I know I always say this, but bookstores are one hundred percent the best, and as convenient as online shops are (especially when I am in Canada and needing Japanese books), they will never, ever take the place of actual physical bookstores in my heart. For one thing, there is the sheer delight of being surrounded by all those books. Shelves and shelves of stories and ideas that, in theory, I could read at some point. All the possibilities! Bookstores make me feel like the world is bigger than I could have ever imagined, while at the same time, putting that world within arm’s reach. So I will always love Japan more than Canada for this reason at least. I passed through three different bookstores today, not on purpose, just because they were on the way to where I was going. To pass through three different bookstores in Toronto, I would have to actually plan it out, like the whole purpose of the trip would be going to those bookstores. And while I am not averse to a bookstore being the purpose of a trip, it doesn’t really invite casual browsing the way the overwhelming number of shops in Tokyo does.
And that, of course, is the other reason why physical bookstores will always be the bees’ knees for me: the random discovery factor. I’ve stumbled upon so many great books when I was noodling around in one bookstore or another. And it is such a thrill, the most delightful feeling to have that spark crackle in the air between you and the book in your hand. This, you somehow just know, will be a book I love. And even if it doesn’t end up being your best beloved, you still have that thrill to cherish, the satisfaction of having found something. Maybe it is some weird hunter instinct buried deep beneath our brains full of book-learning, but that moment of finding and getting is so, so satisfying.
I am still savouring that moment with my latest find and get, 107 Goshitsu Tsushin. The combination of the title (Communications from Room 107, roughly) and cover were more than enough to send those sparks flying, but then the obi on the back announces “Only I remember what everyone else has forgotten”, and I was digging in my bag for my wallet.
The manga is unusual in a lot of ways, the most obvious of which is that it’s entirely in colour. But a very specific, limited colour. The eighteen, very short stories that make the volume up all feature a young woman as the protagonist, and she is always uncoloured. As are most other humans who show up in these pages. The non-human parts of the images are coloured in subdued greys and greens for the most part, with some pops of yellow or pink. But not everything on every page is coloured, creating this interesting and beautiful space somewhere between colour comics and black and white. The stories told in this liminal space are similarly halfway to somewhere, halfway to nowhere. They actually reminded me a lot of the drawn poems of Saho Tono, in terms of content. Sometimes, there is plot-like narrative, but sometimes, it is just a moment captured in image and text.
The titular story is a mere four pages and more on the drawn poetry side of things. Our narrator notices a page-a-day calendar in the window of an apartment she passes by every morning. It faces outward, not inward, and she wonders about the occupant of the apartment, who she never sees; the curtains are always tightly drawn. But the page is always torn off faithfully every day, and she begins to look forward to seeing it on her way to wherever she’s going. And then one day, it is yesterday’s page. And the day after that. And the day after that. Until soon, the calendar and the curtains are gone, replaced by a “for rent” sign.
Most of the stories step further out of reality than this one. Like “Denwaban”, a shop with a wall of pay phones from various eras where you can call someone in the past and have the conversation you needed to have with them in that era. The girl who watches the shop and guides customers to the correct phone wonders if maybe the fact that she has no one to call means that she’s happy. In “Ongaku no Moyo”, our protagonist lives in a spaceship on another planet and teaches a triangular creature with legs but no ears how to listen to music through the patterns the vibrations make in sand spread out on the table. “Hyoryu” depicts a world of water, our hero living alone in a boat that was once a house, collecting ocean debris and labelling it, until one day, she finds a message in a bottle from another person and sets out to find them.
But whether real or not, they all have the same sense of magic to them, like anything could happen within the pages, like the world is a mysterious and sometimes dangerous, sometimes magical place. And Kashiwai’s loose lines and watercolorish style, reminiscent of Machiko Kyo, make that world feel like a dreamy place of possibility, so that you’re not surprised in the slightest when the woman in “Tabi Suru Koibito” has a tree growing out of her eyeball. The stories hit just the right note between detailed and vague, best seen in the story “So”, which has the narrator wondering what was in the vacant lot before her. She imagines all the times she’s walked by this place, and in her memory, the lot is filled with grey scribbles, a placeholder for whatever was actually there. And then she peels back the green grass of the empty lot to see the layers of places that were there even before that.
The stories are all on the short-short side of things, but they are so well connected thematically that they feel like a single complete story somehow. They’re haunting in a good way; I haven’t been able to stop wondering about this book since I finished it. Apparently, this is Kashiwai’s first book, which seems incredible to me. It’s so confident in what it is, so assured. It’s also sad that this is their first book because now I have nothing else to read by them. I just have to wait for whatever they do next. And I will, eagerly, because 107 Goshitsu Tsushin is making so many promises.