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Translucent Tree

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By Junji Nishihata

Nobuko Takagi’s first novel to appear in English comes highly touted. Winner of the Tanizaki Award when first published in Japanese in 1999, "Translucent Tree" followed the as yet untranslated "To a Friend Embracing the Light," which captured the illustrious Akutagawa prize in 1984. Despite these impressive credentials, however, "Translucent Tree" comes off a little too chilly to make its mark.

The story charts the affair between Go Imai, a dithering, philandering TV documentarian, and Chigiri Yamazaki, a recent divorcee who has returned to her hometown of Tsurugi, near the Sea of Japan, with her daughter in tow. Following up on a nostalgic hunch, Imai visits the town where he started his career by making a film on the life of Yamazaki’s father, a swordsmith. He meets Yamazaki again, and the two find themselves drawn to one another.

It’s a fairly stodgy setup to what becomes a fairly conventional romance. Imai clumsily offers Yamazaki money to help her care for her terminally ill father, while also professing his strong attraction to her. An affair ensues, but the foul smell of the cash has Yamazaki doubting Imai’s intentions and her own judgment. After a sluggish and somewhat too detailed start, things get rather hot and heavy, and a degree of analysis is also brought into the mix.

Takagi is an extremely perceptive writer, and economically wrings a fair amount of insight from the situation. The propensity of the characters — or of most people who claim to be in love, for that matter — to deceive themselves is deftly handled.

The crux of the story hinges on the use of money as an enticement to sex, and whether this bears any relation to love. Is it possible to salvage some true human relations between two people once money is involved? Takagi ventures that the answer to this would be “yes,” even if her characters end up paying high prices in other ways.

The story finally collapses into a small heap of clichés (terminal illness and lovelorn madness), leaving the reader to wonder what all the fuss was about. The publisher’s notes make comparisons to D.H. Lawrence, but Takagi is far too distant from her characters to strike the same chords that Lawrence did. Instead, she comes across more like Joyce’s ultra-omniscient narrator, indifferently paring her nails while her characters writhe in flames of passion.

At several junctures, Takagi drops in historical background on the Tsurugi area, but the impact this has on the narrative is almost purely coincidental — it’s not like the two lovers are repeating the faults of the past. Instead, Imai and Yamazaki’s sole purpose is to convince the reader that, despite our never-ending ability to deceive ourselves, every once in a while people are actually capable of touching one another without resorting to their hands, or their wallets. It is a welcome message, if somewhat hampered by the cool detachment of its delivery. For a novel that uses the word “clitoris” so frequently, "Translucent Tree" is strangely and noticeably bereft of excitement. Nevertheless, certain readers will take to its antiseptic tone and clinical approach.

This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

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"Instead, Imai and Yamazaki’s sole purpose is to convince the reader that...every once in a while people are actually capable of touching one another without resorting to their hands, or their wallets."

I wonder if many people will understand this concept but it is really what I wish for - the most beautiful ideal, the deep moving humanity and mutual understanding people are distancing themselves from. The books sounds interesting, I will try to get it and read it.

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