I think it must be the sake. How else to explain the raft of Japanese novelists and film-makers whose sense of the ordinary includes, for example, talking cats and disappearing hotel rooms? Writers from all over the world dabble in the surreal, of course, but the Japanese are somehow more blase, more matter-of-fact about things like downpours of toads from the sky. If there is a boundary between this universe and some alternate one, it seems fairly nebulous in Japan.
Mr. Taura, this novel's narrator, is a middle-aged sales manager at a pre-fab construction company who has not coped gracefully with a recent promotion. As the book opens, he's lying in hospital with a broken leg after jumping off the second story of a sushi restaurant.
Although the workaday world proves a challenge for Mr. Taura, he opens himself up to the woman who lies in the hospital room's other bed; a screen separates them. There had been much discussion among the nursing staff about the impropriety of putting them into the same room, but there's been a train crash, and the hospital is overloaded. The two patients begin in a classic Japanese fashion -- both apologise for intruding upon the other's privacy and proceed very timidly into conversation. Perhaps emboldened by the screen between them, each begins to disclose more personal details. Suddenly, startlingly, the woman asks Taura to imagine and describe a sexual encounter with her. She wanted, she told him, to experience lust with someone other than her husband. She regretted all the things she hadn't done. Initially appalled, he gets into the spirit of the thing, and thus -- their words the only thing to penetrate the blue fabric screen -- begins the intimate relationship between two strangers. The following morning, as the nurses wheel his bed to a private room, he catches a glimpse of his former roommate, and he is shocked to see that she is old, with brittle gray hair and wrinkled skin.
Some months later, Taura takes a call and recognises the voice. He doesn't want to meet her. He does want to meet her. He tries to avoid her, but they meet again, and he learns her name: Mutsuko. To his amazement, she is a few years younger than he. Neither of them can explain it, but it's clearly so. As they're eating in a restaurant together, Taura turns to speak with the foreign couple at the next table. When he turns back to Mutsuko, it dawns on him that he's just been conversing in French. He doesn't know the language, but that is just one of the bewildering aspects of their evening. He and Mutsuko retire to a hotel room and consummate (physically this time) their passion. In the morning she is gone.
She reappears some months later, a decade younger still. And on it goes...
We all look back as we age. We think of all the things we could have / should have / might have done, but now it's too late. In one sense, Mutsuko's bizarre situation is what we all think we'd like: Her 67 year-old mind, with all its accumulated wisdom, occupies a body that grows a few years younger every couple of months.
In Yamada's novel, however, we see Mutsuko only when she elects to contact Taura, and they focus mostly upon their physical relationship and the practical obstacles posed by her reverse aging -- why is the middle-aged man sharing an apartment with the adolescent nymphette? How can a 5 year-old reasonably transact banking? 67 year-old Mutsuko told Taura in the hospital that she regretted all the things she hadn't done. As her body dropped off decades much as a reptile sloughs skins, did she do the things that propriety or fear had stopped her doing before? We never know. She never tells Taura what she's done when she's not with him. I did not end this tale with the sense that Mutsuko had accomplished what she'd wanted. She'd just faded back, and back, until she disappeared, just as she would have if her clock had moved forward.
I fly in my dreams. With no mechanical help whatever, I just soar through the air. I love these dreams when I have them, and I miss them when they stop. When I finished this book, I wondered about its title. We aren't so limited by 'reality' in our dreams. We fly, we are younger or older, or kinder or more bold. The laws of time, gravity and continuity are dashed. Our dreams are, I suppose, like Japanese novels. Rules are fewer. And for people who live in societies that are hobbled by rules and regulations, dreams and novels give us pause. In dreams and novels we live with less fear. We love with less fear. If nothing else, Mutsuko loved fearlessly as her clock wound back.
No, wait. She didn't. She always sensed when she was about to lurch backward in time, and then she bolted from Taura. She did not want him to witness the transition. She loved and trusted him to some extent, but it was far from unfettered. On the other hand, whenever Mutsuko contacted him, Taura left his family and his professional responsibilities and bolted off to meet her. If either of them loved without fear of consequence, it was he. I suppose each of them freed the other from rules and time, just as our dreams free us from the limitations of gravity.