‘Somehow, Crystal’ by Tanaka Yasuo

Thanks to wonderful events such as the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 organised by Meredith at Dolce Belezza, as well as #JanuaryinJapan originated by Tony at Tony’s Reading List, January is almost synonymous with Japanese literary escapades and, of course, I couldn’t be happier.

Although not the first book I read, I wanted to kickstart my reviews for those events with the much controversial Somehow, Crystal, written by Tanaka Yasuo and translated by Christopher Smith, a novel that some consider as a modern classic, while others dispute even its categorisation as a novel.

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English translation of the novel, published in 2019 by Kurodahan Press.

Somehow, Crystal was originally published in Japanese in 1980, winning the Bungei Prize that same year. However, due to the novel’s rather peculiar structure and the way its story and content differed from most typical novels of the time, many were baffled by this outcome. Alongside the main narrative, the author has inserted a large amount of notes (exactly 442, which, for a 127-page novel is quite an excessive number), which give the text a rather characteristic feel. In the English version, the story can be found on the left page, while the right page contains all the notes.

The story of Somehow, Crystal is quite simple at first glance, as it follows a young university student who also works as a model and cohabitates with her older musician boyfriend. Obsessed with (foreign) brands, listening to (foreign) songs and living a life seemingly without caring too much about the how’s and the why’s appears to be what the ‘crystal’ lifestyle the characters of this book, as well as the young people at the time, seem to have adopted. The novel is full of descriptions of places and specific shops, an exorbitant amount of songs and singers/bands, and of course branded goods, so much so that the reader momentarily gets lost amid all this flood of names and information.

And although this was one of the arguments the critics of this novel held against it, I believe the author simply meant to provide a chaotic portrayal of the inner and outer turmoil the Japanese society of the ’80s was facing. Young people who care only about superficial things and don’t seem to have any goals or pursuits in their lives might be perceived by the older generations as lazy or indifferent, but isn’t that a form of rebellion in itself? A way to show their displeasure with how things currently are and a way for them to discover what resonates with their generation instead of blindly following what the previous generations did?

The brands and the music aren’t the only foreign products that have taken over young people’s lives, as a lot of the words they use in their everyday speech also come from English or other European languages. Of course, the impact of this is much greater in the original Japanese text, which shows a language so distorted that the only way for someone to understand it is by reading the supplementary notes.

Apart from a critique on society and its norms, Tanaka also criticises literature itself and its conventions that have come to define it so far. He achieves this through the peculiar structure of his novel which is inundated by notes that either explain a certain word or expression used in the text, or simply provide an extra comment or insight, often quite cynical and poignant. As Takahashi Gen’ichiro points out in the Introduction, those notes are equally important as the story and they can even be read as a parallel story in themselves.

Somehow, Crystal is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not a book that is read for its gripping story or its poetic use of language. Rather, it’s a book that helps readers understand that society, literature and the world around us isn’t as much of a set piece as we might think, and that’s perfectly fine.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

2 thoughts on “‘Somehow, Crystal’ by Tanaka Yasuo

  1. What a fascinating post! I found nyself thinking as I read how similar the 80s was for Americans, too: a time of materialism and excess and focus kn the superficial quite like none I’d seen before. (I’m thinking of my cousins then, who would wear nothing but Ralph Lauren in high school.) Also, how ironic thst the character is looking at foreign brands, when I so admire Japanese things (such as stationery)! I am intrigued by what you wrote, and thank you for being a part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

  2. It’s an intriguing little book, albeit not entirely successful. As I argued in my review, I would have actually liked Tanaka to be more ambitious and say more in the notes!

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