Tsundoku Reader

A blog on Japanese books, mostly untranslated, that deserve a wider audience outside of Japan

Haruki Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore”

騎士団長殺し、村上春樹、新潮社、2017

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami; Shinchosha, 2017

Fans finally get their hands on Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore” at midnight on February 24 in Tokyo; Source: Sankei Shimbun

Details about Haruki Murakami’s first multi-volume novel in seven years were more carefully guarded than state secrets are these days. The eager public was only given the title of the two-volume work and pictures of their covers, and it was only after the book’s release that we even had a basic plot summary. The Japanese TV show Close-up Gendai dedicated an episode to the enthusiasm a new book of Murakami’s creates, interviewing fans waiting outside bookstores in the pre-launch hours and reporting on a group of fans who got together to discuss their theories on the book’s story based solely on the title and cover.

Many bookstores began selling the book right at midnight, pulling down sheets draped over the piles of books with great fanfare. Sanseido’s Jimbocho branch held an event from midnight in which customers could buy their copies and then stay and stay up all night reading together in the store. The store even provided soft drinks and lap blankets. Fans in Hokkaido were forced to wait an extra day as the release date was delayed due to the derailment of a JR freight train.

Staff preparing for the release; Source: Asahi Shimbun

Although I have not made my way through all 1,000 pages of this book, my general impression is that this is a great introduction to Murakami for someone who has never read him before because all of his favorite themes and motifs are packed into this book. After abandoning this approach in his recent novels, Murakami has returned to the use of an unnamed narrator who simply refers to himself with the first-person pronoun “watashi” (in the past he has often used the more informal “boku”).

 

Eager fans reading Murakami’s latest just after its release on midnight on February 24; Source: Asahi Shimbun

The narrator is a 36 year-old portrait painter whose life is thrown off kilter when his wife announces that she wants a divorce. Trying to figure out where things went wrong, he travels through Hokkaido and Tohoku, ending up at a mountaintop house built by his friend’s father, a famous painter named Tomohiko Amada. Here he encounters two mysteries: a painting by Amada called “Killing Commendatore,” and a stone hut carved out beneath a rock in a nearby forest. Moreover, real blood drips from the picture, and in the middle of the night our narrator hears a bell that seems to come from this cave, as if someone is signaling for help. By this point we are firmly in Murakami’s world, complete with caves and walls and estranged wives.

Rounding off the main cast are Menshiki, a middle-aged man living in a large house in the opposite valley who offers the narrator an exorbitant sum of money to paint a portrait, and Marie Akigawa, a mysterious and beautiful thirteen year-old girl (she reminds me of the girl with the mysterious ears in “Wild Sheep Chase”). The story line also includes accounts of wars in Europe and China, an interest of Murakami’s that has made its way into his recent novels. And for a little narrative relief in between his Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, our narrator cooks pasta and listens to jazz and classical music.

Japanese comfort reads

森崎書店の日々 (2010)、続・森崎書店の日々 (2011)、八木沢 里志、小学館

Days at Morisaki Books and More Days at Morisaki Books, by Satoshi Yagisawa

[no English translation available]

 

Writing about comfort reads, author Sherwood Smith says, “I think it’s safe to say that everybody knows what is meant—the books we turn to for rereads, always knowing exactly what we’ll get. The anticipation of the expected comfort—the lack of surprise—is part of the appeal.”

Days at Morisaki Books and its companion volume, More Days at Morisaki Books, by Satoshi Yagisawa certainly fit this definition—Japanese comfort reading leavened with books and coffee. This is not what you would pick up for complex sentence structures or beautiful turns of phrase; it would likely fall into the “hot water bottle” category of book, like a hot cup of tea with a hit of lemon. But surely we all need books like that once in a while?

Our heroine, Takako, finds refuge in her uncle’s bookstore when her boyfriend tells her he is marrying someone else. Having quit her job, she spends her days idly sitting in her uncle’s shop, located in Jimbocho, the biggest secondhand book market in the world.

Picture of Jimbocho drawn by Bob Eckstein, from “True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers”

Takako is bored at first and hates the smell of musty books, but is gradually intrigued by the eccentric customers. She has never been much of a reader, but living in Jimbocho, surrounded by bookstores and literally encircled by piles of books in her room above the bookstore, it seems almost inevitable that she will become an avid reader. One night, she picks up a book and just keeps going.

The novel starts like this:

I lived in Morisaki Books from the start of summer to early spring of the following year. I stayed in an empty room on the second floor, living almost buried by books. The room was cramped and didn’t get much sun, the musty smell of old books permeated everything and it was always damp. But to this day, I’ve never forgotten the days I spent there. This place was the start of my real life. If I hadn’t had this time here, my life would have been less vibrant, more monotonous and lonely.

Days at Morisaki Books focuses on Takako’s recovery from her first love affair, aided by a satisfying comeuppance for the philandering boyfriend, her discovery of books, and meandering conversations in a neighborhood coffee shop. By the second book, Takako has found her feet again, and this story focuses on her efforts to help her uncle and his ailing wife, support a troubled friend and build a relationship with a new boyfriend.

The film of this book has a scene that lasts about 10 minutes long in which Takako is simply reading and perusing the shelves of secondhand bookstores, sometimes with no music in the background, just the sound of pages being turned and the traffic outside (you can watch a trailer for the film here that gives you some idea of the overall mood of both the books and the film). The scene was strangely engrossing and calming, rather than boring, and in fact this stripped-down approach seems to reflect the two books’ philosophy—when you pare away all the noise, what matters most are friends and family, time to read, and time to think.

Takako, as played by Akiko Kikuchi in the film of the book

Uncle Satoru, played by Takashi Naito

 

 

 

 

 

If we want more people to read Japanese literature in translation, then a wider variety should be available, including books with storylines that would appeal even to people who don’t read the New Yorker or Granta. Perhaps this is the role that middlebrow literature—easily accessible but of solid quality—can play. The crime genre seems to be over-represented among Japanese novels in translation, and there are plenty of highbrow books too that someone has decided represent the best of Japanese literature. I enjoy all of these, but surely there is room for novels that satisfy a different need, novels that would entice both a 16 year-old girl and an 80 year-old man?

Chinese translation of the first book; almost 1,000 Japanese books were translated into Chinese in 2014 so the US has a lot of catching up to do.

And even the second book has been translated into Chinese.

Japanese Booksellers Award 2017

The 10 books nominated for the 2017 Booksellers Award were announced on January 18, and I have to admit I was repeatedly refreshing the website around the time the official announcement was due. I was not disappointed by their selections (and the gorgeous book covers of many selections are also impressive). The winner will be announced on April 11. (If you are curious, I wrote about last year’s nominees and the winner here and here.)

『i』、西加奈子(著)、ポプラ社

i, by Kanako Nishi, published by Poplar Publishing, 2016

Kanako Nishi was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1977 and was raised in Osaka and Cairo, earning a law degree at Kansai University, a background that she uses in her novels. i is her first novel since “Saraba!” (Farewell), which won the 152nd Naoki prize in 2015. It follows the life of Ai from her birth in Syria in 1988 until she is 26 years old. She is adopted by a couple in America, and lives in New York until elementary school, when she moves to Japan. The novel begins with an assertion by the professor of her theoretical math class that “i does not exist in this world.” He is speaking of the imaginary number “i,” but of course it is also the protagonist’s name, refers to the “I” denoting our personal identity, and means “love” in Japanese. This neatly sums up the running theme in this book of Ai’s search for the value of her own existence. She tracks the number of deaths in disasters like the Tohoku earthquake, terrorist attacks like the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the outbreak of the Ebola virus and wars in the Middle East, and searches for reasons that can explain why she has escaped such disasters.

『暗幕のゲルニカ』、原田マハ(著)、新潮社

Guernica Undercover, by Maha Harada, Shinchosha Publishing, 2016

Maha Harada studied art at university and made this her first career, even working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She published her first novel in 2006, and often weaves art history into her novels. In Guernica Undercover, the tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica, displayed on the wall of the United Nations Building in New York City, disappears one day in 2003. The story moves between Paris before the war, current-day New York, and Spain in a thrilling art novel, a genre that Harada seems to have created singlehandedly.

『桜風堂ものがたり』、村山早紀(著)、PHP研究所

The Story of Ofudo, by Saki Murayama, PHP Institute, Inc., 2016

Issei Tsukihara worked in a bookshop located in a department store and gained a reputation for finding treasures among the stacks of books. However, he takes responsibility for a shoplifting incident and has to quit his job. Hurt and at a loss, Issei travels to meet an elderly man he had met on the Internet, who is struggling to run a bookstore in a rundown village. I can easily understand why booksellers would nominate this book for the Booksellers Prize!

『コーヒーが冷めないうちに』、川口俊和(著)、サンマーク出版

Before the Coffee Cools, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Sunmark Publishing, 2016

This book is about a seat in a coffee shop called Funiculi Funicula that can bring you back to the past. You would think this would attract a steady stream of customers to the coffee shop, but it is usually almost empty because several annoying rules ruin its appeal, including the limitation that you can only go back and visit people who have been to the coffee shop before; you can’t change the present, no matter what; and your time in the past starts when your coffee is poured and ends once the coffee has gone cold. The book cover promises “heart-warming miracles” in this story, which would normally have made me lose all interest in reading this book. However, since it has been nominated I’m giving it a chance, and halfway into the book, I think Kawaguchi’s punchy sense of humor redeems it from the status of Hallmark greeting card sentiment. [Edited to add that I have now finished this book and am sad to report that, while I initially enjoyed it as something light to read while I brushed my teeth, it quickly descended into bathos, with obvious attempts to manipulate readers’ emotions and make us cry.]

『コンビニ人間』、村田沙耶香(著)、文藝春秋

Convenience Store People, by Sayaka Murata, Bungeishunju, 2016

I wrote about this book, which won the 155th Akutagawa Prize, in detail here. This short novel is about Keiko, a young woman who has worked at a convenient store for 18 years and finds comfort in the routine this job offers. She has never understood how to act like everyone else, but the manuals spelling out every movement in a convenient store are a lifesaver for her. The turning point comes when Shiraha, an abhorrent misogynist, begins working at the convenient store. Keiko’s unusual perspective allows us to feel sympathy even for him, and highlights the strange ways in which identity is constructed and we become constricted within them.

『ツバキ文具店』、小川糸(著)、幻冬舎

Tsubaki Stationery Store, by Ito Ogawa, Gentosha, 2016

The main character, Hatoko (named after the hato, or doves, that flock to the famous Shinto shrine Tsurugaoka Hachimangu), is only in her 20s but has now succeeded her grandmother to become the 11th in a long line of scribes. She lives in the old family house that does double-duty as a stationery store, where she writes new year’s cards, love letters, letters breaking off relationships, and anything else her customers request. This is a quiet book that clearly conveys Ogawa’s love for Kamakura, where she lives. The book starts with a description of how Hatoko spends her mornings, sweeping in front of the store and carefully polishing the house’s floors while the water for her tea comes to a boil. After taking a break with a cup of bancha, she puts fresh water by the stone marking the grave in which old letters are buried. This slow pace continues throughout the book, which is broken up into a section for each season.

『罪の声』、塩田武士(著)、講談社

The Voice of the Crime, by Takeshi Shiota, Kodansha, 2016

This novel is a fictional attempt to solve the Glico Morinaga case, an extortion case targeting the major candy companies Glico and Morinaga that was never solved. In 1984, Katsuhisa Ezaki, the president of Glico, was kidnapped, and a ransom demand was made. Ezaki managed to escape, but company property was set on fire and someone calling himself “The Monster with 21 Faces” began sending letters claiming that Glico candy had been poisoned. The extortion efforts subsequently targeted Morinaga and Fujiya, and only ended with the suicide of the Shiga Prefecture police superintendent, apparently worn down by harassing letters from the Monster with 21 Faces and shame at his failure to find the culprit.

This novel begins 31 years after the incident as a newspaper reporter tries to find the criminal. At the same time, a man realizes that the voice of the person demanding the ransom was his own voice as a child and also tries to solve the crime. The police ended up conjecturing that yakuza groups were involved, so I’m curious to see how Takeshi Shiota solves this puzzle, which  would be familiar to an entire generation growing up at the end of the Showa era.

『みかづき』、森絵都(著)、集英社

Crescent Moon, by Eto Mori, Shueisha, 2016

This novel starts in 1963 and covers the evolution of juku, a private school offering tutoring after regular school hours, through the story of Goro and Chiaki and their children. Although he does not have a teaching certificate, Goro offers supplementary education in an elementary school. Chiaki recognizes his talent for teaching and convinces him to start a juku with her in a rented house in Chiba. During WWII, Chiaki saw how public education was harnessed to the ends of the state in teaching children patriotism, and this sends her searching for alternatives. With the baby boom and Japan’s economic growth in the background, Chiaki and Goro look for the “ideal” form of education while their children question whether such a thing even exists.

『蜜蜂と遠雷』、恩田陸(著)、幻冬舎

Honeybees and Distant Thunder, by Riku Onda, Gentosha, 2016

This book won the 156th Naoki Prize this month, so it has already become a bestseller in Japan. The story follows four musicians as they compete in an international piano competition, but also brings in the voices of the judges, piano tuners and reporters. The publisher even has a playlist of all the pieces mentioned and planned in the book.

『夜行』、森見登美彦(著)、小学館

Night Travels, by Tomihiko Morimi, Shogakukan, 2016

This fantasy novel incorporates elements of science fiction and horror in a linked series of five stories. The narrator and his five friends met during school days in college. Ten years earlier, when they had all gone to the Kuruma Fire Festival, Hasegawa had suddenly disappeared from amongst them, and now the remaining five have gathered again in Kuruma in the hopes that they will meet her again. As the night deepens, they talk about the strange experiences they had had as they travelled to Kuruma. Morimi said that he chose to set this story in Kyoto because it has so many side streets that would not draw a second glance during the day but become strange and mysterious in the dark of night, which stimulates the imagination.

 

TPP, Abdication and Curry Stains

Arakawa Kyokei’s Day Catch news show on TBS Radio is always entertaining, but the juxtaposition of news stories in their ranking of the day’s top stories (collated in Internet surveys and on-the-street interviews) is an intriguing snapshot of our interests and can be quite illuminating (you can listen to it here). For a few weeks, the breakup of the boy band SMAP was in the top three, beating out all geopolitical news. Today, the top three stories were Trump’s announcement that the US would pull out of TPP, followed by Prime Minister Abe’s request that the Diet discuss the emperor’s abdication, and then the news that Panasonic had developed a washing machine for the Indian market with a special function that will wash curry out of clothes (I found out more here). The show’s host and guest seemed particularly happy to abandon the serious tone apparently required for political punditry to delve into this exciting development. They hoped that Panasonic would also come up with washing machines that could tackle Japanese curry and soy sauce.

I was also amused yesterday to hear guests on both Day Catch and TBS Radio’s Session 22 try to explain the meaning behind the pink pussyhats that showed up in all the footage of the women’s marches… This kind of diversion makes all the years of studying Japanese worthwhile.

Convenience Store People

コンビニ人間

村田沙耶香

文藝春秋、2016

Convenience Store People

Sayaka Murata

Bungeishunju, 2016 [not available in English translation]

コンビニ人間 (Convenience Store People) won the 155th Akutagawa Prize in July. I usually pass over the Akutagawa Prize winners as they tend to be “serious literary works” that leave me depressed. However, many of the comments on bookmeter about コンビニ人間 ran along the lines of “This book may have won the Akutagawa Prize, but it was interesting,” so I thought it was worth a try.

I was also drawn in by the Japan Time’s description of Sayaka Murata as a “convenience store worker who moonlights as an author.” Murata plans to continue her part-time work at a convenience store because the job provides her with both book ideas and a routine.

(If you’re imagining the typical American convenience stores with their grungy floors, stale food and oversized drinks, think again. You can read about what convenience stores in Japan are all about here.)

The novel starts when Keiko is in her late 30s or, more importantly in her mind, 19 years after she was “born as a convenience store worker.” Although her memories of the period before this rebirth are vague, Keiko does know that she was born into an “ordinary home and raised lovingly in the ordinary way.” Nevertheless, she has always been strange and felt out of place.

When she was in kindergarten, she found a dead bird in the park. The other children cried over the bird, but Keiko grabbed it up and took it to her mother, suggesting that they grill it for her father since he likes grilled chicken. Her mother tries to redirect her by acting out a burial with the other children, but Keiko can only think of how wasteful this is, and how hypocritical it is to cry over a dead bird and then “murder” flowers to put on the grave.

In first grade, Keiko intervenes in a fight between two boys by grabbing a shovel and hitting one of the boys over the head until he couldn’t move anymore. She explains to her shocked teachers that the other children were yelling for someone to stop the fight, and her approach was the fastest way. After several similar episodes, she realizes that she is just worrying her parents and always ends up having to apologize for things she is not sorry for, so she decides to talk as little as possible outside of her home and either imitate others or wait for instructions. This seems to relieve everyone concerned.

Working in the convenience store, where everything has its proper place and a manual standardizes every movement, gives her a kind of contentment. Keiko learns how to greet customers and make the right facial expressions by studying a store poster showing smiling faces. She models her behavior, her clothes and her mannerisms on her co-workers, looking in their lockers to check the tags on their coats and labels on their shoes and then buying the same. This strategy lets her pass in “normal” society, but doesn’t allay the concerns of her high-school friends and sister over her unmarried state.

A poster for convenience store employees telling them how to dress for their job. Nail polish and fake nails are out, and nails must be cut short enough so that they are not visible when holding your hand out palm up. I particularly like the instruction to smile “with your whole face,” including your eyes. (Source: Wikipedia)

Rows of onigiri (rice balls) at a convenience store in Japan (Source: Wikipedia)

When Shiraha, a sullen and awkward young man, joins the convenience store staff, he upsets the store’s equilibrium. Keiko tries her best to train him, but when she teaches him how to neatly arrange products on the shelves, he protests that men are not suited to this kind of work: “Ever since the Jomon period [14,000 – 300 BCE], men have gone out to hunt and women have protected the home and gone out to collect berries and wild grass. Women’s brain structure makes them suited for this kind of work.” Keiko doesn’t take this personally and, true to form, just tells him that “Convenience store employees are not men or women, but just store employees.”

Needless to say, Shiraha does not last long in this line of work, but Keiko decides that a paper marriage with Shiraha would satisfy social norms, reassure her family and friends, and give Shiraha a refuge at the same time. We know from the beginning that there is no way this will end well. Keiko and Shiraha respond to their sense of isolation in opposing ways: Keiko by mirroring those around her and Shiraha by ostracizing everyone around him with his inflated sense of self-importance so that, when he is inevitably isolated, he can blame others for it.

He is an unabashed misogynist, and yet even when he calls Keiko a dried-up, middle-aged virgin, his insults just bounce off of her. This is exactly what makes the book so interesting. Murata’s use of a first person narrative together with a narrator who has little self-awareness creates a sense of dislocation—we watch Keiko from a distance rather than with the sense of intimacy that a first-person narrator usually creates. We cannot quite relate to her, and yet the “normal” people in the story seem like horrific caricatures as they push her to conform to standards that seem arbitrary as seen from Keiko’s perspective. I was aghast at Shiraha’s views of the world, but gradually found that my disgust was tempered by an inability to relate to Keiko’s co-workers and friends, the supposed exemplars of normal society.

One of Shiraha’s pet theories is that the modern world is still stuck in the Jomon period:

I read history books to try and figure out when the world went wrong. You look back at the Meiji period, Edo period, Heian period, no matter how far you go back, the world is just on the wrong track—even if you go all the way back to the Jomon period! … And then I realized: the world is no different than it was during the Jomon period! People who are no use to the village are eliminated, both men who don’t go out hunting and women who don’t have babies. We keep talking about modern society and individualism but all along, people who don’t try to fit in are interfered with, forced into shape and ultimately pushed out of the village.

Keiko claims that “Unlike Shiraha, I just don’t care about most things. I don’t really have my own will, so I don’t mind just following along with village principles.” Even this modest ambition seemed to be beyond her reach, and in the end I couldn’t help but sympathize with Shiraha’s assertion that “This world does not recognize foreign objects. I’ve been forced to suffer from this for my whole life.” This novel serves as a condemnation of a society in which there is no place for people like Keiko and Shiraha.

So as not to end on too somber of a note (and there’s plenty of humor in this book), have a listen to the Konbini Store song!

Comfort of Daily Routine

takayama

Naomi Takayama’s Chikutaku Shokutaku, Volumes I and II, and some of her other cookbooks, essays and journals

I have a pile of books that I’ve been meaning to write about, but –whether it’s the earlier drawing in of the night or despair over political inanities –it is these two volumes that I’m turning to at the moment.

Naomi Takayama (高山なおみ), a chef, cookbook author and essayist, kept a daily record of her meals for one year, from January 6, 2005 to January 7, 2006 in the two volumes of Chikutaku Shokutaku (チクタク食卓 上、下). Her husband took the pictures of their meals, and some of his output is endearingly blurry. She notes in her introduction that she usually sleeps 10 hours a day (!), so she usually only eats lunch and a late dinner.

Takayama records the weather and a simple note of what she did that day, and occasionally even gives instructions for her recipes.

For example, for her record of January 8, Takayama draws pictures of the vegetables and abura-age (fried tofu skins) that she bought for lunch, and even notes the price and where they were grown. Dinner was simmered daikon and abura-age; chives in vinegar and miso; gobo (burdock root) pickled in vinegar; miso soup with tofu and green onion; brown rice; salted salmon; nameko mushrooms cooked in brown sugar, sake and shoyu; pickled goya, cucumber and daikon; lotus root; and a salad of salted kabu (turnip).

chikutaku-1

 

On the page for November 11, Takayama provides recipes for two of the dishes she cooked that day–although her meals look impressive spread out on the table, this is home cooking at its best, as you can see by the brevity of the instructions. She even  notes that she made bento (shown at the bottom of the right-hand page) for her husband and herself while cleaning up!

img_0952

 

 

Takayama does not cook every meal. Her record for January 3, 2006, includes pictures of food she has received as New Year’s gifts and–one of my favorite details–her friend lying drunk on the floor! After all, New Year’s celebrations go on for several days…

img_0951

 

Imagining Naomi Takayama and her husband sitting late into the evening over these meals slows my heartbeat after the sometimes frenetic pace of daily life and reminds me of the real comfort to be found in the daily round.

Winner of Japanese Booksellers Award

羊と鋼の森

宮下奈都

文藝春秋、2015

A Forest of Sheep and Steel

Natsu Miyashita

Bungeishunju, 2015 [no English translation available]

 

The Japanese Booksellers Award is one of the only prizes that I follow closely because both the short list and the winning book are chosen by bookstore staff, who nominate the books they enjoyed the most and recommend to others. This method seems to ensure the selection of books that offer readability and sheer enjoyment. 羊と鋼の森 (A Forest of Sheep and Steel) was no exception. Natsu Miyashita’s story of Tomura’s all-consuming ambition to become a piano tuner was beautifully written, with a languid pace that matched the story’s tone.

The novel starts with a refrain that runs throughout Tomura’s story:

He could smell the forest, the way it smells in the fall when night is near. The trees are swaying in the wind, and the leaves are rustling. That smell of the forest as night is closing in…

But Tomura is not anywhere near a forest—he is standing in his high school gymnasium, watching a piano tuner, Soichiro Itadori, work on the school piano. Age 17, Tomura (whose name is written as 外村, the characters for “outside” and “village”) is from a mountain village whose school does not go beyond junior high, so he had to leave home to attend high school. Lacking much ambition, he is simply biding time until he can graduate.

Hearing Itadori as he worked on the piano changed all that. Itadori, perhaps bemused by the spellbound boy, tells him that this piano produces beautiful sound because it comes from the mountains and fields–sheep ate the grass on the mountains and in the meadows, producing the wool that was made into felt for the hammers. Itadori demonstrates the way the hammer, encased in felt, hits the steel strings, and again Tomura hears the sound of the forest in early autumn, just as the light dims.

Although he’d never even been aware of the existence of pianos until then, Tomura cannot forget the sounds he has heard and seeks out Itadori to ask to be his apprentice. Instead, Itadori gives him the name of a school that trains piano tuners.

Tomura spends two years at a school on Honshu, with just seven students in his year. From the start, he is overwhelmed by the difficulty of his chosen profession. He feels as if he has braved the forest that he had always been warned against entering as a child, told that once he loses his way, he will never find his way out.

This picture of Kamishikimi Kumanoimaso Shrine in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, is how I imagined the forest Tomura refers to.

This picture of Kamishikimi Kumanoimaso Shrine in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, is how I imagined the forest Tomura refers to.

After graduating, Tomura gets a job at Itadori’s studio, but still believes that mastering the craft of piano tuning and achieving the sound Itadori is able to produce is beyond him. He stays late every night practicing tuning on the studio’s pianos. He also begins to listen to classical music for the first time, and falls asleep listening to Mozart or Beethoven or Chopin.

Much of the novel revolves around Tomura’s misgivings as to his own abilities and conversations with his colleagues debating the role of a piano tuner. This is not a book filled with dramatic plot twists. Welcome diversions from Tomura’s self-doubt, which can seem rather tortured after a while, come from the other piano tuners he works with, whose back stories we learn, and his friendship with twins Kazune and Yuni. These two gifted piano players and their different styles of performing are pivotal in helping Tomura find his own approach to piano tuning.

I admit I got a bit tired of the use of the forest as metaphor, but Miyashita’s descriptions of Tomura’s growing awareness of the beauty around him were lovely. When he has a free moment, Tomura opens the lid of the piano and gazes inside at the 88 piano keys and the strings attached to each one. The strings stretched out straight and the hammers lying ready to strike look like an orderly forest to him. He sees beauty here, something that had just been an intellectual concept to him before.

His eyes and ears were first opened by the piano, but now that his senses have been awakened, he dips back into his memory for more beauty:

For example, the milk tea his grandmother would make when he was home. Adding milk to the small saucepan in which she steeped the tea turned it the color of a muddy river after heavy rains. He could almost imagine fish lying hidden at the bottom of the pan in his hot tea. He would gaze, mesmerized, at the liquid swirling into his cup. Yes, that was beauty.

When Tomura goes home after his grandmother dies, he walks in the forest. He hears spruce needles falling to the ground, a sound with no corollary on the musical scale. And then it all came together:

I knew it all along! I get it. I felt like yelling out loud. I recognized that sound the spruce makes. Is that why [the sound of the piano] made me nostalgic? Is that why it drew me in? I had known the archetypal sound of the piano all along. The first instrument probably originated in the forest.

However, there were times when Tomura’s world was so far from the banal everyday tasks of washing clothes and cooking meals that it seemed too rarefied. This was exacerbated when, on the day I had set aside a few hours to write about this book, my refrigerator’s control panel gave out and the washing machine began leaking water onto the floor. As I cleared out the refrigerator and mopped up stagnant water, I have to admit that Tomura’s single-minded pursuit of the perfect pitch almost irritated me.

However, reading the comments on bookmeter, a Japanese site where readers record the books they’ve read and post comments and reviews (http://bookmeter.com/b/4163902945), I was struck by how many readers loved this book precisely because it took them away from their workday and daily stress. There might be no mention of cooking meals, paying bills or washing up in A Forest of Sheep and Steel, but we can always turn to Haruki Murakami for such quotidian details (his descriptions of bread-making and pasta were a high point of A Wild Sheep Chase for me). Miyashita’s novel serves another purpose, perhaps as a reminder that a protective layer of abstract thought or an all-aborbing interest just might prevent us from allowing our minds to become numbed by banalities. Whether that means that we are puzzling over the geometry of fractals, going over the steps of a perfect judo throw, or marveling at the intricacy of Schubert’s quintets as we scrub dishes and sit in traffic, surely we need more of it as a refuge against the mundane. So here’s hoping that we can all be a little bit more like Tomura.

*Although A Forest of Sheep and Steel has not been translated into English, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: The Hidden World of a Paris Atelier by T.E. Carhart might be a good substitute. Here is a review by one of my favorite bloggers and also a standard newspaper review.

 

Books, Moss, Cats and Turtles Under One Roof

「私の小さな古本屋」

田中美穂

洋泉社、2012

My Little Secondhand Bookstore, by Miho Tanaka

Yosensha, 2012 [No English translation available]

 

蟲文庫 (Mushi Bunko) can be found on a street in Kurashiki, Okayama lined with warehouses built in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and sporting the traditional white walls and black tiles. Visitors are not always sure that it is in fact a bookstore, since Miho Tanaka has also filled the shelves with moss collecting kits and CDs reflecting her own eccentric tastes, and holds occasional readings and concerts in the evenings. Turtles and cats sun themselves in the small backyard, which also shelters a telescope and her moss samples.

Mushi Bunko in its current location

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Reading her book of essays on her 20 years as a secondhand bookseller, it was hard for me to imagine Miho Tanaka ever doing anything else, but the first 10 years seem to have been rather touch-and-go. When she was just 21, Tanaka quit her job of two years, and before she was even fully aware of what she was doing, she found herself announcing to the owner of a secondhand bookstore she frequented that she was going to open her own bookstore. She had begun working right after high school, but her employer’s indifference to labor laws resulted in Tanaka reaching her physical breaking point after just 10 months. Since then she had been working odd jobs on a part-time basis.

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Tanaka’s decision to open her own secondhand bookstore was based solely on her love of books and her lack of capital. It was sheer luck that she found her first store front (she stayed here from 1994 and moved to her current location about six years later) since no one wanted to rent to such a young, inexperienced girl who could only pay 50,000 yen a month in rent (about $455 at today’s exchange rate).

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The 蟲 (mushi) in the store name means “bug or insect,” although a simplified version of this character is used now.

When she went back and checked her diary as she was writing this book, Tanaka was surprised to find that in a single day she had quit her job, made the decision to open a secondhand bookstore, begun her search for a store to rent, and bought a primer on running secondhand bookstores. Her budget was only 1 million yen ($9,111), and her stock consisted of her own personal library and her father’s contribution of a 39-volume set of Japanese classics.

Since she started the bookstore with barely any books on the shelves, she couldn’t live off the proceeds and had to work part-time jobs after she closed the bookstore in the evening. Tanaka worked at a coffee shop and a bakery, served as cashier at a convenience store and sorted mail after hours at the post office for 10 years until her father’s death left her so exhausted and emotionally depleted that she couldn’t keep up this pace. Around the same time, she wrote an article about observing moss for a small magazine, which led to profiles of her store in the magazines “Brutus” and “Kunel.” This publicity, playing up the eccentric lady shop owner who loves moss, has helped to sustain the store ever since. These two events enabled Tanaka to focus her energies on the bookstore.

Miho Tanaka behind her desk at Mushi Bunko

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Tanaka compares her day sitting behind a desk to the life of sea anemones, attached to rocks in tide pools, waiting for their prey to come to them. I found this metaphor to be quite apt because reading this book was similar to watching a tide pool as a vivid miniature world opens up before your eyes. At first glance, sitting at a desk all day might look boring, but Tanaka says that life comes to her in the form of peculiar customers and unexpected events. There was the older man who fell into the habit of stopping by the bar for a pick-me-up after work and then visiting her store, red-faced and tipsy, to buy a book on religion before heading home to his wife. There were the people who asked her to watch her children for them as if she were a daycare service, and the two unattended dogs that dropped by for the day once (she decided they must be her deceased grandparents, checking up on her). And then there was the community she created through the readings and concerts she held in the bookstore.

A live event at Mushi Bunko

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Over the years, the stock in her bookstore has come to reflect this community since about 90% of her stock consists of books she buys from her customers. People with similar interests buy books in her store and sell their books to her in turn, occasioning comments from customers that visiting her store is like looking at their own bookshelves.

Before writing this book, Tanaka had published another book,「苔とあるく」(Walking with Moss), a primer on observing and collecting moss. She feels an affinity with moss and its preference for shade and corners. People don’t usually notice moss, but Tanaka finds that when you look closely, the diversity of its forms and its ecology are surprisingly dramatic.

I was told that I must look at moss under the microscope to appreciate its beauty, and this has proven to be true. Peering through the lens, I slowly bring the image into focus, and the instant the picture sharpens, I am flooded with an indescribable, intoxicating sensation similar to dizziness, relieving me of any sense of my own physical size and weight. I can hardly bear it. I dream of one day dissolving into this slow-moving ocean of green cells.

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Secondhand bookstores seem like a losing proposition through the lens of conventional economic theory, at best a harmless if penurious way to pursue one’s hobby at work. Just as the humble moss was left behind in the “upward progression” of more sophisticated land plants such as ferns and seed plants, Tanaka recognizes that secondhand bookstores diverge from the main road of commerce. I think Miho Tanaka deserves the last word.

But even though I know there is no future for secondhand bookstores, occasionally I break away from the high-speed freeway pace of this world and stand in one place. And maybe secondhand bookstores and moss collecting grant us moments like this. This bare-bones bookshop where time seems to have stopped is my mainstay precisely because it allows me to entertain the illusion that a single book in the great wide ocean of books and the words inside of it can be passed on far into the future, just as the moss growing here now has survived through the ages.

 

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I was relieved to find that, four years after she published this book, Mushi Bunko is still thriving, and she occasionally updates her blog. She also followed up her book on moss with a book about turtles (「亀のひみつ 」, 2013), an anthology of stories and poems that feature moss, ferns and other life forms that grow from spores (「胞子文学名作選」, 2013) and an illustrated reference book on moss (「ときめくコケ図鑑」, 2014), so she really seems to have found her niche.

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Don’t-Want-to-Get-Married Syndrome

本当は結婚したくないのだ症候群

北条かや

青春出版社、2016

Don’t-Want-to-Get-Married Syndrome

Kaya Hojo

Seishun Publishing, 2016

 

プリンセスメゾン 1 と2

葵池辺
初学館、 2015 and 2016

Princess Maison, Volumes 1 and 2

Aoi Ikebe

Shogakukan, 2015 and 2016

Kaya Hojo wrote 「本当は結婚したくないのだ症候群」 (Don’t-Want-to-Get-Married Syndrome) as an attempt to figure out why so many Japanese woman seem uninterested in marriage, even as the government bewails the falling birth rate and sets target fertility rates (goal of 1.8, compared to 1.42 children per woman in 2014). Interviewing single women living in Tokyo, Hojo found that the women she spoke to want to get married in a vague way, but are reluctant to give up their freedom or relax the conditions that any prospective husband must meet. They have full lives with satisfying work, friends, hobbies and money to spend on themselves. And yet, the idea of “marriage” continues to exert a strong hold on them.

Coincidentally, around the same time I was reading this book I picked up a manga that illustrates Hojo’s reporting. Aoi Ikebe’s プリンセスメゾン (Princess Maison) tells the story of Numa-chan, a young woman who works in a pub and yet, despite her low wages and unmarried status, wants to buy her own apartment. Impressed with her persistence, the employees of a real estate company she frequents befriend her and help with her search.

I’m probably not qualified to judge since I don’t read manga very often, but this was a very strange manga. Ikebe intersperses episodes about Numa-chan with advice on apartment searches, covering practical issues such as how to calculate monthly payments, what to look for when viewing model rooms, and the importance of checking for storage space. Aoi Ikebe also includes vignettes about single women who have achieved Numa-chan’s goal and have bought their own apartments. These are generally such gloomy visions that I wondered if Ikebe has a dark view of the life of single women in Japan.

This woman, also living on her own, stares at the ceiling and wonders when she can die.

This woman, also living on her own, stares at the ceiling and wonders when she can die.

An older woman, living on her own, listens to the family living in the apartment below her.

An older woman, living on her own, listens to the family living in the apartment below her.

The statistics Hojo provides in her reporting indicate that Numa-chan and her friends (all of whom are single) are no exception

Numa-chan on her search for an apartment.

Numa-chan on her search for an apartment.

in modern Japan. Statistics can be dry and boring, but these were really intriguing because they revealed such significant changes. The 2010 national census found that one out of every three women and one out of every two men ages 30-35 had never been married. The rate of men and women marrying late in life or not marrying at all has been rising, but the increase has been particularly sharp for women. Since the 1980s, the number of women who marry in their 30s has plummeted. This trend is especially pronounced in Tokyo, where a 2015 survey found that the percentage of unmarried women across all age groups was 10 percentage points higher in Tokyo than the nationwide average.

Nippon Life Insurance Company carried out a survey in 2015 that found that 24% of single people had no interest in getting married. However, the breakdown is particularly intriguing as it shows that 31% of women did not want to get married, compared to only 16.3% of men. The Cabinet Office conducted a survey of 7,000 men and women ages 20-39 and found that about 40% of the respondents who were unmarried and weren’t in relationships were happy on their own. The most common reasons cited were that “relationships are a pain” and “I want to concentrate on my hobbies.”

Numa-chan, surrounded by books on buying apartments and real estate fliers, revels in the numbers adding up in her bank book.

Numa-chan, surrounded by books on buying apartments and real estate fliers, revels in the numbers adding up in her bank book.

Hoya’s interviewees provide the background to these statistics. Many of the women Hoya interviewed enjoy having the extra time and money to spend on their interests. Several are fans of K-pop singers and follow these idols with devotion, something they know they wouldn’t be able to do if they got married. One woman spoke about how much her favorite K-pop singers motivate her—she feels that they give her more energy than a real-life love affair would. Another woman, a fan of boy bands, agreed, asserting that romance in the real world is tough. One woman is putting off marriage because she wants to enjoy her independence for longer, and figures that she can just get married once she decides to have children.

These women know that, although they still feel like they are waiting for the “prince” who appeared in every manga they read growing up, marriage is hard work. This is especially true in Japan, where gender equality is a work in progress. An OECD study shows that Japanese men are in the lower ranks of industrialized nations when it comes to sharing childcare and housework, and another OECD study concludes that “more than elsewhere, Japanese parents have to choose between their career and raising children.” So it makes sense that Japanese women would see marriage as a bad deal in which they have to exchange fulfilling careers for household drudgery.

Indeed, many of the women Hojo interviewed said that their married friends were constantly complaining, and there were no happy families around them to tempt them into marriage. The family structure itself has undergone several transformations in just a few generations, shifting from extended families living under one roof, to nuclear families and then to smaller families with both parents working outside of the home. This has no doubt introduced a great deal of uncertainty. One of Hojo’s interviewees described this rapid change in the structure of families:

My father is really busy with work, and he’s the type that gets married just because he wants to hand over all the household stuff to someone else. My mom was a housewife, but there aren’t really any marriages like that anymore. Men’s annual salaries have decreased, so we’re no longer in an era in which women get married, stay at home and do all the housework. So given that, marriage doesn’t really offer any advantages to either men or women. When I talk to my parents, I really sense this gap—our views on marriage just don’t match up.

Numa-chan, a girl who obviously knows what truly matters, always checks the size of the bath when she views apartments.

Numa-chan, a girl who obviously knows what truly matters, always checks the size of the bath when she views apartments.

It was only after World War II that a family consisting of a “salaryman papa,” a mother who stays at home, and two children became the image of the standard household. Lifetime employment meant that the wife could stay at home and raise the children, while a man’s salary could cover a home mortgage and college tuition. This stability is now gone. Writer Izumi Momose wrote that during the period of high economic growth, happiness for women was equated with the 3K of 結婚 (kekkon=marriage), 家庭 (katei=home) and 子供 (kodomo=children), but now women are instead being boxed in by the 3K of 家事労働 (kaji rodo=housework), 子育て (kosodate=raising children) and 介護 (kaigo=caring for the elderly).

Hojo’s interviewees are enjoying their freedom and intend to get married if they meet the right person, but are torn by the sense that they are not real adults unless they get married and can provide their parents with grandchildren. I think Aoi Ikebe illustrates this difficult position well in Princess Maison. When a real estate agent asks if she takes marriage into account when choosing an apartment, Numa-chan sternly reprimands him, telling him “First I will take care of my own life, and then I can think about living with someone else.” Her face softens as she adds, “But that’s probably just an impossible dream.”

But Numa-chan has a soft side too, and dreams of finding a partner as well as an apartment.

But Numa-chan has a soft side too, and dreams of finding a partner as well as an apartment.

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Numa-chan sternly reprimands Date-san, telling him “First I will take care of my own life, and then I can think about living with someone else.”

To end with some happy statistics, an Asahi Shimbun survey of 18-19 year-olds published in the 8 April edition of the newspaper found that 59% are optimistic about the future, and a total of 89% replied that they are either “very happy” or “somewhat happy.” And although the pundits almost immediately began to explain this away as a sign that young people are just lowering their expectations, this is one statistic that I’d like to take at face value.

This young woman stretches out on her futon, saying "living alone is the best!"

This young woman stretches out on her futon, saying “living alone is the best!”

Nakano’s Secondhand Store

古道具 中野商店

川上弘美

新潮社, 2005

Nakano’s Secondhand Store

Hiromi Kawakami

Shinchosha, 2005

[English translation by Allison Markin Powell will be published in the US in June 2017]

If I was looking for the antithesis of the glossy j-dramas* I love to watch, I think I’ve found it in 古道具 中野商店 (Nakano’s Secondhand Store) by 川上弘美 (Hiromi Kawakami). Nothing is wrapped up neatly with a bow by the end of the book, there is no penultimate scene in which the characters realize how they “truly” feel, and there are no episodes of recrimination and reconciliation. I am not giving anything away here because I don’t think anyone reads Kawakami’s novels for plot twists and reveals, but rather for the mood she creates from the first page to the last.

Haruo Nakano opened his secondhand goods store about 25 years ago on the outskirts of Tokyo when he got tired of life as a salaryman. He always stresses that this is not an antique store, and Kawakami’s descriptions should quickly erase any pre-formed image of a charming store full of treasures the reader may have had.

This is the set for “Biblia Koshodo no Jiken Techo,” a j-drama set in a bookstore, and provides the perfect example of what Nakano’s Secondhand Store does NOT look like (and you can never have too many pictures of bookstores).

This is closer to my idea of what Nakano’s shop looked like.

Nakano’s store is crammed full of everything that would have been standard in a house from the middle of the Showa era (1926-1989)—low tables, old fans, air conditioners, pottery and kotatsu. Every day, Nakano would open the shutters in front of his store, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and arrange items that he thinks will bring customers in—old-fashioned typewriters, the prettier crockery, lamps with a little artistic flair, and paperweights in the shapes of turtles and rabbits. As he works, ash falls from the tip of his cigarette onto his stock, but Nakano just brushes it off with the edge of his apron. Reflecting his slapdash style, his “Open” sign is just a scrap of cardboard with a few characters scrawled in black marker on it.

A secondhand store in Tottori prefecture

Nakano runs the store with the help of Hitomi, our narrator, and Takeo. As Hitomi is telling the story, we hear her observations about everyone around her, but get few details about Hitomi herself, leaving the reader to guess from context that she is in her early 20s and drifting a bit in this dead-end job. Takeo, who is in charge of replenishing the store’s stock, is another lost soul. He was bullied in school and stopped going entirely after he lost half a finger when his tormentor slammed it in a door. His loss of faith in people prevents him from leaving his shell much, but he is gentle and kind when he can spare the energy.

Masayo, Nakano’s sister, stops by nearly every day, and her charisma always boosts sales. In her mid-50s and with an independent income that enables her to style herself as an artist, Masayo holds exhibitions of the rather creepy dolls she makes, or cloth she has dyed shades of brown using leaves. Although they are past middle age, Masayo and her brother are more free-spirited than Hitomi and Takeo, who seem buttoned-up and scared of life in comparison. Ironically, Masayo and Nakano, who is on his third wife and also has a mistress, come to inexperienced Hitomi for advice and commiseration. Nakano even asks Hitomi to read the erotic novel his mistress has written and give her opinion.

Each chapter has a title like “Paperweight,” “Celluloid,” “Sewing Machine” and “Punching Ball,” and it becomes a bit of a game to spot each of these objects in the chapter as you read. Sometimes they are tangential to the story, sometimes they play a central role. The chapters were initially serialized in the literary magazine 新潮 (New Tide) from 2000 to 2005, and are each centered on a different episode, often involving the store’s unusual clients. “Paper Knife” is about a deranged woman who “stabs” Nakano with a paper knife. “Big Dog” relates Takeo and Nakano’s visit to a yakuza to buy a helmet and armor in a deal that they seal with whiskey and chocolate cake. “Bowl” is about a man who brings in a beautiful bowl that he believes his ex-girlfriend has cursed, bringing him a wave of bad luck. In “Paperweight,” Nakano sends Hitomi to check up on Masayo after an elderly relative reports that she is living with a man.

The thread running through all of these chapters is Hitomi’s yearning for some kind of relationship with Takeo. She’s not always sure what she wants from him, and yet she feels attached to him by a thread that draws taut when he’s nearby and snaps when he leaves. They tentatively reach out to each other, but after several awkward dates and even more awkward sex, Takeo apologizes to Hitomi, admitting that he’s just not that interested in sex. Later, he tries explaining again:

“Hitomi, I’m sorry that I’m not good at this,” Takeo said quietly.

“That’s not true! I’m not good at this either.”
“Really? So…”

For once, Takeo looked me straight in the eye as he spoke.

“So you’re not any good at this whole living thing either?”

Takeo took a cigarette from the crumpled package Nakano kept in the back of the shelf and lit it.

I took one too and tried taking a puff. Takeo spat into a tissue just like Nakano always did. Instead of answering Takeo’s question, I asked when he thought Nakano would come back.

Takeo said, “Who knows.” Then he pursed his lips and breathed in the tobacco smoke.

This passage is a good example of the way in which Hitomi and Takeo—and indeed, all the characters here to some extent—keep their distance, even as they make tentative forays toward each other. And Kawakami preserves a distance between the reader and her characters—even though Hitomi is our narrator, we do not know any more about what she is thinking than Takeo does.

But I don’t mean to suggest that this book leaves the reader out in the cold. Hitomi’s decision to forget Takeo and “eat vegetables and seaweed and beans and be healthy and sparkling every day” made me laugh even as I sympathized. Kawakami is particularly good at juxtaposing comedy and poignancy in this way so that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In “One Piece,” Hitomi is fretting because Takeo isn’t answering her phone calls. Going right to extremes as usual, Masayo suggests that maybe he has died, but Hitomi thinks it much more likely that when she called, Takeo was eating a cream-filled pastry and his fingers were so greasy he couldn’t press the right button. Or his phone is in his back pocket but he’s gained so much weight that his jeans are too tight and he can’t pull the phone out of his pocket. Or he’s rescued an old lady who fell and is taking her to the hospital.

And then there’s Masayo, eating pie and cream puffs in her garish hand-printed scarves as she asks Hitomi how she can keep Maruyama, her boyfriend, interested when her libido is waning with age. One moment Kawakami is painting a picture that almost seems to encourage us to look down on Masayo, and then the next moment she upends our comfortable assumptions as she describes Masayo confessing to Hiromi that she loves Maruyama best in all the world. Hitomi is struck to the core as she realizes there is no one about whom she can say the same thing. Although Hitomi and Takeo frequently shake their heads at Nakano and Masayo’s irresponsibility and impetuousness, at least they seem to have gotten something from their gambles.

The final chapter is set about three years after the events of the previous chapter. Hitomi wakes up confused, thinking she is back in her old apartment by Nakano’s store, even though she moved two years ago. The relatively short time she spent working there was so intense and luminous that she is still partly reliving those days. And don’t we all have periods like this, bookended by the less vivid days that came before and after?

Although Kawakami’s writing style always keeps the reader at a modest distance, she lets the reader stand just outside Nakano’s store, peering through the window, as it were, at her four characters. In the hands of such a skilled author, this does not feel alienating. Standing alongside Kawakami, we keep a respectful distance and sigh with exasperation when Nakano is enticed by yet another woman, blush for Hitomi’s awkward attempts to approach Takeo, squirm in embarrassment when Masayo gives Hitomi inappropriate advice, and fear for Takeo. And just like Hitomi, the world seems a little greyer when we leave their company.

 

You can read more about Hiromi Kawakami here. She has won numerous literary prizes, and at least two of her novels are available in English translation: 先生の鞄 (The Briefcase) and 真鶴 (Manazuru). The Briefcase would be a good entry point. This tender novel is about a woman and her relationship with her former teacher as it shifts from friendship to love, with food and the changing seasons as a running theme.

 

* If you didn’t immediately know that “j-drama” refers to the wonderful world of Japanese dramas, then you’re missing out. I’m sure many people—with more refined taste than myself, no doubt—would disagree about that, but they’re worth a try if you’ve never seen one. All of the major TV channels broadcast these dramas consisting of 10-12 episodes, with a new line-up starting in the fall, winter, spring and summer. The storylines cover a huge range, with everything from crime and high school angst to period dramas and the search for a husband. Try ホタルノヒカリ (Hotaru no Hikari) seasons one and two for a mix of comedy, romance and office life. This past season’s 家族の形 (Kazoku no Katachi) is a genuinely good family drama with excellent acting (with English subtitles here and with Japanese subtitles only here). And for a decidedly non-glossy j-drama with a slow pace, お菓子の家 (Okashi no Ie) is a bittersweet drama with fine acting from Joe Odagiri (with English subtitles here and with Japanese subtitles only here).

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