami (折り紙) work. From a distance, she is elegant; on closer inspection, opaque and even impenetrable. Yet, it is only when one ventures to unfold, or perhaps re-trace the impressions on paper, on Tokyo’s very own fabric, that one begins to uncover a startling wealth of complexity in between the streets, restaurants, bars, parlours, shops and people of the place. During those commutes and walks around the city, I gradually realised that it was only because of Tokyo’s own struggles with the familiar, that I, an enamoured foreigner, may indulge in her otherness.

In some ways, then, the collection of shorts in The Book of Tokyo may also be construed as attempts to indulge in and derive amusement from, the seemingly banal vicissitudes of the city. However, one ought to remember that like any origami work, Tokyo’s charm lies not in the prospect of its authenticity, but in the realm of appearances. That is, one may, in a bid to decipher or figure out the work, unfold what lies before one’s eyes, only to find that the folds, which was all there is to the perceived intricacy, have all but disappeared.

These works, curated by Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks and Masashi Mitsuie, have come together in a performance of folding and unfolding, where tradition is playfully circumvented, but not entirely effaced. The writers are eclectic in their genre and style, with the limpid translations making ample space for the reader to relish in the subtleties of atmosphere, mood and sentiment. The opening piece by Hideo Furukawa, Model T Frankenstein, renders a bewildering account of a shape-shifter who travels from an unnamed island to Tokyo harbour. It also deftly shifts from the perspective of the second to the third person, thus nudging the reader towards questions of language and identity. Perhaps, we are all animals with a legible voice, but where does that voice come from?

A nuanced and noteworthy critique of familial ties and tensions, Mitsuyo Kakuta’s A House for Two is a concise portrait of the lives of two sisters raised by a single mother that draws on the unspoken debt between child and parent. Ku-chan remains filial and dependent, whereas her younger sibling Mon-chan shuns their sheltered upbringing and moves out of the home. As Ku-chan reflects on her relatively placid bond with her mother, she comes to realise that her unmarried, single life may ironically have liberated her from the burdens of marriage that both her mother and Mon-chan have experienced.

Similar themes also unfold in the pages of Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s Dad, I love You, as well as the longer, but more poignant Vortex by Osamu Hashimoto. While the former tugs at the heart strings with a divorcee’s personal restoration, the latter takes a more meditative turn on the affections of memory, as the protagonist questions her mother’s place in her own world, where life is assumed but never quite actually lived.

Apart from these relatively sombre pieces, the collection also encompasses the irreverent and more clandestine aspects that never cease to pass a wink at the city’s puritanical façade. In Hitomi Kanehara’s Mambo, a nymphomaniac traverses the boundary between fantasy and reality, but is prompted to confront her desires through a conversation with a genial elderly man. Readers may also catch a glimpse of the controversial ‘water trade’ or mizu shoubai (水商売 )[1] in Toshiyuki Horie’s The Owl’s Estate, as the writer offers a peculiar tale of an introverted bibliophile, who meets and befriends a group of young foreign women.

The Book of Tokyo, as these brief recollections demonstrate, can be characterised by chance encounters and familiar affections. These elements, when laced together, tenably make for a thought-provoking read. This juxtaposition would do little favours for an ideological reading, but it is nonetheless, a resonant and also picturesque rendition of a metropolis in transition. We probably will never comprehend how one fold too many could give an origami work its precise shape and form, but if we permit ourselves to follow and be charmed by the words contained in this particular collection, we may eventually find—or like origami, fold—our way into an enigmatic, yet elegant work of art.

 

Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks and Masashi Mitsuie (Eds.). The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction. Manchester: Comma Press, 2014.

 

[1] Mizu Shoubai is a euphemism for Japan’s night-time entertainment establishments, such as bars and hostess clubs, but also unambiguously refers to brothels and other places with commercialised sexual services. It shares an inextricable relationship with the more traditional ukiyo(浮世) or ‘floating world’, which during the Edo period, served as a metaphor for the flowing impermanence and pleasures that characterised the courtesans’ quarters and geisha districts.

 
Joel Gn is currently a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore.

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