Book Review: Strange Weather In Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami

Strange Weather In Tokyo
By Hiromi Kawakami
Portobello Books

Review by Harry Martin

City life is a paradox: on the one hand feeling overwhelmed by others, gasping for personal
space, and on the other feeling intensely alone. There seems to be a direct correlation
between a city’s busyness and how intense the feeling of loneliness can be for those living
there, the sensation seemingly compounded by the frenetic pulse and relentless tide of
people simultaneously present and absent from your life.

For gregarious and extroverted personalities the buzzing, frantic city pace can be a glittering
parade of social possibility but for the introverted and reserved populace, it can lead to a
sense of total isolation whereby the world passes you by behind a glass screen. It is the
latter with whom we become acquainted in Hiromi Kawakami’s third literary offering –
“Strange Weather in Tokyo”. Tsukiko could be any thirty-something in any city – superficially
proud of her independence, wilful, and occupied by work and the mundane obligations of
everyday life.

Kawakami has provided the reader with an immediately identifiable and relatable protagonist
– a flawed individual who despite the bravado of confidence and strength, is actually rather
insecure, lonely and self-conscious. Her free time is spent drinking and eating, idling her
weekends away by lazing around in bed and reading books, trying to convince herself that
she is happy living independently and alone. We follow Tsukiko though her everyday life,
seeing similarity and point of reference in every detail until her chance meeting with her old
schoolteacher Mr Matsumoto – introduced only as ‘Sensei’.

Sensei is the antithesis of Tsukiko: he’s mature, cultured and furnished with a self-
confidence that Tsukiko strives for but ultimately lacks. He is also an unashamedly eccentric
character with exacting partialities and pedantic behaviours which the other characters in the
book must accommodate, as Sensei is unable or unwilling to change his ways.

What starts as a somewhat awkward, uninvited reunion follows the gradual progression of
this unusual and complicated friendship through meetings at local bars and nature-driven
day trips in and around Tokyo. Before long the story changes to one of deepening intensity
and infatuation and you find yourself trying to comprehend the nature of the relationship
between the two characters – romance or companionship?

Kawakami has a wonderful talent for making the ordinary glitter – her attention to detail and
the descriptive power of her writing paint a vivid and enchanting picture of Tokyo at twilight.
She draws in the reader with tantalising depictions of every morsel consumed; even the froth
on the head of a glass of beer does not escape her attention. Despite the unapologetically
urban context of the story, we are not deprived of the subtle presence of nature; even in the
depth of Tokyo’s urban jungle, Kawakami offers poetic, vibrant accounts of the changing
seasons and the flora and fauna that accompany the transition.

However, above all this is a story of companionship, friendship and love, elegantly placed in
an unorthodox but highly relatable context. Tsukiko and Sensei are opposites in almost
every way other than their shared loneliness, fondness of drink and introverted personalities.
Despite this they offer the other what is lacking – whether this is companionship, love or
stability is open for interpretation.

The story’s beauty is in its simplicity, and aside from some delightfully eccentric and
unconventional characters, this is an uneventful book which still manages to enthral and
beguile through the graceful writing and universally relatable themes at play. From existing
fans of her work to those new to Kawakami, “Strange Weather in Tokyo” is likely to strike a
chord with any reader.