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Keizo Hino: 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams)

Keizo Hino has been compared to J G Ballard and, while they are different writers, they do have some similarities. Both are very much concerned with the contemporary urban environment, particularly urban decay and high rise buildings. Hino, at least in this book, has what I might call the Ballardian horror, i.e. the unpleasantness somewhere in the city, which seems like some remote place but is, in fact, right under our noses.

The hero of this novel is Shozo Sakai. He is in his fifties, a widower, with no children. He works for a company that builds high rise buildings in Tokyo. He likes to wander round Tokyo in his spare time and he likes high rise buildings, not just because his company builds them but he likes their appearance. However he also likes it when you have old buildings next to high rise ones. He still finds surprises in Tokyo. One day, while wandering around, he comes across one of the few commercial areas of Tokyo that was not destroyed in the air raids during the war. There he finds the building that used to house the Soviet cultural centre which he used to visit in his young days but, while the building is still there, the Soviet cultural centre is not. One weekend, he ventures slightly further afield and comes across a mass of children. He follows them and sees that they are going into this large building shaped like a bowl turned upside down. It turns out to be a huge fanzine convention and he seems to be the only adult there. It is these sights that make the most impression on him.

One thing that does concern him about the construction of high rises is the loss of the view of the Tokyo skyline. Tokyo is changing. Have we built a city or instead awakened and set loose an unknown power, an untamed species utterly different form the one that had, until now, grown fungal rows of slate-roof houses made of wood and paper? After the children’s fanzine fair, he walks on further (imagining Tokyo burning to the ground) close to the shoreline. Suddenly, he sees a motorbike approaching him rapidly. It seems to be making no effort to stop or slow down as it approaches him, and almost knocks him down. It almost crashes into a fence but stops just in time. He goes off to berate the motorcyclist but is surprised to see that, when she removes her helmet, it is a woman. Eventually she apologises and drives off.

The area where he had been is land reclaimed from the sea by depositing Tokyo’s rubbish. He finds it fascinating that there is this large expanse where this is little construction apart from a few warehouses and the Museum of Maritime Science, so near to such a highly populated city. He takes to visiting it every weekend. He tells a friend, who manages to get him a visit to the area where they are currently depositing rubbish and which is normally closed to the general public. When the friend asks him why he is interested, he answers I’ve had the strange feeling that I need to verify some sort of starting point. We’ve been working like madmen for thirty years. Who are we, and what have we been doing?

The visit to the place where the rubbish is deposited excites him – he finds it alive (the word he uses). Tokyo, he says, is only what we call a quivering, breathing, expanding presence a shape maintained by the endless belching forth of waste, exhaust, sewer water, heat, radio waves, noise, and idle chatter; a circulatory mechanism, invisible but powerful, created and controlled by no one.

Wandering again in this wilderness on another day, he hears and then sees a group of motorcyclists. He hopes that she is among them but cannot tell. They race by him but two crash. One gets up and drives off. The other does not move. He goes to check her and see that it is her and she seems to be unconscious. He goes off to find a taxi to get help. When he returns with the taxi, she is conscious but shaken and seems to have damaged her ankle and cannot walk. He takes her to the hospital. However, when he visits her the next day, she has walked out but she has left a name and address.

He tracks the address down – it seems to be in one of the warehouses in the reclaimed land area. However, when he goes there, he finds not his motorcyclist but a young woman whom he has seen setting up a bizarre mannequin display in a shop, a display he has admired every day, which is near his workplace. Is she related to the motorcyclist? She is ambiguous about that but warns him off Yoko, the name of the young woman, and says that she is dangerous. However, a few days later, Yoko arrives on the motorbike, with an adolescent boy, carrying two large bags. He has no hesitation in joining them on their urban expedition.

We have seen the mysterious woman who helps the hero in several Murakami novels. (This novel was written before most, though not all of Murakami’s novels.) In this case, there is a large age difference, so there is still something sexual between the two. As in many other novels, and certainly not only Japanese ones, we see the city as both thoroughly ordinary and predictable – all those high rises look the same and, as one of Sakai’s colleagues says, all the flats in Tokyo look the same – but also having a hidden part, hidden but right under our noses, which can be both an escape from the humdrum existence as well as threatening and dangerous. Hino shows this very cleverly as Sakai, a very ordinary man, seeks to escape the everyday not by travelling abroad but by looking for what is different in his own city. It works very well, with something of a surprising ending, but also a clever approach to the modern urban environment, which we all tend to take for granted.

Publishing history

First published in 1985 by Kodansha
First English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2010