Japan, From the Ruins
Isle of Dreams, by Japanese writer Keizo Hino, is one of the most strangely compelling novels I have read in years?brief, elliptical, hypnotic, and finally compulsive because of the bizarre story at its center. The novel was originally published in Tokyo in 1985 and only now?twenty-five years later?available in a seamless English translation by Charles De Wolf.
Here’s the story, roughly: Shozo Sakai, recently widowed and in his early fifties, is walking outside of Tokyo one night in an area of reclaimed land when all at once he sees a motorcycle barreling towards him. The land, a battle site during World War II, is not only being used as one of the city’s dumps but also by motorcyclists as a racing track. When the cyclist stops, Shozo sees that the rider is a woman, dressed totally in black clothing. Only a few words are exchanged, but Shozo is strangely excited by the encounter. Days later, during a second unusual incident, Shozo observes a woman is a shop window, setting up a display of twisted mannequins, placed in contorted positions?presumably, some sort of avant guard statement.
Both incidents are oddly affecting, at least enough that Shozo returns to the reclaimed land hoping that the young cyclist will reappear. And she does, but the second time riding so recklessly that she has an accident. On this encounter, she is with other cyclists, who simply drive on, ignoring her accident. So Shozo takes her to a hospital, after he flags down a taxi, but when he returns the next morning to see how she is doing, the authorities tell him that she has fled the hospital during the night. They provide him, however, with her name and address. At the address?an abandoned warehouse?he doesn’t encounter the cyclist, but the artist in the store window who works with mannequins, who claims rather obliquely to be the motorcyclist’s sister. He’s also warned that her sister should be avoided; nothing good will come of another encounter with her.
Somewhat like touching a tar baby, Shozo is unable to let go, give up his search for the mysterious woman on the motorcycle. Moreover, the barren land where he has encountered her twice before, has become hauntingly compelling. He is reminded of Japan, after WW II: "the burned-out ruins of [my] childhood." "Every item of rubbish, broken and tossed aside, exuded an intense sense of being, a pungent odor of life?. Shozo was quite unprepared for the almost choking feeling that came upon him. Broken, separated, fragmented, and discarded, these objects had gained new life. Looking out over the mass of scattered refuse, one might well take it for a sign of the power of entropy. They had not been reduced to nothingness, to a state of atrophy; instead, they exuded something rich, viscous, and potent. Exposed here were the normally hidden entrails of ever-urbanizing, ever soaring Tokyo, its streets empting of people and its air growing thinner."
The reclaimed land?actually an island?becomes his isle of dreams, especially vis-?-vis the bareness that Shozo sees in Tokyo’s stifling concrete buildings. When Shozo encounters the cyclist a third time?with a young boy riding behind her, who may or may not be her brother?she suggests that the three of them go to still another reclaimed area, a smaller island that can only be reached by a rubber boat. It is on that island?jungle-like, filled with tropical birds, plants and reptiles–that Shozo has his epiphany, asking himself, "Why is it here on the reclaimed land that I become so attuned to my subliminal sensations?" Much later, the young woman tells him, "You must no longer believe that what you see and touch is real." By then, Shozo’s past no longer matters. Tokyo, which can be observed in the distance, is no longer reality. Only the primeval forest on the island, with all manner of fauna and flora, heaving all around him.
The ending of the story is too startling to reveal?except that it questions the boundaries between urban decay and Edenic landfill. Whatever the implications, it’s easy to understand why Isle of Dreams?precariously perched between order and chaos, sterility and rebirth–has been so popular with Japanese readers.
Isle of Dreams
By Keizo Hino
Trans. by Charles De Wolf
Dalkey Archive, 168 pp., $14.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.