”I read this in one sitting,” boasts Amy Sackville in a front flap blurb for the 2013 Portobello Books edition. The immortal words of Elle Woods sprung to mind as soon as I completed my own half-a-day-journey through Strange Weather in Tokyo: “What, like it’s hard?” A single sitting read of this book is hardly a chore, both due to the novel’s trim word count and to Hiromi Kawakami’s spare but affecting writing, as elegant as the changing of the seasons on which much of the musicality of this novel rests.
This is the second Kawakami book I’ve read and I am pleased to report that the experience has left a much better impression than the more recently translated The Nakano Thrift Shop. That first read drew me to Kawakami’s blend of humor and sadness and to her well-drawn lonely people, but never felt like the right fit for me.
Loneliness is at the core of Strange Weather in Tokyo as well. Tsukiko is a thoroughly modern big city woman who, having given up on love, works long days and downs adult beverages at the local bar after hours. That is where she runs into Sensei (still “Teacher” to her, his real name is only mentioned in passing), her retired high school teacher. There is no lingering bond from their previous world, Japanese wasn’t even her favorite subject, but grownup Tsukiko rediscovers Sensei as a fellow odd duck who does not seek companionship but values that rare connection once it’s made. Their relationship evolves from a bond over good food and even better sake to a stilted, often complicated romance between two people who have grown.
There is no creep factor despite the 30-year gap between the would-be lovers, and it’s not just due to Tsukiko being in her late thirties. The novel lacks the sort of power dynamics of the lingering gaze that Meg Elison skewered so well last year, and Kawakami builds a healthy dose of respect between Sensei and Tsukiko. They are allowed to maintain their individuality, sometimes keeping their distance from each other for months, and their budding romance is stripped of any flourishes, though no less moving for it.
“With Sensei, his benevolent nature seemed to originate from his sense of fair-mindedness. It wasn’t about being kind to me; rather, it was born from a teacherly attitude of being willing to listen to my opinion without prejudice. I found this considerably more wonderful than just being nice to me.”
I was surprised to see Strange Weather in Tokyo referred to as a romantic novel. To me, it reads far more as a meditation on human connections and loneliness. It is also a dream book for foodies, particularly for those with a taste for Tokyo:
“It was sort of like an octopus version of shabu-shabu. 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 with the ponzu’s citrus aroma, creating a flavour that was quite sublime.”
It’s this mix of familiarity and strangeness that makes the novel for me. In Japan, it’s been a flagship novel of an Akutagawa Prize winner since its publication in 2001 (where it is known as Sensei’s Briefcase) and I’m looking forward to more translations from past and future laureates of Japanese literary prizes. Between the Nakano not-quite-disappointment-but-almost and the whiff of manic pixie dreamgirl trope emanating from the cover (Tsukiko might not be the most grownup 37-year-old in Tokyo, but she is not the flying college girl you’re invited to picture in your head), Strange Weather in Tokyo had a steep hill to climb with me, but we made it.
Sofia Fara is a foreign fiction blogger. Interested in blogging ? Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the latest news and events on www.globooks.net