Saturday 30 April 2016

Occupied City

(April 2016)

The sequel to Tokyo Year Zero, and apparently the middle volume of a planned ‘Tokyo Trilogy’, though given the continued absence of a final volume it’s probably better if we don’t hold our collective breath on that score.

It will not, I think, pull back too much of the flimsy veil of online anonymity that I’ve constructed for myself to reveal that my relationship with some of the older members of my wife’s family has not always been entirely smooth. It’s all fine now, but in the early years of our relationship they were downright hostile, with overly-dramatic (if unlikely) threats about removing her from the family register (essentially disowning her) if her relationship with a foreigner continued. This was before they’d even met me, which would have at least given them some justifiable objections to work with.

Fortunately we’ve come a long, long way since then, though it’s fair to say that they first few times we actually met were pretty awkward affairs. As a straight, white, middle-class Englishman, my life until that point had been mercifully free of any sort of direct negative prejudice, and so obviously my initial response to some being thrown my way was work myself into the sort of self-righteous high dudgeon that’s only really achievable by the privileged the first time they realise that their privilege might get challenged.

This is not to excuse shitty attitudes, but merely to point out that there are more or less constructive ways of dealing with these things, at both societal and, more to the point, personal levels. Had I not read Tokyo Year Zero during the faltering process of getting to know my grand-in-laws, I think things would have worked out markedly worse. If you have any interest in Japan you really should read it; it’s a remarkable book whose main accomplishment is, for me at least, just how well it evokes the utter degradation of immediately post-war Japan. It wasn’t what I was looking for when I started reading it, but it definitely gave me some perspective on why people who’d lived through that might not be entirely well disposed towards someone like myself.

Occupied City is, like Tokyo Year Zero, based on an infamous real-life crime that took place in Tokyo in the late 1940’s. And that’s really all they’ve got in common, as the sequel is in almost every respect a markedly less engaging book. While TYZ is a highly stylized piece, OC is even more experimental, and unfortunately few of those experiments actually work. It draws heavily from Ryunoske Akutagawa’s short stories: In a Grove for the structure and Rashomon for the framing device (both perhaps more famous outside Japan thanks to Akira Kurosawa, who likewise combined both in one work, taking the plot from the former and the title from the latter). What this gives us is a dozen equally unreliable narrators (thirteen if we include the histrionic and self-indulgent “writer” who links the chapters), who between them explore issues of guilt and accountability. Each narrator writes in a different style: a couple of these come off (the first detective’s notebook, for example), but most don’t, and some are virtually unreadable (the second detective’s notebook). All are notionally connected by the central crime—the Teikoku Bank Massacre—but the scale quickly pulls out (and then in and out and all about like a particularly horrific hokey cokey) to encompass Unit 731, Japanese war conduct in general, and American complicity in protecting war criminals for their own ends. This is neither a happy nor an easy book, nor, ultimately (and disappointingly), a successful one. I think it’s safe to say it won’t be responsible for any relationship enabling personal epiphanies any time soon.

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