Tokyo is the hippest city, the microchipped metropolis where vending machines and toilet seats seem to have enough artificial intelligence to beat a Russian grandmaster at chess. The ads are a fantasy of flashing lights, the subway glows, and the city is teeming with engineers whose inventions, vehicles and video games of tomorrow have taken the world by storm. Tokyo might be the only city on Earth whose residents think Londoners and New Yorkers are backward.
What is interesting about this hypermodernity is that it has come hand in hand with an extraordinary renunciation of violence on the part of a society considered synonymous with it for so long. The samurai class, once hailed around the world as the model of martial virtue, has given way to skilled and adapted wage earners whose expertise is global commercialization, not sword fighting. Instead of the shoguns who practically invented the military dictatorship, Japan now has the oldest democratic regime in Asia, with a constitution that prohibits war. The military, by law, has no offensive weapons, not a single ballistic or nuclear missile, while Tokyo, by numerous metrics, is the safest city in the world.
David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy can be read as an allegory of this transformation. For the detectives, politicians, gangsters, and geisha who populate these novels: Tokyo year zero (2007), Busy city (2009) and now the latest installment, Tokyo Redux – the past is a zone of violence that dangerously borders on the present. Theirs is a fight to shed a legacy of atomic bombs, genocide, and sexual slavery. The crimes around which each novel is plotted are actual events from the early postwar years in Tokyo. They become metaphors for the way in which historical violence stalks a city in search of a new identity, a tension that permeates everything with “the stench of the past, the noise of the future.”
Tokyo Redux refers to what the Japanese call the “Shimoyama incident”: the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the first head of JNR (Japan National Railways), whose body was found dismembered by a locomotive in 1949. It is the perfect mystery for the peace. Shimoyama’s firing of 30,000 workers made him a target for the unions, allowing Peace to continue his fascination with the conspiratorial world of industrial policy, as he did in 2004. GB84, a fictional account of the miners’ strike. That JNR, with its iconic bullet trains, becomes the world’s most admired railway network, an emblem of futuristic Japan, means that the alleged assassination of its founding boss is laden with symbolism, a crossroads where old Japan stops the shiny new. one in its tracks.
By portraying the long shadow cast by the incident, the narrative unfolds in three periods: 1949, during the occupation; 1964, as Tokyo hosts the Olympics; and 1989, when Emperor Showa, who led Japan through World War II, entered his death throes. Each period has its own protagonist: first, Harry Sweeney, a jaded cop seconded from Montana; next, Murota Hideki, a deadpan PI fired from the police for “fucking a pan-pan chick in my area.” Both are from the central cast, maintaining a masculine and smoky aura in the best (or worst?) Noir traditions. Our latest detective, however, an aging, emigrated translator, fits a more unusual profile: the kind of brilliant literary mind who turned up in postwar Tokyo, a generation that never had a Hemingway to mythologize. (His name, Donald Reichenbach, is a reference to Donald Richie, the cult film critic who played this guy.) He is the most vivid character, no doubt due to a degree of self-identification on the part of Peace, who himself spent more than a decade in creative exile in Japan.
Connections to the Teigin poisonings of 1948 are suggested, central to Busy city, and there are hints of a tantalizing web of complicity, but we really don’t know what really happened to Shimoyama. Peace writes detective novels in name only; “Detective novel?” It is an entertaining question, then abandoned, and despite all his paranoid speculations, Paz remains faithful to the inscrutable mystery of each of these historical cases, unsolved to this day. His prose is laced with real news headlines that stretch for pages, like the “newscast” sections in John Dos Passos’ American trilogy, to which Peace is indebted. Details are meticulously researched, right down to the dying emperor’s Mickey Mouse wristwatch. The effect is one of paralyzing veracity.
Repetition and rhyme, reliable peace techniques (some might say tics), give the prose an enchanting rhythm and epic feel. This often turns into baths (the recipe book’s tone of “dipping” and “dipping” somewhat undermines a gloomy moment). Japanese is a distinctively onomatopoeic language; meaning is transmitted by approaching the sound of things, feelings and even ideas. Peace channels this phonetic quality, coining leitmotifs to emphasize its key themes. Therefore, ton-ton, the repetitive hammering of the construction of the Olympic Games, is the “noise of the future” in which Japan seeks to promote itself to the world as a beacon of peace. But behind it is the unforgettable echo of the old world: shu-shu pop-po, a speeding train, or Shimoyama’s bones breaking. Many novels are touted as “polyphonic,” but the Peace trilogy, now complete in Tokyo, really is, brilliantly summoning multiple voices in the soundscape of a city dominated by seismic change.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism