A very well-written, pleasant story about two lonely people connecting, but lacks the oomph of Manazuru.
By Hiromi Kawakami
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
The Briefcase is the quiet, simple story of Tsukiko, a thirty-eight year old office worker, and her relationship with her former high school teacher, who she only refers to as “Sensei.” Occasionally running into each other throughout the years, they finally realize they are both regulars at a local bar, and begin drinking and eating together whenever their paths happen to cross. They don’t make plans to meet each other, and sometimes weeks go by before they see each other again. And although there’s a good thirty-year age difference between them, Tsukiko and Sensei realize how important they really are to each other at this time in their lives.
And that’s about it. The Briefcase is made up of seventeen chapters that are, for the most part, isolated moments in their lives. Narrated by Tsukiko, we learn little about her life outside of the time she spends with Sensei, but that absence of information makes it clear that Tsukiko doesn’t have much going on in her life. She lives alone and has no hobbies to speak of. What Sensei does when he’s not at the bar is as much a mystery to Tsukiko as it is to the reader. Their outings outside of the bar—to a local flea market, mushroom picking, a cherry blossom party at her old school—are probably the only notable events in their current lives.
The reason I said earlier that The Briefcase is “quiet” is because it is largely devoid of conflict. Though at one point Tsukiko reconnects with an old high school classmate, it’s clear that she has little romantic interest in him, even after they go out and have fun. This isn’t the kind of story with a big, melodramatic love triangle with will-they won’t-they tension. Nor is there any real, overarching plot against the series of vignettes that make up the story, besides Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei over time. The conflict in The Briefcase really only comes from Tsukiko’s petulance, or Sensei’s old-fashioned conservatism. They’re both stubborn, lonely people, too used to living their lives the way they’ve always lived them.
But The Briefcase isn’t boring—though truthfully I didn’t find it truly captivating—because Tsukiko and Sensei are very well developed, very human characters. The structure of the novel, though jumpy, makes sense, since we’re constantly jumping from one shared event to the next, with very little in between. There’s a somberness or melancholy that hangs slightly over the course of the novel, since Tsukiko is clearly not the happiest, most well adjusted person—I mean, she does spend most of the course of the novel in a bar, drinking. The novel also ends rather abruptly, in a way that isn’t clichéd, really, but also isn’t really surprising given the tone of the rest of the story.
Overall, I found The Briefcase a very pleasant read. It’s extremely well-written and well translated—I particularly loved the choices Powell made in embellishing Sensei’s antiquated style of speech—but nothing about it sticks out in my mind now that I’m done with reading it, except for a dream sequence towards the end that hints at the surrealism Kawakami would later perfect in Manazuru.
The Briefcase was published in 2001, and won the Tanizaki Prize, a very prestigious prize for literary fiction, that same year. It was also Kawakami’s first bestseller, going on to sell 150,000 copies, and was even adapted into a TV show in 2003 (of which there are sadly no clips on Youtube). I do think that the bittersweet, melancholy tone fits very well into the preferred Japanese aesthetic for love stories, which explains its success in Japan. I love that The Briefcase is not a melodramatic tearjerker, and I also respect Kawakami for treating the May-December angle of the relationship with subtlety and reserve. But the story itself is so light and airy that I can’t help but find it pales in comparison with the stylistic riskiness of Manazuru.