Keshiki Chapbooks, by Strangers Press

The Keshiki Chapbooks are a series of eight short story pamphlets by Japanese authors, published by Strangers Press, who are part of the University of East Anglia’s publishing project. As well as being fascinating stories by some of Japan’s most exciting young authors, illuminating the work of writers whose work, somewhat shamefully, hasn’t made it over to the West, these pamphlets are beautiful objects in their own right. The diminutive pamphlets have bold Pop Art covers — shades, perhaps of Milton Glaser and of Eduardo Paolozzi — as well as French flaps and gorgeous typesetting. The Keshiki Chapbooks are Strangers Press’ first project, and hopefully the first of many.

Time Differences — Yoko Tawada, trans. Jeffery Angles

Three men uprooted and spread over three corners of the world — Mamoru awakens in Berlin, missing his boyfriend Manfred, adrift in New York who, in the middle of the night, awakens from a terrifying dream. In Tokyo, it’s the dead of night, and Michael is lost in thought — he remembers a passionate tryst with a Japanese man in Berlin. Yoko Tawada’s brief, heartfelt tale is one that navigates the perilous shores of relationships in a world where vast distances can be crossed in a matter of moments, but never entirely bridged. The trio try to arrange synchronicities — they work out together, going to the gym at the same time, in vastly different places; they drink together, shotting soju and sake at the same time, on the other side of the world from each other. Tawada’s prose is a ghostly one, but one rooted in the mundanities of long-distance relationships: Skype calls and solitude. ‘Time Difference’ is a romance story for the Easyjet era.

Friendship for Grown-Ups — Nao-Cola Yamazaki, trans. Polly Barton

Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s short story collection begins with a creation story without a creator. In the beginning, there was light, but there’s nobody around to say that it was good. Rather, the light hits a rock, which kickstarts a process of evolution beginning with amino acids and ending in ennui, the inorganic and the organic flowing into one another, the simple becoming complex, and the complex remembering a time when everything was simple, all without any animus or direction. Yamazaki’s other stories engage with a similar sense of duality — the story ‘The Invisible Apartment’ shows a pair of exes, a once-couple walking around the building site where the apartment they shared once stood: it’s not just a journey to a building site, but that most cliched of journeys — one to the past. But it’s one that Nao-Cola Yamazaki pulls off without cliche or sentiment; one that is filled with pregnant longing and simultaneity. The final story of the collection, ‘Lose your Private Life’ deals with an author, Terumi, and her relationship with Matsumoto, a musicologist,, one that veers between Terumi’s desperate longing for intimacy, for closeness — she yearns to him to call her Teru-chan and text her emojis — and studied need: Terumi wants to write a novel about music, while Matsumoto wants to be able to say that he dates a writer. ‘Friendship for Grownups’ is a difficult thing to navigate, as indeed is friendship for grownups, and Yamazaki’s writing demonstrates the curious tensions that exist in relationships teetering on the edge of intimacy. Nao-Cola Yamazaki is big in Japan, but not over in the Anglophone world: let’s hope that ‘Friendship for Grownups’ changes that.

Spring Sleepers — Kyoko Yoshida

Yuki is ill. He has a disease known as “genuine insomnia” — as opposed to all that fake insomnia going around — and he has not slept in two months. It’s a condition that has spread through Tokyo’s great and good, who boast to one another in pricey bars of how much extra work they are getting done. The downside: Yuki’s mind is deteriorating. As ‘Spring Sleepers’ goes on, Kyoko Yoshida’s story becomes more and more oneiric, more and more absurd — the farther away Yuki gets from sleep, the closer he comes to a curious dream-world where narrative logic is forsaken in favour of the impossible disjunctions and curious flux of the dreamer’s experience. The further Yuki goes, the further we step away from narrative, into a strange world where uncanny flashes of semblance are mingled with impossible happenings, like a Haruki Murakami novel compressed, concentrated, and distilled into a potent shot.

Mariko/Mariquita — Natsuki Ikezawa, trans. Alfred Birnbaum

‘Mariko/Mariquita’ is a tale of a curious duality. Kyojiro is a cultural anthropologist visiting studying a tribe on Guam, when he meets Mariko, who goes by Maria, or Mariquita, a Japanese woman who lives on the island, selling jet-ski rides to tourists. ‘Mariko/Mariquita’ could easily be read as a love story, but it is as much a story of anthropology, of what makes a person Japanese or Chamorro. The slash in the title is as much a piece of punctuation as it is a piece of semiology. It is at once a reference to an ineluctable duality, the sense in which Mariko exists as much as Mariko as Mariquita, as a hybrid identity bearing a hybrid name, as much as it is to a disjunction — that Mariko/Mariquita exists as one or the other, as either/or, but not both. Natsuki Ikezawa has created a haunting tale of dislocation and hybridity, of identities set adrift amid the Pacific ocean. Mariko or Mariquita. Japan or Guam. Either or. Take your pick.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married — Aoko Matsuda, trans. Angus Turvill

The girl who is getting married is getting married. The girl who is getting married lives on the top floor of her building. An unnamed narrator is on her way to visit the girl who is getting married — she has known the girl who is getting married since before she was the girl who is getting married. They first met at school. They first met at a part-time job in a soba shop. They first met in a train carriage, when the narrator fled to escape the wide-spread legs of a man. And so on. Aoko Matsuda’s modus operandi in ‘The Girl Who Is Getting Married’ is to unsettle, to put forward so many competing versions of the truth that they flicker and fizz in and out of view, like the bubbles in a flute of champagne — it becomes all but impossible to tell which one of these competing stories, if any, are true, and in any case, it’s besides the point. You don’t try to count the bubbles: you just delight in them popping on your tongue.

At the Edge of the Wood — Masatsugu Ono, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter

There’s a sense of creeping horror in Masatsugu Ono’s collection of linked short stories, ‘At the Edge of the Wood’. In these bizarre and Kafka-tinged fables, a father lives in a wooden house at the edge of an unnamed wood, waiting with his son for his wife’s return — she is pregnant and feels it would be safer to give birth at her parents’ house. Their lives flicker between the mundane, between trips to the supermarket, and the fairytale, dwarves who are refugees fleeing some unknown conflict and an old woman streaming water whom the boy adopts as a grandmother. Ono’s prose, deceptively complex in its elegant simplicity, walks a fine line. One side is the simple delight of a child running through an autumnal wood; the other side lie nightmares whose names cannot be spoken.

Mikumari — Misumi Kubo, trans. Polly Barton

‘Mikumari’ is a sex story that is also a falling-out-of-love story. A senior in high school gets picked up by a woman in a Tokyo comic market. She’s attracted by his apparent resemblance to an anime character — not that Misumi Kubo’s narrator ever quite works out who. He knows her only as Anzu. Almost immediately, they begin to have sex: ludicrously scripted, costumed affairs that allow Anzu to live out her anime dreams. At the same time, Kubo’s narrator falls in love — actual storybook love — with a girl from his school. Over time, he becomes increasingly conflicted and increasingly wary of Anzu but is unable to tear himself away from her. Kubo’s narrator has an exceptional voice — he shoots for cynical and streetwise, but winds up at hapless and unknowingly self-pitying: imagine someone trying to be Holden Caulfield but failing — it’s this voice, hilarious and poignant, that separates ‘Mikumari’ from any number of love stories.

The Transparent Labyrinth — Keiichirō Hirano, trans. Kerim Yasar

‘The Transparent Labyrinth’ is a potent shot, heady with aromas of Wilde and Poe and de Sade — decadence, decay and depravity. Okada is meeting clients in Budapest when he meets Misa, and Federica — Misa has been travelling around Europe for some months and is in a mysterious debt to the possessive Federica, whose behaviour alarms Okada. Concerned with Federica’s behaviour, and for Misa, he accompanies them to a party which becomes increasingly depraved, increasingly horrifying. The next day, Okada returns to Japan alone, but the spectres of Misa and Federica follow him. Okada simply cannot disengage from that night in Budapest — it haunts him, traps him in a hazy world of doubles and deeply-repressed trauma that can’t help but bubble to the surface.

Strangers Press kindly sent me review copies of the Keshiki Chapbooks.

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