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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Posted on August 29, 2015 at 10:40 AM

Strange Weather in TokyoStrange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a book you can finish on a rare day off work. At only 176 pages and with no real storyline, other than an evolving relationship between two lonely individuals, the words are as clear as the Kanto Springs.
Kawakami’s writing is beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, the descriptive passages magisterial, the dialogue resplendent with apprehension and undeclared love. Yet there’s something underwhelming about it all. A bit like a Rock album with great musicianship and virtuosity that piques your attention for one listen before going back on the shelf for two years.
Let’s start with the positives: Allison Markin Powell’s translation is a stupendous achievement, bringing out the best in Kawakami’s illustrative writing. Imagine a palette of pastel colours mixed with cherry red and seaweed-green – this is the environment you inhabit. For example, the author’s description of a visit to a guest house by the sea transports you to the sound and smell of the bedroom overlooking the shore. ‘I went back to my room and opened the window, letting the night air rush in. The crashing of the waves sounded much louder now.’ Kawakami’s eye for capturing the scenery around her is a testament to the highest standards of Japanese Literature, whether it’s at a cherry-blossom picnic in the city or a trek through the Tokyo hills in search of mushrooms. This is best summarised in her constant preoccupation with food, which plays a big part of the social setting in this novel. ‘Thin, almost-transparent slices of octopus were submerged in a gently boiling pot of water, and then immediately plucked out with chopsticks when they rose to the surface. Dipped in ponzu sauce, the sweetness of the octopus melted in your mouth…’ You can imagine yourself in the restaurant, your taste buds salivating and your nostrils expanding at the waft of steam coming from the plate. Only Yoko Agawa writes with the same skill.
The two protagonists are more of a mystery. Tsukiko, the unmarried 40-year-old with a penchant for beer and Saké, cuts a frustrated figure, aware of her parents’ disappointment that she’s not made anything of her life. Not quite a loner, she has enough courage to drink in local bars and pass time in department stores shopping for shoes. Even she doesn’t quite know what she’s looking for in life. A vague reference to a former boyfriend and her inability to articulate her feelings go some way to explaining the manic depressive tendencies of her character. She likes nothing better than curling up in bed for three days without moving.
Her former school teacher, always referred to in the reverential as ‘Sensei’, is more in control of his emotions, but just as lonely. A man of routine and order, who always carries a briefcase and goes to the market on the 8th, 18th and 28th of every month, he has a taste for fine cuisine and Haiku, yet is just as happy watching baseball and supping beer. His ex-wife haunts him like an unwanted silhouette, and is often a barrier between him and Tsukiko. Yet the stability of his relationship with his ex-student relies on the maintenance of the teacher-pupil dynamic. Is Tsukiko looking for a father-figure, and he, the young mistress he never had?
Love is not rational, as we all know, and this idea is now one of the most common clichés in romantic discourse. The understanding that human beings can sacrifice their ego in pursuit of a higher purpose, to cherish and possess another person, to define themselves by the other, even submerge identities with them and crave them as an extra limb will always fascinate and inspire us with homilies and paeans to the uncontrollable forces of love. Kawakami captures this juggernaut rush of doubt and fear, juxtaposing the rational with the irrational. In Tsukiko’s case, how can she be falling in love with a man thirty years her senior, who used to be her teacher? A date with a former classmate makes her realise the hopelessness of her situation – she cannot function without the Sensei.
But Tsukiko is more than just a spectator on the periphery of life, and the Sensei is a master of understated humour. In one scene he tells a story about seeing his wife’s Doppelgänger, narrating for Tuskiko while doing a headstand on the beach. Another tale about the death of the family dog reveals a bizarre antagonism between his wife and son, with the former claiming the dog will be reincarnated as her. (‘For the rest of the meal, she continued to bark. Arf, arf, arf. Both our son and I lost our appetite and quickly got up from the table.’)
So what prevents this book from getting a four-star review? There’s a feeling the story could be longer, more layered, open to a wider cast of characters. Using the Rock Music metaphor again, it’s like a Progressive Metal Band demonstrating their superlative musicianship on an album of less than six songs.
Unlike good cuisine, a novel that leaves you insatiate will always be a minor disappointment, even if the writing is poetic. But there are enough reasons to read Strange Weather in Tokyo and admire the perspicacity of the author’s writing. And as a love story, you could argue the book mirrors the emotions of longing for that other person – you always crave more.

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