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Softcover: UK: What was Tokyo before it became the future?

The second installment in David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy centers on a notorious 1948 bank heist

By James Purdon  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON


A neon city. An urban catwalk of bizarre fashions and manga pixies with eyes like dinner plates. Tokyo: stamping ground of Godzilla, land of flat-pack commuters. A cultural fracture in Ozu’s Tokyo Story; a postmodern glitch in fiction by David Mitchell and William Gibson; a 24-hour high-tech dream-work. But what was Tokyo before it became the future? That question runs through Occupied City, the second part of a projected novel trilogy, and David Peace’s sequence is heading towards an unsettling conclusion: that the dream was built — or rebuilt — on a nightmarish substrate of postwar brutality.

Tokyo Year Zero — set in 1946 — was the Year of the Dog: scavenger, pack animal, beast in the house. A series of young women was sexually assaulted and strangled, while a corrupt police force was caught between an abject population and a thriving organized crime syndicate. Dog ate dog and developed a taste for it, in this shattered city, to which Peace brought the grit-flecked eye he had trained on 1970s Yorkshire. Some things, like the unleavening gallows humor of the Red Riding quartet, didn’t quite translate, but Year Zero was a gripping performance: crime fiction as grime fiction, propelled by a kind of experimentation so unusual in the genre that one sharp critic promptly dubbed it “avant-noir.”

Now, in 1948, the Year of the Rat is about to arrive. Verminous, solitary, a vector of disease, the Rat rules a Tokyo occupied twice over, by the army of US General Douglas MacArthur and by the unquiet ghosts of murder victims. We begin with the facts. Dressed as a government medical officer, a man walks into a downtown branch of the Teikoku bank. Warning against an outbreak of dysentery, he explains that he has been sent to inoculate the bank’s staff, who then willingly drink the poison he pours into their teacups. Sixteen drink. Twelve suffer a wretched, painful death.

With the structure of the book, Peace pays homage to the conflicting narratives of Akutagawa’s short story In a Grove and to Kurosawa’s filmed version, Rashomon. “This city is a seance,” declares one character and so is the novel, split between 12 ghosts in a distribution of narrative that, surprisingly, makes Occupied City a tighter read, with greater momentum, than its predecessor. Toning down the hammering repetitions and bewildering first-person confusions of Tokyo Year Zero has made for a more accommodating book, though at times characters are reduced to mere conduits for hearsay and supposition. In Occupied City, the military scientist and the detective, the killer and the victim are all swept along in the flow of contaminated data through a contaminated polis.

A residue of myth and conspiracy theory still clings to the Teigin incident, as the Japanese call the Teikoku bank murders, and painter Sadamichi Hirasawa spent almost 40 years on death row after recanting a doubtful confession. Some — and David Peace is of this number — proclaim Hirasawa’s innocence, believing that the method of poisoning points to the involvement of Unit 731, Japan’s covert wartime chemical and biological weapons division. Military-industrial conspiracy; police cover-up.

No room here for chance, for the lone wolf, or the rat. That may well be the point, but this apophenia, the hyper-associative thinking that fuels Peace’s imagination, is such that its wilder flights can sound like a paranoid riff on Forster: only connect ... everything.

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