I can’t stop saying wonderful things about this delicate, moving, sweet, quiet, sad, lovely novel. Grimmly, if you see this, thanks so much for the recommendation, you made my night. I loved this book, though it made me cry and, unbeknownst to me, my mascara ran everywhere, startling Luc, 8, who said I looked like a melted demon. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a quirky, sad-sweet love story. Which this is. The way “Starry Night” is a a painting of the night sky.
Indeed, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a slow-simmering romance between a fiercely independent, 37 year old, never-married, Tokyo office lady (what the Japanese call female office workers) and her 30-years-her-senior high school Japanese teacher, someone she hasn’t seen in twenty years. They run into each other in a bar and get to chatting over sake and amazing food. Friendship ignites. Prickly, quirky, funny, independent people finding connection is one of my favorite sub-genres…and Strange Weather has got to be one of my favorite examples it, and one of the best, and most masterfully told.
Atmospheric, beautifully written and translated, the story, and their relationship, advances slowly, sideways, indirectly. They argue about baseball. They go mushroom hunting. They drink endless beer and sake. They wonder through Tokyo, see shops, museums, bars. They play pachinko. They eat, oh how they eat. The descriptions of Japanese food alone are worth the price of admission. They struggle to connect, or to stay away from each other. For what can pierce our defenses when we have become perfectly comfortable with our own loneliness? I felt like my own jaded heart was being sneaked up on by this book. I would find myself moved by subtle descriptions and not even know why. The plot, such as it is, might seem the world of romcom, but the telling is gorgeous, subtle, and deeply felt.
The title is Sensei no Kaban in Japanese, which might be translated as the Teacher’s Briefcase (or, since ‘sensei’ is written in katakana instead of kanji—giving it an odd emphasis, perhaps making it a name instead of a job—Sensei’s Briefcase), and simply The Briefcase in the US. It comes highly recommended by me, but if that isn’t enough, it’s won multiple literary awards. A short novel, quickly read if you want to push through, but I suggest savoring it, or reading it twice, back to back, as I found myself doing. I adore these characters with their idiosyncratic flaws and sweet vulnerabilities. Maybe it just hit home for me. Grim, how did you know???
I also adore the cover photo on the UK edition, pictured below, which captures the emotion and magic of the story for me, a surprising floating feeling found in a prosaic Japanese bar. The photo is by Natsumi Hayashi, and is of herself. She photographs herself levitating all over Tokyo (link to her blog), so please go check out her delightful work. (She uses a timer or an assistant and jumps to capture the images. I love that.)