Atmospheric, meditative story of memory and loss in a gentrifying Tokyo neighborhood.
There’s not much room for gardens in the older districts of Tokyo, where concrete has long covered up fields and streams. In one spot, sold by a farmer long ago for development, block after block of apartment buildings sprouted in the postwar era, each named after a sign in the Japanese zodiac. Taro, divorced for three years and still not used to it, still grieving the death of his father on top of that, is almost alone in the urban wasteland that Shibasaki constructs; the only neighbors he’s aware of are an old woman he calls Mrs. Snake, after the apartment building in which she lives, and Nishi, a comic book artist. All are being pushed out of their homes, which are slated to be razed once the last inhabitants are gone. But what of the secret treasure at the heart of the nondescript district, one of “the sort of grand, Western-style mansions that had sprung up in certain areas of Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”? Painted sky blue, with a pyramidal roof, it fascinates Nishi, who wonders who might have lived there. In time, Taro and Mrs. Snake come to see the sky-blue house as an anchor, even as their personal histories begin to unfold: Mrs. Snake, for instance, is now old, but when she was young, “she had been to see the Beatles playing the Budokan.” Ancient history, that, as is the unexploded bomb that disrupts the life of a nearby Tokyo neighborhood, prompting Taro to reflect that “the bomb was probably the same age as his father, and Mrs Snake too.” Just as the things of the surface belong on the surface, Shibasaki seems to be saying, so, too, are subterranean things—and memories, and secrets, and private artifacts—sometimes better left hidden, as her ending, steeped in foreboding silence, suggests.
An elegant story that is in many ways more reminiscent of Mishima and Akutagawa than many contemporary Japanese writers.