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Interview: The Night is Short, Walk On Girl Author Tomihiko Morimi

by Emily Balistrieri,

*This interview was originally published on Suumo Town as part of their series discussing the connection between place and creation with creators who chose somewhere other than Tokyo to live and work, Koko kara umidasu watashi-tachi. The interview was conducted by Kyoko Sugimoto and translated with permission by Emily Balistrieri.

Tomihiko Morimi debuted as a novelist while he was still a student in Kyoto and then moved to Tokyo for a time. Now he has returned to Nara Prefecture, where he is originally from, and writes there while commuting to another workplace in Kyoto. I asked him about writing Kyoto since his debut, his feelings about the suburban Nara landscapes of his childhood, and the connections between living somewhere and writing.

You're from Ikoma in Nara Prefecture. Ikoma is a residential town, so it's different from the area around Nara Park that people think of as “Nara,” right?

Right, so I don't really feel like I'm a Nara person. I write novels set in Kyoto, but I'm not a Kyoto person; I'm from Nara, but I'm not a Nara person. If anything, I'm a residential suburb person.

You moved from Nara to Kyoto when you entered Kyoto University. What did you think of Kyoto at the time?

I didn't have some particular longing to go to Kyoto; mainly I chose Kyoto University because it was where my dad went. I liked the suburban residential area where I grew up, so at first I didn't care much for Kyoto. I didn't understand the charms of a city with history, I was anxious about living on my own for the first time, and I didn't have any special fondness for four-and-a-half-mat tatami rooms...

You didn't like four-and-a-half-mat tatami rooms?! And you weren't attracted by the historic Kyoto scenery?

Not really. If anything, I preferred man-made atmospheres. In Kyoto, for example, we have Miyako Messe in Okazaki, Sakyo Ward; something about it is attractive to me. It's not far from the university, so I would wander over on my own and sit on a bench. I wasn't enjoying any of the traditionally Kyoto-esque parts of Kyoto.

I think it was when I started writing what became my debut novel, Taiyō no Tō (Tower of the Sun, published in 2003), near the end of my undergrad years that I started to sense what was good about Kyoto. Up till then I had been writing stories set in the suburbs of Nara, not taking advantage of the fact that I lived in Kyoto at all.

What made you switch to writing stories set in Kyoto?

I was writing so much at the time, but nothing was going very well. I was getting desperate and decided, “This will be the last thing I write. ”That ended up being Taiyō no Tō. I thought I would try writing about my experiences as a student in Kyoto and the feelings I had.

Taiyō no Tō depicts the everyday Kyoto of a student living in Sakyo Ward.

It's not the so-called “Kyoto-esque Kyoto,” or the sort of Kyoto you see in the travel mysteries you might find in Kayō suspense gekijō [Tuesday suspense theater, a two-hour drama format that used to run on NTV]. I knew I couldn't write that kind of Kyoto, but I felt like if it was this sort of shabby Kyoto from the perspective of a university student's daily life, then maybe I could.

I feel like there weren't really novels before yours depicting the type of student you'd find in Kyoto. It was so fresh.

To me, I wasn't writing Kyoto so much as I was writing the things I fantasized about in the context of my daily life. And since Taiyō no Tō, I've continued to write with that base of Kyoto through the eyes of a student, adding new elements as I go.

It actually wasn't until after that first book came out that I realized Kyoto was such a great setting for my novels. More people read Yojōhan Shinwa Taikei (The Tatami Galaxy, 2004) and The Night is Short Walk On, Girl (2006; [English 2019]) than I could have imagined. It shocked me, like, “There's really this much demand?!” It was like I'd struck oil with the combination of Kyoto, students, and mysterious fantasy.

The Kyoto you portray feels very real. It's recognizable to people who live there of course, but even people who aren't as familiar with the city sense how specific the references are.

I don't think anyone really knows what a small world university students in Sakyo Ward live in. But when you inject concrete details of Kyoto and write it with confidence, that gives the text this power of specificity. I learned that writing Taiyō no Tō.

Also, writing in a sort of retro modern style works really well with Kyoto. I couldn't write in the style of The Night is Short Walk On, Girl if the story were set in Tokyo. I think it's precisely because it's Kyoto that it ended up that way.

In fantasies like Uchōten Kazoku (The Eccentric Family, 2007), there are lots of things that seem like they could actually happen in Kyoto. Like the family of tanuki might really be living in Shimogamo Shrine.

With Kyoto as a setting, the standards of reality loosen up somehow, even though you know those things could never happen. In Tokyo you would say, “That couldn't happen,” but in Kyoto it becomes allowable.

I think that allowable factor is critical when you're reading a story. Fiction is basically a world of untruths. But I feel like in Kyoto, the untruths don't get in the way.

You were mentioning the “power of specificity, and I think in Uchōten Kazoku, it really is how you constantly mention the names of real places that gives it reality.

In Uchōten Kazoku, I was using place names in Kyoto to make up my own history. For example, by having the tanuki families named Shimogamo, Nanzenji, and so on [using the names of temples in Kyoto], it sounds as if those tanuki have noble lineages and have been there for generations—even though they're just calling themselves by those names.

There's also the Ebisugawa Power Plant, and it's the Ebisugawa family that makes faux electric brandy. It's almost like an association game, and I found myself thinking, “It would be interesting if tanuki were making faux electric brandy in there.”

Yes, exactly. I wondered if it would really fly, but I think it was. There's something interesting about that kind of nonsense. Ultimately, I'm layering my fantasies over Kyoto—that's where I start. It's not like I'm writing about the city by researching facts.

Though your works set in Kyoto get the most attention, Penguin Highway, published in 2010 [English 2019] is set in suburban Nara, where you grew up. What made you want to write a story set in the suburbs?

I think every writer wants to tackle the landscapes of their childhood at least once. Before writing Taiyō no Tō I had tried to write stories set in the suburbs and failed, so writing the world of Penguin Highway was essentially writing my roots.

I started writing Penguin Highway after gaining some degree of experience as an author, to the point where I felt, “Now maybe I can write about the suburbs,” but it was still hard.

What's difficult about writing the suburbs?

I like the suburbs as a place to live, and I feel really at home there, but as a setting for a novel, there's not much to grab hold of. I feel like it's hard to create that relationship between the ordinary and extraordinary in that setting. The life of a rotten Kyoto university student seems substantial enough to write a novel about, but it's hard to create a distinct daily life of a protagonist in a sleepy residential area.

So I took a cue from my childhood daydreams and made the protagonist an elementary-schooler named Aoyama who believes that a mysterious place—like the ends of the earth—is somewhere in his neighborhood.

Aoyama is a really strong protagonist.

Aoyama is the kind of boy I looked up to as a child, my hero. I myself am closer to Uchida. People often say to me, “Aoyama must grow up to be a rotten university student, right?” But he definitely doesn't, so please don't worry. This is the creator telling you, so it must be true. Uchida might be in trouble, though...

So far the only work you've set in the suburbs is Penguin Highway. Do you think you'll do another novel with that setting?

I managed it in Penguin Highway, so now if I want to write the suburbs or Nara again, I end up thinking, “Then what should I do?” and don't really get anywhere. I have a few ideas but haven't started anything.

In your works after Penguin Highway, Kyoto comes up again and again. Has the way you write Kyoto changed between your days as a student in Sakyo Ward and now?

Hmm. I do different things to make sure I'm not just repeating myself, and now I've begun deconstructing Kyoto.

It's true that in 2018's Nettai (The tropics) Kyoto was split into pieces and started appearing on southern islands.

And my next book, Sherlock Holmes no Gaisen (The return of Sherlock Holmes), is set in Victorian Kyoto, a mix of London and Kyoto. Lately I guess I'm working on destroying Kyoto. I'm vaguely thinking about completely pulverizing it.

Why did you start thinking about destroying Kyoto?

On the Fuji TV [talk] show Bokura no Jidai (Our times), I was talking with another author, Manabu Makime, and he said something like, “It ends up becoming a formula.” For example, people who have read a few of my books start thinking, “If it's a Tomihiko Morimi book, it'll be set in Kyoto and have a college student, and some weird stuff will happen.” And it's not only the readers who feel that way but me too.

If I follow the formula, I get stuck, so I have to try different ways of breaking it. I think by destroying one thing, I come up with something new and am able to write. I've been all about breaking the formula for a while now.

But if you wanted, you could write a series like “100 Books in a Four-and-a-Half Mat Tatami Room.” But whenever you write a new work, you seem to be fighting something.

Mm, I don't want to fight at all—it's just what happens. Some people can come up with patterns like “set in Kyoto with a university student as the protagonist,” and write book after book, but I just can't. Unless I feel like I'm doing something new, I can't write. So it's purely that in order to write my next work, I'm forced to fight. I'm a reluctant fighter. Unwilling!

So at the end of that fight, you arrived at this idea of deconstructing Kyoto?

One way of looking at it is maybe I want to tell people that my Kyoto is false. I'm in this position where, when you think of me, you think of Kyoto, so I'm desperate to say, “No, my Kyoto is made up.” Maybe that's why I've started doing things like taking it apart and scattering it in a southern sea, combining it with London, and so on. Conversely, you could say that even with all that abuse, Kyoto refuses to break, which is a bit terrifying...

In Yakō ([Translator's note: let's call it “Nocturne” for now, but it's a complex title that will be a challenge to translate if this book ever comes out, which I hope, of course, it will]; 2016) you write about trips to Onomichi and other places, while in Nettai, you portrayed Tokyo, where you lived for two years. Are you thinking about writing more works set in places besides Kyoto and Nara?

Travel stories are actually really hard to write, and I had a tough time with Yakō. In my case, I learn what interests me about a place the more I go there, so I really need to visit a few times if I want to write about it.

Tokyo appears in Nettai, but it's not really expanded enough to be considered the main setting.

To me, the scenery and events you see over and over in normal daily life are extremely important. Since I can't write unless I have that, I really need to live in a place for a while first.

In that sense, since you're living in Nara now, Tokyo must feel distant?

Yes. Actually, lately I've been feeling a bit distant from Kyoto, too, and I think it's because I'm not living there. Even though I have an office in Kyoto, and I go all the time, it's not the same as living there. If I'm not inhabiting a place every day and experiencing daily life there, then I end up feeling distant from it. Mm, but I don't really feel like moving to Kyoto at this point... Honestly, it's a pain. I've really settled down in Nara.

What about creating a live-work space in Kyoto and being based in both places?

That's one idea. But when I'm writing a novel, I have to stay in one place or I get distracted.

In my Kyoto office, most of what I do is read books, meet with people—the stuff besides writing. I usually write at home in Nara. And before I sit down to write, I have a routine that I follow: Wake up, eat an egg with bacon, drink Marufuku coffee, etc.

Huh, like Ichiro [Ichiro Suzuki, the baseball player].

Oh, right. He has things he does before entering the batter's box. I think I like the repetition the most. I work diligently day by day at home in Nara: wake up, eat breakfast, go to my study—I'm used to that pattern now, so I wouldn't go all the way to my Kyoto office to write.

If I made a live-work space in Kyoto, it might be interesting to create an exact copy of my study in Nara. Put all the exact same books on the bookshelves. If anyone who knew my house in Kyoto came to visit, they'd be in for a surprise.

But I like my quiet lifestyle in Nara, and I'm the type of person who won't move unless I have a very good reason, so I figure I'll keep going like this for a while. I'm really a lazybones.

Lastly, I wonder what Kyoto will mean to you going forward.

So far, I've used Kyoto as a setting to embody my fantasies, but now, when the distance I feel is in flux, I think I'm trying to figure out what my relationship with Kyoto will be. It's not like Kyoto and I are trapped together in a bad way, but...hmm. Our relationship has gotten a bit tricky. I wonder how it will evolve...

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