For most writers, having the opportunity to live in the place they’re setting their story can be a huge asset. In such cases, daily experiences become raw narrative material that can be refined to add texture and depth to their fictional world. I learned this firsthand when I wrote my debut novel, Cash Crash Jubilee, which takes place entirely in Tokyo.
However, since we’re talking about a near future, cyber-dystopian Tokyo, it wasn’t a simple matter of jotting down details from my life in this hypercity and feeding those into my prose. I had to transport my urban experiences forward in time, and recreate them as part of an alternate era. Since such experiential time travel is no easy feat for one mind alone, I wanted to get some help from other minds and decided to read a whole whack of novels set in Tokyo, to see how it had been depicted elsewhere.
Afterwards, I realized something: there is no Tokyo. Only Tokyos, and an infinite number of them. This labyrinthine metropolis is too large and complex and rapidly changing for anyone to know completely, even someone who spends their whole life here. So each individual that visits, whether in the flesh or through story, must construct their own image of Tokyo from the limited fragments they encounter.
Fans of cyberpunk will probably know of stories set in future Tokyos like Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime and manga series Akira or William Gibson’s novel Idoru, and I share their admiration for these badass classics. But rather than make familiar recommendations, I wanted to give readers a small taste of the many Tokyos that writers less well-known in traditional SFF circles have written about.
Hardboiled Wonderland And The End of the World by Haruki Murakami
This is probably one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and definitely Murakami’s best. Two storylines, one hardboiled SF and one utopian fantasy, run in parallel, culminating together at the end to form a beautifully symmetrical narrative. I won’t say any more though because this is the sort of novel that is best appreciated going in blind. Many of Murakami’s novels are set in Tokyo and I considered including The Windup Bird Chronicle but one novel by Murakami seemed like plenty.
Number9Dream by David Mitchell
In true Mitchell style, this novel melds SF, fantasy, surrealism, video games, war journals, unfinished manuscripts and more, into an eclectic, episodic, sprawling bildungsroman. With his trademark synesthetic descriptions and wordplay, Mitchell drags his hero, Eiji Miyake, from the primeval forests of Yakushima, (the basis for the forest in anime classic Princess Mononoke directed by Hayao Miazayaki) to Tokyo, where he searches for his long lost mother. At times zany, at times poetic and profound, it is not quite as masterful as Cloud Atlas, but is still intriguing and offers a unique vision of the metropolis.
Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami
Another coming of age tale, this time by an author known outside of Japan as “the other Murakami” or as I like to call him Ryu “The Dragon” Murakami (the ideogram for “Ryu” means “dragon”). This is the life story of two boys who as newborns were left to die in coin lockers but who miraculously survive. Like Eiji in Number Nine Dream, which borrows heavily from this horrific, surreal, cyberpunk-esque masterpiece, the protagonists travel to Tokyo from a rural island in Kyushu to search for the mothers that threw them away. Although released in 1980, this novel primarily takes place in 1989, much as A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962, is set in a near future that ended up resembling the 1970s. The two novels also share in having plenty of ultraviolence, but better overall comparisons are Hedwig And The Angry Inch and John Irving’s The World According to Garp.A must read, but only for those who can tolerate all things bloody and vile.
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
This novel was the first of Nakamura’s to be translated into English and immediately garnered praise in global media, including special mention from theWall Street Journal. The main character is a master pickpocket who gets tangled up with a criminal kingpin that likes to play God with his underlings in Old Testament style. Based on the accounts of actual pickpockets, it provides a vivid (if occasionally unbelievable) 21st century depiction of this ancient illicit art. Citing the influence of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Nakamura is a master of atmosphere, blending elements of surrealism, existentialism and crime fiction to create a grim, colorless, noire Tokyo.
Love by Hideo Furukawa
I must confess that Love is more experimental than genre-bending, and closer to a short-story collection than a novel. However, I decided to include this Mishima Yukio Prize winning book anyways because it makes use of Tokyo more than any other on the list. Set in the Gotanda and Shinagawa districts, the names of city blocks, the spaces under certain bridges, specific riversides and so on are integrated inextricably into the plot and symbolic backdrop. The intertwining tales of a large cast of idiosyncratic characters are interspersed with travel brochure parodies and a history of stray cats. Furukawa’s greatest strength lies in the hypnotic rhythm of his voice, which is so original it feels like a hand reorganizing the neural connections in your brain as you read him. This exceptional writer is just starting to get translated and the English version of Love is currently in progress, but an excerpt can be read here.
Eli K.P. William is the author of cyber-dystopian novel Cash Crash Jubilee, which is set in a near-future Tokyo, and has written reviews for The Japan Times and The Pacific Rim Review of Books. Originally from Toronto, he lives in a present-day Tokyo, where he works as a Japanese-English translator.