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Something Strange Across the River

Kafū Nagai’s short story “Something Strange Across the River” (1937) brings us to the streets of early 1900s Asakusa (then the center of Shitamachi “low city” culture and entertainments) and Yoshiwara and surrounding districts. Plenty of nostalgia for how things had been during the narrator’s/Nagai’s youth (“the old, nostalgic world made manifest as muse to my exhausted heart”), and some of this yearning for days past and the imagery reminded me a little of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929). I enjoyed most the descriptions of this then-waning world our protagonist walks us through across the Sumida River, like:

I pushed aside the high grass and climbed up the hillside of the embankment. There were no objects to obstruct my view of the street I’d just come up. The rambling old towns, empty lots, and developing areas could all be seen. On the other side of the river, corrugated iron roofs spread out in all directions, broken here and there by the towering chimneys of the baths, all of it cast in the glow of the setting summer sun. At one end of the sky the colors of sunset grew weaker and colder as they drifted away. The moon shone bright, as if night had already come. Between the iron roofs, in the gaps that showed the streets, neon signs crackled to life, and the echoes of radios clicking on here and there rose up from the town.

Also interesting/amusing was the narrator’s disdain for the Ginza area and “inner-city” and its “distasteful sorts”, as in:

There are other sights to be wary of in Ginza. The middle-aged man, for example, in his perfectly cut foreign suit and distasteful countenance, his hair perfectly styled, his occupation nebulous, swinging his cane as he walks down the street and sings to himself, berating the young women and the children who cross his path.

I don’t think the story itself will stick in my memory for very long, but it was certainly worth the read for the picture of this time and place.


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