Book review: 『JR上野駅公園口』 by Miri Yu

JR上野駅公園口 (うえのえきこうえんぐち)
Title: JR上野駅公園口 (うえのえきこうえんぐち)
First published: 2014
Published: 2017
Format: Bunko
Page Count: 184
Translation: Tokyo Ueno Station, by Morgan Giles
一九三三年、私は「天皇」と同じ日に生まれた―東京オリンピックの前年、男は出稼ぎのために上野駅に降り立った。そして男は彷徨い続ける、生者と死者が共存するこの国を。高度経済成長期の中、その象徴ともいえる「上野」を舞台に、福島県相馬郡(現・南相馬市)出身の一人の男の生涯を通じて描かれる死者への祈り、そして日本の光と闇…。「帰る場所を失くしてしまったすべての人たち」へ柳美里が贈る傑作小説。

Miri Yu has won the Akutagawa Prize for 『家族シネマ』.

First published in 2014, 『JR上野駅公園口』 has been translated into English in 2019 by Morgan Giles under the title Tokyo Ueno Station. The translation is published by Tilted Axis Press (UK) and Penguin Random House (US).

The novel had been translated into French by Sophie Rèfle in 2015 (Sortie parc, gare d’Ueno, Actes Sud).

Review

It is always a little awkward to say that you don’t like a widely praised book, but 『JR上野駅公園口』 is not a book that I enjoyed reading. I can see why people praise it, and yes I also found some of the book’s topics fascinating, but the way it is written prevented me from loving the story or even feel very involved in the protagonist’s fate.

I bought this book because of the many positive reviews it received when the English translation came out. The general impression I had after reading some reviews was that the book would mainly be about the situation of homeless people in Ueno Park, the life of the protagonist Kazu who worked on construction sites for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, disparities between rich and poor and historical moments of post-war Japan.

All these topics are present in the novel of course, but the book is also much more than that, it is a very complex novel that cannot be reduced to a list of topics. The author’s narrative choices and writing style certainly give the book a lot of depth, but it also kept me away from the story all along.

Only part of the novel is about the concrete situation of homeless people in Ueno park, and while these parts were powerful and fascinating, it is not the main topic of the book. Similarly, episodes of Kazu’s past are not exactly what reviews, or even the summary of the book, had made me hope for. Kazu has worked as a labourer to build the facilities for the Olympics. I was very interested in this aspect of Kazu’s life and would have loved to learn more about this experience. But flash-backs on Kazu’s past do not really develop on these topics. For example, there is a long passage describing Buddhist funeral rites, and it is when I reached this point that I realised that this book was not what I expected.

Apart from this, there are aspects of the book that did not work for me. There are some explanatory passages that are quite lengthy and very dry. To put it simply, Kazu remembers one character having explained some historical facts to him, and the novel suddenly enters a kind of Wikipedia mode. I am always enthusiastic when authors adds historical elements in their novel, but surely there are better ways to integrate them than giving a character a long monologue that is not related to the story. As it is, it looks like an artificial addition made by the author, not something that would be linked to the story, the narrator or the characters.

More generally speaking, I could not sympathise with or feel much emotion for the protagonist. This is strange because Kazu is the kind of character that I usually easily feel close to in novels. I guess that having to go through many passages that I cannot describe otherwise than tiring to read, dragged me away from the story and from the protagonist.

To conclude, I loved the idea behind the book and I found that the structure of the book had a lot of potential. I just don’t like how it was made in the end.

With so many people loving this book, I am clearly in the minority of readers for whom it did not work. If you are interested in reading 『JR上野駅公園口』, I recommend the translation by Morgan Giles which is excellent and well written. I personally found the Japanese quite tiring to read, and I ended up reading the Japanese and the translation in parallel (I talked more about it in my wrap up of July).