The dehumanising effect of the urban environment is an old phenomenon in Western countries; our own Charles Dickens saw it coming right from the start. But in countries like Japan and China, which have developed vast urban centres relatively recently, the phenomenon is still fresh. Max Weber coined the phrase, ‘cog in a machine’ to describe the disenchantment people felt when the urban reality hit them. Empathy and community spirit are diluted by the urban context. People become alienated from each other, alone in a crowd. The literature of post-war Japan is full of stories of urban misfits, by authors like Ryu Murakami who launches his characters into such postmodern landscapes fuelled with drugs and violence, and watches them suffer. In this collection of short stories, which forms The Book of Tokyo, you sometimes get the impression that either the characters are on drugs, or you are, particularly when you read the first story, Model T Frankenstein by Hideo Furukawa, where a surreal goat morphs into a naked Japanese man with a mission (note: I could not say exactly what the mission was).
Frankenstein aside, the characters in this collection do swing the beacon of hope from time to time. They connect briefly with each other; random intersections on city streets provide respite from the terrible, unending sprawl of a Tokyo that ‘goes on forever’. In ‘Daddy, I Love You’ by Nao-Cola Yamazaki, three people at a vending machine form a curious bond over a coin that slips out of reach. Two of them scramble desperately to get back the hundred Yen that won’t buy an espresso for the waiting man who doesn’t even want one. So that’s a success then. ‘People just want to be close’, the man concludes. To what, the vending machine? Many of the vectors on which the city and its inhabitants cross produce simple revelations, succinctly expressed, but not always as nice as altruistic coin retrieval. In the relative oasis of Tokyo’s green park, a husband and wife picnic in an atmosphere of nihilism. ‘I am a contaminant,’ the husband concludes, ‘she drags me outside like this (…) to air me out like a futon’. Often it is easier to fantasise about strangers than to interact with your other half (heard that one before?). Characters either chew each other up and spit each other out, or one devours the other utterly. In ‘A House for Two’ by Mitsuyo Kakuta, a young woman is suffocated by the loneliness of her mother, unable to break away. The young woman rebels daringly by almost throwing some frozen fish into the river.
Any Cop?: Comma Press have also produced The Book of Gaza and The Book of Rio, both collections of short stories that portray their cities uniquely. Gaza is a place of killings and constraints, while Rio is a toxic cocktail of sex, drugs and money. The Book of Tokyo focuses on the people that live there. Tokyo seems like suicide city, although apparently the rates are falling. Perhaps Japan has exorcised its postmodern demons through Art? I certainly hope so.