A reclusive journalist masturbates to the sound of his neighbor’s amorous adventures. An obese freelance transcriber surreptitiously records DVDs of her erotic encounters. A part-time karaoke employee gets caught up in running a brothel. These are just some of the characters readers meet in Hideo Okuda’s "Lala Pipo," a collection of short stories that chart the progress — or decline, more like it — of six Tokyoites.
Okuda may be known to English readers for the humorous anthology "In the Pool," which centered on the uplifting therapeutic work of the avuncular Dr Irabu. This time around, Okuda provides absolutely no solace for the characters, who generally allow their situations to spiral out of control, towards predictably dire endings. The only uplifting things these people encounter are elevators.
Stylistically, there is no new ground broken here; the stories emphasize plot and dialogue, with events moving swiftly towards their catastrophic conclusions. The narratives are cleverly linked together, making them feel like a series if not quite a full-on novel. The rapid-fire plotting is somewhat cinematic in feel, and it’s no surprise that the book will be adapted to the screen sometime in 2009 (no doubt to be shown on some of the seedier screens in Shibuya).
The one theme that unifies this work is the complete absence of meaningful communication between the characters. Instead, these frustrated souls channel their energies into two things: sex and money. There is a lot of exposition about the prices of various types of hostess bars, for example, or how much more an actress can make if she allows her face to be seen in an adult video. Conversely, there is precious little self-awareness and even less compassion.
It would be going a little too far to say that Okuda is attempting a broad criticism of contemporary Japanese society. However, one of the sadder characters in this procession is a writer who, while negotiating the price of sex with a 16-year-old girl, says he “felt some unease at the direction the country was taking.”
It is a rare moment of reflection in a sea of bad behavior, but one that does not prevent the man from consummating his desire. Nor does it preclude a dreadful ending. Interestingly, although each story is crafted to lead us to believe that the protagonist meets his or her demise (spoiler alert!), we learn by the end that no one, in fact, dies. So, with some reservations, a shred of hope is preserved.
Nevertheless, the book’s nitty-gritty details about such topics as adult-video production and how much certain sex acts cost with underage girls give the reader pause: exactly how much “research” went into this book, anyhow? Could it be that Okuda himself was more participant than observer? It would be nothing new in the annals of Japanese literature if that were the case, but it does make the reader wonder if Okuda is judging himself as harshly as he seems to judge his characters.
As a postscript, it bears mentioning that the title is derived from a misheard comment made by a foreigner, who had originally said “A lot of people” in reference to Shibuya’s massive crowds. The phrasing does two things: it underlines the theme of miscommunication, and it reminds us that there are many, many others who are dissolving themselves in this poisoned atmosphere. For those with the stomach for it, "Lala Pipo" will make for a quick, if slightly nauseating, tour of the dark side of Tokyo.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today