Hankyu Railway, by Hiro Arikawa
[No English translation available]
Hiro Arikawa is a best-selling author in Japan, and after reading 「阪急電車」 (Hankyu Railway) I can certainly see why she is so popular. And “best-seller” is no denigration in this case—Arikawa has succeeded in creating mass appeal while not losing sight of the heart of her story. Hankyu Railway reminded me a little of the best romantic comedies of the 1980-90s. They might seem light and frothy on the surface, but making a truly great romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle that still resonates 20 years later is a difficult feat.
Hankyu Railway uses the clever device of a train line in Osaka as it travels between eight stations to tell the story of the people whose lives intersect on the train. Each chapter represents one train station along the 15-minute trip from Takaurazuka Station to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi Station, but the return trip is set one year later. This meant that I had to wait until the very last chapter to see what had happened to the characters introduced in the first chapter.
Arikawa has assembled a cast of characters from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. It’s almost as if she wanted to toss completely disparate characters together in one train car and stir the pot to see what would happen. On this one train line, Arikawa has packed in an elderly woman and her granddaughter, whose innocent (and loud) questions about other passengers set off some of the book’s incidents; a young man and woman who vie for the same books at the library without acknowledging each other’s existences; a woman dressed all in white who has just gone to her former fiancé’s wedding to seek revenge; a woman with her abusive boyfriend; two shy college students; a little girl who is being bullied by her classmates; a middle-aged woman who makes herself ill with anxiety; and a high school student trying to figure out what to do with her life.
One character’s actions trigger another, with a ripple effect among the other train passengers. Tokie, an elderly lady who speaks her mind, sees Misa’s boyfriend kick her to the ground and tells her to leave him. Still wavering, Misa hears Etsuko, a high school student, telling her friends about the kindness of her boyfriend. The realization that a teenage girl has a better romantic relationship than she does hurts her pride enough to convince her to break it off. Later, she helps a housewife who becomes ill on the train, and Misa’s straight-talking advice helps this woman see her own situation more clearly. This is just one chain of events, but almost all of the characters end up connected in one way or another.
One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was the way in which the characters have their eyes and ears open to any quirky or unusual sight or conversation. Keiichi, a shy college student with a keen interest in the military, strikes up a conversation with Miho over the Self-Defense Force helicopters flying near the train. Instead of being repelled by his fascination with helicopters, as most people are, she is impressed because he’s given her one more unusual sight to add to her “collection.” She returns the favor by showing him a red torii (a traditional gateway marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine) on top of an apartment roof—one of those puzzles you sometimes see in cities. A year later, on the same train, she is imploring him to come pick the wild bracken she can see growing on the steep slope leading off of the train tracks.
Similarly, a young woman uses a curious sight from the train window as an excuse to talk to the man she regularly sees at the library. On the embankment by the river their train is crossing, stones are piled to form the character 生 (which means life, but also raw, fresh or genuine), and soon they are vying to figure out its meaning. She thinks it refers to draft beer, while he thinks it might be a sort of prayer—it turns out to be a sort of temporary art installation commemorating the community’s restoration after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.
Hiro Arikawa actually lives along this Hankyu train line (as of this book’s publication), and her affection for this area of Osaka shows. Although the characters and their interactions kept me turning the pages, I think what will stay with me are the images of a quiet train station in which swallow nests are protected by the train station staff, wild bracken growing on the railway sidings, the incongruous sight of a red torii on an apartment building’s roof, and messages shaped with rocks. It made me wonder if I might find something similar if I looked hard enough.
Note: Although there is no English translation of the book, there is a movie based on the book and you can watch it here with English subtitles. There are a few embellishments, and they’ve left out the couple from the library, but otherwise it follows the book closely and I quite enjoyed it.