Phares, Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yū, Review (February 2020)
Miri Yū’s short novel, Tokyo Ueno Station (2019)—like the Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning film, Parasite—is intensely focused on family, class, place, and the ways that all the ingenuity and hard work in the world cannot make up for horrifyingly bad fortune.
The protagonist of Tokyo Ueno Station, Kazu Mori, is a man seemingly born under an ill-fated star—he is forced to leave his home in Fukushima in order to support his extended family and, as a result, he is entirely alienated from them. After a series of tragedies reveal the utter futility of the decades he has spent toiling and struggling for others, Mori simply disappears from his old life, taking up “residence” in Tokyo’s Ueno Imperial Gift Park alongside the other men and women who have slipped off the ladder of success. Virtually invisible to the people moving through the park on their way to museums, universities, shops, offices, and the train station, Mori and his fellow park-dwellers hear and see all. At the center of the novel is the notion that there are two distinct worlds running parallel to each another: one of life and one of death; one of abundance and one of privation; one of placidity and one of struggle; one of progress and one of stasis. Mori and his son, Koichi, are contemporaries of Emperor Akihito and his son, the Crown Prince, but they share little else: though poverty and loss seems hereditary, just as inherited titles are.
Yū’s novel attempts to complicate the notion that there are simply strivers and skivers, acknowledging a system that allows some to prosper while others are destroyed by a divorce, a period of unemployment, or a sudden death. These ideas are obviously not new, but in Tokyo Ueno Station, they are backlit by the promise of prosperity associated with the period of modernization after the end of World War II and with the hosting of the Olympic Games, but they are also overshadowed by the threat of an earthquake a tsunami, and, ultimately, the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Tokyo Ueno Station suggests that some places are barren long before they are laid waste by large-scale catastrophes, and that some people disappear, little-by-little, throughout a lifetime not in a single dramatic moment.