The Borrower

Since this week is probably the best (and only) time to post anything I have about the Frank Chickens, another article from the vault, this time about Kazuko Hohki’s book Underfloor World (Rondon no Yukashita)

Kazuko Hohki is the driving force behind the Frank Chickens pop phenomenon, but also the author of a Japanese-language book about life in London. Hohki has taken her title, Underfloor World, from The Borrowers, the children’s book that drove her to come to England in the first place. It also influenced her album of the same name and my favourite Frank Chickens song, “Megalomaniacs”.

Underfloor World was first published in serial form, and has a helpful table of contents that facilitates ‘dip-into’ reading. Hohki’s own method of organising her material consists of subdividing the contents lists into seven extra categories: Life, Love, Work, Women, Japan, The World and ‘The Job’ (ie. her personal career). Within these seven areas, she covers an awful lot of ground, and with headings like ‘World Peace through Karaoke’ and ‘The Siberian Grandfather of Punk’, you know you’re going to be on a magic carpet ride to weirdoville.

The happiest readers will already be big fans of the Frank Chickens. You’ll get insider gossip on the band’s many line-up changes, and backstage goings-on as they perform around the world. Those readers who are not already Chickenised may find those sections tiresome, as it often takes it for granted that you will be interested in the band’s activities, or the solo acting career of Hohki herself. After reading a Tokyo Journal article about Hohki, I was under the mistaken impression that her book was a tourist guide to London’s less-known sites, whereas it is in fact a very personal emigrée diary. The title of her original column in Kachin magazine was “Kazuko’s Diary”, which should have been a hint, I suppose.

Hohki’s notes on English life are all the more interesting because they are a window on the way Japanese people view us, and her autobiographical asides are in keeping with a long-standing tradition in Japanese literature. I think I managed to inadvertently insult the author when I told her I’d be recommending her book to students of Japanese. She claims to have modelled her writing style on that of Yukio Mishima, and she certainly reproduces his deadpan, rather British, narrative structure. However, that’s where the resemblance ends.

For a start, Mishima was never this funny. It never ceases to amaze me how the Japanese sense of humour is so close to that of the British. If Douglas Adams ever had the chance to work with such a wonderful book designer, I’m sure that he, too, would include both an Afterword and an Afterafterword, a DIY secret society membership kit, and a fold-out activity section. Also, Hohki has binned Mishima’s pretty but tiresome practice of using hentaigana, extremely difficult characters where simpler ones will do. This makes it easier-going for a start, aided still further by the fact that her subject matter is often already familiar to English-speakers. So while you’ll be reading a book written by a Japanese for the Japanese, you may find that it’s much easier to relate to the material. Can you really resist a deadpan discussion of the British penchant for Irish jokes, or a Japanese view of what it’s like to live in East London? I know that I can’t, and if you’re one of the increasing number of readers who tell us they’re learning Japanese, Underfloor World would be a rewarding place to begin looking at the Real Thing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in Anime FX magazine, sometime in 1996, as part of a Japanese-language book round-up under the original title “The Real Thing”.