Tokyo Nights by Donald Richie (U.S.-Japan 1988).
There is a point in every story when the plot needs to kick in.
While I agree with film critic Roger Ebert that commercial American cinema is weighed down by plot at the expense of character or style, surely the opposite can be true as well. Halfway through a story, the audience needs to have an idea of what the characters are trying to achieve and what is standing in their way.
Tokyo Nights never reaches that point. The novel reminded me of a shoji screen: a weak, repetitious frame covered by thin, translucent paper.
The tepid story unfolds from the Yamato, a nightclub in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. It is the late 1980s, the height of the Bubble Economy, and newly wealthy Japanese are looking for places to drink away the night at exorbitant prices. If a good-looking member of the wait staff is open to a quick turn in the closest “love hotel,” all’s the better.
Madame Mariko manages the Yamato and is conducting what appears to be a fits-and-starts affair with Hiroshi, a married corporate president who finances the Yamato as a hobby. Mariko probably wants more of Hiroshi’s attention and definitely wants more of his money, since she believes the nightclub’s Louis XIV French decor has become passé and an expensive remodel to an Old Japan theme would renew the club’s fortunes.
One of the Yamato’s former waitresses, Mitsuko, works as a hostess in a lesbian bar when she’s not club hopping with her mousey friend Sumire. Hiroshi has become keen on Mitsuko, but needs his old classmate Saburo, who owns a gay bar, to distract Mariko, but, in the process, Saburo becomes attracted to Sumire.
None of these shufflings of the relationship deck is particularly interesting. Each short chapter is set in a Tokyo club or restaurant, always after dark. The book is heavy on dialogue, which is not presented in quotation marks but with dashes to designate a new speaker. The over-reliance on spoken banalities allows for few descriptions of the novel’s fascinating settings.
Tokyo Nights could have been a Bonfire of the Vanities, a kaleidoscopic tour of Tokyo’s demimonde at the height of Japanese economic power. Instead, it’s a series of boring conversations about who will go drinking with whom.
The failure of Tokyo Nights is all the more surprising because its author is Donald Richie, one of the world’s most renowned Japan experts. Born in Ohio, Richie moved to Japan in 1947 and lives there still. His travel writing, such as The Inland Sea, captures places, times and moods. His DVD commentaries to classic Japanese films (often released by the Criterion Collection) are mini-tutorials on Japanese art, history and culture.
It’s shocking that Richie wrote a colorless and limp book about Japan.