February 2013

Christopher Merkel


What I Talk About When I Talk About Japan

First, though, I'm going to talk a little bit about LA. I was visiting a friend there in October. She lives in that part of Hollywood outside of Hollywood called Franklin Village, a tiny section of the sprawling Los Angeles mega-region that's nestled above the Hollywood Freeway on the blocks around the Scientology Celebrity Center. The Village thinks of itself like a village, but it's undeniably a part of the greater city. The strip of stores between Bronson and Tamarind on Franklin Avenue isn't exactly quaint, but neither is it downtown or Hollywood Boulevard -- or even Silverlake or Los Feliz. There was a long line outside of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on a Wednesday night, and the line was annoying, but assuming it was not. But then John Hamm comes out of La Poubelle, and the twenty-something who was just complaining about having overdrawn his checking account is talking about his studio executive father and investment banker brother. The apartment buildings off the little strip really are full of aspiring actors, and there's a good possibility that someone's doing porn.

The Village is up to everything, but it's out of the spotlight. And Counterpoint Records & Books isn't an exception. Its storefront is easily the least assuming of the strip, but its collection of used books (I didn't browse the records) is an extensive parade of subdued enchantment and hidden celebrity. Maybe I say so because there were so many things on the shelves that I've had on mine. Those, anyway, are the books that I specifically remember. I do, however, remember a feeling, the silly excitement of having stumbled onto something hidden in plain sight. And I was excited to talk to the clerk when I checked out, but I got to the counter and he didn't seem to feel much like talking, so I just bought the one book that I'd decided I'd buy as a souvenir and went to meet my friend at the Bourgeois Pig. It took me a few months to get around to reading it, but now that I've finished Lala Pipo, it strikes me as fitting that I found it in Franklin Village.

Lala Pipo by Hideo Okuda is about people in Tokyo, and lately, more often than not, those people are what I talk about when I talk about Japan. From the back cover of the first American edition: "Tokyo has a lot of people: twelve million, to be exact. But what happens when there aren't enough good jobs or sexual partners to go around? A lot of people wind up at the bottom, that's what." And the six central characters whose stories are brought together in Lala Pipo are definitely on the bottom. The back cover calls them ("not-so-lovable") losers. They're the types of people that people talk about when they talk about social misfits. But the thing about the central characters of Lala Pipo is that they might represent something closer to the modern Tokyo norm than they do any misfit aberration, loveable or not.

Hiroshi Sugiyama is a freelance writer who has been taking less and less work and has fewer and fewer social interactions. He buys a concrete microphone and gets off listening to what his upstairs neighbor does with the girls he brings home. Kenji Kurino is an ex-gang member who scouts girls for cabaret clubs and porn shoots. Yoshie Sato is an early middle-aged housewife who doesn't even talk with her husband anymore. She secretly reads her neighbor's mail and is almost overjoyed when she's offered an opportunity to do a fetish shoot herself. Koichi Aoyanagi is a film school dropout and perpetual part-timer. He lets a pimp convince him to allow his underage prostitutes to use the rooms at the karaoke box where he works. Erotic novelist Keijiro Saigoji used to have loftier literary aspirations, now his "only reason to go on living" is to have sex with high school girls. Sayuri Tamaki, the corpulent transcriptionist, is at home alone whenever she's working, so when she's not, she likes to go to the library to pick up idle, unambitious men.

I haven't known anyone exactly like the characters in Lala Pipo. But I have lived in Tokyo. It's been almost decade now, only a couple of years before Okuda's book was published in Japan in 2005 (the first American edition was published in 2008). Back then, the Japanese media talked about the growing trend of "arrangements" made between lonely, older men and the high school "girlfriends" that they kept in high-end clothing and accessories. It also talked about rising numbers of the hikikomori, the young shut-ins who drop of out society and, often, keep themselves with a roof over their heads and connected to the Internet only by means of abusive, codependent relationships with their parents. And this wasn't new -- or at least I had been led to understand that it wasn't from my reading about the city's past -- but anywhere you went, no matter how secluded the street or decrepit the building, it was possible to imagine that money was being exchanged for things that you probably couldn't even imagine behind every fašade and curtain. Of course, most likely, you didn't see a thing unless you were trying, but you could feel it. And that feeling was Tokyo.

That's what I talk about, anyway, when I talk about Japan. And the Japanese talk about it too, but, at the same time, they don't. Anything goes, so long as you don't upset the boat. So long as you're not impeding the normal social or economic business of society (at whatever level to which your personal business happens to apply), then by all means do whatever you want, and pay whatever you want to be able to do it. Just don't bring it home, and don't show up with it to work. The don't-ask-don't-tell permissiveness of the Japanese national ethos seems to have functioned much better as a social salve-lubricant-maquillage back when people still believed there was room for everyone at the top of Japanese society. But the downward spiral of what has now been more or less two decades of recession had to bring someone low. No one aspires to be at the bottom, but at least there's more and more company. I made an extended visit two years ago, and Tokyo seemed more like Tokyo than ever. The fašade of the universal upper middle class was still in place, but the boat was still taking on water, and sliding ever deeper down into the behavioral sink.

In other words, the "losers" of Lala Pipo, however unlovable, might not actually be that odd. More and more, I suspect that more and more of the people of Tokyo are the people of Lala Pipo. And that's not to disparage of deviance -- not necessarily. (Oh no!) It is, however, to question a hierarchy of values that could be pushing an entire population closer to borderline. The people of Lala Pipo are, in no particular order, apathetic or delusional or avoidant or manipulative, debilitatingly unassertive, obsessive, or any combination of these traits to any variation of degrees. But the problem with analyzing the people of Lala Pipo is that it's difficult to identify source causes. Do the characters populate the so-called underbelly of the Tokyo sex industry because of character? Or have their characters been determined by their having been forced to populate the underbelly? Which are the primary symptoms of the endemic social disease, and which are its aftereffects? One thing does, however, seem to be clear, and that is the characters' complicity in turning open but blind eyes to the total situation. "Out of sight, out of mind. As long as nobody said anything, Yoshie would never have to notice it."

Of course, the fundamental issue is the establishment of diehard social dichotomies, especially in a country that lives by those dichotomies at the same time that it boasts the equitability of its society to the rest of the world. In the chapter of Lala Pipo on Keijiro Saigoji, Hideo Okuda draws a beautifully scathing analogy to the literary world. Twenty years before the action of the book, Keijiro had won a prize -- "a prize for literary fiction" -- and that prize had marked his debut as a writer. After seeing the editor who had put out his prize-winning novel at a hostess club, Keijiro decides to try to get some literary short stories published. He makes an appointment with the editor. The thing is that literary fiction doesn't really sell. Erotica does.

And so the editor wants Keijiro to write him more erotica. "The thing is, we're an old and venerable company, so we need a cover. The book can be cover-to-cover humping, but it's got to lift the rock on society's contradictions, say, or question the modern institution of marriage. Something like that." Ha, ha! But Keijiro wants the fame that would put him back among the top, even if he knows he would make a better living sticking to what he's already doing. "The critics never reviewed his books... Reviewing an erotic novel would be a hell of a lot more useful than reviewing pseudo-intellectual crap nobody reads anyway, he thought. But that's not the way the world works, apparently."

Lala Pipo is one of those books that tells a series of distinct stories, but then the stories are all interrelated and come together in a wild climax at the end of the book. For the sake of anyone who might come across Lala Pipo themselves in a bookstore like Counterpoint some Saturday morning, I won't ruin the climax, though I'd like to. The titles of each of the stories are also the titles of songs. Hiroshi Sugiyama is "What a Fool Believes," Kenji Kurino is "Get Up Stand Up," Yoshie Sato is "Light My Fire," Koichi Aoyanagi is "Gimme Shelter," Keijiro Saigoji is "I Shall Be Released" and Sayuri Tamaki is "Good Vibrations." I'm not sure if this will ruin anything, but the back cover says something about everything being "acted out to the tune of 'Eleanor Rigby,'" which I suppose makes sense. I definitely won't ruin the meaning of the title. Suffice it to say that Lala Pipo is about more people than you might think. And maybe the best statement about the statement of the book is made about Sayuri: "She had an optimistic side... what did it matter how one person lived her life in the midst of six billion others?"

And that, actually, all else aside, might be the enduring charm of places like Tokyo: to feel insignificant in comparison to the six billion, obscured, out of the spotlight, but free to do whatever as a result. Kind of like in Franklin Village. I might even suggest to the neighborhood association that it consider renaming itself Little Tokyo, but LA already has one of those.