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The best books about Tokyo

The best books about Tokyo

There is a world of great fiction beyond Haruki Murakami. Here’s our reading list

There is a world of great fiction beyond Haruki Murakami. Here’s our reading list

Tim Martin | August 23rd 2018

It sometimes seems that there are two infallible routes to success as a Japanese writer in English translation: 1) be called Murakami and 2) don’t not be called Murakami. Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike, sinister novels, filled with fantastical and psychological motifs (cats, jazz, old records, fantasy women, lonely men, underground spaces), have the quality of recurring dreams and a huge international following. The Japanese capital pops up everywhere in his fiction, from “Norwegian Wood”, set in the 1970s, to the contemporary noir “After Dark”, but even confirmed fans haven’t always taken the time to look at “Underground”, an excellent and uncharacteristically straightforward non-fiction account of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo tube in 1995 and their effect on the nation. There’s also the “other” Murakami, Ryu – no relation – whose demonically energetic and hair-raisingly nasty satires on contemporary Japan certainly don’t lose out by being shelved next to his megastar namesake abroad. “Coin Locker Babies”, an exhaustingly grisly dark comedy about two mad orphans on a mission to destroy Tokyo, is probably the litmus test for newcomers to his style. But if you fancy stepping away from the M section of the bookstore as you plan your Tokyo trip, here are a few (mostly modern) new directions.

Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks, Masashi Matsiue (editors) The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction
As a glimpse into the inner and outer worlds of the contemporary city, and as a jumping-off point for the work of several well- and lesser-known living Japanese authors, this brilliantly heterogeneous selection of stories from Comma Press, a small British publisher, takes some beating. It collects work from ten writers – six men, four women – whose work exists bittily in English translation, offering views of Tokyo that veer from the fantastical (shape-shifting serial killers, sinister new lovers) to the hauntingly mundane: men and women wrestling with middle age and thwarted relationships, foreigners and feeling adrift in the teeming streets of the city. You’ll finish it with a new perspective on Tokyo life, and, equally importantly, with a reading list as long as your arm.

Kobo Abe The Box Man
If you think Haruki Murakami writes odd novels, wait until you get a look at the work of the poet, actor and novelist Kobo Abe (1924-1993), whose work, occasionally reminiscent of the constricted innerscapes of Samuel Beckett, has a nightmarish quality all its own. You might start with this novel, translated by E. Dale Saunders, which slowly fleshes out its shadow-world of a Tokyo stalked by “box men”: people who decide to step out of their lives and into large cardboard boxes that are carefully waterproofed. Patiently told by the inhabitant of one such box, whose narrative splinters into fragments as his own identity blurs with that of the story’s other characters, it starts weird, gets weirder and ends up a book so smoothly and perfectly insane that you just have to shake your head and offer it the thumbs-up. You might also investigate Abe’s peerlessly haunting “Woman in the Dunes” (1962), about a travelling entomologist trapped at the bottom of a sandy hole, which I’d gladly have recommended if it were set in Tokyo and not at the bottom of a sandy hole.

Natsume Soseki And Then
Back in time for this superbly measured novel from 1909 by one of Japan’s most influential modern writers, set amid the rapid social shifts that followed the Meiji restoration of the 19th century. Soseki’s protagonist, a young Tokyo bachelor, fancies himself an aesthete, a moral relativist and a man of leisure; in fact he’s wholly dependent on his family and veering into an increasingly dangerous affair with his best friend’s wife. A fascinating portrait of the shifting currents between the old Confucian social order and the influx of Western-style self-determination, where the old is dying and the new cannot be born, it’s also a delicious and subtle look at the life of a city that is now transformed beyond recognition.

Natsuo Kirino Out 
I could spend a long time banging on about Japanese crime fiction, but for the sake of the murder-averse, let’s keep this brief: the central place of the city in the noir and urban crime genres makes them an excellent place for armchair tourism, and Tokyo is no exception. You might start with a book like “Inspector Imanishi Investigates” (1961) by Seicho Matsumoto, whose patient, meticulous stories offer an anatomy of a society as much as a picture of a crime, or the more recent “All She Was Worth” (1992) by Miyuki Miyabe, whose focus on the inequities of the credit economy in Japan feels, if anything, more piercing today. Fuminori Nakamura’s “The Thief” (2009) takes a less social-realist tack, offering a portrait of a doomed antihero straight out of a Michael Mann or Jean-Pierre Melville movie, but its vision of a Tokyo underworld stalked by pickpockets and random violence will have you looking over your shoulder in the rain, and the train. Perhaps most grimly memorable is “Out” by Natsuo Kirino, set among the women workers in a grim food factory in western Tokyo; when one of the women strangles her husband with a belt, everyone else chips in to cut him up and hide the body. Shivery stuff.

Katsuhiro Otomo Akira
If you’ve seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s film adaptation from 1988 of his own manga comic, you’ve only seen half the story. On first publication “Akira” ran for eight years as a magazine serial, and is now collected into six hefty volumes in English, with vast arcs of plot wholly absent from the movie. It’s also the best way to experience Otomo’s baroque vision of Neo-Tokyo, a future city (well, 2019) that mixed the neon-drenched visions of “Blade Runner” with Japanese cityscapes to produce a hybrid of past and future whose influence echoes through subsequent science fiction, comics and games. There’s a great story here (motorcycle gangs, psychic superpowers, government conspiracies, nuclear paranoia) but if nothing else, you should read this one for the architecture.