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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Somehow, Crystal

Tanaka Yasuo

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To purchase Somehow, Crystal

Title: Somehow, Crystal
Author: Tanaka Yasuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 139 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Somehow, Crystal - US
Somehow, Crystal - UK
Somehow, Crystal - Canada
Kristall Kids - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: なんとなく、クリスタル
  • Translated by Christopher Smith
  • With an Introduction by Takahashi Gen'ichirō
  • Bungei Prize, 1980

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Our Assessment:

B : limited, but interesting period-piece enhanced by unusual presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Prize-winning and incredibly successful, Somehow, Crystal is a seminal work of Japanese pop fiction, to the extent that it is practically unimaginable to discuss late twentieth-century Japanese fiction without mentioning it; nevertheless, it's also very much of its place and time -- perhaps explaining why it has barely been translated (into Korean, immediately, and German a decade after it first appeared, and that seems to be as far as it got). Now finally appearing in English almost four decades after it was first published, this work that rode in on the forefront of -- and helped usher in -- the soon-to-be-tidal wave of Japanese label-aspirational consumer culture, it does remain of some interest, even beyond merely as a would-be (and now slightly faded) snapshot of those times -- though it certainly is very much a (striking) blast from the past.
       Even leaving aside the subject matter, Somehow, Crystal immediately stands out for its presentation. The relatively short story is heavily annotated, the text adorned with 442 (generally short) footnotes -- which aren't quite footnotes, i.e. at the bottom of each page. Tanaka's story appears on the even-numbered left-hand pages (in the English translation), with the corresponding notes on the facing right-hand side; on the very few pages with no notes, the facing page is left blank.
       The notes are generally short. In part, the novel is commentary on the Japanese embrace of all (or at least many) things Western -- narrator Yuri observing: "There's still a strange Western complex all around us" --, and the point is hammered home by how Yuri peppers her account with not only foreign-product and label names but also English words -- written, in the original, in katakana: the example Christopher Smith gives in his Translator's Note is: 'グルーミー' ('gurūmī'); the corresponding note in the text simply gives the original English-alphabet version of these words -- in this case: 'gloomy'. While, as Smith notes, these particular notes aren't really necessary in the English-language version of the novel -- indeed, they're redundant -- he has left them in, simply marking them as such by including "[Alphabet supplied]" beside the word(s) in question -- for one, to leave the total number of notes the same as in, and corresponding to, the original, but also, more usefully, because it: "allows the reader to appreciate the text's preoccupation with foreign vocabulary" (which is indeed a significant aspect of the work).
       Most of the notes gloss locations, brands, music(ians), and stores. Often this is purely descriptive, especially regarding locales ("176. Todoroki: A residential neighborhood in Setagaya"), but often -- especially with brand-names -- there is some form of value-judgement: "214. Estée Lauder: You can grade the quality of a store based on whether or not they carry this brand". Many musicians and songs are mentioned in the story, the names often glossed ("114. Christopher Cross: A singer and songwriter who comes from Texas but has a West-coast feel" -- or "401. Billy Joel: New York's Matsuyama Chiharu") or styles (sort of) defined ("324. New Wavie-ish: The music of London youth, suffering from high prices and rising unemployment").
       Often, there's a bit of additional commentary, as in:

295. Fusion: [Alphabet supplied] A genre of music based on jazz, but which mixes in rock and pop. Think of it as jazz designed to actually sell well.
394. Frisbee: This is about due to go out of style.
       And sometimes the commentary gets more creative -- as also right at the opening:
1. Turntable: The part of a record player you put a record on. If you play Kai Band or Tulip records, the player will shed tears.
       There is not much story to Somehow, Crystal. It is narrated by college student Yuri, an only child whose parents conveniently live abroad. She acknowledges being: "an avid consumer", and to fund her consumption she works, quite successfully, as a model. She lives with her boyfriend Jun'ichi, a musician from a similarly privileged background who is on tour when the story starts, leaving Yuri to her own devices. He's also still a student but, like Yuri, not a serious one; they're both the kind of kids: "who don't go to class, take it easy, make easy money modeling or doing music, who enjoy some passionate play at night".
       Yuri basically describes her life and her activities -- much of which involves going out, getting ready to go out (the preparations can be elaborate), shopping, eating. She hooks up with a boy here -- her relationship with her boyfriend is an open one -- and goes to a love-hotel with him. Eventually, Jun'ichi is back, and she's more focused on him and her relationship with him.
       Somehow, Crystal is a lifestyle- and generation-novel, with consumption -- and (outward) appearance and the impression it is supposed to make (clothes, goods, even (very occasionally) books signaling and defining identity) -- at the forefront. Yuri admits:
     It's not just that I had high brand loyalty or shop loyalty.
     I would go to Sendagi for a single sheet of decorative paper. I wanted to treasure that enthusiasm.
     I would have them put a Courrèges summer sweater in a paper bag with the Courrèges logo on it. I wanted to treasure that snobbery.
     Although I liked an espresso with sweet cake, sometimes I ate it with white wine, French style. I wanted to treasure that pretension.
       Her self-awareness is, in fact, a what-will-people-think hyperawareness ("I didn't do stupid things like walk around Mukōji-ma wearing brand clothes"). But she's still struggling with determining her own identity: on the one hand:
     Jun'ichi and I each had our own jobs. Economically, we were independent.
     So I could say I was a full-fledged member of society.
       Despite that, she obviously doesn't really feel that way: the conventional idea of adulthood remains something she can't really picture, and even looking to the future she can only see through the same lens she looks today: "When I'm in my thirties, I want to be a woman who can wear a Chanel suit" (and she hopes to still be modeling, unable to imagine anything much beyond that).
       For all her self-assuredness Yuri finds herself defined by others, and other things; left to herself, she finds herself at sea:
     But even though I had so many friends, as soon as I was alone, I suddenly became unsure of my identity.
       The title comes from how she sees her lifestyle: 'crystal' -- "Not worrying about anything, nothing to worry about in the first place, ...", a thought then elaborated on:
     (W)e've never thought about things like 'What is youth?! What is love?!' like a stereotypical 'philosophical young person,' have we ? We don't read too many books, and we don't get stupidly passionate about one thing, don't you think ? But it's not as if our heads are empty or clouded. We're not totally disillusioned, and we're not all depressed, either. Besides, we're not so simple we just swallow someone's opinion unquestioningly
       The generation presented here is one that has channeled rebellion into consumption. Growing up in privilege, both Yuri and Jun'ichi are distant from their parents (physically, in the case of Yuri, estranged in the case of Jun'ichi), and the older generation barely figures here. Yuri does not concern herself with the salarymen or housewives or other groups that form a large part of the society around her; her only points of reference and interest are those her own age, and where she stands in relation to them.
       Japanese identity is an issue she struggles with a bit -- wondering about model-friend Nao, "a 'Japanese' who is a quarter Russian on her father's side, and a quarter Belgian on her mother's side" and who, from kindergarten on, attended international (rather than Japanese) schools. Even though she was born and raised in Japan, Nao doesn't fit in that narrowest of categories:
She was Japanese, after all ...
     But she wasn't raised as Japanese. Or rather, maybe she couldn't be raised as Japanese because this Japan couldn't handle her as "Japanese" in the first place, even though she's Japanese.
       Japan and its relation to things 'Western' -- that: "strange Western complex all around us" -- are central to much of the confusion. It extends to the brand-consciousness: among the insightful observations is that:
     Even stuff made in Japan under license looks good as long as a foreign brand name is attached. But if you took off the tag, they'd never sell.
       Yuri even began her life pulled away from the Japanese: her father was transferred to London shortly after her birth, and until she started school she lived in England. She notes that: "Apparently I learned English before Japanese" -- but claims now to have forgotten almost all of it (though, oddly, she is apparently an English literature major at college). Still, she peppers her account with foreign words, proudly brings back foreign records from abroad, and affects a worldliness which, while not denying her Japanese identity, clearly looks far beyond it.
       Yuri is a representative type, an example (and warning ?) of the (up and) coming generation as consumption exploded in a bubbling 1980s Japan. Label-/brand-conscious consumption is the outward manifestation of it, and in his use of that Tanaka -- himself still a young student when he wrote Somehow, Crystal -- nailed it. The inevitable Western comparison is Bret Easton Ellis -- though it seems worth pointing out that Tanaka got there quite a bit ahead of him. For what it's worth, the hedonism doesn't quite seem as over-indulgent in Tanaka's book, either; for all its brand-inventorying, Somehow, Crystal still manages to have bit of an underlying sense of Japanese restraint.
       Tanaka's note-play is uneven, but certainly a clever idea. The annotation remains largely basic, but he does get a few fun asides in -- including some preëmptive self-aware ones, notably when a character observes: "I guess our generation can't resist brands in the end, Well, maybe it's not our generation so much as all Japanese", the corresponding note reading:
249. Can't resist against brands ... all Japanese: Even the "literary" critics who will say this novel's characters are empty mannequins make a big deal about their own brands, like titles and academic history. Even the "literary" critic who says this novel is lifeless, if you took off his newspaper badge, would be just another person.
       Certainly, the notes give the narrative an interesting texture, the suggestion of a secondary layer (and one needing explanation) made very obvious through the use of them.
       Beyond the notes, Tanaka also uses (factual) excerpts from two official reports to close the book, in the form of two short appendices. They note Japan's declining birth rate and its rapidly aging population (and the consequences regarding social security funding), a final point he wants to make, as the generation he describes seems -- on the course he's charted and chronicled -- destined to accelerate these trends. Japan's looming population collapse and its consequences were already apparent in 1980, but it's still impressive to find this diagnosis and warning in a novel of that time; it's interesting that Tanaka presents his conclusion so prominently and starkly here, an unoverlookable final point in a novel that could otherwise be seen as simply about modern consumerism and Japanese and generational identity.
       Somehow, Crystal is more interesting as a document of its times, and place, than as a work of fiction. Indeed, without Tanaka's creative presentation of the text the narrative would be somewhat hard going -- though it could (just ...) stand on its own as a (somewhat rough) story. Yuri's brand-obsession is slightly hit and miss -- overall, it stands up fairly well (Tanaka shows a good sense of the hierarchy of various labels, and which have lasted) -- but Tanaka's music-mentions aren't nearly as spot on (exacerbated by the fact that musical trends and tastes shift more quickly than he was prepared for). Yuri's somewhat limited arc is reasonably well presented -- this isn't just a story about shopping and going out -- and also stands up well: Tanaka was sensitive enough a writer that he actually captured a specific time-of-life of his character -- a girl very much barely in her twenties -- instead of simply presenting a cardboard cutout consumer-anno-1980, making for a novel that is less dated than one might otherwise expect. (Certain aspects are, however, of course hopelessly dated.)
       Somehow, Crystal isn't any sort of must-read, but formally interesting, and very much a period- (and place-)piece -- and intriguing as such --, it is a curiosity worth seeking out. It's certainly good that it is finally available in English.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 July 2019

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Somehow, Crystal: Reviews: Tanaka Yasuo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author and politican Tanaka Yasuo (田中康夫) was born in 1956.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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