History Reviews

‘The Bells of Old Tokyo – Travels in Japanese Time’ review: Falling through time in Tokyo

It’s a piece of visual music that will resonate in your imagination with an intensity and sadness that makes it personal.

For those who have already fallen under the spell of those post-war Japanese masters, such as Akira Kurosawa, the dream-like filmmaker; Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburō Ōe, the novelists, and of course the passionately self-involved Yukio Mishima, Anna Sherman might appear a late entrant into a Japan that has long ago ceased to exist. Is she just another American driven to customise the ashes of a culture destroyed as much by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as by the willing adaptation to a Western way of life that was the price Japan paid for their surrender?

Sherman however is her own Alice. Enchanted by the epiphany of bells that once upon a time were used to indicate the hours of the day in Edo as Tokyo was once, known Sherman falls into the gaps of time. Her Mad Hatter is a Zen-like dispenser of coffee, named Daibo. This is where Sherman parks herself when she is in need of enlightenment in the finer nuances of the language and practices. As one would expect, Daibo does not speak much. He represents the still centre to which she returns as she traces her path through a vanished past. Tokyo, you imagine is folded upon itself like the paper used to make an Origami crane. It starts with a plain square of paper. As you fold and crease each segment into different shapes you find that you have made a flying crane.

Sherman steps into each one of these segments and releases the sound of a thousand cranes, or maybe the pages from her extensive reading. All along you also hear the echoes of the past with the striking of the bells. To say that the effect is hypnotic would be wrong. For these are sounds and images that awaken the inner ear of the reader. As one Japanese philosopher-poet Kuki Shuzo explains the difference between Western time and Eastern time: “The present is the eternal present with an infinite depth; in short time is nothing but the infinite present, the eternal now.” (Quoted in the notes).

If there is beauty there is also the horror of the bombing of Tokyo. As she describes it, the use of what we now know as napalm on the citizens of Tokyo seared their souls as much as their neighbourhoods. She replays for us the ritual enactment of the suicide by Mishima and the beheading that he had ordered to be done by his closest associate.

Edo is for enchantment. Let the bells call to you.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time; Anna Sherman, Pan Macmillan, ₹699.

Geeta Doctor is a critic and cultural commentator.

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