True love doesn’t take account of age, nor does it always strike the couple concerned like lightning as many romantic (and other) novels make believe. Often it develops almost unnoticed and between unlikely partners brought together not by a sudden flame of love, but because fate has it that they meet regularly over a long period of time. However thrilling it may be to plunge into a tale of all-consuming passion, I find it much more interesting to follow the emotions of two people who gradually take a strong liking to each other until they realise at last that they want to be with each other always. For this week’s review I picked a Japanese novel that tells such a slow-paced love story. In The Briefcase by Kawakami Hiromi a middle-aged woman “drifts” in love with her former high school teacher who is already in his seventies.
Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美) was born Yamada Hiromi (山田 弘美) in Tōkyo, Japan, in April 1958. The same year she graduated from Ochanomizu Women's College in Natural Sciences, in 1980, she made her debut as a writer publishing science-fiction stories and embarked on teaching biology to earn a living. Only in 1993, abandoning the science-fiction genre, she brought out a short story collection titled God (神様) and became known to a wider public. Following works like 蛇を踏む (1996; Tread on a Snake), 溺レる (2000; Drowning), The Briefcase (センセイの鞄: 2001; also published as Strange Weather in Tokyo), 古道具中野商店 (2005; The Nakano Thrift Store), Manazaru (真鶴: 2006;), and 風花 (2008; Snow Flurry in a Clear Sky) established her fame as a writer. For several of her novels she received prestigious literary awards, but to date only two of them seem to be available in English editions along with her first short story collection and other short works. Kawakami Hiromi lives in Tōkyo, Japan.
The setting of The Briefcase is modern-day Tōkyo. Tsukiko Omachi is a woman in her late thirties. One night after work at Satoru’s bar, an old man addresses her with her full name. His face seems familiar, but only slowly it dawns on her that he used to be her Japanese teacher in high school. She doesn’t recall his name and in order not to show her forgetfulness she calls him sensei (Japanese for teacher), an address to which she sticks until the end. Being both regular customers of the bar, they meet often and a common taste for traditional Japanese dishes as well as for beer and saké brings them closer as time passes. They are both alone. Sensei lost his wife several years ago and their son lives in a far-away city, while Tsukiko never found the right man to marry. After a while sensei begins to invite her to his home regularly for a last good-night drink, but they never have a real date until, at Satoru’s suggestion, he asks her out for the first time. On a summer Sunday they take a market day walk, in autumn they go mushroom hunting with the bar owner Satoru and his cousin, and in spring they attend the traditional Cherry Blossom Party at their old high school. And yet, no matter what they do together, sensei remains stiff and aloof with his teacher’s briefcase always at hand. Slightly drunk she has enough of it one night and urges him to make a weekend trip to the seaside with her. In her anger she even confesses her love for him, but it’s to no avail. He refuses and Tsukiko returns home determined not to talk to sensei any more. Of course, they are reconciled eventually and make a trip together although…
What hides behind the rather businesslike title The Briefcase are memories of an unusual courting that lasted for many months and included periods of suffering both on the side of the first-person narrator in the prime of her years and on the side of considerably older sensei. Therefore their relation to each other can be called with due right a romance between summer and winter, and one that ended as it had to. The author doesn’t state the occasion on which Tsukiko looks back on this time of her life, but her tone is nostalgic which makes think of an anniversary or a Memorial Day years later. Altogether it’s a quiet, not to say tender novel that focuses not only on the usual ups and downs but also on the many small and often subtle changes that the emotions of the two protagonists undergo as time passes. Of course, such an approach to the story requires characters with great psychological depth, especially as regards the mind of the first-person narrator, and Kawakami Hiromi clearly succeeded in depicting them true to life. The language of the English translation felt very appropriate and unpretentious which made it a quick as well as fluent read.
Although The Briefcase by Kawakami Hiromi definitely isn't the kind of book that is likely to attract my attention at first sight, I enjoyed reading it very much. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it lacks much of the typically sweet and sentimental character of the romance genre in general without being too matter-of-fact, either. Moreover, I love quiet and contemplative stories that, like this one, have the power to absorb me when I'm in the right mood. Thus my recommendation for this lovely Japanese novel!
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This review is a contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 hosted by Dolce Bellezza - for literary and translated fiction.
To know more »»» please read my challenge post which includes my list of considered and already reviewed books.