“His full name was Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, but I called him ‘Sensei’. Not ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’, just ‘Sensei’.” — Strange Weather in Tokyo, Hiromi Kawakami
This slim novel is a quirky love story between a oddly immature woman in her late thirties and her much older former school teacher. The two meet up by chance in a local bar and enjoy drinking and eating together. Over the course of a couple of years and without planning, they run into each other over and over and develop a strange attachment, which eventually turns into a love that surprises them both.
The main character’s name is Tsukiko, which means, roughly, moon girl/woman in Japanese. Most scenes and chapters in the book take place at night–in bars or restaurants, or sometimes at Sensei’s house where the two drink. Usually the author describes the appearance of the moon in the sky, which often seems to correspond to Tsukiko’s state of mind at the time. Sometimes the moon is hazy and Tsukiko herself seems vague and detached, just drinking her way through her cups. Suddenly, the moon will shine brightly and she perks up or becomes interested in the conversation or situation. Or the moon becomes round when she entertains a sexual encounter with a man her own age.
Tsukiko is a strange character, and the novel is written as a first person narrative so we are in her head throughout. She works at some unknown job, which never seems to be very important to her or the book. She lives alone, and often spends weekends lazing in bed and reading, dozing, and snacking–almost like a teenager. She eats out often and almost always alone, unless she runs into Sensei. I felt like her lifestyle was very immature–and purposely described as such. She was neither mother nor wife, which are the basic roles available for Japanese women of a certain age, but is instead like a school girl with a rather drifting sense of time, without plans or responsibilities.
I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up when I was 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 the childlike person. I suppose that I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.
Once Sensei and Tsukiko fall in love, she seems to grow up–or does she?:
‘I’ts such a big station that I’m a bit worried about you getting lost, Tsukiko.’ Sensei laughed at the other end of the line.
‘I won’t get lost. I’m not a little girl anymore,’ I said, and then not knowing what else to say, fell silent.
To be sure, but the end of the book, Tsukiko is drinking alone again and even drowsing off in bars in a detached sort of way that suggests she hasn’t really matured much after all.
But I think Tsukiko–and to some degree, Sensei as well–can also be seen as a modern sort of character, and product of Tokyo. There are all sorts of solitary people in Tokyo, and a new generation of women who have grown up with loosened gender roles and the economic opportunities the capital city offers. Sensei is a loner widower. The city is full of small bars where these loner Tokyo types can socialize in lieu of strong traditional family interactions.
Near the end of the book are two dream sequences. One of them is part of a chapter, but the other has a whole chapter to itself. I confess to being puzzled by this chapter, as I frequently am with dream sequences in books. The shorter one made sense to me and foreshadowed the ending of the book, but the whole chapter was just sort of bizarre, as dream sequences tend to be. As such, it seemed like it could be dismissed. But if it wasn’t important, why would an author devote a whole chapter to the dream in such a short novel?
I am hoping to get my husband to read this in Japanese and then sit and compare notes with me. I’d like to discuss how the themes of loneliness and lone-ness reads in the original Japanese. I think this is a novel in which certain behaviors (like all the drinking) and events can be read very differently depending on the cultural background of the reader. And hopefully we can discuss it over some sake and nimono in a cozy little bar somewhere in Tokyo.