strange weather in tokyo
by hiromi kawakami
hiromi kawakami’s strange weather in tokyo is a novel that packs a punch. we follow tsukiko, a 38 year old woman who works in an office and lives alone, after she reunites with one of her former high school teachers, a man she still refers to as ‘sensei’, and their burgeoning relationship
It seemed that the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me.
kawakami’s writing style is distinct, with every word feeling intentional and carefully chosen, even when tsukiko’s own indecision and confusion leaks over into her internal dialogue. there are moments where tsukiko is turned around in her own mind, unable to discern what is going on around her, and that same dizziness is created for the reader.
as you read strange weather, tsukiko doesn’t change, so much as become clearer in personality. she’s loud, selfish, at times jealous of sensei and his relationships with others, intentionally starting arguments out of frustration at her own emotions. she’s the perfect narrator, because the cause of her emotional spirals are as much a mystery to her as they are to us, so we’re on the same journey she is in understanding herself during a part of her life rarely focused on in the way kawakami hones in on it.
I had long ago got used to that particular kind of uneasiness. It was just dissatisfying in some way. It felt as if I had ordered some clothes that I had every reason to think would fit perfectly, but when I went to try them on, some were too short, while with others the hem dragged on the floor. Surprised, I would take the clothes off and hold them up against my body, only to find that they were all, in fact, the right length.
the mundanity of tsukiko’s life is interspersed with scenes that take on an almost dissociative quality, where tsukiko experiences a distance from not just those around her, but from herself, too, going through serious self-reflection. sensei seems to be the only one capable of breaking tsukiko from these dazes, so when even he is unable to shake her free, tsukiko’s internal conflict only becomes more pronounced.
I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.
in one notable chapter, tsukiko finds herself in a dream that was reminiscent, for me, of alice in wonderland. tsukiko, drinking with sensei by the shore of a beach, is aware of children yelling as they look for cuttlefish, all the time unable to see them. sensei disappears suddenly, and reappears just as quickly to perform a headstand at tsukiko’s feet as they talk. it’s dreamlike, humorous, but there’s an underlying sadness in their conversation with how lost tsukiko feels, trying to understand if this is a dream or not, while sensei evades her questions on the topic.
in the hands of many other authors, this dream sequence would feel nonsensical, out of place in the larger narrative. even after finishing the book, i’m still not sure if this was entirely imaginary. however, in a novel that is entirely centred around the every-day, kawakami somehow makes the chapter fit comfortably as it plays on tsukiko’s constant confusion and disconnection from her surroundings.
I’m not speaking to the me who is visible there, but rather to an invisible version of myself that I sense hovering somewhere in the room.
strange weather in tokyo is heartbreaking in how it portrays identity, but hiromi kawakami accompanies this with laugh-out-loud humour. tsukiko and sensei are comfortable enough in each other’s presence that all of their interactions feel real, while still drawing upon their age difference to show the disparities in their mindsets. there’s a chemistry between them that ensures the humour hits exactly how it needs to to balance out the sadder moments for the characters, sometimes in the same scene.
kawakami captures that feeling when your friend says something unintentionally funny in that dry way of theirs, and you’re torn between knowing if you should laugh or wince at what they’ve done. the characters get up to everyday antics that make you laugh because they are mundane, and there’s not many writers who can do this and still strike a balance between happy and sad in a way that feels authentic and real.
‘It’s unusual for a woman to pour her own saké,’ Sensei chided me.
‘Oh, Sensei, you’re just old!’ I retorted.