Title: Strange Weather in Tokyo
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Publication Date: August 1, 2013
Genre: Japanese Literature, Literary Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: ☕☕☕☕ (4/5)
Tsukiko is drinking alone in her local sake bar when by chance she meets one of her old high school teachers and, unable to remember his name, she falls back into her old habit of calling him ‘Sensei’. After this first encounter, Tsukiko and Sensei continue to meet. Together, they share edamame beans, bottles of cold beer, and a trip to the mountains to eat wild mushrooms. As their friendship deepens, Tsukiko comes to realise that the solace she has found with Sensei might be something more.
When you’re used to reading fast-paced books with big characters and bigger endings, reading a quiet book like this would feel like a shock to the system. For me, reading Strange Weather in Tokyo has been a welcome change – a sudden stop: to breathe and slow down.
But then again, wasn’t a sensation just that kind of indistinct notion that slips away, no matter how you try to contain it?
While I do recognize that this is a translation and that hugely affects how this novel turned out, I love that the writing was to the point, matter-of-fact. It is poignant in a way that Japanese novels specifically are. Being in Tsukiko’s point of view, the book is laced with this casual sense of alienation – from society and even from the self. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or if this is just Kawakami specifically putting a microscope on Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship – but I can’t help but notice that Tsukiko is so lost in her own world that, with the exception of a few scenes, all the other aspects of her life outside Sensei were blurred out to the point of non-existence. Or maybe it is just that: a brutal reflection of her uneventful, solitary life – which is kind of depressing to think about.
Neither of us said a word. Didn’t we have anything to talk about? There must have been something. But as I tried to think of what to say, my mind went blank. You’d think we’d be close, but it was precisely because we were close that we couldn’t reach each other. Forcing myself to make conversation felt like standing on a cliff, peering over the edge, about to tumble down headfirst.
I guess the thing that stood out for me about this book would be the atmosphere. There is this distinct feeling that Japanese authors evoke in their writing and their art that I can’t properly describe. It’s a very specific blend of nostalgia, melancholia, and just plain, deep introspection that they so expertly evoke. I don’t know how they do it but they do it quite good. Admittedly, this is such a simple story spun, I guess, in all those predictable ways. True to its name, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a strange little book. It’s the mundanity of it, the very thought that this could actually happen. But it’s a simple story worth hearing, in hopes that you recognize a part of yourself – be it the character/s, the situation, the feeling. It’s subtle, but it’s there and you can’t help but dig for more. I was not blown away but, weirdly, I am left wanting for more. (Right after this, I immediately bought one of Kawakami’s other book: The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino.)
One aspect that I also like about this book is all the talk about food. Tsukiko, besides from her fondness of drinking alone in the bar, is also a fan of good food. She always end up ordering all these interesting Japanese dishes that I absolutely had fun googling. If there’s any question that reading books is a fun way of immersing one’s self to other culture, this is definitely one exhibit that I could mention that totally proves the point.
“It grows because you tend it. […] That’s how love is. If the love is true, then treat it the same way you would a plant – feed it, protect it from the elements – you must do absolutely everything you can. But if it isn’t true, then it’s best to just let it wither on the vine.”
“I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.”