I recently won several books in a competition held by Love Japan Magazine, which is basically the best kind of prize I could ever win (next to an actual trip to Japan). I was spoiled for choice with some great books but Nicholas Hogg’s Tokyo was the first I picked up because its plot had me immediately hooked and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.
Ben Monroe is a social psychologist specialising in cults. Divorced and adrift, he has returned to Tokyo to seek out his former lover Kozue. His estranged daughter, Mazzy, flies from America to join him and study at an international school. On her flight, she meets Koji, a cult survivor who tells her the story of the moon princess Kaguya. As Koji’s obsession with Mazzy grows and Ben’s search for Kozue draws him deeper into Tokyo’s underworld, the situation becomes more dangerous for all of them.
Hogg’s portrayal of Tokyo, particularly Roppongi where much of Ben’s place for Kozue takes place, is richly detailed and atmospheric. The hostess clubs, the seedy bars and hawkers might give this part of Tokyo a less than savoury reputation but there is something charming and honest in their depiction. As Mazzy is seeing the city in all its glory for the first time, the reader also gets a decent overview of the city, from Ginza to Tsukiji fish market. It’s clear from the vivid description of Tokyo that Hogg has lived there and seen much of what it has to offer.
The main cast – Ben, Mazzy and Koji – is small but more than enough to pull the story along. Ben’s background as a social psychologist allows Hogg to build on some of the book’s main themes; namely cult society and obsession. Indeed, Ben is obsessed with finding the enigmatic Kozue who suddenly vanished from his life and whose history remains elusive. Koji, a lonely young man who has survived a traumatic experience in a cult, becomes fixated with the blonde Mazzy, following her around Tokyo, and his intentions towards her remain unclear for much of the story.
Mazzy, a teenage girl displaced in Tokyo, is caught between enjoying everything the city has to offer, reconnecting with her estranged father and keeping herself safe. The other characters that Ben, Mazzy and Koji interact with, from ex-pat barmen to hostesses to teenagers with less-than-honourable intentions, help to build a rich and diverse cast that they must navigate to reach their own goals.
Tokyo is not just atmospheric but also violent, gritty and sensual. It is not just a story about the city but also the flawed people who live in it and what drives them. There were moments when I recalled scenes from Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup, another novel that exposes Tokyo’s less glamorous underworld, but Tokyo is an excellent and original novel in its own right.