tokyo

TEKKONKINKREET BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

Look who just walked in, my friend said. I tried not to look. This is why I don’t drink around here anymore, I thought to myself. My friend nudged me. Do you remember that guy? Of course I did. It was impossible to forget. My friend walked over to the bar and introduced himself. Are you him?, I heard him say. I might be, the old man replied with a sly grin. I thought my friend was going to buy him a drink, but thankfully he didn’t. The story goes that the police had been trying to put him away for years and eventually they did it. They got him for what must have been fifteen-to-twenty, and now he was out. I don’t know what they pinned on him, and I don’t want to know. Once, or so legend says, he was summoned to take part in a retaliatory raid on a local pub full of rival gang members. His one instruction was not to stab anyone. Beat them up badly, yes, but don’t stab. You got that? Sure, man, sure. Of course, he didn’t listen. As the members of the rival gang fled the pub he stuck a knife in the first three he saw.

You’re not having another? No, I said, eyeing the dregs of my drink. My friend had returned to our table and now I wanted to leave, to flee with the same kind of urgency I felt when I was boy. Only then it was a whole city, a whole life I wanted to escape, and this time it was just a sad old man and a sad old pub and a sad old situation. Are you alright? It was a joke. I almost smiled. No one ever asked you that back then. Are you ok? Can you handle this? Do you need any help? I didn’t look like a tough kid. And I wasn’t; not physically, at least; but I was desperate and crazy, and that is sometimes worse. The city did that to you; or our small, wretched part of it, anyway. Do you remember when we were kids?, my friend said, with a kind of smug complacency. He had allowed nostalgia to transform his memories into an heroic narrative, one worth reminiscing over, but I hadn’t. The pain, the blood, the fear, the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air. Yeah, I remember.

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Yeah, I remember, although sometimes it takes a scene like that to bring it all back. Or a book, maybe. Sometimes it’s a book, and that’s even more unexpected. A book like Tekkonkinkreet, which is the story of orphaned brothers, one called Black and one called White, and a place called Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s style is crude, although detailed, with imprecise lines and perspective. There is a shakiness to it, a sense of chaos; and this suits the narrative, the personalities and lifestyles of the characters, and the setting. Treasure Town is, we’re told, a pit; it is the rundown playground of delinquent children, yakuza, drunkards, and stray animals. It is often said of cities within novels that they act as characters themselves, which strikes me as a meaningless phrase, but Treasure Town is certainly important to the people who inhabit it. They talk about it frequently; they are prepared to fight, and die, for it. Yet the place is changing. The adults are particularly sensitive to this, because they are old enough to remember how it once was. New gangsters are muscling in; old alliances are crumbling and fresh, but less stable, ones are being formed; and the landscape is being redeveloped.

One of Tekkonkinkreet‘s most interesting, and surprisingly moving, subplots involves yakuza members Suzuki [The Rat] and his protégé Kimura. Suzuki is weary of the game, in an ironically amused kind of way, and is planning retirement. He’s one of the guys – almost everyone in the manga is male; I recall only one female character – who most often speaks of changing times and of the relationship between a man and his city. One gets the sense that he feels left behind, that he intuits that he is no longer fit for purpose. Kimura is younger but equally at odds with the way that his world, the world of crime, is evolving. His girlfriend is pregnant and that makes him reevaluate his life and his priorities, but more than that it is the brutal approach of his new boss, Serpent, that disconcerts him. There is a scene, for example, in which he is presented with a gun and he behaves as though it is the first time he has ever seen one. Throughout his dealings with Serpent he counsels against excessive violence; he is always tentative, always seems uncomfortable and on edge. Matsumoto brilliantly weaves together all of these ideas when Kimura is ordered to kill Suzuki; and, as The Rat advises his friend on how to carry it out, and how to get away with it, I found a small lump forming in my throat.

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However, as previously suggested, the main characters are the two boys, Black and White. I’m not sure of their ages, but White behaves as though he is the younger brother. Certainly, he’s a simple-minded, happy-go-lucky kid. He often sings nonsense songs and talks in a kind of infant-like gibberish. His appearance also mirrors his mental and emotional state, what with the permanently snotty nose, missing front teeth, and the cute animal head hat. It is said that he is vulnerable, and Black takes care of him like a father; he ties his shoes, dresses him and makes sure he brushes his teeth. As his name implies, he is the [more] innocent half of the partnership. In one scene, for example, he plants an apple seed in a parking lot, so that he can grow a tree and have his own apples; although this can also be viewed a comment on the city as well as a symbol of hope. Yet, it would not to true to say that White is totally innocent, for he participates in and enjoys violence, even, at one stage, setting fire to a man [albeit he is an assassin who is, in that moment, intent on killing Black].

Black is, of course, the opposite of White. He is cunning and tough and street smart. Again, his appearance is telling, with the dark top, goggles, and the scar over his eye. Yet, while the boys are engaging enough as individuals, in their differences, it is what they mean to each other that gives them depth. I’ve already noted how Black looks after White, but it works the other way around too, albeit in a more subtle, indirect way. Throughout the book, Black is described as evil, abnormal, bloodthirsty; in fact, he is considered such a threat to White’s well-being that the police take him away to a kind of safe-house. However, Black needs White; he needs to have someone to care about. He needs White in order to feel something, in order to not lose the last remaining human elements of his personality. At one point, the boys’ grandfather perceptively says to Black that it is not he who is protecting White, but White who protects him. White himself says of the two of them that they each have the screws that the other is missing; and in doing so shows himself to be not all that simple-minded after all.

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RED COLORED ELEGY BY SEIICHI HAYASHI

Recently I read Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show by Suehiro Maruo. I wanted to put together a review, but I could not. I don’t know how to write about manga. I do not know how to write about anything anymore. Ever since returning from Tokyo I have felt changed. I have thought about recording my experiences. A kind of travelogue. Since no one knows about Chihiro and the love hotel I could make something of that, perhaps. I feel changed. You could blame the seizure. Or the typhoon or the earthquake. The world is trying to kill me, it is clear. I met Chihiro at 4am outside Shibuya station, by the Hachikō statue, which is where all young lovers meet. I had expected her to be a man. I had expected to be murdered. How many beautiful young women offer to pay for a hotel in order to sleep with a stranger? Recently I read books by Suehiro Maruo and Katsuhiro Otomo. I enjoyed them both, but I could not write about either. I cannot. Tokyo was trying to kill me, it is clear; and yet I long to return.

It could be that what I am experiencing is an extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome. I only force myself to write this now because I wonder if it is the last time. The very last. Not one but one. Not the bluff. My eyes lose focus. I’m sick. My head is sick. Something happened out there, something entered into me and I have brought it home. Tokyo was trying to kill me, of that there is no doubt. The world is trying to kill me, and for the first time I feel as though it is succeeding. Last week I read Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama. I bought it in Mandarake Shibuya. It was a lucky find. That day, I could not move further than a few hundred yards from my hotel. I was too ill, too weak. I was constantly on the verge of collapse. I felt as though I was trapped in a giant pinball machine. I did not write about Travel. I did not make notes, even.

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In Shinjuku a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie offered me a blowjob while I stood outside the Robot Restaurant and listened to their song. It was 4:30pm. I politely declined. Akari commented on my politeness. How politely you decline the blowjob, she laughed. No, thank you. No, I don’t want a handjob either. Young girls inside. I questioned his sales technique. You don’t offer the blowjob first, I explained to Akari. If someone doesn’t want that they certainly won’t be enticed by a handjob, I said. My head feels as though it is immersed in warm water. I am ashamed of myself for allowing Chihiro to pay for the hotel. I had plenty of money but I wanted to see if she would go through with it. It was the first and only time we met. Her friend, she said, had drank too much and passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. That is why she was still out at 4am. She did go through with it; although there was going to be no love, she said, only sleep. I asked why, in that case, she needed me. To hold, she said; but of course it didn’t work out that way.

Yesterday I finished reading Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, and this is my attempt to write about it. I didn’t know that it was an earthquake. Not at first. My mobile phone vibrated, beeped and spoke to me in Japanese. On the screen was displayed an emergency warning. The word emergency was the only word that I could understand. Red Colored Elegy is a love story. There are two people, Ichiro and Sachiko, a man and a woman, and they are in love. When I looked up everyone had stopped; everyone was motionless, staring at their phone or staring into the distance. They looked confused, or concerned. A voice came over some kind of PA system. I do not speak or read Japanese. I thought the world was ending. Someone has launched a nuclear weapon, I thought, and the world is coming to an end. I am dying here in Tokyo, at the Shibuya crossing. It was midnight, four hours before I met Chihiro. I had been out drinking, but not enough to be hospitalised. I am dying here, and I am not in love.

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Ichiro is an artist who wants to draw comics. A man can’t live off paintings, we’re told. There is something in this, I’m sure, about Japanese culture, or Tokyo culture, at the time; some reference to the emergence of manga as a way for artists to express themselves. But not too much is made of it. Ichiro draws, doodles or whatever, but it could have been anything, any activity. When the typhoon hit I was in Ebisu with Akari. The old men outside the traditional restaurant jeered and whooped when I kissed her. I dropped my umbrella and my jacket on the street as I put my hands around her hips. The old men are watching us, she said. I am not in love. I picked up my umbrella and my jacket and we walked for a while. I could not walk for more than a few hundred yards. I am not in love, although I am constantly on the verge of love. As we left the hotel I offered to buy Chihiro a coffee. It was the first and only time I saw her in daylight.

Ichiro and Sachiko move in together. Ichiro draws, or doodles or whatever. Sachiko works. Yet most of the panels show the couple squabbling, rolling around on the floor, playing with each other, smoking, fucking. It is the most realistic, and therefore the most moving, representation of the banalities of love that I have read. This, I thought, as I turned the pages, is love. This is what I don’t have. I bought Chihiro a coffee, when perhaps what she really wanted was to leave. The typhoon ripped through Ebisu. I was scared. I am dying, and I am not in love. Akari and I kissed outside the restaurant, my umbrella and jacket in a heap by my feet. I am not in love. This is my attempt to write about Red Colored Elegy. It is a failure. Tokyo has changed me. Something entered into me out there, and it will not leave. In Harajuku I had a seizure. My head felt as though it had been immersed in warm water. I fell against a wire fence and shook. I fell further down. I slouched towards the street. I am dying here, of course, on the floor, without love. I tried to ask for help, but no one heard.

BEAST IN THE SHADOWS BY EDOGAWA RAMPO

I’ve written about this before. My troubled relationship with reality. My mania for narratives. My madness. My doubt. I doubt everything. For every event I could, and quite often do, create multiple stories or explanations. My need to confront the truth of the world means, ironically, that the truth is inaccessible to me. That is if it could be said to exist at all. The truth, I mean. Or maybe not inaccessible, but unidentifiable. The truth  – if it exists at all, if it isn’t a meaningless concept – is simply one possibility amongst many, all of which have equal standing, all of which are equally persuasive. I can work the facets of every case, every event, no matter how banal or dramatic, into a series of believable, logical theories. I doubt everything and therefore I am capable of convincing myself of anything. My mind is hyperactive, oppressive. It attaches itself to things like the Kraken does a ship. I didn’t want to write about this again. I’m wary of boring you all; yet Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo has made this necessary.

“I regret my proclivity to reasoning and fantasy, but regret though I might it is not enough. I feel like walking, searching Japan – no, every corner of the earth – in a lifelong pilgrimage to discover the whereabouts of Hirata Ichiro-Oe Shundai, even though I know it might be pointless.”

As published by Kurodahan Press, Beast in the Shadows is teamed with the more famous, yet seemingly less well-thought of, certainly judging by the reviews I read, The Black Lizard. That story, by all accounts, is a bit of pulp nonsense featuring a femme fatale master criminal – a description that, I must admit, appeals to me greatly – while the novel under review here – although it too has its moments of nonsense and does feature a woman who might not be what she seems – is a more serious, cerebral affair. I don’t know much about Edogawa Rampo, whose real name was Hirai Taro, but his pseudonym, which was chosen as a homage to Poe [say Edogawa Rampo quickly, preferably out loud], displays not only a kind of playfulness, but also suggests a keen interest in, almost reverence for, the major writers working within the genres that he did himself. I mention this because Beast in the Shadows read, at times, like a homage itself to the golden age of crime fiction, and also partly as an essay on what crime fiction is or could be.

The novel is narrated by a writer of detective novels and involves a search for another, the reclusive Oe Shundai. Much is made by Rampo, via his narrator, of the differences between the work of the two men. ‘There are two types of detective novelist,’ is how the story begins. One of these types is what Rampo calls ‘the criminal sort.’ These are people who are interested mostly in the perpetrator, their cruel psychology and gruesome acts. The other is ‘the detective type,’ who is ‘indifferent to the criminal’s psychology’ and concerns himself with ‘the intellectual process of detection.’ The narrator, and the author himself, are the latter, while Shundai is the former. It is clear then that Rampo was making a judgement. He was, at least indirectly, nailing his colours to the mast regarding what he considered to be the superior kind of crime fiction. Indeed, the pages of Shundai’s novels are [disparagingly] said to be full of ‘uncommon suspicions, secrecy, and cruelty’; there is, we’re told, a ‘strange ghastliness’ pervading them.

Yet the cutting critique reveals more than Rampo’s ideas in relation to, and his feelings towards, the crime genre and the different approaches to it. Shundai is the more successful of the two writers, and one can’t help but see in the narrator’s remarks an intense professional jealousy. At one point he calls his rival a man who ‘lived the criminal life with the same passion a brutal killer feels when he commits murder.’ He doesn’t stop at attacking his work either. He is described as an obese, unattractive man who, rumour has it, spends all day and night in bed. He’s a ‘vengeful devil’ and ‘poisonous spider.’ It’s worth noting that when discussing himself he states that he is in ‘no way a bad person’, that, in fact, there are ‘few as virtuous’ as he is. During the early stages of the story it might strike one that not only is the narrator biased, and therefore his words are not to be taken on face value, but also that he is perhaps a leading candidate as a suspect. Indeed, it is usually the case that anyone who insists upon their own goodness so vehemently has something to hide.

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The likely bias of the narrator is, however, only one aspect of an overall sense of uncertainty and unreliability, of confusion and doubt. The basic plot of the novel is that a woman, with whom the narrator becomes involved, is being stalked and threatened by Shundai. Many of the supposed facts of the case – such as the prior relationship between Shizuko and Shundai, and their less than amicable break up – are unproven, are simply one person’s word or interpretation of events. Indeed, rumours and hearsay dominate the story. Nothing is concrete; everything is unstable. No one, for example, has ever met or even really seen Shundai, apart from Shizuko, and that was many years ago [if she is to be believed]. The one occasion he is said to be present in the novel happens at night and he – if it is him, not some vagrant – is dressed as a clown. Moreover, the person who is reporting the sighting admits to being a ‘little drunk’ at the time.

As a consequence of his absence, because we don’t know who Shundai really is, because he isn’t a fixed character, he could in fact be anyone: the narrator, the taxi driver, the journalist, Shizuko’s husband, or even Shizuko herself. I wrote earlier that Beast in the Shadows is a kind of homage to golden age crime fiction, but what sets it apart, what makes more than a flimsy bit of nostalgia, what makes it worth reading, is that, unlike the work of Agatha Christie, for example, there are in Rampo’s novel no answers, there is no resolution. The narrator – who one comes to trust, rightly or wrongly, a little more as the story unfolds – puts together one theory, which is plausible, which one believes, until, of course, he rubbishes it, finds a flaw in it, albeit not a fatal flaw, and then comes up with another. He does this multiple times. He doubts everything, and consequently finds himself able to believe anything, to convince himself of anything. The goal is, of course, to uncover the truth, but the truth – if it exists at all – does not standup and confidently announce itself. It is triksy, supple, and swift on its feet.