The Nakano Thrift Shop
Fans of Japanese literature may notice some similarities between the work of Hiromi Kawakami and that of Banana Yoshimoto, the latter of whom rose to worldwide fame in the early 1990s with the translation of her debut novel, Kitchen. Yoshimoto's signature theme in this and subsequent novels lies in her portrayal of a Japan where the traditional family unit has broken down, and lonely or disaffected people form alternative families, often in slightly surreal circumstances.
Although it is only in recent years that Hiromi Kawakami's work has been available in translation, in Japan Kawakami and Yoshimoto are contemporaries, and Kawakami's The Nakano Thrift Shop reflects a Tokyo that those familiar with the work of Yoshimoto will recognize. The thrift shop of the title, in a nondescript suburb of Tokyo, is a secondhand store filled not only with unwanted and not very valuable objects, but peopled with eccentric and seemingly lost characters.
There is the owner Mr. Nakano "with his beard and knitted hat" and his unmarried 50-something sister Masayo, an artist who makes dolls and dresses in wood-dyed clothes. There is Takeo, the taciturn and socially awkward young man who assists Mr. Nakano with pickups of goods from clients' homes. Then there is Hitomi, the narrator, who works behind the counter and whose lonely instant-noodle-eating single life is occasionally glimpsed in the gaps between her accounts of the day-to-day happenings in the store.
These daily happenings are uneventful. People come into the shop, they buy things, they don't buy things. Some of these people are strangers; some are friends. There are no particular plot trajectories other than the progression of Mr. Nakano's relationship with his lover Sakiko, Masayo's relationship with her lover Mr. Maruyama, and the clumsy attempt at a relationship between Hitomi and Takeo, whose inadequacies are encapsulated perfectly in this exchange between them as they dissect a disastrous date the night before:
"Hitomi, I . . . I’m not very good at this, I’m sorry,” Takeo said softly.
“Not good at what?”
“Everything and nothing.”
“That’s not true. I’m the one who’s no good at this.”
“Really? I mean,” Takeo said, looking me straight in the eyes for a change. “You’re not one for, for getting through life either?”
The storyline is uneventful but when Hitomi leaves the shop to work as a temp in an office, we are as bereft as she is, so skillfully has Kawakami drawn us in to this eccentric alternative "family" that inhabits the Nakano thrift shop.
In the creation of this surreal, unreal Tokyo, the author bears comparison with Banana Yoshimoto, but a distinguishing feature of this novel is a dark sexual undercurrent that is at odds with the quaint and cozy world the inhabitants of the shop have created. A customer leaves behind a set of erotic photographs. Takeo secretly sketches Hitomi naked. Mr. Nakano's lover Sakiko gives him the manuscript of a sexually explicit story she has written (whose content is quoted at length). All these events produce a degree of repulsion or bewilderment in the characters.
"What the hell are these?" is Mr. Nakano's reaction to the photographs. Hitomi is disorientated, her mouth agape when she finds Takeo's sketch. But Sakiko's erotic writing fascinates her; she even secretly makes a copy of it to keep for herself. Perhaps Kawakami's message is that beyond the cocoons of safety we make for our dysfunctional selves, an energetic life force is waiting if we dare to embrace it.