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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Briefcase
(Strange Weather in Tokyo)

by
Kawakami Hiromi


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Briefcase



Title: The Briefcase
Author: Kawakami Hiromi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 176 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Briefcase - US
Strange Weather in Tokyo - UK
The Briefcase - Canada
The Briefcase - India
Les années douces - France
Der Himmel ist blau, die Erde ist weiß - Deutschland
La cartella del professore - Italia
El cielo es azul, la tierra blanca - España
  • Japanese title: センセイの鞄
  • US title: The Briefcase
  • UK title: Strange Weather in Tokyo
  • Translated by Allison Markin Powell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine quirky but unassuming relationship novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 1/3/2008 Andreas Breitenstein
Die Zeit . 26/5/2008 Hubert Winkels


  From the Reviews:
  • "Schwer ist es, dem Liebreiz dieses Romanhäppchens zu widerstehen -- doch wonach es genau schmeckt, wird auch nach längerem Kauen nicht ganz klar." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "So behutsam, so zart verläuft die Annäherung der beiden, so diskret und rücksichtsvoll gehen sie miteinander um, so leise flüstert die Sprache der Liebe, so untergründig entwickelt sich die Spannung, dass die Freude am Fortgang der Liebesgeschichte sich jederzeit die Waage hält mit dem kontemplativen Genuss der allereinfachsten Sätze." - Hubert Winkels, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Briefcase is narrated by Tsukiko Omachi who, some two decades after she last saw him, runs into her former high school Japanese teacher at a bar. She is in her late thirties when they first meet again; he is more than thirty years older than her, but nevertheless she quickly finds:

I felt much more familiar with him than with friends my own age.
       Part of that may have to do with the fact that she doesn't seem to have many friends: aside from a few get-togethers with a more age-appropriate former classmate, and one New Years spent with her family, she doesn't describe having much other closer human contact. She works in an office, but has practically nothing to say about either her work or her colleagues.
       Her former teacher's name is Harutsuna Matsumoto, but she always simply calls him 'Sensei' -- as she presumably did in school, as it's the Japanese designation used to address a teacher. (Interestingly, the Japanese title -- and hence presumably the entire book -- has 'Sensei' written in katakana (phonetically), as センセイ, rather than the usual kanji (Chinese characters), as 先生 -- which, in effect, distances the designation from its usual meaning, allowing him to be seen as a teacher-but-not-teacher, and their relationship to be seen as something beyond the usual one of master and disciple.)
       The relationship that develops is an unusual one. Much of the time, they do not seek out each other's company; they meet when they meet at the bar. Yet clearly, they are drawn to one another's company, and comfortable together -- even as they keep a sense of distance and reserve. Over time, they go on a variety of outings together -- mushroom-picking with the barkeep, for example -- but for the longest time they seem to treat one another as acquaintances rather than friends.
       Tsukiko admits that a friend once told her: "You're a bit aloof", and that seems quite the understatement. If not quite aloofness personified, Tsukiko certainly tends to keep her distance. Yet she finds herself falling for Sensei -- not that she puts it anything like that. But feelings clearly develop between them, and even as they do she's uncertain about that, and, for a long time, unable to take any steps to make the relationship a closer one.
       The charm of The Briefcase lies in how gently Kawakami allows this relationship to unfold. Even when her feelings are clear to her -- not that she's admitted them to herself -- Tsukiko warily sidesteps even the possibility of taking things any further. The appearance of the high-school classmate, who would be a much more appropriate partner, gives her an opportunity to consider such alternatives, but clearly the only man she wants in her life is Sensei.
       The old man is similarly careful in his advances, worried (among other things) about their age difference -- and about whether he can offer her a physical relationship as well. The creepiness of the age difference is made palatable by how Kawakami manages the relationship: the age difference (and just how old Sensei already is) is barely noticeable, as it's entirely different parts of their being that is her focus. Sensei was married, for example, and he carefully introduces Tsukiko to this woman -- now long dead -- who was his wife but still clearly has some hold on him.
       The two main characters do remain ciphers, to a great extent: it's difficult to even guess at what shaped and moved Tsukiko and turned her into the woman she has become (or, indeed, to have much understanding of who this woman is). But then Kawakami's focus is almost entirely on the relationship itself, and the present, rather than the two involved in it and their pasts and larger orbits (so, while the shadow of Sensei's conveniently deceased wife looms a bit in the story, his son barely rates a cameo appearance).
       Typically, in a touching scene after they profess their love for one another, Tsukiko explains:
     We spoke these words to each other sincerely. We were always sincere with each other. Even when we were joking around, we were sincere. Come to think of it, so were the tuna. And the skipjack. All living things were sincere, on the whole.
       And it's this stilted sincerity that pervades The Briefcase that is the foundation of its appeal (though one can imagine there are readers who wouldn't take to it at all). The Briefcase often barely seems like a love story, and yet it is a profoundly romantic tale. Just a very understated one.
       The title refers to Sensei's ubiquitous briefcase, which Tsukiko mentions at various points and which serves him as both suitcase on some longer excursions or just handy carrying case in the neighborhood. This, too, Kawakami doesn't try to make too much of -- and yet she still uses it to simple wonderful effect in bringing the story to a close.
       Agreeably understated, The Briefcase is a fine, odd relationship story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 November 2012

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Links:

The Briefcase: Reviews: Other books by Kawakami Hiromi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美) was born in 1958.

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© 2012-2013 the complete review

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