Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 192 pages; 2013. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo (titled The Briefcase in the US, where it was published in 2012) is a bittersweet love story between a 30-something woman and an older man, which was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in 2012 and has just been longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
But this is no typical romance: Tsukiko, an office worker, spends much of her spare time drinking beer and saké in a local bar, which is where she notices a man, about 30 years her senior, who used to be her teacher at school, drinking alone. The pair strike up a conversation and, through a series of coincidences, keep meeting at the bar, where they sit next to each other, talk, eat and drink, often into the small hours.
There is no formal arrangement between them — indeed, their tentative friendship appears, on the surface, to be nothing more than a passing acquaintance. Tsukiko doesn’t even know the man’s name, and refers to him only as “Sensei” (a Japanese word, which I believe means “person born before another”, though it can also mean “teacher”).
They never arrange to meet at the bar and can go for weeks at a time without seeing one another. But whenever they are at the bar at the same time, they share a drink and pass the evening chatting. They always leave separately and pay their bills separately.
Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in the stripped back, often elegiac, prose I’ve come to expect from Japanese fiction. Over the course of a few months, Tsukiko, who narrates the story in the first person, comes to realise that she is very fond of Sensei, mainly because she misses him when he’s not around. A fledgling romance with a man her own age also makes her realise that she would prefer to be in the company of the older, more considerate (and less demanding) Sensei.
As ever with Japanese fiction (or, at least, in my experience of having read just a handful of Japanese titles), one of the central themes is loneliness and alienation, of being cast adrift in a sea of similarly lonely people but lacking the ability (or the awareness) to make meaningful connections with other people.
When I was in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel that I was always alone, or occasionally in the company of Sensei. It seemed that the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru [the barman] was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was.
There’s also a lot of food references in this novel — almost every page is littered with descriptions of Japanese cuisine, almost as if the food is a substitute for the sex that is missing from the lives of the two main characters. There is so much food in this novel that instead of becoming hungry, I found myself becoming irritated (I had similar problems with Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain, which is also filled with endless descriptions of unfamiliar Japanese dishes).
That said, it would be churlish of me to nit-pick, because, on the whole, Strange Weather in Tokyo is an extraordinary novella about the value of, and deep human need for, companionship. It is gentle, wise and written in such an hypnotic style it casts a spell upon the reader as it draws you in to the dark world of Tokyo bars and the unlikely friendships it produces. It is deeply haunting and strangely moving.
The photograph, Today’s Levitation, is by Natsumi Hayashi and spans both the front and back cover of the book. Visit the photographer’s website to see more levitation photographs.