Sunday, 3 March 2013


Shukichi and Tomi, the retired couple who travel to see their son, daughter and daughter-in-law in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, find themselves neglected as their children, transformed by the metropolis, let the turbulence of busy lives distract them from proper family affections. The pace, even by Ozu’s standards, is, shall we say, measured, but the atmosphere and emotional currents he generates stay in the memory in ways the lightly-handled plot details make unexpected.

A Tokyo Story is a story of loneliness, dislocation, changed ways, misrecognition. Quite rightly.

But why is loneliness not seen, outside the metropolis and our fantasies of its functions, as the normal state of affairs, or part of their essential mix? I wasted many months moping my way through a decent supply of self-pity through 2010. Having returned, reluctantly, from Tokyo to an all-too-familiar Wellington, it took a while to work out what to make with the realization that my experiences there weren’t going to mean anything unless I turned them to personal use. It’s not just that New Zealand can seem insular and overbearingly intimate after a big city, although that is true. It’s that the self-pity of the lonely returnee is really a form of self-regard: can’t you all see me changed?

Now, a little less reluctantly, knowing I’ll be here a while, it’s the job of thinking through how I could bring those experiences – and locations – into productive relation that gets me excited, both in its difficulty and in the sense of quite general but still undefined shared connections being grasped, connections Carl Shuker’s The Method Actors convinced me are set to develop further.


It’s common to use Tokyo as short-hand for the future itself. William Gibson is the master of this in English-language writing, and his novels capture “the new global way-stations and the piquant dissonances between picturesque travellers and the future cities they suddenly find themselves in. Tokyo, to be sure (Tokyo now and forever!)” That city is there, for sure, and the very particular, almost dystopian, and cyberpunk, certainly, pleasures of Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building remain undiminished after many visits and awed glimpses.

That is not my Tokyo, though. There are good economic reasons, as I’ve argued before around Ghost in the Shell, that the sense of Tokyo as the future contains within it a nostalgia for a future that belongs properly to the past, or has passed to somewhere else. 

But what always presses on me in Tokyo, and feels like my Tokyo, isn’t this future but, instead, an almost touchable past. A very old resident of the city might just be able to remember patches of countryside in parts of the Toyoko line out from Shibuya to Yokohama. Certainly, so much of the seemingly eternal present of the central stations was fields and space not all that long ago. There are baby-boomers – Takayuki Tatsumi among them – who remember childhoods in central Shinjuku.

The force and scale of the rupture the Meiji Restoration represented – industrialization, full-scale capitalist development, political transformation – and the speed with which it was achieved frame all this. We’re used to thinking about the breaks that invasion produced in White Settler Colonies – of disasters, in other words, and worlds taken from indigenous people – but Tokyo offers the same kind of overwhelming awareness of historical transformation in the other direction. How many generations back do you have to reach before someone has a passed-down memory of Edo?

My Tokyo feels like it offers History itself, just around the corner, at the end of the train line, beyond.


Loneliness has its pleasures too, and no amount of deadly, overworked academic articles about the flaneur can ever quite remove the satisfactions of walking around a big city on your own.

My Tokyo is bookshops; books tied together in bundles with twine to be carried home though subway lines; great racks of bargains piled outside impossibly narrow Kanda stores; scratched-out kanji indicating subject areas. Dust.

This is Mosakusha, Shinjuku’s radical bookstore, a block away from a busy street and so self-effacing I missed it on each first attempt at a visit.

Here’s the Communist Party bookstore, just across from their Central Committee’s office in Yoyogi, along from their newspaper’s printery.

Both connect through alleyways and off-streets, and both stand as landmarks in my cognitive mapping of Tokyo – my city is almost all laneways. Not for their excitements – there’s little of that – but for their details and promise.


One moment of History I seemed never to be able to find when I lived in Tokyo connected to politics. What happened to the Tokyo of student rebellion and revolutionary organisations, the Tokyo of the Narita airport struggle, of anti-war demonstration and May Day riot?

The official city – and Tange’s architecture fits here – managed, or so it felt five years ago, to erase that history entirely. Part of the source of my obsession with the style and sound of the Showa era has been to do with getting some sort of access to that world, a world which, beyond the some fragile and enfeebled works of memory, seemed so close to eradication.

That’s changing now. The Tokyo of the anti-nuclear movement isn’t my Tokyo, either, but I’m glad to have seen it. And I wonder if it might reach back to this History.

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