At some point, nearly every native English-speaking person who has ever studied Japanese has railed against kanji, those lovely little logograms inherited by the language from written Chinese oh-so-many many centuries ago. Sometimes, we grumble about what a language even needs four different writing systems for; other times, we drunkenly announce that kanji are stupid and we should just get rid of them already. I mean, we tell anyone who even seems to be listening, even Japanese people can’t write them. Then nearly every native English-speaking person who continues with their studies of Japanese will do an about-face and be the one at that bar defending kanji against the drunken beginner. And so the cycle of foreigners learning Japanese is complete.
I had my own period of grumping about kanji, back when I didn’t know that many of them and they just seemed so pointless. After all, we have katakana, hiragana, and romaji, which all function quite nicely in a comprehensible phonetic way. Kanji just seemed like an extra giant headache that I did not want to deal with. But slowly, the more I read and studied and learned, the more I came to appreciate those annoyingly non-phonetic characters. (I will definitely agree that the lack of instant sound-out-ability is a total annoyance when encountering a new character. Although what a delight when you guess at how to pronounce it based on knowledge of other kanji, and you turn out to be right!)
For one thing, if you’ve ever read a children’s book after passing the basic beginner level of the language, you know how annoying it is to try and read something written entirely in kana. It is stilted and awkward and awful. But more than that, kanji themselves add such a rich depth to the language and allow written Japanese to say so many more things than spoken Japanese. These deeper nuances are often the most frustrating part of my translation day, since a given English word is stuck with just one meaning for the most part, whereas a kanji compound could have a different furigana reading sitting next to it, allowing it to be two words/concepts in one. But some words can also be written with two or more kanji to allow for a slightly different nuance. You can have thinking in the neutral sense of thoughts in your brain, or you can have thinking with the slightly flowery sense of love in those thoughts. You can straight up meet a person, or you can meet them with romantic intent.
Or you can give a sense of anachronism just by switching one kanji with another, like Yamakawa does with Shashinya Kafka. Nowadays, the word “shashinka” is used to indicate a photographer—or the even more modern “cameraman”. But Yamakawa reclaims the older “shashinya” for his slightly anachronistic photographer Kafka. The story is clearly set in the present—people have cell phones and technology—but Kafka uses a print camera and develops the photos he takes in his own darkroom. He walks around looking very out of place in his hat and cloak, he lives and works in an old building with no elevator, and his hobby is photographing things on the verge of disappearing or dying out.
The first chapter “Koshu Denwa” very nicely introduces the reader to all of this. The first page has Kafka, old-school camera gear in hand, slipping out of a crowd of people with cell phones glued to their ears, an exhausted look on his face. He then wordlessly contemplates a pay phone, until an old man comes along and pushes him out of the way so that he can use the phone. It turns out that Kafka is there to photograph the phone booth because it’s going to be removed soon. He and the old man sit down on a nearby bench and the old man tells Kafka all about the pay phone and how important it has been to him over the years, especially now when he wants to talk to his sweetheart without being overheard by his son and daughter-in-law. It’s a sweet story, but it’s not all starry-eyed dreams. In the end, the pay phone is gone and the old man is happy to chat with his girlfriend on a new cell phone.
Rather than being lost in the past, longing for something long-gone, Yamakawa is firmly in the present here, occasionally paying tribute to the bits and pieces of the old world that are gradually disappearing, but also turning his focus on more unusual things about to disappear, like the elderly, legendary shoplifter at a particular department store or the face of a young would-be actress about to go under the knife for the plastic surgery her agency is demanding of her. That would-be actress ends up being a main character, appearing from the second chapter on, as a more relatable counterpart to the slightly eccentric Kafka. There’s also an honestly delightful take on foreigners in Japan, a chapter in which Kafka’s bafflement practically radiates off the page.
As always, Yamakawa has come up with the perfect artistic devices to clearly delineate the different parts of his stories. Memory panels are all rounded edges, while the photographs Kafka takes are all borderless crosshatching. If you like Yamakawa’s busy style, then you will enjoy it here too. Towns curve in on themselves, bookshelves loom in and overwhelm, every kind of nose possible shows up on one face or another. His main characters tend to fit the same template, taking on an everyman/woman quality that is very fitting here with the nostalgia that’s part of Kafka.
Each story stands alone perfectly well as a complete tale, but collected together in one volume like this, they comprise a larger narrative arc, giving us greater insight into and knowledge of Kafka and what he does, as well as the cast of supporting characters that gradually coalesce around him. Many of the chapters involve a neighbourhood coffee shop, a nice throwback to his Kohi Mo Ippai series, which also has a similar slice-of-life feel to it. The photos he takes of these disappearing things, as well as the chapter “Kuroi Tomodachi”, also have the elements of the fantastic that “Esper Shugyo” in his last release did, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where Yamakawa takes the series.